Saturday, 4 September 2004
Gus had sunk into a depression as deep and dark as a mineshaft by the time he returned alone to the Ranch after the funeral. The day had been an extended ordeal. The service was packed with hundreds of strange faces he didn’t know along with several news crews.
Condolences came from many prominent people in the community; including a few scholars. An old friend of Doc’s from the Resistance, Cardinal Toussaint Mortens, sent his personal representative to make sure the war hero was given a lavish funeral at Alvarado’s new cathedral with due honors. The envoy, the auxiliary bishop of Bellegraal, was efficient but as curious as any tubby, and asked a multitude of questions.
Finally, it was done. James MacLantis had been laid to rest in the prime spot picked decades before next to his wife Maureen, there in the fancy cemetery on the bluff overlooking the river. Gus knew this day would come for a long time, of course; and had moved back home almost a decade ago to prepare for it. He would cherish the memory of those shared years, but nothing left to do now but pick up the pieces and carry on somehow.
Gus parked in the driveway and sat for a little while his old pickup cooled, staring in sadness at the dulled lettering of the sign in the moonlight. Tree branches creaking in a slight moaning breeze cast waving shadows across Doc’s fading name and figure. He shook his head; there was another black mark below them, a different one this time.
It didn’t matter. The place was just another quaint tourist trap from a bygone era falling apart along an abandoned highway. His cherished childhood home was a once-charmed place of endless escapade, but now as useless and lonely as the tumbleweeds rolling by in the wind.
Gus climbed out, slamming the door, and trudged up the gravel drive, undoing his tie. Due to the wind, he did not notice the big black car park at the curb. But he’d gone a mere dozen steps towards the front door when he heard footsteps crunching on the pebbles behind him. A sibilant voice hailed him.
Startled, Gus spun to face a man striding with purpose toward him. The approaching stranger was not tall but powerful, compact, and dressed in an immaculate ivory suit. Stopping, he tipped a white fedora with a polite nod.
The man’s dark shoulder-length hair was neatly parted, beard small and trimmed close. But his tanned face looked not unlike traditional pictures of Jesus Christ, albeit a rather devilish one. His features were a little too sharp and much too hard to be the savior.
He spoke with a musical, lisping Spanish accent. “Professor Augustine MacLantis? May I introduce myself? My name is Jes�s, or as you say it here, ‘Hay-SOOS.’”
“Sure,” Gus managed to say.
Jes�s slipped off a white leather glove with practiced smoothness. Holding up a hole-free hand, a slight, twisted smile and an eyebrow raised in irony suggested this was a very familiar routine. “No, do not be alarmed; my last name is Rodriguez, not Christ. But my appearance, I’m embarrassed to confess, rather amuses my noble employer.”
Gus swallowed. As if against his will, he heard his mouth say, “He is?”
With a quick twist, the hand produced a card from nowhere. “I am privileged to serve His Excellency, the honorable Roland the Third, claimant of the noble title of Comte du Bellegarde; at the moment as his emissary.” He bowed with a slight nod, clicking his heels as he handed Gus the card emblazoned with a rearing silver horse on a black shield.
“I must apologize for disturbing you this way, Professor. I would preferred to have attended your father’s funeral to pay respects, but I just arrived. And with my appearance, it might seem disrespectful to show myself at such a solemn event.”
Jes�s’ smile was apologetic and as familiar as if they were old friends. “I have come to extend his Excellency’s sincere condolences to you and your family on the loss of your esteemed father.
“The hour is late,” he continued, checking a slim watch, “and doubtless you are tired but I do have rather important matters to discuss with you. Might we go in for a moment? Though I would love to see your famous collection, I assure you I cannot stay long.”
Gus shook his head. Outside, there were no potential weapons handy; inside, far too many. “No, sorry, I’m truly exhausted. Come back tomorrow?”
“I regret, se�or; it will not be possible for I have business early in town. But the Count charged me to approach you at the first opportunity, so I’ll keep it brief.” From inside his ivory overcoat, he produced an envelope sealed with red wax. “His Excellency hopes you will entertain certain proposals at your convenience.”
He presented the thick packet with a flourish and another bow. “Since your father cannot be the guest of honor now, the Conference organizing committee agreed unanimously to pay tribute by dedicating the next Festival to his memory. The invitation is renewed for you and your siblings. Attendance would bestow the honor he deserved, and lend you – and us – great credit. A most generous honorarium will be provided.”
“Ah, well, that’s nice.” Gus blinked the looping calligraphy across the cover, mind whirling. “You know, this should wait. Allow us to discuss it, as I cannot speak for the others.”
“S�, I quite understand. Yet there is another matter, delicate but pressing.” He stepped forward, Gus stepped back. Jes�s’ voice dropped as he gestured towards the building. “Your father collected many fine artistic items from Bellegraal, and as you may know, the Comte is also justly renowned for his world-class assemblages of regional and religious artifacts.”
“Oh, is he?” Gus felt a sudden unseasonable chill.
“If you wish to dispose of any item for any reason, the Count is desirous to acquire them. He can guarantee generous and prompt remuneration and they will be displayed with honor in a singular and appropriate setting in the Museum of Chateau Bellegarde. It is a collection he hopes you will admire yourself next summer.”
“Looking for anything in particular?” “Everything. Nothing.” Jes�s raised his shoulders in an eloquent motion, eyes glittering. “As a collector, his Excellency is more interested in the source than the material. Anything your famous father acquired from Bellegraal would be a jewel in the Count’s coronet along with, of course, Doc MacLantis’ famous models.”
“Sounds like other people may be interested.” “Almost assuredly.” The night suddenly became too quiet. “Have other inquiries been made? His Excellency would like a chance to better them – just name a firm figure.”
“No, nothing yet.” Gus forced a smile as he improvised. “You’re the first, but sorry, no matter how, uh, generous, we’re not thinking of selling anything yet. Far too soon to decide anyway. But once our new television season is underway, we might fix the place up again. Maybe we could work together then.”
“Doubtless His Excellency wishes you well, but Count Roland is solely devoted to his own collection’s expansion. He never sells anything. Though open-handed in his largesse, acquisition is his great passion. I’m sure you know what avid collectors are like.”
“Ah.” The sweat trickling down Gus’ back became an icicle.
Jes�s slid his hand in his glove. “Details are in the packet, se�or. Please discuss this with your family, and contact us if you have any question. We hope you, Charles, and Alix will join us next year at the Summer Festival. The Count’s Banquet and Ball is an event truly not to be missed, the high point of the Festival.
“I must urge you to please decide as soon as you can. The Festival is an international gathering, and planning is already advanced. We’ll be in touch in several weeks if we don’t hear from you first.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Thanks.”
“Thus, I bid you good evening.”