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III. SECRETS OF THE IVORY TOWER


Chapter 1

Saturday, 27 November 2004

The sale finished just as the Sun set. The auctioneers collected the cash, finalized arrangements for the rest, and lucky buyers carted their prizes away. Everyone seemed satisfied save for the three exhausted siblings. While they dealt with the last details, Nigel made himself useful by running out for pizza and more beer.

The big sandbox stood forlorn and empty in the middle of the display rotunda, soon to be sent to the Smithsonian. Apart from worn furniture and a few other scattered crates awaiting shipment, mere scraps and random stains scattered across walls and floors remained.

Only the family portrait still overlooked the room.

The weary group gathered around the pizza as the setting Sun turned the sky a deep orange. Gus flopped in a creaky armchair, gratefully accepting the can Nigel tossed to him.

Skip took a beer, too. “Glad the damned buzzards are finally gone. Did you see those fat women in the tug-of-war over the tiki doll at the end? Too bad I put away my camera.”

“Good thing I didn’t then, Monkey-boy, bloody perfect for my piece.” Nigel said smugly. Ignoring them, Allie wandered through the house, considering the melancholy emptiness. “God, it feels so strange.” She sipped her cold beer without comfort.

“Yeah,” Gus agreed as he reached for a slice of pie. “Nothing left to suggest anything was ever here. Future archeologists will be disappointed.”

“Plant something, then,” Nigel suggested with a wink, “in honor of the old man.”

“No need, there are enough lost toys and other junk to keep them puzzled,” Skip said. “Too bad the miniature mud Stonehenge out back didn’t last; that’d get them excited.”

“Oh that,” Gus said. “Not a trace left by now. We tromped the adobe bricks into the ground in high school filming Attack of the Monsters, remember?” He laughed, “Man, we should’ve saved it for the new series!” and looked more depressed than ever.

Allie pointed at the ceiling. “The hole you made with the spear-thrower is still there, Gus. And the nail you hung my teddy bear from, too, Skip. Thought I’d forgotten that, hadn’t you?”

“Sis, as I told you, the bear was bad,” her brother said with deadpan seriousness. “Really bad. The future must never know the awful truth.”

“As Doc said, ‘certain things must wait until the world is ready,’” Gus imitated his father. He rested the cold can against his forehead. “I shouldn’t have accepted the challenge to debate.” He sighed and closed his eyes. “Thanks, brother, for setting me up yet again.”

“Glad to help,” Skip chuckled. “You should have seen the look on your face, bud.”

“I never knew how much he hated Dad,” Gus said. “You should’ve let me deck him.”

“Are you nuts? His Mafioso nephew would have jumped you. “Are you nuts? His Mafioso nephew would have jumped you. Wouldn’t that’ve been a great show?”

“The news people would have loved it. But you’re welcome to the punk; just leave the geezer to me. Cane, words, whatever, it doesn’t matter; I’ll be ready for him next time.”

“Oh really?” Allie turned, green eyes blazing. “He totally outfoxed us. Waltzes in here unexpected and makes us look like idiots without raising a sweat.” Her brothers looked away in shame but said nothing. “Ah, never mind. At least there wasn’t a riot. But I still wonder how he happened to be here tonight.”

Silence stretched as the sunset deepened.

“Don’t fault Gus,” Nigel mumbled, finishing a slice of pepperoni pizza. “If anything, it’s all my bad. I rang Raimondo to chat him up for an interview during his book tour. He wouldn’t go, but boasted of a letter from Doc, so I, ah, mentioned the auction. Sorry, it slipped out.”

“You led him here tonight?” Gus was incredulous.

“Not on purpose, but all for the best, you know?” Nigel continued, popping another beer open. “Gus, it could’ve been loads worse. The old wanker wanted a kerfuffle for the telly but you denied him satisfaction. No doubt he flaunted his challenge to flog his latest bum-wiper, but so what? Now you can set the record straight before the only nobs who really give a rat’s arse. You’re standing down, yeah, but to move on with dignity. I’d say right well-done, old bean.”

The silence stretched through the rest of the meal. Finally Nigel drained his brew and rose. “Don’t know about you all, but I’m knackered. Just watching you work wore me out.”

As they exchanged desultory good-nights in the gathering darkness, the light above the picture on the stairwell automatically flicked on. Allie walked over to the portrait. A competent oil on canvas, it shone with the optimism of years long gone. Behind the young and handsome couple and their three happy children beckoned the mysterious desert and an unknown future. “Hard to believe, this is all that’s left,” she said with a sigh. “I appreciate you guys allowing me to display this at the Allie Cat gallery.”

“Just don’t sell it.” In his exhaustion, Gus sounded on the verge of tears.

“Never, Augie,” Allie gently promised. “It will hang in the place of honor there, too.” She straightened the slightly askew golden frame. A distinct click, and a bookcase around the corner of the stairwell suddenly popped open revealing a dark crack.

 


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“The contrast between the humble Holy Footbath
– a plain, broken, graceless vessel that is a living fountain of grace
– and its ark of royal opulence, proudly encrusted with jewels yet of far less worth without its holy cargo, could not be more vivid.”

– Br. Eadward of York, Inventory of Imperial Treasures, 801

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