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II. HAUNTED BY THE HOLY TUB


Chapter 7

Saturday, 27 November 2004

A huge crowd overflowed the front yard at Discovery Ranch the morning of the auction. It took a Herculean effort for Clan MacLantis to prepare the estate for dispersal. For after their parents settled in, they accumulated enough props, native art, fossils, trinkets, and curios from their productions and travels to stock their cabinet of curiosities beyond overflowing. So the initial auction would be here, one in Bellegraal during the Summer Festival, and the remainder would be disposed online.

The preparations were as intense as for a dig. Skip and Gus excavated rear storerooms while Allie cataloged the finds. It took a lot of work to fix, photograph, empty, and pack the displays and dioramas. Several long lost treasures were found in the process. Arguments became almost as common as sharing happy memories but finally everything was sorted.

Little debate concerned the largest items – the dioramas of Akator and Atlantis in all their imagined glory – but disputes erupted over sentimental favorites like the replica of the pyramid Doc excavated with high explosives and the sandbox. It came as no surprise the most important pieces, Doc’s elaborate model of the Maundy Grail and the detailed cutaway version of La Cath�drale de Notre Dame de le R�primande prompted the most heated discussions.

A transatlantic phone conference with the dealer provided few alternative buyers than the Count. The Chateau Museum of Bellegarde would be the most appropriate venue in any case, and Monsieur Farouk argued that since Count Roland kept much of his public collection there, they would likely wind up displayed there anyway. But they clung to Auntie Imelda’s advice.

Eventually everything was shipped out that had to go. They prepared the considerable remainder for the big day. Though Nigel had not been by since Doc’s passing, he made sure to be in town this weekend and barely took time to check in with them before working his way through the crowd.

The day started well enough. The weather was unseasonably warm, almost what they called an “Indian summer” day. A large tent filled the back yard for the auction by the professionals they hired, but keeping the curious out of trouble was like chasing bubbles. When Nigel arrived, Skip was in the back where the remaining larger items were displayed. He gave up trying to document the growing crowd on video after constant interruptions. Now he explained things to one disappointed visitor yet again.

Skip patted the concrete stegosaurus femur casting. “No, sir, sorry, just this ‘dragon bone’ copy will be sold today. We kept it here because it was so popular with visitors, not to mention heavy. All other items to do with Bellegraal are already gone. Yes, sorry, everything. You can still bid for them online, but they’re not here. Here are the details.” He stuffed a flier into the man’s hand, while the poor fellow blinked behind thick glasses, almost in tears. “But I drove all the way from Barstow�”

Allie rode herd, corralling people, keeping them outside the building. Gus caught a couple of kids digging in the garden. “You were not exaggerating,” he confessed. “I apologize; I thought weirdos might come by, but hadn’t considered a mob like this.”

Allie’s reply was cut due to a sudden light coming from a news camera. Caught in its glare, a slim, white-haired man in an elegant black suit and thick, enormous spectacles, waved an ebony walking stick with enthusiasm as he spoke. “Weirdos, you say, brother? Look at what just dropped in.”

“Oh Lord. What’s he doing here?” Gus strode to where the man spoke with great liveliness to a television reporter. He planted himself, arms crossed, his beard-fringed square jaw jutting in challenge.

“Hello, Augustine!” The old man smiled in recognition, and waved his young companion back with a gesture. “We meet face to face at last. This is my nephew, Cosimo. Don’t worry; he only bites on command.” The young man’s glittering black eyes never left Gus.

“Well, well, Maestro, what an unexpected pleasure. What brings you here?”

“Ah, I would say how delightful it is to finally meet you in person, but for the sadness of the occasion. Once again, I offer my sympathy.” He thrust his hand forward and Gus accepted it with obvious reluctance. The older man’s pearly smile in his olive face seemed as predatory as a shark’s, as were the cold, dark eyes behind his huge, thick-framed glasses.

Fatamorgana whirled. “Alix, my, how gorgeous you look, as I knew you would, so much like your sainted mother.” He kissed her hand before she could pull it away. “You must be Charles, likewise the spitting image of your father. How proud your parents would be.”

“Again, what do you want, Maestro?” Gus repeated.

“While passing through the area on my latest book tour – for my current bestseller, Broken: The Mystery of the Holy Tub Revealed, of course –I thought I’d pay my final respects to my old colleague. What a surprise to find this bazaar in progress, Augustine.”

“It’s ‘Professor’ Augustine, you know. You’re getting forgetful, sir; I reminded you during our last encounter on late night television, too.”

“Oh, sorry, I heard you’re no longer teaching. I thought the title no longer applied. But unlike your father, you at least earned your degree – or did you channel it from the spirits along with your ‘crackpot’ thesis? I jest of course; in truth, I’m hoping for another, deeper conversation, soon. Our pleasant little exchange was so limited in scope. There are several key issues I would like you to clarify concerning your father’s research.”

Gus stood there with the bright light of the TV camera burning into his face and Skip’s hand weighing down his shoulder. “My thesis on psychoceramics was accepted and successfully defended; the more recent trouble came from continuing the research. Doc’s degree was honorary, earned by his patriotic and scientific service, as you know,” he said with care. “At least ours came from legitimate institutions, ‘Maestro.’ As for me, I’m more than happy to correct your mistakes; any time, any place. Here and now would be just fine.”

The old man’s dark eyes narrowed. “The mistakes were James’, and I will yet prove it,” he growled, and smiled with forced ease. “Why not discuss this properly? Not here, lest we bore these good people. But someplace where learned experts could referee our exchange.

“You know James invited me to join him in Bellegraal this summer at the War Memorial?” he continued. “I looked forward to engaging him in a formal disputation on record at the Nipterological Conference to finally resolve our differences. It occurred to me once I heard the tragic news we should still make the attempt. Why not? I heard rumors you were still planning to attend.”

“You are not mistaken,” Skip said. “However, we go not to bicker over our father’s memory and achievements, but to honor them.”

“Well said,” Fatamorgana agreed, but looked disappointed. “You must know the big event held there is a debate,” he said. “Every year, two leading contenders argue their theories before the entire assembly. What better way to truly honor Doc MacLantis – if you can actually defend him, that is.”

“Not a problem,” Skip said. “I’m sure Gus would be happy to do the honors.”

“What?” Gus twisted around, looking at his brother in surprise.

Skip ignored him and continued. “But why should he? The conference will be dedicated to Doc’s memory, and we’re moving on with our lives. Why should we give you satisfaction?”

Raimondo frowned, squinting through his owlish frames. “Perhaps you have heard I have won three of the four last encounters,” he bragged, “and the one I lost by a technical point, I later proved in essence was correct.” He coughed with sudden modesty.

“If you choose to abandon the field, it’s your business. I wish you good fortune.” He smiled at the crowd, flashing his teeth. “Do not imagine, however, that I will stop. Ever. James MacLantis was one of a long line of promoters of this fairy-tale of the Most Holy Footbath and I will prove his willing complicity to the world. Before you throw in the towel, remember the judgment of history often goes to the one who has the last word.”

“Okay, I’ll do it, at the Conference,” Gus growled.

“Excellent!” Raimondo clapped Gus’ shoulder, “Now, my boy, I hoped to take home something to remind me of my dear old colleague. Say, an old washtub perhaps?”

The crowd laughed. Skip’s heavy hand on his other shoulder prevented Gus from smashing the smug Italian in his dentures. Allie stepped bravely forward into the glare to divert attention. No psychic powers were required to understand the daggers her green eyes flashed.

But Nigel had waited for this opportunity. Now he pounced. “Maestro, Nigel Buckhorn here, New Age News. Do you really think a debate will settle anything at all, especially when the bloke you should talk with has left the stage? Or is the point of it promoting your new book?”

With a dismissive wave and a grimace of flashing white teeth, Fatamorgana wheeled and fled the yapping newshound as the TV crew followed.

 


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“The serpent [Simon Magus] even tried to barter the tub in exchange for the power of blessing. But Peter rebuked him. So, full of scorn, Simon boasted, ‘What need have I for your magic? I have the bowl of Jesus from whom your power comes.’ ”

– Anonymous, Golden Legend of the Holy Basin, c. 400

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