A busy day at the Conference still awaited them. While the women went for a first survey of the Art Show, Gus plodded into the Dealer’s Room for book-signing. He was relieved to find that the booth ready as promised. All he had to do was sit, talk to people, and scribble something nice for them on his parents’ book or his own travel guide.
Though still in print, Exploring an Enchanted Landscape was now far out of date – ironically due to the Conference. The first get-together a decade and a half ago had less than a hundred members, mainly stuffy academics, barely worth a footnote. Now Tubby-Con, as it was generally called by fans, mutated into a monster of an event. It had taken over the entire town, devouring all other summer activities and civic commemorations in its path.
Gus noted a table reserved for Fatamorgana, featuring a huge placard with the cover of his latest book and a matching one of the author smiling, or at least, fully baring his teeth. But to his relief, there was no sign yet of the Maestro or his nephew.
Many visitors to Gus’ table just wanted autographs on Holy Tub, Holy Pail, often with anecdotes they wanted to share. But there also lurked dreadful amateur theorists obsessed with a particular aspect of the mystery of the Maundy Grail. The lonely brooding of these invariably introverted, self-absorbed males combined obscure facts into bizarre notions. Occasionally one would stumble onto a genuine insight – though far fewer than they imagined – but with scant exceptions, their originators couldn’t give them away. Finding a known expert temptingly trapped behind a table was an invitation few of them could resist.
Gus got nowhere with this one fast. “So not just Tobias’ poem makes you think the Maundy Grail’s stashed east of Saint Horrig’s Hermitage. How could a heretic walled up for life know anyway?”
The skinny guy shook his head so hard it nearly dislodged his glasses. “Not think, absolutely certain,” he said with true conviction. “Brother Tobias was the sole person ever to successfully predict the Vision twice in a row and his psychic powers became stronger after he was imprisoned. The Garden of Delight just confirmed my suspicions, along with your parents’ work on the floor. But the statues first started me thinking.”
“Of course, the statues,” Gus said. But he was suddenly distracted. Across the hall, he thought he caught Reuben staring at him from behind a rack of books, but couldn’t be sure.
“Sure: the important ones all face east. The Monumentum and the Grieving Mother look towards the sunrise. The Cathedral points east, too, which means it was the direction the Scolding Madonna faced. But churches are supposed to point west, as you doubtless know. Who ever heard of a basilica with doors to the east?”
“There’s Saint Peter’s for one, and I hate to tell you, the old missions face every point on the compass where I come from,” Gus explained. “A general direction doesn’t tell you much anyway. East of here lay all the graveyards of Maureven before you even get to St. Horrig’s Chapel, which opens to the west, if it matters. The Maundy Grail could be anywhere.”
The man frowned behind his black-framed spectacles. “That confirms it. See, the fragment was found under the road to Horrig’s Hermitage,” he said as loud and slow as if he was explaining to someone deaf, foreign, and dim. “There’s no doubt it’s out there. The poem nails it,” he declared. “You see, in the Twenty-First Canto, Tobias mentions Horrig’s Seat –”
By this time, others gathered around. “Which translation are you using?” interrupted a squat man with wild and frizzy hair. “Vintras’ is worthless; turns it into worse doggerel. The scholar’s version doesn’t try to be poetic but defines obscure terms in context. Leclerc clearly shows Tobias talked about a chair. Only an idiot would think otherwise.”
“Listen, y’all, don’t matter. Tobias was loco; gibberish is still gibberish,” declared a third man. Taller than the others, he had long, curly hair in a mullet but an athlete’s tanned, muscular frame though he leaned upon a gnarled cane. “You can’t rely on it. Doc MacLantis claimed the corroded old chunk of brass found in the road was from the Ark. But how’d he know?”
“He verified it psychically,” objected the first.
“Like that proves it?” demanded the second. The raised voices were a magnet for the others in the room. Several began to drift over. The third man watched with amusement, leaning on his stick. He waited until the argument took on a life of its own and turned to Gus.
“My apologies, Prof, I needed to toss them a bone so we could talk. I imagine you get tired of justifying your old man,” he said, “not that you need to. Your father was in the OSS. No doubt he had reasons for everything he did. I just wanted a chance to chat with you.”
“Uh, yeah, I suppose so. Despite the psychic stuff, Doc was pretty hard-nosed.”
“In fact, if you have a minute, Prof,” he leaned in and said, almost whispering, “That’s what I’d like to talk to you about.”
“Oh boy,” Gus said, gesturing at an empty seat nearby.
The man sat down. He was solid, muscularly well-built, even more than Skip. But he held his left leg stiff, walking with a pronounced limp. He wore a tight green camouflage T-shirt, boldly printed with the inscription, “TUBBY AND PROUD.” “I like your T-shirt,” Gus said, shaking the guy’s hard hand. “At least on you, it’s merely ironic rather than physically descriptive. What did you mean, Mister…?”
“Most folks just call me ‘Sundog.’ Glad you like the shirt. Me and my old lady Moonbeam, we make a whole line of ‘Tubby-Ts’ as we call them. Our booth’s at the far end, but we’re camping in the field on Merchant’s Row during the Festival.”
He smiled, “I’d love to lay a couple of our beauties on you. Free. Keep an eye peeled for the “Aquarian Washtub Novelties” sign – that’s us.” He slid Gus a business card.
“Thanks, if I get there, I will.”
“My pleasure, Prof.”
Gus waited, impassive, knowing there had to be more. There was.
“Maybe I can make it more worth your while.” Sundog’s voice dropped. “See, Professor, I’ve information for you. Info concerning your late father’s mission.”
“Oh? How did you come by this?” he asked with a deep sigh. This was not the first such disclosure. Earlier, a sweet little old lady confided she was a medium. She matter-of-factly said she’d talked to Doc MacLantis the previous Wednesday evening.
“His message was, ‘Alix is wrong, but all will be well unless Charles fumbles the catch,’ whatever that means,” she had recited from memory with great care, ‘then there will be hell to pay.’ Sorry but that’s what he said.” She added brightly, “Oh, and he also emphasized not to forget to swallow the bubbles in milk whole, because they contain all the vitamins.”
“I could say I do my research,” Sundog was saying. “Serious boots on the ground stuff, but I also have sources, confidential ones, you see.” He glanced at the debaters locked in their own argument. Leaning forward, Sundog said in a low voice. “I know what your father was really sent here for during the War and why. More importantly, how the Maundy Grail is far more dangerous than most people have any idea. It could be why he was killed.”
Gus sighed. “Tell me, I’m listening.”
Sundog spread his hands, smiling with feigned regret. “Neither time nor place, Prof. Just wanted to let you know. Come by if you’re interested, I’ll be happy to answer your questions.” He stood slowly; eyes unreadable. “This is just between us, okay?”
“No offense, Mr. Sundog, but really, why should I bother?” Gus nodded at the arguers. “You have no idea how many times I’ve been offered ‘confidential information’ usually just to find out what I might know. And I strongly resent anyone trying to use my father’s death as a lure. You’ll have to do much better than a cheap shot like that.”
Sundog glanced around and handed a slim wallet to Gus. He took a quick look inside and snorted. “Nice job. But I could buy something almost as official-looking from the booth there, or that one.” Gus tossed it back and crossed his arms. “In any case, unless I am a government spook myself, how on Earth would I know what authentic CIA identification looks like?”
“Good point, you pass the test, Prof,” Sundog grinned. “But please, not so loud. Your skepticism is understandable and commendable.” He said with sudden seriousness, “What can I tell you which could convince you, Professor?”
“Simple. If you know about Doc’s secret mission, what was its name?”
Sundog leaned upon the table and spoke without hesitation. He looked Gus in the eyes, expressionless. “That’s easy: ‘Molehill,’” he said in a flat, low voice, “‘Project Molehill.’ On the twenty-fifth of March in Forty-four, twelve men went in, ten died in an ambush the moment they landed. Just Doc and the commander survived. Anything else?”
Despite himself, Gus was impressed. “Not bad, seeing as that’s not public knowledge.”
“As a matter of fact, it’s still technically classified, Professor,” Sundog said in a low, dangerous voice. “What else did your father tell you?”
“All kinds of things – he had a limitless supply of facts, largely concerning subjects most people today consider useless. But the only war story Doc ever liked to tell was how he found the Vault.” He leaned forward too. “As for ‘Molehill,’ my father never once mentioned it to me. Not a single time. I saw the name on one occasion on papers we found in his secret lair after he died, just before they were destroyed by a booby trap he had set.”
“That so?” Sundog chuckled. He stood, adjusting sunglasses and mullet. “Tsk, how unfortunately convenient. Come talk with me sometime, Prof, when you want to get serious.”
To Gus’ relief, the man finally hobbled away. He checked his watch. It was late enough he could leave. He quickly stashed the books beneath the table. Thankfully, the debaters didn’t notice. Their conversation had drifted into regions where he could not follow even if he wanted.
Gus grabbed his papers and fled, nearly running into Cosimo Fatamorgana. The younger man had doffed his suit coat, rolled up his sleeves and was packing his uncle’s table.
Gus couldn’t resist. “Throwing in the towel so soon, Cosimo?”
“Hardly, MacLantis,” Cosimo replied. “Your papa may have avoided answering my uncle’s accusations, but you won’t be so lucky. Better do your homework.”
“I’m sure the great Raimondo will invent more half-baked charges. But you know, man, it’s their fight. Chill out, let it go. We don’t have to take it so personally.”
“No, but I want to, MacLantis,” Cosimo smiled a mean grin. “Having grown hearing time after time how your Dad did Uncle wrong, I can’t wait for him to wipe the stage with you.”
He lifted the box. “Maestro’s not coming with ‘half-baked’ accusations but ones fully cooked, rich and pungent, spiced with something you can’t appreciate – authentic scholarship, not your crackpot nonsense.” He smiled. “I get hungry just thinking of it.”
Gus was still pondering the odd metaphor when he ran into Skip in the lobby. His brother was photographing a pair of curvaceous young beauties. One girl wore a snug latex nun’s outfit and the other, strangely enough, dressed as a cavalier.
“Having fun, bro?” Gus asked.
“More than you, no doubt,” Skip said with a cheerful grin. “I have no idea what this means but I rather like it.” He blew them a kiss as they scampered off giggling. “What’s up?”
“I need to prepare for the debate tomorrow,” Gus said, “and we should contact the antiquities dealer, Farouk, see how the auction looks.”
“Oh yes, I’d forgotten,” Skip said, looking around for other interesting subjects. “Now? Because I’d like to find something cool for Darla and Billy first.”
“Okay, I’ll go check the Art Show then,” Gus paused. “Hey, if you see a well-built hippie about your size with a bum leg in a green T-shirt which says ‘Tubby and Proud,’ try to take his picture.”
“Dude claims he has secret information, and I don’t know if he’s a deluded tubby or something worse. Let him see you do it, find out if he’s camera shy. I’m also curious to know if he already knows who you are. Keep an eye out for our old pal Reuben. I think I saw him, too.”