As they crossed the threshold, the boys and the professor looked warily around. The chapel was empty. Rows of varnished pews stretched toward the communion rail, and on the altar six tall candles burned. Before the rail three coffins stood on sawhorses. A black woolen pall with a white cross was draped over each. A faint smell of incense and candle wax hung in the air.
Silently the professor began walking down the aisle, and the boys followed him. They paused briefly by the coffins and then went up three broad steps and through the gate in the railing. They stood in the sanctuary, glancing about nervously. The bell had stopped clanging, and the silence seemed deafening. Johnny felt a chill creeping over his body. He looked at the other two, and from their pale, tense faces he knew they felt the way he he did. At last, after what seemed like forever, the professor spoke.
"All this is very odd indeed," he muttered in a voice that trembled a bit. "Here we have everything ready for a funeral -- a multiple funeral, it seems -- and yet there are no mourners, no priests or ministers, no..."
His voice died. A small door on the right side of the sanctuary had opened noiselessly, and a man in a long black cassock walked into the room. His hands were pale and bony, and his face reminded Johnny of a skull. His red-rimmed eyes burned in deep-set sockets. As they watched, this strange-looking man crossed the polished floor, nodded quickly toward the crucifix on the altar, and walked over to where they were standing.
"Good evening," he said in an odd, high-pitched voice. "Can I be of any assistance to you?"
The professor waited about half a minute before speaking. A lot of weird thoughts were running through his mind, and none of them were very pleasant.
"I was wondering," he said at last, "if there is a funeral that is going to take place here."
The man grinned unpleasantly. "You are very perceptive," he said in a mocking tone. "Very perceptive indeed. We are here to mourn the passing of three vactioners -- two boys and an old man -- who died tragically in a boating accident. If you wish to stay for the funeral service, you may."
The words of this strange man struck terror into the hearts of the boys and the professor. Panic rose inside them, and they begfan to wonder if they had gotten trapped inside a nightmare. After a wild look around, the professor dashed to the three coffins. With a quick twist of his hand he flicked the pall away from one, and peered at the brass plate that was bolted to the mahogany lid. The engraved letters seemed to squirm before his eyes:
In memory of
R . I . P .