Sitting with hands on knees, the Count looked at them with a cocked eyebrow. He declared, “My friends, we’ve heard rumors of exciting developments. What can you tell us?”
Skip opened his mouth, but the chapel door opened and the astronomer strode in, humming, wearing modern clothes and a big smile. “Hope I’m not late,” Lucien said pleasantly.
“About time,” Aysha said. “We started without you. Please sit, and report.”
Somewhat deflated, Lacnuit perched upon the edge of a chair. Gus handed him a goblet. “Thank you, Professor. Very well, Madam Recorder,” he said. “I went up on the portable lift with the inspectors. It must have been a difficult climb, Charles. They knew a small catwalk was there, but I sure wouldn’t want to try it.” Noting Aysha’s glare, he continued. “Anyway the architect was at least as astonished as I and highly embarrassed to be informed of the cavity.”
He paused, and took a sip. “But the opening is exquisitely discreet. Small and carefully recessed, invisible from below – well, no one suspected for hundreds of years, did they? It must be as well disguised on the outside, too, but we’ve not had a chance to look.”
“It is an oculus?” Gus asked.
“I’m certain it is,” Lacnuit gleefully said. “There was remarkably little debris within but what was there we removed. The architect thinks there must be channels to cleanse it with rainwater. And it’s in good shape overall – aside from accumulated guano and the remaining paper. No winged rodent put that paper in there, either.”
“Now what?” Allie asked.
“Depends.” Lacnuit looked around the circle. “It could be a light collector in there much like the one I’ve made from Heronimo’s notes. However, like mine, it’s also incomplete. A critical element appears to be missing.”
An uncomfortable pause stretched on. “I believe it’s your turn,” Roland prompted after a moment of silence, looking between the three.
“What do you mean?” Skip asked cautiously. “He knows more about the hole than I do.”
“What Count Roland means is we helped you with your research, with the psychic reading,” Lacnuit said in a studied light tone. “It’s time for you to help us with ours.”
“We have eyes everywhere,” the Count began.
“Oh bother, Roland,” said Sir Smedley. “Get on with it. It’s simple: we know the wog dealer, Farouk, received a small package from you not listed in the auction catalog. We know he had it specially appraised in Paris and gave it back to you. A lens, I believe.”
“Obviously, Monsieur Farouk is not as discreet as claimed,” Gus said, frowning.
“Don’t blame him, Professor,” Lacnuit said. “‘Eyes everywhere,’ remember; ears too – but in fact, you were the one who babbled about the lens.”
“When I found you in the Cosmoscope, you were mumbling about its adjustment.”
“Oh,” Gus looked stunned. “Okay, yes, we have a lens, about that size. Why?”
“Thinking about the next phase,” Lacnuit said. “If the Cardinal is agreeable. We should push for instruments and video recorders tomorrow night, especially if a light appears tonight. In fact, we should go the rest of the way and try to recreate the Vision.”
“But it would require moving the painting,” Allie said.
“What?” Fawkeslorne asked. “Why on Earth would you want to do that?”
“I get it: if it is moonlight which causes the Vision,” Aysha explained, “the Star of Bethlehem mounted upon the altar screen behind The Ascension is the only possible mirror to reflect the image onto the rear wall of the Tomb.”
“The Cardinal would never allow that,” Gus said, “unless we’re absolutely certain the hole is what we think it is. But okay, I’ll get you the lens, Doctor Lacnuit.”
“Good, I look forward to examining it. As for the oculus, we’ll know soon enough. It’s up to the Moon now,” Lacnuit said with a French shrug.
“What use is this?” Sir Gordon asked. “Talk about rigmarole! I fail to see how recreating the Vision, assuming it’s possible, gets us an inch closer to locating the Holy Tub.”
“Indeed,” Count Roland said dryly, “Interesting, and doubtless an important development, but not what we’re here for, is it?”
Allie leaned and whispered to Gus. “My sister has a theory,” he said. “Want to explain it to them, Allie?”
“First, what would the lens in place actually show, Doctor?” she asked.
“At best, upon the painting, it would appear something rather like a spotlight centered on the angels carrying the Holy Tub, according to newspaper reports of the time.”
“The sparkles from the Birdcage, would they be visible, too?”
“Oh yes, they should be quite bright.” Allie glanced at Gus, who nodded.
“I believe the painting’s a map of Maureven,” she said carefully, “and the bright spots reflected by the Birdcage mark the location of treasure, maybe the Maundy Grail.”
“Hah,” snorted Smedley. “Wonderful, another woo-woo theory. Just what we lack.”
“Sir Gordon, this is a testable idea,” Gus said. “But it’s not really our timetable is it?”
“True, we’re wasting time,” Aysha stated. “We should be setting instruments in place right now. We need accurate measurements, not more speculative debate.”
“Not yet possible, I fear. Best we can do is plan on the next step, what to do as soon as we’re allowed,” the Count said. “First thing will be to secure the site.”
“Absolutely,” agreed Sir Gordon. “Keep gawkers and fanatics out. No interference.”
“Perhaps the reason could be spread that they’re afraid of causing further damage to the building,” Lacnuit suggested.
“There’s an idea,” Skip said. “We might be able to get the Cardinal to agree to that.”
“I could supply a security detail,” the Count proposed.
“No, might be wise to keep your men as back-up, Roland. Best use official protection.”
“Oh very well, Gordon, if you insist. Who else should be included?”
“An observer from the outside without a horse in the race,” Skip suggested. “Why not the reporter, Nigel Buckhorn?”
“I’ve no objection to an unbiased observer, but I’d prefer someone a bit more critical, and definitely more reputable,” the Count said.
“We sort of owe Nigel for getting here, so we should include him anyway. I’d suggest Monsieur Leclerc,” Gus said, “but I’m afraid the excitement would give him a heart attack.”
“Winning the Lifetime Achievement Award almost did it already,” Allie agreed.
“No, we need a known skeptic,” the Count declared. “I have Fatamorgana in mind.”
“What?” Gus and Sir Gordon said in unison.
The Count silenced the hubbub with an imperious wave of his hand. “Really, do we have a choice?” he said. “You want a critical outsider? Who better than him?”
“He has a point,” Skip said. “Think of the hell Raimondo will raise if he’s kept out.”
“Not helping, bro,” Gus said, tight-lipped.
“I don’t like it any better than you do, Gus,” Allie said. “But it might be wiser to keep him where we can see him. Like Nigel.”
“I object, too, to the oathbreaker,” Fawkeslorne said, bristling. “He violated the most solemn assurances and is nothing more to me than a thief and a liar. If he’s there, I won’t be.”
“Threatening to withdraw from the alliance, Gordon?” the Count asked incredulously.
“Nonsense, Roland; I’m just exercising my prerogative to not participate with him present,” the Chevalier said. His chair scraped loudly upon the stone pavement as he abruptly rose. “Let me know what I can do to help when you get around to actually seeking the Maundy Grail again. Good night, ladies, gentlemen, and good luck.”
“Hold just a minute, Sir Gordon, before you go,” Aysha said. “There’s one thing left undecided. Who will present our proposal to the Cardinal?”
“Good point,” agreed Roland. “Until a formal agreement, none of us should admit our association.”
“Don’t look at me,” Skip said. “I’m in enough hot water already.” Allie’s eyes became round as she shook her head. Everyone turned to look at Gus.
“Why me?” he began, and sighed. “Okay, if anything shows tonight, I’ll do it.”
With that, the meeting uncomfortably and unceremoniously ended. Sir Smedley-Fawksler strode off into the darkness. The Count mumbled apologies, made arrangements for a meeting the next day and hurried away also while the two scientists strolled back to the Cathedral. Clan MacLantis was left alone in the courtyard beneath the rising full-bellied Moon.
“I thought you were touchy, Gus,” Allie said. “Wow. What a grudge he carries.”
“Well, the Fawkeslornes were betrayed,” Skip said. “Raimondo really burned them just to get at Dad. Sir Gordon will get over it eventually, or not. What do you want to do now?”
Gus sighed, his shoulders slumped. “No vigil for me. I’m exhausted.”
“I could use a night off, too,” Allie agreed, “and sleep.”
“No vigil for me either. I promised Cindi I’d check in this evening,” Skip said with a smile. “Thank the gods of rock and roll. After this ritual heaviness, I need a party.”
Outside in the hall, Skip could hear just a monotone murmur. Puzzled, he tapped the door to Cindi’s suite. The big Samoan bodyguard quietly opened it. Before Skip could say anything, he raised a finger for silence. Skip entered, and stood quietly next to the door.
The biggest suite at the Hotel International was lit by candles, lots of candles. A dozen or so people were there, from roadies, to musicians, to dancers covered in glitter. Cindi sat upon a sofa next to Native David, and nodded at the new arrival. But everyone continued to recite the rosary, led by Madame Hélène’s steady drone, though many glanced in his direction.
Not knowing what to do, Skip stood respectfully but the service was soon over. After making the final cross, the crowd visibly relaxed, and eyes and whispers turned in his direction.
Cindi rose from the sofa and glided over to his side. “Thank you, dear friends, our vigil will continue later,” she said, taking his arm. “Now I want to introduce our guest, one of those who gives us hope. May I introduce Charles MacLantis? He’s the man who climbed the South Transept today!” She clapped, and the others joined in the applause.
The rockers crowded around them, and after a few minutes, Cindi shooed them away. “Go on, I know you have a million questions, but give us room. We’ve plenty of time to talk later; allow us a few minutes, please. Go get refreshments everyone.”
Suddenly Reuben stepped forward. “Hey, Mister MacLantis,” he said sheepishly, shaking his hand. His black T-shirt bore a plain glow-in-the-dark image of a tub. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry, hope I didn’t get you into trouble. By the way, your climb today was more remarkable than the one in the library. I knew it: you’re the one, for sure.”
“Hey, Reuben,” Skip said, surprised. “It appears you were right about doors opening. I hope you find it’s worth it.”
“Your young friend restored a lost relic of great importance,” Cindi said warmly, patting his cheek. “And he was the first one to bring us tidings of you. We owe him much.”
“Thank you ma’am.” The man blushed, bowed, kissed Cindi’s hand and left.
Soon, they filed into an adjoining room. Last to leave was David. “Yo, mate, good job with the ascent. Not long until Purification now!” He winked and closed the door.
After they kissed, Skip pulled away and gazed at her. She was dressed demurely in a white satin dressing gown with a red belt which matched her patch, makeup scrubbed clean.
“Once again, you surprise me,” he said. “Is this how rock bands party these days?”
She laughed, a low, sweet, sensual sound. “Only the truly radical ones. Disappointed?”
“Let’s just leave it at ‘surprised’ for now,” he said. “Am I interrupting?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m glad you came.” She led him by hand to the couch. “This is precisely what we’d be doing anyway, but I’m happy for the opportunity to show you we’re more than the crazed deviants of legend and rumor. But I’m more delighted to present to the others the man who will find the Holy Tub.”
“Oh, great, more prophecies again. How’s this one go?”
“We never understood it before, but now it seems particularly apt,” she smiled, but quickly became solemn. “‘One who climbs to the sky, to open Heaven’s hidden eye,’” she quoted, “‘while glows again the ancient floor,’ and so on; Brother Tobias, you know.” She smiled. “When we heard what you scaled the wall in the library, the thought crossed our minds, but we dismissed it. But then you did it more spectacularly, here, in front of everyone, while the roundel sho ne brightly.”
“I hope you’re not giving me too much credit,” he began. “Climbing’s what I do. And it was scarier than –”
He was stopped by a long soulful kiss. Then Cindi wagged a bejeweled finger. “Stop fighting fate, beloved. Maybe you’re not the one foretold, but it’s preordained.
“The Great Cleansing will happen someday, Skip, far more thoroughly than it did before. The prophecy speaks of ‘swinish sinners, too gross to fear, consumed by cravings unrelenting are swept away in final cleansing.’ But it also promises our triumph. Better to be a living ruler of the new world than a dead victim of the old, don’t you think?”