A moment later the large bearded man in the white hazmat suit entered carrying a black bag. An armed man in the Count’s black livery followed.
“Excellency, I have done what little I could for them,” the first man said in a soft Italian accent. “I’m afraid your man didn’t make it, Sir Gordon, and as for your chauffeur, I don’t think he’ll be of much help to us.”
The Count and the chevalier both nodded. Roland said, “Please take a look at Monsieur Montcélance, Doctor.”
He turned to his driver, a sallow-faced fellow, armed like Jesús. “Andre, any sign?”
“No sir, maybe a few are still hiding in the woods, like this one.”
“Best they’re gone, but they shot first,” Smedley said. “A most tragic misunderstanding, unless they’re here for the same reason we are.”
“I understand the problem, Excellency,” Gus said. “If the lights upon the painting indicate where everything is here in Haute Maureven, the brightest one shone here or directly east. But it didn’t bother you. You already have a map of the site, don’t you?”
“Why yes, I do, now that you mention it,” the Count said with a friendly smile, “thanks to the Studiorum from which it was stolen. Fortunately, I have access to copies. I’ve wanted to talk with you concerning that missing parchment, now that I understand its authorship.”
“Yes, Count, I did indeed borrow Beauregarde’s papers briefly from the Studiorum,” Gus confessed. “But I swear I returned everything to the box. I only made copies.”
“Perhaps your accomplice helped himself.” The Count smiled at Reuben.
“I’m sorry, don’t know what you’re talking about, sir,” Gus said, keeping his eyes hard upon Roland. “But to return to the problem at hand: the fact is, your map’s incomplete.”
“Hold that thought, Professor. We’re not done with the parchment yet.” The Count turned to Reuben, who paled even more.
“Another savage from the wilds of America, eh? Small world, I must say,” Count Roland said. “Jesús, see if it is upon him.”
“With pleasure, Excellency.” He smiled and cracked his knuckles.
Reuben’s eyes grew big, but Hélène stepped forward. “You won’t find it,” she said, pulling a fan from her cleavage. “I assure you, Count, Blessed Tobias’ text is far away, where you cannot get your hands on it. Leave him alone; he knows not where it is. Besides, his was a holy act. Our friend but returned that which was stolen to those for whom it was truly intended.”
She smiled sweetly as she fanned, dumpling cheeks dimpling, though her brows still frowned. “Be not insulted, sir: you know the ancient custom of sacred theft, furtum sacrum, a practice well attested in Church history and often used by you in your own high-handed way.
“Since you did not value it, we properly took it to be venerated, simple as that,” she explained. “The parchment will be housed as it richly merits, as the sacred writing of the Red Pope, in a magnificent reliquary that you would surely envy.”
“I savor the irony but it’s still larceny, lady.”
“As if you intend anything else? We’re not savages; we’re willing, nay eager, to pay due recompense to the institute. But we are not surrendering the parchment to you, no matter what.”
“Madame Hélène, I can accept those terms under one condition,” said Roland sweetly. “Keep it with my blessing – once I find the Maundy Grail. Should we not join our forces?
Hélène stopped fanning but her scowl spoke for her.
“No? Too bad; let’s get on with it.” The Count shrugged and Jesús unfolded a blow-up of the map from Beauregarde’s Manuscript upon the altar, giving Gus a cold look. “So, Professor,” the Count explained, “since treasure maps are your specialty, what do you think?”
“I can read it easily enough,” Gus said. “But even with this, you still lack the key. The pierced heart there likely represents the Maundy Grail, but it’s unlabeled. So you hoped that the light upon the painting would show you where. It pointed here, to this chapel, which the verse on the back seems to confirm, but I’ve found no definite indications here. No ‘X’ to mark the spot.”
“A succinct summary of why I’m glad you’re here, Professor. But I’m not sure I completely trust you. What’s to prevent you from deliberately leading us astray?”
“Perhaps we could benefit from a local guide, Your Excellency,” Jesús suggested.
“Excellent idea, Rodriguez,” the Count said. “Would you come along, Monsieur Montcélance? I’ll make it well worth your while.”
“Not likely,” Benoit sneered. “You can’t bribe me or threaten me either. I stood up to the Nazis; I’m not greatly impressed by music hall villains with stolen titles or their goons.”
“Augustine, I’m afraid we’ll have to ask your sweetheart for guidance, then.”
Gus objected, “Leave her be. Angelique knows nothing.”
“But she grew up here,” the Count said, frowning. “And I note she wears the garb of a heretic and attends their meetings.”
“At the Cardinal’s request: she’s his ambassador,” Gus said. “But this matters nothing to you, Count Roland. Why pretend? The only thing you’ve ever cared about heretics, or anyone, is if they owned anything you could add to your precious collection.”
“You grieve me, Professor, but you do have a point,” the Count admitted, stroking his thin moustache. “Yet it occurs to me if the Unknown Guardians are real, and the site is indeed nearby, they must have someone watching it.”
He nodded at Jesús, who grabbed Angelique by the arm and hauled her to a standing position. The other man leveled a gun at Gus and Nigel, who held out a restraining arm.
“Care to reconsider, Benoit?” the Count asked, pulling an improbably large silvered automatic pistol out from his coat. He carefully checked it, but held it casually pointed at the floor. “I dislike any violence in church, but we’ve already crossed that line tonight.”
The old man slumped in his chair and nodded.
Count Roland leaned over him. “Are you one too, Monsieur Montcélance, or something different? Odd that when we found you, you were trying to call the Cardinal.”
“Ha!” Benoit barked. “Like anyone would trust a priest with such a secret!”
“Now that sounds like something an Endurist might say,” the Count said, swinging towards Madame Hélène. “Were you pathetic creatures guarding it also, or seeking it, too?”
“Are you completely mad?” Hélène objected. “Had we the Holy Tub, would we not use it? We would rejoice and shout the news to the world. But it’s futile to seek what Mary has taken. More than that, it’s blasphemy. Naught but death will come from such an endeavor.”
“Pious claptrap. They’re after it, too, Roland, no doubt about it,” said Gordon.
“Count, this is getting you nowhere and wasting valuable time,” Gus said. “Leave these people alone. Threatening them won’t help because I have the information you lack. Let them go and I’ll take you to the Holy Tub.”
“Ah now we’re getting somewhere,” Fawkeslorne said. “Please explain, Professor.”
“It’s simple,” Gus said, “I’m positive I know what the verse means from additional information I found among my father’s papers. Let them go and I’ll prove it.”
“But if Raimondo’s right about Doc MacLantis,” Roland said, eyes narrowed, “this, too, could be deceptive.”
“All right, check the map: it specifies six locations,” Gus said. “Several are fairly obvious – the one at the top labeled ‘Grotte de l’ermite’ is undoubtedly Horrig’s Cave, because nothing else is out there. But this one spot here marked by a heart pierced by a lightning bolt has no identification. That’s where the Maundy Grail must be. Now look at this.” He pulled a photo out of his shirt pocket.
“There are seven gold spots representing the planets, serving as the original map. Each one marking a cache. I just happen to know which place the seventh one, the circle of Saturn, that marks the site of the Maundy Grail, refers to,” he improvised.
“And where did Doc MacLantis get this information?” the Chevalier asked.
“Captured from the Nazis before they could breech the site,” Gus lied.
“You, Monsieur Montcélance, you were with Doc in the Resistance,” the Count said. “Do you know anything of this?”
The old man shrugged with an unreadable expression upon his face. “The German pigs were rumored to rely upon old maps. He could have gotten it on one of our raids.”
“Excellency, we’ve no time for reminiscences or speculation. We need to move while the Moon is still high,” Lacnuit added.
Roland sighed. “Oh very well, Augustine, I agree. Let’s lock the others in here and go. Jesús, don’t forget anything.”
“No,” Angelique spoke, a slight quaver in her voice. “Don’t anyone help him. Gus, Uncle Benoit, please, no one. He doesn’t believe, and surely doesn’t deserve it.”
The Count laughed. “Does anyone? I thought that was the p–”
Things happened very fast. Hélène’s cane caught Jesús hard across the face as she lunged forward. He reeled back, releasing Angelique. Hélène grabbed the Count’s gun. As they tumbled, thunder exploded in the small room.
Then it was over. The ringing in everyone’s ears lasted far longer than did the event.