Outside around the corner, Nigel found Gus impatiently trying to see something on the camera’s small screen in the bright sunlight. “Man, that was something else,” he said, clapping Gus upon the shoulder. “What happened up there, mate? Where’d those bats come from?”
“Who knows? No wonder Skip freaked,” Gus laughed. “Good thing it wasn’t a snake.”
“Don’t laugh, man, your brother nearly fell,” Nigel said. “Should’ve seen his face.”
“Really? I didn’t realize,” Gus said. “I thought he was just goofing around, showing off for the crowd as usual. How’d the pictures look?”
“Busted and cleaned out, old bean,” Nigel said. “By your policeman pal no less; he made Allie erase them. If she hadn’t spoken, Skip would be on his merry way to jail, too.”
“What now? Where are they?”
“Inside still. Skip wanted a private meeting with the Cardinal. He asked me to tell you to join them in the sacristy, now.”
“So I can get yelled at too?” Gus scowled. “Did anyone mention the other camera?”
“Not a word, but they did check mine to be sure,” Nigel said. He looked around and whispered, “Skip said he found something up there. He thinks it’s a hole in the wall.”
“What?” Gus did a double take, “a hole? Are you sure?”
“‘An orifice’ is what he actually said,” Nigel said. “Would you like me to take your camera back to the hotel for safekeeping?” He grinned with studied innocence. “Or can I come?”
“Take it and wait here,” Gus said, handing him the device. “Until I find what this is about, I better go alone. Just keep it quiet, okay?”
Moments later, Gus found his way into the cathedral’s well-appointed sacristy. This private chamber where priests made themselves ready for services was anything but a simple dressing room. The large, luxurious space would not have been out of place backstage in Las Vegas.
Comfortable chairs sat before large gold-rimmed mirrors lined with lights, with plenty of dark wooden cabinets filled with rolling racks of robes. Ornate vases of fresh flowers sat upon marble counters. The place bustled with acolytes, priests, and deacons preparing for a solemn High Mass. The short, solid pivot in the midst of the whirling confusion, Cardinal Mortens stood calmly gazing into a large rococo mirror as if seeking divine approval. Skip and Allie stood straight and nervous at one side, as far out of the way as they could get.
“No, not this one,” the round prelate said, thrusting a colorful silk cope towards an underling. “Get something more traditional, befitting the precious miter. So what is it, Charles? You say you found something? Does this have to do with those arboreal pests?”
“Yes sir,” Skip said. “There’s a hole in the wall.”
“Really?” Bishop Galliard said dryly, preening at another mirror nearby. “What a surprise. Who would have guessed?” He glanced at Skip. “How bad is it?”
“It’s fine, Excellency,” Skip said. “Because it’s not the result of any damage. From what I could see, it’s a small round opening, like this.” He held his hands close together. “It appears to be a carved aperture in the center of a small rosette, just above the tip of the arch, set far back into the stone and angled.”
“That’s a relief,” Galliard said, adjusting the even hanging of his stole. “It should make it easier to repair.”
“You’re not following me, sir. There’s nothing wrong with the limestone which I saw: the opening was there from the beginning. It’s an original part of the building’s fabric.”
“Are you saying this hole is deliberately constructed?” the Cardinal asked, eyes wide.
“Exactly,” Skip said. “If I still had the pictures of it I took, you could see for yourselves. But there’s more: the hole was stuffed with paper at one time.”
He distastefully dug a handful of stained yellow newsprint out of a pocket. “See? The date is from July of 1931.” Cardinal Mortens peered at it, frowning.
Despite himself, Gus swore, “Damn, that’s when the light was photographed!”
“Of course,” Allie exclaimed. “Angelique’s granduncle Émilien caught the glow on the painting, week or so before he disappeared.”
“The newspaper may be why no light has been seen ever since,” Skip said, fully relishing the moment. “Once cleared, I saw a small blue spot in the rear which looked like a reflection of the sky. There’s some kind of mirrored device in there.”
The prelates said nothing but looked at each other in shock. “Tonight, of all nights…” Galliard said. “Holy Mother of God.” He paled and crossed himself.
Mortens looked sharply at Skip and the others. “Who knows of this?”
“Just us,” Skip said. Gus and Allie nodded.
“Good,” the Cardinal said. A deacon wheeled a rack of gold-embroidered robes in front of him. He pointed at the one he wished to try. “Keep it so. Don’t tell anyone just yet.”
“Might be difficult,” Allie said. “The whole town must know there’s a hole by now.”
“Too true,” Mortens said. Squirming into the cope, he waved away a hovering deacon.
Facing his visitors, the prelate said, “We mustn’t raise doubts or expectations, but we should be ready for anything. First, we must ascertain what is really there. We’ve already informed the facility manager we will need the hoist to examine the South Transept for damage immediately after services. Don’t worry; I’ll have them leave it in place for your precious photographs tomorrow.
“Doubtless rumors have already spread,” he concluded, “but if we keep to the basic facts that a hole was found where bats live and not mention any details or speculations, perhaps the faithful will not leap to drastic conclusions.”
“Sir, this is a unique opportunity,” Gus pleaded sincerely, “which should be thoroughly exploited, I mean, documented. There should be video recordings made, instrumentation set up tonight. Perhaps Astronome Lacnuit should be involved; after all, he –”
“Professor MacLantis,” Galliard said, as he sat. He gestured dismissively. “Don’t push it. You don’t know how that man has grieved us through the years with his constant badgering for instruments and studies. To suddenly allow him to play with his toys after your brother’s stunt on the holiest night of the year would doubtless agitate the faithful.” The thin bishop leaned back in the chair, stroking his goatee. “Really, the self-centeredness and arrogance of you so-called scientists is simply astonishing.”
“We did not choose the time, Excellency,” Skip said, “but as my brother says, it’s a unique opportunity. Who knows when the chance may come again?”
“If nothing happens, no harm done,” Allie added. “The mystery remains intact, and in fact, enhanced. But if a light is manifested under uncontrolled conditions, it could set the overheated imaginations out there on fire.”
“Hmm,” the Cardinal said, as he adjusted the elaborately-embroidered cape. He swished it around, observing its swing and smiled. “What you say is reasonable,” he said. “But we need more time, and at the moment, we do not know what, if anything, this means. Let us be patient.”
An assistant placed a golden miter delicately upon his head, while he looked at his reflection in approval. “The Vigil will be held as always tonight. Yes, nothing unusual. But I want a report on what’s in the wall before this evening,” Mortens declared.
“If we’re ready, Bishop Daniel, would you see if the procession is ready? Please make sure the acolytes keep quiet about this.”
Galliard stood, hesitating, but his boss waved his pudgy hand. “I’ll be along in a minute.” Mortens fiddled with his robes until the other clergy filed out of the room.
“You’ve made good points,” the Cardinal said, once they were gone, “but so did Bishop Galliard. Assuming a glow appears tonight, what happens then?”
“More questions, Excellency,” Skip said. “The possibility must be faced that the full Moon somehow caused the illumination, and the Vision of the Holy Tub.”
“Perhaps an experiment to prove it in a single go could be designed,” Gus said slowly. “But it might require recreating all original conditions.”
“I think he means moving the painting out of the way,” Allie explained.
“No,” the Cardinal said, “not so fast. Our first priority must be safety, both of our people and this cathedral. The painting hasn’t been moved since it was put back after the War; it can’t take much stress. Determining what this opening means must be done cautiously, a step at a time.
“Therefore we continue to wait. If an event occurs, we may consider moving The Ascension sometime in the future as you suggest, if it can be done without causing damage to anything – including the faith.”
He smiled wearily, and chose an elaborate crosier from a rack. “You look surprised. Don’t be, my children. I’ll let you in on a little secret.
“Everyone supposes that the Church desperately wants the Most Holy Footbath back in her possession,” Cardinal Mortens confided, leaning upon his golden staff. “Perhaps she did so covet it once long ago, but not anymore. We don’t need the trouble. There may be certain believers like Bishop Galliard who still dream of it, but to me at least, the Holy Tub only gives nightmares.
“There are indeed far too many wild ideas circulating – not just ‘out there’ among graaleurs and fanatic tubbies. There are other ‘true believers’ close at hand that also need to be calmed, their senseless ideas refuted, and restored to communion. It would be beneficial to deflate them, all of them, even if it scandalized the flock and disappointed Bishop Daniel.
“As inspector of Marian shrines for the Holy See, I have seen how easily these enthusiasms can get out of hand. They certainly have here time and again. Frankly, the Pelluvium Sanctissimum has only brought us trouble. Heresy, greed, schism: can you imagine what would happen if the Holy Tub were somehow found? The mere rumor of it once destroyed this city.
“The consequences of the Maundy Grail falling into the wrong hands could be grave indeed. But personally, unless the Sacred Basin is returned to Holy Mother Church, its proper custodians, I can but pray that the Blessed Mother in her wisdom keeps it safely concealed from everyone wherever it is for ages and ages to come. Amen.”
He waved his hand in blessing and held his large gold ring out to be kissed.