“Where’s the cutoff switch? God, there must be a switch, damn it! Hell!” Skip yelled, groping around in desperation, throwing papers. The handwritten warning fell, revealing a small keypad tucked behind the swinging metal sign.,
“Hell, what’s the code? What do I put in?” “Damn, I don’t know,” Gus swore. “Try the security code for the house!”
Skip punched in the numbers: “1-9-4-9” and the blaring claxon and flashing light ceased.
“Ah, sweet Mother of Mercy,” Allie breathed.
Their relief was short-lived. Dense, acrid smoke began pouring from the cabinet.
Heat and fumes quickly forced them back, resulting in mad confusion. Everyone grabbed what they could. Nigel tried snapping pictures of the board, but was told by Allie to move the archive of the old shows from the bookcase on the door. He tossed them across the room.
Somewhat later, as the fire department coiled their hoses, Gus and the others found themselves beneath the cottonwood tree in the back yard, stiff with exhaustion. He still clutched the lens and a small pile of folders. Nigel managed to keep hold of the book, too. A slew of old video tapes, manila folders, and papers were scattered around them.
Doc’s trap had worked perfectly. His dig diaries and files and any secrets left behind were reduced to ash. Nothing remained of James MacLantis’ autobiography but bits of charred paper floating in the air.
Gus stared at the blackened remains of the sandbox, dragged into the yard where it yet smoldered. There would be no home for it now in the national attic. They’d been too busy saving the painting instead. Skip, soot-covered, plopped next to Gus, dropping the canvas ripped from the frame on the ground.
“Could be worse,” Skip said. “Nearly killed by our father as he said he would if we didn’t wise up and behave ourselves.” His laugh was dry and cynical, ending in a savage coughing fit.
“True. It’s a good thing we didn’t stumble onto his hidey hole before now or it could’ve been a total loss.” Allie also sat, wrapped in a blanket. She produced a bottle from somewhere.
“Everybody okay?” she asked, passing the bottle to Skip. They nodded.
“Fire chief says the place is not quite condemnable,” Gus flatly reported, “though an utter mess upstairs. I’ll need a ladder to get to my bedroom. He wasn’t happy with Doc’s booby-trap, but knowing Dad’s reputation, didn’t seem to think we did it for the insurance.”
Nigel took a last picture of the news crew as they pack their equipment for the second time that night, then he took his turn with the bottle. “What’d you tell them, Gus?”
“I said we were filming an episode for a comedy series,” Gus sighed. “One where goofy assistants accidentally destroy their master’s secret lair.” He accepted the bottle and took a swig, looking miserable. “Actually, I mumbled something about a dropped cigarette and rubbish. Though the chief knew better, he just told them it was under investigation.”
Skip looked pathetic. “Gus, Allie, guys, Christ, I am so sorry. I just couldn’t stop myself.” Allie said nothing, but Gus mumbled, “I’d have done the same thing, bro. But you know, sis is right. If we’d found it earlier, we might have lost everything.”
Skip took another draught. “Good thing Doc learned something by blowing up the pyramid,” he gasped between coughs. “We could be in kingdom come by now.”
Allie giggled. In spite of everything, they laughed and groaned as their sore muscles ached. “Yeah, guess we should be thankful, Skip. Still, why didn’t Dad ever tell us? I guess he intended to there at the end, but why not earlier?”
“Maybe he had so much explaining to do, sis; some probably pretty embarrassing, too.”
“What did we save?” She produced a folder crammed with papers. “Other than the painting, more or less, I got Alfini’s notes, Mom’s photos, and Nigel saved the book.”
“No dig diaries, no memoirs, no secret files,” Skip said, “but at least Gus has his precious lens again which he thought was gone forever.” He rubbed his chin. “You know, Dad didn’t bring many trophies home from Bellegarde other than Mom. I bet that’s why he was so protective of it. May I see it, buddy?” Skip gently pried the ancient optic from Gus’s sooty hand.
“What is it?” Nigel asked. The device consisted of three lenses, mounted one above each other in brass. Two were placed in adjustable rings and the third mounted in the square base. Four long adjustable screws held the whole assembly together; one shinier than the other three.
“A reading lens, I believe,” Gus recalled. “But Doc never told us how he acquired it. You see, we got into trouble more than once playing with the exhibits, and were finally banished outside.” The others began to object. “Okay, okay, it was me, my entire fault.”
Skip handed it back. “It fascinated me,” Gus said. “After I broke it, Doc said it was made by Ieronimus Magus himself, so it must be exceptionally valuable. Mom understood; she didn’t punish me. Dad, though,” he continued, “was furious. Never saw him that angry before or since. I see he fixed it somehow, but I don’t think he ever forgave me, despite the spanking.”
“Yeah, sure he did,” Skip said, “though he entrusted camera work to me afterward.” He added, not unkindly, “But Doc knew he could rely on you – especially later, Gus. Your research, for example – he once told me he never needed to check your facts. And you never muffed a line on-screen, unlike me.” His younger brother shrugged.
“I wonder if that’s what inspired Mom to create the sandbox,” Allie said, “to keep us busy and out of trouble. The box sets were pretty popular for a while.”
“You’ve no idea,” said Nigel. “The toy sandpit helped me stay out of mischief, too. I was a fan, you know. Watched repeats on telly before tea when just a wee lad. But I had one of them, too, you know, a gift of a wandering uncle. Bummer that the original won’t be in a museum like it deserved.
“However, mates,” Nigel said, taking another turn with the bourbon, “there’s no doubt any more: Doc stayed completely obsessed by the Maundy Grail but did not trust anyone with that knowledge, not even you. He suspected everyone, for all the good it got him.”
“We know people – not just the Maestro – thought he was a threat anyway.” Allie spoke with grave certainty. “We haven’t made it any easier on ourselves to find who they are.” She sighed. “But we must try. You know that, don’t you, guys?”
“Why, sis?” Skip asked, world-weary. “I thought we were quitting.”
“How can we?” she demanded. “If Doc MacLantis couldn’t protect us – even from ourselves – walking away from it won’t either. Like Auntie said, there’s one way out.”
“You’re right,” said Gus. “The Jesus Pot’s in our blood, we need to see it through. Besides, I’d personally like to rub Raimondo’s smug face in this.”
“Next stop, Bellegraal, chums?” Nigel asked with a hopeful grin.
Gus shook his head, mouth downturned. “Not yet. Best to go in with as much information we can get. I think I need to visit a library first.”