“Let me get this straight,” Cardinal Mortens said, clasping his hands upon the large mahogany desk. His habitually serene face bore a worried furrow across his forehead. “You, and these others you respectfully may not name, propose removing the painting in advance?” His office was airy and ornate with carved plaster decorations and much gilding. Gus sat across from him in a velvet-covered chair, trying not to fidget like a schoolboy.
“Yes sir,” Gus said. “I speak just for my family, but I’m confident that Astronome Lacnuit would approve of the plan. Doubtless others would certainly want to be involved. You know who they are far better than I, but they asked me not to mention names yet.” He hesitated. “Since we know light’s coming through the orifice in the rosette, instruments will accomplish little. The question now is, is it the light which produced the Vision of the Holy Tub?”
“If it is?” The cardinal leaned back and steepled his fingers. “What of the effect on the faithful? For seven hundred years, they’ve watched and waited. For what? An illusion?”
“Many would be disappointed,” Gus admitted. “But many still believe in the Scolding Madonna despite the documents. Why could not their faith in the Holy Tub survive without the Vision? More importantly, if indeed the light’s the source; it is a scientific reality which the Church must someday face, like it or not – just like the Earth going around the Sun or evolution.”
“I suppose,” the prelate mused. “We’re still derided for those failings, called ‘anti-scientific’ and ‘enemies of progress.’ How ironic for the holy Church, which preserved the light of knowledge of the ancient world for a thousand years in the darkness after Rome fell.”
“I hesitate to mention it, Your Eminence,” Gus added, “but if not tonight, our only opportunity for who knows how long – a few might accuse the hierarchy of another cover-up.”
Cardinal Mortens leaned forward, face darkening. “Blackmail, now, is it?”
“No sir, not me.” Gus shook his head. “I just point out the obvious.”
The prelate sighed and wearily rubbed his bald head. “Professor MacLantis, I apologize,” he said, replacing his skullcap. “But you must realize what an untenable position this puts me in. This place is already at the verge of boiling over, and you want to turn up the flame.”
“I’m sorry, Eminence. But consider the possibilities if we don’t do this. Another light like last night could spark a public disturbance in the sanctuary. The way I see it is that if the experiment is successful, it might throw much-needed cold water upon overheated imaginations out there –”
Gus stopped abruptly, and the silence stretched. Suddenly, the bells in the South Tower began to toll the hour, making him jump.
“Time’s up, yes, quite so. Seven hundred years waiting for answers is long enough,” Mortens sighed and nodded. “Very well, do as you must. Go ahead: make arrangements with these unnamed others. You can move the painting. I’ll announce the closure at the noon Mass.
“I hear you’re not much of a believer, Professor, like many scientists.” He wagged a finger. “But for this occasion, pray we are doing the right thing. It has long been my ambition to bring the town together,” Mortens said with a crooked smile, “but being lynched by them is not the way I intended.”
“At least, Eminence, you won’t swing alone.”
Gus was surprised to find the suite’s door chained shut. “What the hell?” He rattled it.
Skip peered around the corridor before he let Gus in. “Good, it’s you. I feared it might be the management again.”
The suite was dark; drapes pulled tight. The sole sources of illumination were Allie’s laptop and a projector set next to it. All the furniture was shoved aside, a white sheet tacked up on the wall. Lines and small shapes and numbers were written across it. Allie smiled at him from atop a chair, capped the marker in her hand, and hopped down.
“What do you think?” she said. “Go ahead, admit it; I’m brilliant.”
“Sure, if you’ve taken up modern art again,” Gus said. “So this is the overlay? A bed sheet?”
“Not just any bed sheet, but one of these deluxe, high thread count, satiny numbers here. Yours, in fact; good thing we decided to keep this suite after Tubby-Con and not go economy.”
“How much coffee have you drunk this morning, sis?”
“Enough. But really, we needed something quick and portable. This is just big enough, and I’ve put as much the information from all the maps I can on it.”
“Huh, so you’re projecting the locations from the painting as it is and the original, too?”
“Plus reference points from various maps,” Skip said. “But this is where it’s brilliant. Original locations are marked in green, the modern in red. We’re the only ones who know.”
“We’ll have the edge,” Allie chortled, but suddenly frowned. “If we’re permitted.”
“Better finish it, then, sis,” Gus said, smiling. “We’re going to need it tonight.”