Stunned silence lingered for a long moment.
“Are you sure, Dad?”
“Yes, Skip. Don’t look at me like that. I’m not crazy and I’m not kidding, either.”
“Sorry, Dad, it’s a little hard to tell sometimes.”
Doc laughed, light-hearted again. “Which?”
Allie squatted next to the chair with a smile and a curious look. “Dad, why now?”
Doc patted her hand, looking as if he’d suddenly shed the weight of years. “Dear, it’s simple: I want to see the town again while I still can. Many times I’ve dreamed of standing once again there at the place where I first saw your mother – and the other fellow – in front of the statue of the Grieving Mother, on the anniversary of that happy day. It would be perfect if you were all there, too.”
“Sounds pretty neat, Dad, but what about the tubbies?” Gus asked.
Doc shrugged, “Not everyone is mad at me. In any case, if we can’t escape, we have to face them, simple as that. Never leave the ground to your opponents.”
“Okay! It’s settled,” Allie said, “Hey everybody, raise your glasses. Hear that? We’re going to Bellegraal next year! This calls for a toast!”
“To Bellegraal!” Drinks were raised around the circle along with cheers and good wishes.
“You don’t look too thrilled, Skip,” Gus said. “Look at the bright side – your ex was mad at you because your daredevil assignments. She should love hearing about this.”
“Oh yeah? We know why you want to go, squirt –” Skip started.
Doc stood, raising his iced tea in acknowledgement. “Friends, thank you for coming. As you know, this is a most special time for me, as this occasion I consider to be my true birthday. For sixty years ago, I survived a near-direct hit by a bomb while hiding beneath the cathedral in Bellegraal with my Maquis comrades. While trapped by the resulting cave-in, I first spotted the door to the Vault.
“You might think this party in honor of that day strange, considering the dirt baths that followed.”
The guests laughed politely. Most present were familiar with how his burial in the dust was nothing compared to the public dumping Doc endured afterward.
“But that chance discovery led to this wonderful life, so I have no regrets, amigos y compañeros; rather, a deep feeling of gratitude to you, my dear friends, for everything. It’s you I toast today – and that lousy bombardier!”
Doc took a sip during the cheers. “This party was also to mark the second season of filming MacLantis Mysteries,” he continued matter-of-factly. “I’m afraid that’s on indefinite hold now. It’s Hollywood: these things happen.”
The crowd fell silent. “But there’s something else to celebrate tonight.” He raised his hand. “I’ve decided. Yes, I’ve made up my mind that next year, I will go back to Bellegraal to accept official honors. Furthermore, while there I plan to announce the publication of my memoirs. And I’ll tell everything – so you better be nice to me!” Laughter and applause broke out.
“Hooray,” Gus shouted above the cheers. “To Doc MacLantis and to Bellegraal!”
Lought clapped his favorite client on the shoulder during the hubbub. “That’s my man, Doc, that’s the attitude! Never say die! It’ll be a great way to launch your book, too. Hey, Skip, don’t forget to pack your cameras. Could be another award-winning documentary!”
“Don’t spoil the moment, Gerry, you old shark,” a tiny, bent-over woman draped in Indian jewelry objected. “It’s so romantic, James, a wonderful idea. I’m sure you’ll have a fabulous time. Summer in Southern France; how could you not?”
“Doña Imelda,” Gus said, “when you put it like that, it doesn’t sound bad at all.”
Skip, however, still looked unconvinced. Nigel motioned him to come huddle with Lought. “Skip, old boy, this is a wicked opportunity. I really want to be in on this,” he said. “You know I can help. Grant me exclusive coverage during the event and extensive interviews, and I bet I can get my publisher to fork over the dosh, at least to help underwrite travel expenses.”
He glanced at the agent, who shrugged. “Sounds okay – if this Brit can deliver. It could be good publicity, give you kids a boost. But we must have the terms up front in writing.”
“Oi, no probs,” Nigel said with a grand sweep. “You won’t regret – it’ll be a piece of cake. Easy peasy. Don’t worry; I’ll take care of everything.”
“Okay, I’ll talk it over with the family, Hotfoot. You work out the details with Gerald.”
Word came from the grill that the barbecue was ready, and the mob descended on the picnic tables. After the feast, thunder muttered now and again with flashes to the north, but the summer night remained gentle beneath a waxing Moon. Doc opened presents while little ones quietly played among the discarded wrappings. Most presents were affectionate jokes referring to his exploits. One, a floppy cavalier hat with a huge plume, perched upon Doc’s head, much to the delight of the kids.
Skip filmed as Doc tore open one package of funny trinkets and items to warm body or soul after another. He eventually came to the large blue-wrapped box. Though no name tag could be found, it held a surprise within.
“What in Heaven’s name?” the old man exclaimed.
He pulled a foot-tall plastic toy free of the wrappings. It was a squat cartoonish figure of a nun-like woman with an angry scowl, draped in black. Her downturned mouth was open and she carried a torch in her left hand. The kids looked up, curious.
“What is it, grandpa?”
“What do you know?” Doc gave a surprised half-grin as he held the black plastic doll in the flickering light. “I haven’t seen one of these in a long time.”
“Isn’t it from that French town?” Imelda asked. “Didn’t you bring back one, Gus?”
“Sure did, Auntie, way back when. But this one’s much bigger than any I’ve ever seen, and a whole lot uglier, too. It doesn’t look like a simple wind-up toy either.
“Must be electric,” he said. “I wonder if it does anything more than shoot sparks?”
“What is it, Dad?” Billy demanded again. “Ask your grandfather, kiddo,” Skip said. “He’s the expert.”
“Oh, it’s just a silly toy doll based on Our Lady, the Scolding Madonna of Bellegraal herself, my lad. You’ve heard the story of how she took away her wonderful washtub because people were bad, and later appeared in a church window to yell at them, haven’t you?” Doc asked. “Don’t be scared; this is just a joke.”
He lifted it up “She’s heavy, too. Who’s it from?”
“Didn’t say,” Gus said. “Nice old guy; talked like he knew you from somewhere.”
“What kind of joke is this?” Allie asked as she rose. “Where did it come from?” Nobody knew; another check did not reveal a note or card in the box.
She held out her hand. “Here, Dad, let me see it. Please. It’s time for cake anyway.”
“It’s a toy? How does it work, grandpa?” Darla asked.
“Patience, ladies,” Doc said, smiling. “Hold just a minute, dear. I want to show the kids what it does. Help me set it up, granddaughter.” Together, they stood the doll carefully on the patio. Doc flicked the switch on the back.
The doll wagged her right hand back and forth in reproach while the other held a sparking torch. More sparks flew from her scowling mouth and eyes as she waddled towards the darkness making wrathful grinding sounds.
The kids scrambled apart as it wobbled, unsure if they should be alarmed or not. But as soon as Doc bent over and touched the button to turn it off, he shook all over.
The old man’s back arched, and with a prolonged peaceful sigh, Doc slumped back into the chair. The scowling plaything fell too. It toppled over, arm and feet futilely moving, spitting harmless sparks. The front plate fell off, exposing a solid mass of wiring within.
The party-goers laughed. “You’re funny, grandpa!” Billy exclaimed.
It took them several moments to realize something was wrong. Several more passed before scooting the children away while they attempted to revive the old man.
But it was already too late. Doc MacLantis was dead.