Maestro Fatamorgana resumed his seat. The applause was not thunderous, save from his most devoted fans, and there were a few whistles, boos and catcalls mixed in. The man was either brave or crazy to call all believers fools, but he did not appear to care.
Gus stood, nodding at Skip, who shooed Cosimo from the chair and plugged his laptop into the projector. Fortunately, Skip had returned in time to assemble a slideshow that afternoon. But still, they’d have to wing it without practice.
Gus blinked at the bright light, half-turning to keep an eye on the screen. A series of lingering family photos began, as slowly paced as Fatamorgana’s had been rapid. “The Maestro is fond of quotes tonight. Let me share one I read recently, that to dispute with a madman would prove that I am mad. Folks, I am not mad but I’ve sure heard some crazy talk here tonight.
“Doc often tried unconventional approaches; many were dead ends. Do mistakes make a person a conspirator? Hardly. We call such people ‘scientists’.
“Who is mad here?” Skip slipped in the image from the dust jacket of Holy Tub, Holy Pail of their parents and Fatamorgana. “My folks weren’t. You know, friends, they didn’t invent this stuff. For thirteen hundred years before it disappeared, the Most Holy Footbath was revered and fought over by popes and kings. If you don’t believe me, ask Monsieur Leclerc; he’s found and published most of the accounts, for which we owe him a great debt of gratitude.” He led light applause to a man Fatamorgana had bested more than once, and made a polite bow in his direction. Gus smiled as the old man blushed.
“Until the Maestro started making accusations, my Dad was done with the Holy Tub. We were working on a TV series. Which one of them had the great obsession?”
Gus paused, letting the light laughter die into silence before continuing.
“Sure, my father was here during the War – as an agent for the Allies. If he was intent on hoaxing the Maundy Grail, wasn’t that the time to do it: when it would have possessed the greatest propaganda value?” Skip showed a picture of a young James in uniform amid a jostling crowd of happy French townspeople taken as the first American tanks rolled in.
“My father was indeed a showman, a skilled model-maker, and fond of practical jokes, too. People might think the opening of the Vault was one of them, but it wasn’t funny to me, or my brother or sister. We’ve paid a pretty price for it, but not like he did.”
Again, a picture showed Doc standing expectantly before the Vault. Gus paused. “You know, I could go on all night, but let’s cut to the facts.” He cleared his throat. “That quote earlier is from the Roman philosopher, Boethius, but it was also said by a man who, like my father, came from here to my hometown in the American Southwest. His name was Jean-Baptiste Beauregarde. He lived here at the time of Don Yago during the French Revolution. He too made important discoveries, and like my father, felt the need to get far away, too.” Skip now showed an aerial shot of his hometown in the middle of the parched desert.
Gus leaned into the microphone and said as distinctly as he could: “Both of them, Beauregarde and my father, were murdered because of it.”
Startled muttering rumbled around the hall. Fatamorgana looked surprised.
Gus held up his own manila folder. “Here is the official report on my father’s death. It wasn’t easy to get. According to the coroner, James MacLantis did indeed die of heart attack, but one which was artificially induced.” Behind him, a picture of the Scolding Madonna walking toy appeared, flanked by one of it open to reveal the additional wiring crammed in.
“This killed Doc, something you all undoubtedly recognize. This deadly plaything was packed with a device which generated an electromagnetic pulse which fried his pacemaker. It targeted his specific model. Doc’s heart exploded. He died before I could reach him. It was murder; an assassination planned and executed with great skill.”
Gus waited through several rounds of rapping on the table by Leclerc before the hall quieted. But it was silent as a crypt when at last he continued.
“This information was kept secret by officials due to fears of terrorism. But this isn’t a weapon of mass destruction, folks; just solid proof of my father’s innocence. Doc MacLantis was assassinated by forces unknown – possibly by those dreaded ‘Unknown Guardians’ – with a toy from Bellegraal. Personally, that’s certainly enough to make me sure of one thing. That only a madman or a fool would argue he was killed due to a hoax.”
He sat abruptly, and took water while the murmuring rose and fell. Finally, he heard Fatamorgana’s chair scrape as the man stood. “I should like to examine this report,” he began, paused, and started over. “But from this we do not have enough evidence to make any conclusions. Who knows what really went on, who was offended, and why? No mystical assassins need be blamed. James unfortunately made many enemies – why, as I recall, he was banned from Gus’ university! Doc MacLantis’ antics outraged both Egyptian nationalists and many Native Americans, not to mention unrepentant Nazis.”
“And jealous co-authors?” came a voice from the dark. Leclerc rapped sharply, but there rose a buzz of murmured agreement from the crowd.
Raimondo continued, “Time must be allowed to unravel this mystery as it has others here.” He paused, looking severe. “We need clearer heads and more information. These new claims make what I intend to suggest more urgent.
“This conference has a fine tradition of acknowledging those who have contributed the most to nipterology. Since his passing, James MacLantis became the sentimental favorite for the Gilles for Lifetime Achievement, but I would hate to see this august body make a poor and hasty decision.” His voice swelled. “Due to the uncertainty and doubts raised tonight, I suggest any honor be postponed until the facts are in.”
The noise of the crowd swelled, boos and hurrahs contested each other while Leclerc vainly tried to restore order. Gus grabbed his mike. “I have a counter-suggestion,” he said as loudly as possible. “Who benefits from doubt in the Holy Tub? Who profits from destroying the reputations of others in this field? There’s only one faction: the Unknown Guardians. I therefore propose Professor Fatamorgana’s bid for the Lifetime Achievement award likewise be suspended, at least until all the facts are known.”
That did it. The hall erupted into bedlam. Leclerc sat and put his head in his hands. Fatamorgana rose hissing from his seat, “Are you accusing me of murder, of being an Invisible, you little bastard?” He held his cane like a club. Cosimo stood by his side.
Gus’ smile was more of a sneer, but kept his hands open and apart. “No sir, you’re not that clever. But you just can’t stand losing to a MacLantis, can you?”
The house lights went up immediately. People throughout the hall recoiled like roaches. With great drama, a man in a black suit with a small mustache burst in from the rear, furiously whistling. He was at the head of a platoon of uniformed police with batons, separating the crowd. The general crush of people prevented Nigel from getting anywhere near the stage.
The man seized the microphone. “Silence! Order! Order, or I will clear the hall!”
For a moment, it looked like there would be mob violence anyway. Eventually something approaching calm was restored. “Don’t worry, Augustine,” Hermann Gumbel said, offering his hand. “This is nothing. You should have been here in Ninety-nine. Now that was a riot!
“Okay, okay, my good peoples,” he said loudly. “We’re not changing any rules at this point. Now we have the voting, jah? Who won the debate? The persecutor – Professore Raimondo Fatamorgana, or the offender – Professor Augustine MacLantis?” He pointed at the opponents in turn. The yelling was enthusiastic, but the roar for Gus sounded louder.
“Congratulations, Professor, it looks like you win,” Hulda said, shaking his hand and handing him an envelope. “Here’s your prize of five hundred Euros, plus a Golden Pass to the historical attractions in Bellegraal. It automatically opens the door to all exhibits. And now, to present your royal crown, we have this year’s Fashion Show winner! Come out, Yvette!”
A giggling young woman pranced onstage, dressed as a sexy version of the Blessed Madeleine with a low-cut, tight habit, complete with glittering halo and tinsel torch. Hulda held a small gleaming bucket. “And now, the winner we crown with the coveted Golden Pail!”
Gus looked surprised. “Please be seated upon your throne, Professor,” Hermann said. “We must put the finishing touch to you.” He gestured at a portable white seat with a reservoir built in which had been rolled onstage during the confusion.
“A toilet? You must be kidding!”
“Ach no, Herr Professor,” Hulda said. “The coronation’s our tradition for years now. Every winner does this. You don’t want to disappoint all these fans, do you?”
“Raimondo, too?” Gus asked.
“He was not the first, but three times now he has done it.” Hermann smiled. “Your throne, however, is a new addition; his suggestion entirely.”
“I should have known,” Gus said, and seated himself upon the white fixture with as much dignity as possible, his bearded chin jutting in defiance. The girl lifted the pail above his head and poured; but a golden shower of confetti rained upon him.
Smiling bravely while the crowd laughed – Skip louder than most – Gus was crowned with the bucket by the girl, the handle dangling like a chin strap. She kissed his cheek, and with a deep bow, Hermann handed him a golden plumber’s plunger to hold as a scepter.
Fatamorgana sneered at Gus for a moment, whirled and stomped out through the rear door, Cosimo in tow. Gus grinned with determination just as Doc would have done. While the crowd applauded, a recording played a courtly fanfare. Behind him, Hermann pushed a handle behind the seat with a ceremonial flourish. Gus sat bolt upright.
“Oh wonderful, it’s a bidet,” he muttered, clenching his teeth.