“How do I know? Where has this fabulous Vision gone?” He waved his arms around. “Is it camera-shy? Did the Birdcage frighten it away? Are we too cynical in these decadent times for the Sacred Basin to dare show itself? No: the painting blocks the altar screen’s reflection.
“This story is an age-old con based on wishful thinking, an unbroken chain of frauds stretching from here to Constantinople to ancient Jerusalem. No conspiracy, just a string of cynical opportunists preying on uneducated fools and religious fanatics for two thousand years. I clearly document this in my bestselling books, Cracked and Broken.
“I admit I was once taken in myself, charmed by this appealing tale. But every time I sought definitive proof, I have been blocked. Not by any sinister cabal, but simply by people’s unwillingness to face the facts. Certainly the citizens of Bellegraal will not let themselves see: from guides to artists to waiters in the caf�s to the priests in church, the whole town’s livelihood depends upon prolonging this pious fiction. This exciting, made-up mystery is far more profitable than the dull boring truth. But I refuse to bear any illusions, however comforting.”
The crowd stirred at a shot of Doc MacLantis standing before the Vault just before he opened it. Gus leaned forward. “The only hard evidence ever found are the two so-called ‘fragments of the Ark’ – two pathetic greenish lumps of corroded brass. But they, my friends, show just how we would be deluded.”
Slides from the Vault dig followed, ending with a close-up of one lump in situ while he explained. “Here it is, the fragment found in the Vault. Planted, buried fairly recently, by someone who entered through a small door in the back from the crypt, by which they would have you believe the Holy Tub was later removed.”
Fatamorgana’s eyes glittered behind his glasses, as Doc’s smiling face, with thick blonde mustache appeared again. “In fiction, the culprit is identified by three things: motive, means, and opportunity, is he not? I submit that in ‘Doc’ MacLantis, we have all three.”
He stabbed the air with a bony finger, as the crowd started murmuring. “Who else but James MacLantis would need to prove himself after this public debacle?” Two fingers jutting and the noise grew. “Who else but this renowned model maker and archeologist, could concoct and plant these believable clues?” Three triumphant fingers and almost a shout: “Who else but him was so well acquainted with the hypogea beneath the Cathedral, during and after the War?”
A sharp rapping came from Leclerc, and the murmuring slowly diminished. Fatamorgana, his olive face shining, ran a hand across his head, smoothing his white hair and adjusting his huge glasses. Behind him a black and white still from one of the old movies appeared of Doc with a trowel, digging around a plaster skull in the dirt in the big sand tray, with a young boy, Gus, already wearing black-rimmed glasses, peering around his arm in wonder and admiration. The adult Gus suddenly needed to clear his throat.
“No one denies that Doc MacLantis was a great showman,” the Maestro acknowledged. “Nor that he was an impetuous destroyer, willing to do anything to achieve his ends,” he said as the screen showed Doc standing with a proud grin next to a horrified Arab digger amid the debris of a shattered heap of ancient Egyptian masonry, dust still settling.
“We might have his confession in writing. For Chapter Twenty-Seven of Holy Tub, Holy Pail – a chapter which I can assure you I did not compose – concludes with these oddly farsighted words: ‘If anything is ever found of the Ark, it might point the way to what it contained. However, there might not be much left of it by now but the brass hooks.’
“How remarkably prophetic! Perhaps ‘Doc Atlantis,’ as he should have been called, was most as psychically gifted as he claimed,” Fatamorgana smirked, “or perhaps he knew something.” The Maestro paused, looking into the darkness where the crowd silently waited. “Because there’s more, my friends. For that, as you know, was not the only fragment.”
Fatamorgana dramatically held up a thick folder. “This is why I was late. I was in Montpellier, at the University’s metallurgical lab. At my own expense, they performed a more detailed chemical analysis of both pieces than was ever done before.” Two graphs appeared on screen, with arrays of spikes which looked similar but not identical. “Notice, the pieces have distinctly different chemical compositions. They did not come from the same artifact. The piece found beneath the cobbles is also a medieval composition, however, it was chemically corroded to look as if buried for centuries. In other words, it’s been doctored.
“One piece planted and another forged to match it. Whose ‘psychic reading’ concluded they were real? James MacLantis’. How far he would have gone if he had the chance?
“More breadcrumbs, ultimately leading to a counterfeit Maundy Grail? It wouldn’t be the first time: his hero, Don Yago, exposed a similar sham just before the Revolution.”
The professor looked solemnly around the room. “If you continue to crave miracles and wonders instead of scientific facts, that’s your business. A wise man once said, ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.’ Thus far, the most extraordinary evidence I’ve seen is of efforts to deceive.”