With a slight nod, Jes�s turned and strolled down the drive. Gus noticed the big black car idling on the street in the setting quarter-moon. Before opening the rear door, Jes�s waved towards the large sign. “I observe there’s graffiti scrawled over there. Best if you remove it.”
“Not the first time, but why?”
“In Bellegraal, such rude markings often signal the attention of the wrong elements.”
“Here too. Why, what do you know about it?”
“I well familiar with the symbol: it’s the mark of the Count and certain friends. But I did not put it there, and can only speculate as to who did.” He paused after opening the car door, considering Gus thoughtfully, and explained with a touch more sympathy, “These messages can be warnings, claims of control, or lies. I swear to you this: we do not go around defacing property. But I fear that anyone else, even the Unknown Guardians, could be responsible.”
“Oh no, the fabled bogey men of Bellegraal! Now I’m sure you’re trying to spook me,” Gus scoffed.
“Next you’ll tell me Endurists lurk in the bushes.”
“Bravely jesting in the face of what you do not know commends your courage but not your wisdom, Se�or MacLantis. For a man who wrote a tourist guide to Vieux Poictesme, your education lacks in certain areas.”
“Enlighten me. What do the legendary Invisibles have to do with my father’s death? Or that fabled sect?”
“I cannot say, but living in Bellegraal I have learned legends are not necessarily the same as fables. In any case, your life would be doubtlessly be more peaceful if you dispose of your father’s material; the sooner, the better. They would be safe with the Count, and so would you and your siblings.”
Gus found himself shaking with anger or maybe fear. “Is that a threat?”
“Not at all: merely a promise, se�or, for doubtless certain people suspect your father knew rather more than he admitted. The mark may mean they now imagine the same of you. These dangerous ideas should be discouraged, no? Letting it all go would help a great deal in this regard. At least you might not have to repaint your sign so often.”
Jes�s smiled. “Remember this: noble patronage brings protection which any who wish you ill would do well to heed.” He tipped his hat again. “On behalf of Count Roland and his associates, I look forward to hearing from you soon. Good night, Professor. Pleasant dreams.”
Gus watched the car purr away, trying to calm himself. He took a hard look at the sign in the streetlight: three spirals in a triangular arrangement. He tried to draw it on the back of the card but his hands were trembling. They also made entering the ranch house comically difficult and noisy, but he didn’t set off the alarm. Once inside, he slunk through the darkness to the museum. Gus reached around the door, fumbling for an African war-club he knew was there.
Holding it high, he stepped into the room – and jumped backwards with a muffled curse. The stuffed Bigfoot dummy loomed like a threatening guard in the shadows beneath the stairwell, while an Egyptian mummy case leaning in the far corner looked on with ancient indifference. He laughed at his own nervousness, but it didn’t go away.
A streetlight flickered through the long glass wall between them. The pale illumination and the glow from a small spotlight above the family portrait on the staircase showed nothing obviously missing. But it was hard to tell. Mourners had left dishes scattered everywhere. Even the big sandbox in the center of the room held a few glasses and plates.
Gus groped around for the light switch. The recessed fixtures lit, followed by the spotlights on full. At first, nothing, not the dust on the display cases, including the big one containing the cutaway model of Bellegraal’s cathedral, looked disturbed.
He approached the piece. Next to it, on an open pedestal below the family portrait, rested the detailed model of the Maundy Grail and its reliquaries. Helping Doc make the display was one of the best times Gus ever spent with the old man. No show business involved, no siblings, just shared Sunday afternoons puttering around together. The wooden outer Ark, shaped like a church with snake-headed brass hooks for carrying with long poles, was open to show the Inner Reliquary nestled within. This gleaming white box encrusted with gold and gems held the Holy Footbath itself: a shallow stoneware bowl in a black iron frame.
The replica reliquaries had been made with painstaking detail just as they were in the time of Charlemagne, down to the purple silk veil to conceal the Sacred Basin from the eyes of the profane. Doc found it amusing to use a department store casserole dish for the Jesus Pot.
Doc had scaled his model to just half the original size. Since this made painting details more difficult, Gus asked him why one evening. “Son,” his father said with a thoughtful look, wagging a brush, “too many people think I have it stashed away somewhere. Best not to give them any more grounds than necessary.”
But it hadn’t helped. Once his former co-author Raimondo raised doubts, even Doc’s oldest friends turned on him. No wonder the old man seemed so tired there at the end.
Glancing beneath the golden foot and cross atop the silver grill of the lid, Gus spotted a dark thing within. But it was just a wilted red rose placed there by a mourner.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught something else. Nearby there stood a wide, low box of sand once used to demonstrate principles of earth science. Gus spent countless hours playing with it as a kid, and more time later setting it up for visitors and Doc’s shows. Toy shovels, wire screens, and plaster bones still lined the edges amid a few paper plates and cups.
Someone had scrawled “THANKS DOC!” across the middle of the smooth sand. But in the corner next to the Ark were other things drawn by a finger. Gus’ mouth went dry. He could discern several symbols inscribed with care in the flat surface of the dust. One of them was the same figure he had painted over just before Doc’s death.