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IV. CITY OF MARVELS


Chapter 7

The efforts of the long journey hit the others as soon as they reached their rooms. Allie immediately claimed rights to the bath. Skip threw himself on a sofa to stretch his long legs. Smiling, he said, “You know, Gus, this could be a sweet vacation, after all.”

Gus leaned against the door, grateful to shut out the world for a while. But before he could speak, there came a sharp rapping behind him. On the other side a pair of twins stood, both chattering away with German accents on mobiles.

Though nearly identical, Hermann and Hulda Gumbel were the married couple who organized and ran the Conference. They shuffled into the room as round and similar as Tweedledee and Tweedledum. They were a short, spherical couple, dressed in loose, colorful clothes. He wore his mouse-brown hair long and braided, hers in a short pageboy bob.

The Gumbels made their fortune with an Internet company and retired early to southern France to pursue their great passions: the Holy Tub and by the look of it, fine dining. However, they appeared harried rather than happy at the moment.

“No, Cosimo, if he’s going to be late, tell your uncle we’ll have to cancel; and he can be sure I will let everyone know why,” Hermann declared, and snapped the device shut. His wife continued muttering for a minute or two more on hers before signing off.

“Hi, sorry,” he said by way of introduction, shaking hands vigorously all around. “I’m Hermann, this is my wife Hulda; we’re so glad you were able to come. As promised, your special suite. I hope it is to your liking, no?”

“Oh yes, thanks.” Gus offered seats to them, but Hermann’s phone already buzzed again. With an apologetic eye-roll, he glanced at it and stuck it back in his pocket. “Sorry, now we can’t chit-chat: afoot is much last-minute insanity. Already news of the entertainment has somehow gotten out. Now the debate might have to be cancelled, also.”

“What’s the problem?” Gus asked. Hermann shook his head, frowning. “With the debate? Fatamorgana’s playing his usual games. He said he needs to confirm something important. But he refused to tell me what it was. He’ll doubtless dramatically swoop in at the last minute.”

“No doubt,” Gus said glumly, “equipped with new claims no one can check.”

“Ach, you know him well,” Hermann said.

“We wanted to meet you, and give you the packets you will need tomorrow.” Hulda said, pawing through an immense shoulder bag. She passed them three thick envelopes.

“Jah, it’s off the trolley as they say, but we wanted to give you your official presenter kits as soon as possible. These contain your complete credentials, programs, everything so you don’t have to check in.” Noting their surprise, she explained, “Oh, you didn’t think you were invited just to lounge around with the crowd, did you?”

“Of course you will participate,” Hermann said, already tapping his phone again.

“What is it you want us to do?” Allie asked, looking dubious.

“Don’t worry; it’ll be great fun!” Hulda chirped with a bright smile. “You, Alix, will help judge the Art Show. Oh, not just by yourself, don’t worry. There’ll be several local artists, and dignitaries; but it’s not like judging for the Grand Salon. It’ll be mainly amateurs and a few professionals whose works you’ll be looking at. Traditional is always judged separately from the modern, which you’ll handle. We don’t want another riot.”

“Oh boy, sounds great; can’t wait,” Allie said.

“Oh jah, and the ‘Fashion Show’ costume competition too, naturally.”

“Naturally.”

“There’s a panel on ‘Psychic Dimensions of the Maundy Grail’ we thought you’d enjoy.”

“Oh no,” Allie said, waving her hand. “Not that. I’m sorry, I’m not good at public speaking, and in any case, I don’t discuss this stuff. Sorry.”

“If it’s about intuitive archeology and not channeling Lemurians, I’ll do it,” Gus said.

“Excellent. There’s the book signing tomorrow afternoon. It’d be wunderbar if you could sign autographs, Herr Professor. You’re also scheduled for the ‘Subterranean Research’ panel, but you’re welcome on any others you’d care to join, naturally. Assuming it happens, the debate is the event everyone’s looking forward to. It’s Friday night before the banquet in the main ballroom. Place should be packed,” Hermann said.

Skip, sitting quietly, didn’t escape. “My dear Charles, something easy for you,” Hulda said. “Knowing of your skill with the camera, we’d like you to wander around shooting anything you like for our conference documentaries. Any equipment or supplies you need, just ask.”

Hermann picked up the thread. “Yes, open access, video anything you want! A film crew will record the events so just have fun. We’ve done a retrospective tribute of Doc MacLantis. To be shown at the banquet just before awards are presented. That’s when we give out the ‘Gilles’ – that’s what we call the little statuettes, you know, after the Mad Cardinal.

“The Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award will probably go to your late father,” Hermann continued, “but won’t actually be determined until the morning by the Board, due to the nature of the debate this year. Raimondo is a leading contender also due to his new bestseller. Best be ready with an acceptance speech.

“We’re sorry;” he concluded, “it’s not how we would like to do things, a new rule this year. Politics.” He looked like he wanted to spit the word.

“That hasn’t changed,” Gus said. “I know how graaleurs love to argue.”

“Jah; several hundred attendees so far we have and more coming. Many are here due to your parents’ work. Holy Tub, Holy Pail is still a fan favorite one in the field even after all these years. Your own tour guide is a perennial good seller, I understant.”

“Really, it won’t be bad,” Hulda said, noting their hangdog looks. “We’re not slave drivers. You’ll have time to attend presentations and to take the tours of the Cathedral and other places if you want with the others. At least you won’t have to make the keynote address.”

“Unless Doc wins, of course, then next year one of you will be expected to speak,” Hermann said. With that threat, soft, fleeting handshakes, and big smiles, they exited, working their cell phones before the door shut behind them. Gus bolted it fast.

“So much for vacation,” he groused. He tossed his packet onto the table, flopping into a chair with a sigh.

“Busman’s holiday, bro. I guess we should’ve expected it.”

“Grow up, guys!” Allie laughed. “One minute, you’re practically in heaven after meeting your idol, the next you’re whining like kids with homework during the holidays. It’ll be fine; you might learn something. That’s what we’re here for, remember?”

“Recall well these brave words, Skip,” Gus intoned. “Three days of having to say nice things about bowls drawn badly in crayon, she’ll crack. Oh, how she’ll crack, just like the Maundy Grail did. And have you ever seen a ‘Tubby Fashion Show’? You can’t begin to imagine just how horribly apt the title is.”

“What I wonder about is this ‘new rule,’” Skip pondered. “You heard the man; Fatamorgana’s already playing games. Best be ready for anything, little brother.”

 


 

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“We must be ever cautious,
for even holy things may be used for foul ends by men of guile.”

– St. Thomas Aquinas
(attributed author),
On the Well of Forgiveness,
c. 1274

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