By late afternoon, Gus’ head spun. Fatamorgana’s latest work, Broken: The Mystery of the Holy Tub Revealed, made bold claims but came nowhere near delivering what it promised. His florid, wandering prose largely focused upon the two brass chunks which Doc believed were once part of the Sacred Basin’s Ark or Outer Reliquary.
It was known that four long brass pins, also serving as hooks for carrying poles, held the entire wooden contraption together as hinges to open the Ark’s sides for viewing. The two fragments ever found of them were first thought to be from the same hook.
Both were thumb-sized, but discovered in quite different circumstances and locations: the first near several medieval coins in the sand-filled Vault excavated long after Doc’s opening, the second almost a decade later by a road crew in Haute Maureven not far from the Montc�lances’ manor.
After chemical and unspecified psychic tests, Doc confidently stated the pieces were undeniably authentic. Yet, Raimondo happily declared, that was not entirely correct. The one in the Vault was found near a small door in the rear – and according to the excavators, planted.
By the time Gus arrived at this point, there came a knock on the door. It was the curly-headed blonde, smiling in a huge floppy sunhat. She held out her hand.
“Professor MacLantis, hi, it’s Moonbeam. You alone?” Gus nodded, and stood aside as she pushed past.
She checked the room carefully, glancing into each of the bedrooms before speaking.
“Sorry,” she apologized. “Rules of the game, you know.”
“Yeah, no doubt,” Gus said. “Do you have something for me?”
“I sure do, honey,” she said, pulling several folded shirts. The top one showed a cartoon Scolding Madonna angrily admonishing, “PICK UP YOUR SOCKS!”
“Here, you forgot these, one for each of you,” she said, “and Sundog wanted you to have this, too. As he promised.”
She flipped up a shirt to show a manila packet. “Any questions?”
“Plenty, but I doubt they would be any use.” He took the pile. “Thanks. Now, just to be clear: I can use this publicly, can’t I? I really don’t want to get into trouble.”
“Yes, there are plenty of big blacked-out areas to make it safe. That’s what took so long.”
“Wait a minute – this is real, the truth, isn’t it? It’s not some damned bullshit you guys whipped up, is it?” Gus said suspiciously.
\“You’re a fast learner.” She flashed a reassuring smile. “It’s legit, Prof, and in fact, you may find it hard to take. You’ll want to use your own discretion before showing it to anybody.”
They shook hands. “Good luck, but remember: you got this anonymously.”
For the showdown, Gus dressed in a special outfit, a turquoise-colored suit in a Western cut, complete with Taos blue matching shirt, with white embroidery, pearl buttons, and silver collar ends, and a belt with a big silver buckle. For a necktie, his father’s cherished bolo tie of old silver, a Navajo Sun symbol with twin braided black leather cords ending in engraved silver fobs. He smiled at himself in the mirror; perhaps his foe might recognize the piece.
From his gleaming, pointy snakeskin boots to a creamy white Stetson with silver conchos on the hatband to top it off, Gus felt like a gunslinger of the Old West, albeit one relying on bulleted points rather than pointy bullets. But Doc MacLantis, Junior, was finally ready.
Then he looked again in the mirror. “Good grief, talk about a barn dance.”
The largest space in the Hotel International, the Agreus Ballroom, was almost as wide as the nave of the Cathedral though nowhere near as tall. Lit by huge chandeliers, historic heraldic banners of the region hung around the walls, the silver stallion prominent among them.
The air before the verbal joust crackled with the electric anticipation which precedes the World Cup or the Superbowl. Nigel found himself exiled to the small press section. But it was easy tell to by the commotion when Cindi and other important persons including the Count himself took the best seats in the front. Skip and Allie led a small but vocal cheering section to the left, while Cosimo and contingent of skinheads did so on the right.
Standing room only, the entire rear and most of the walls on either side were lined with spectators. The entire Conference crowd and half the town seemed to be there. People could be glimpsed milling impatiently outside the open doors also. Photographers huddled like trolls around the edges of the stage. Just one person was missing: Maestro Raimondo Fatamorgana.
As the Great Clock chimed the hour, the house lights slowly dimmed. Finally three spotlights were left, dramatically focused upon empty podiums beneath the floating banners. Gus paced impatiently backstage until the last echoes of the bells died. He squared his shoulders and stepped on stage before a packed hall.
A ripple of applause and a few scattered boos echoed as soon as Gus stepped onstage, wearing his rumpled brown suit with a crooked tie. Skip and Allie led a brief chant of “Aug-us-tine! Aug-us-tine!” Which prompted counter-cheers of “Rai-mon-do! Rai-mon-do! Rai-mon-do!” from the corner where Cosimo held court until the Gumbels themselves took the stage to demand order. They put their mobile phones away long enough to quiet the mob. The high-spirited crowd eventually calmed, giggling like naughty children.
Gus sat drumming his fingers on the table. Moments later, a pale little old man in a prim gray suit with a bowtie hastened out. Louis Leclerc, the distinguished dean of the academic nipterological research community, approached, wringing his hands in agitation.
“I’m sorry, Professor MacLantis, I’m told we must call it quits soon. Herr Gumbel says the hotel people are becoming rather nervous, and I can’t blame them. I apologize; no doubt this is disappointing, but this delay is becoming as intolerable as it is inexcusable.”
“It is rather extreme, even for him. Is he held up somewhere?”
“Who knows? He claimed he’s waiting for important test results or something, but no doubt this is another one of his famous stunts. I’m sure you were hoping for a debate, but if we call it off now, you may still claim victory of sorts.”
Gus smiled, but suddenly, an all-too-familiar voice rang from the rear of the room.
“Hold everything!” it called, as a slim white-haired man rushed forward, as fast as he could carrying a cane, waving a folder overhead. “Sorry I’m late, I bring important evidence!”
Applause rippled, but Gus sighed, folding his arms, studiously unimpressed.
The elderly man hobbled up the steps, aided by Cosimo, who shot Gus a mean leer. He took a wheel of slides from the professor and sat at the projector in the center of the room.
Leclerc took the center podium. “How nice of you to finally join us, Professore Fatamorgana. If you’re done with melodrama, perhaps we could begin?”