We wandered through the tunnels but by now, the feeling of dread and anxiety was gone. We’ve gotten used to the tunnels of the catacombs and even without relying on the red book too much, we found the cavern we were looking for.
Baudelaire was pleased to see us. He sat at a counter of a little bar somebody had installed there. He was alone, but the way everything was prepared suggested that he was expecting company.
“Mike, Alphonse, did you make it?”
We beamed and nodded and quickly there were glasses and bottles on a small table next to a counter.
We sat down and told him everything that had happened. At certain intervals he nodded, laughed, looked serious and smiled. When we were done, he waited for a bit.
“Quite an adventure.”
“Yes.” I said.
For me, that would have been it. But Alphonse frowned and kneaded his lip. He didn’t say anything, though, not before the second round of drinks.
“So… when did you defeat the minotaur?” he asked.
The question took me aback.
“What are you talking about?” I said.
But Baudelaire answered “About 5 years ago.”
Our friend continued: “I used to work in Montpellier, in a normal 9 to 5 job. It was comfortable, quiet and very lonely. I wasn’t rich, but I had enough money to afford food and clothes and a reasonable car. And I was very, very unhappy.”
I sipped from my glass. That all sounded too close to home.
“Then, one morning, I found this…”
He pointed at the red book that was lying between us.
“And that sent me on a wild goose chase around Paris. It was dangerous and out of my comfort zone, but something I enjoyed greatly. And in the end, I overcame my fears and looked for something that I really wanted to do, that really thrilled me. So I rented that stall at the Marché Dauphine.”
Alphonse and I both nodded.
Baudelaire took the book and flicked through it.
“Boy, you did a number on it, didn’t you.”
“It was the minotaur,” I said.
The words had already left my mouth when I realised what he meant, what all of it meant.
“The… the minotaur, that’s us, isn’t it?”
Baudelaire turned the first page of the red book towards us. There was only one word on it, but it immediately gave me a lump in my throat. The word was “Goodbye.”
I stammered “Goodbye… and thanks… for everything.”
Alphonse just nodded.
Baudelaire carefully collected all the broken parts of the book piece by piece and put it in a plastic sleeve. He then put the sleeve in a rucksack that was leaning against the table.
“Don’t worry,” Baudelaire said, “the book will be fine. It will be repaired and good as new.”
“By the Olympians?” I asked.
Baudelaire nodded. “Well, by me. But I guess you have figured out by now that I’m a member. You are right. The minotaur is you. Actually, it is us. All of us. The parts of us that are ruled by fear and anxiety, by the constant nagging thought of ‘what if’. Of course, there are many paths to deal with that fear. The path you travelled is a rather ancient one. Going on a quest that ultimately led you here, to face yourself, to face your own insecurities and vulnerabilities. To realise that you don’t need to get rid of them or embrace them, just deal with them in a courageous manner. Like a hero.”
“So… what now?” Alphonse asked.
“Well, there are two possibilities. The first is: I can show you the next exit and you leave right away. Get some rest and face the morning together.”
“And the second?” I asked.
“The second is: wait a little and have a party with other cataphiles before you leave.”
We did stay for a bit, just to meet Flaubert and Dumas again. They congratulated us for finishing our quest. But both Alphonse and I soon felt that we’d rather be on our own. So we asked them to guide us to one of the nearest exits. Dumas volunteered. He wasn’t as grumpy as last time and didn’t lead us down strange pathways. When we reached a manhole cover, he pointed upwards and said “That’s it.”
We nodded and shook his outstretched hand. “Farewell.”
“Yeah.” he said and disappeared in the darkness. We were sure that this was the last time we would see him.
We lifted up the manhole cover and enjoyed the whiff of fresh air outside. Paris was dark, it was late at night. We looked around and realised that we were near the Avenue Champs- Élysées. Instinctively, we walked towards the Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries garden.
I was no longer afraid of taking the métro – there would no longer be meandering or confusing hallways, no minotaur roaring from a distance, no hidden messages. But I didn’t feel like going down there. I wanted to walk to the hotel. Alphonse didn’t even protest, he seemed to feel the same way. Also, in a way, I felt that we needed to say goodbye to Paris, at least for a while.
It was a strange mood we were in. On the one hand we felt triumphant, but on the other we felt a little lost. Up until now, all the steps were logical consequences of the steps before. One thing led to another. But now it was over. There was no guiding rail anymore, no hints and clues. No red book.
We were now on our own.
We weren’t afraid – we realised by now that this had been the point of the whole exercise – but we now needed to see what to make of what we learned. I realised that I had to quit my job. As soon as possible. And looking at Alphonse’s frown, he probably felt the same way.
We brooded all the way to our hotel. In the lobby we turned towards each other.
“Thank you for saving me,” Alphonse said.
“Well – I guess we saved each other, so… thank you…”
“I guess,” he said.
There was an awkward pause, one of those moments we all have where a decision lingers in the air, a point of no return. For a short moment I felt afraid. No, not really. I felt the memory of being afraid, as if I was still governed by fear. Then I realised that it was just that, the memory of fear and that it didn’t have any power over me. I let it pass and then I kissed Alphonse.
“That was a long time coming…” Alphonse said.
He smiled and then he kissed me.
We hugged each other and didn’t want to let go for a while.
“So… what now?” Alphonse asked.
“I genuinely do not know. Let’s do this step by step, ok?”
“Ok. Are you scared?”
He looked at me, but I smiled. “No. You?”
He shook his head.
We went to our rooms and I felt free.
I turned on the light and found an envelope on my bed. It bore an Omega seal and had “Mike Taylor” written in beautiful letters.
I opened it. It was an invitation to a meeting the next day at the opera house.
I put the letter on the nightstand and fell asleep on the bed.