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XIV: THE SHADOW OF THE MADONNA


Chapter 1

Wednesday, 22 June 2005

The Chevalier’s eyes fluttered and opened as Gus called his name the third time. Sir Gordon cupped his hands, and like giving Communion, Gus delicately placed a potsherd in them. The old knight blinked at it, eyes tearing. “The stupid twit managed to destroy the Maundy Grail, didn’t he? Just as the bastard deserved.” He smiled weakly at the younger man.

“More for you. Once Melicent goes, you’ll be next in line after your brother to be the Heir, and spread the bits around as you like. Funny thing, though, I don’t feel saved.” With that, the Supreme Commander of the Knightly Guardians of the Maundy Grail (Outer Order) and Presumed Protector of the Pelluvium Sanctissimum passed away. Gus gently closed his eyes and Nigel covered them with Gordon’s handkerchief.

A soft hand fell upon Gus’ shoulder. He looked up at Allie’s tired smile. As they embraced, Nigel reached over and slipped the chip into his own pocket. Gus slumped upon a rock nearby, holding his arm and looking dazed. Allie knelt by him as Sundog, Moonbeam and a platoon of police swarmed throughout the place.

“What a hell of a night,” Allie said. “I’m so relieved you’re alive. I looked everywhere for you guys, and saw you racing after the Count. The Cathedral was a battlefield, lots of fighting; Skip and Cindi’s gang arrived just in time. Despite them, vandals managed to knock over the Wonderful Memorial injuring the bishop, and killing a couple of her crew.”

“Too bad, but I’m glad you weren’t here, sis,” Gus said. “It was pretty awful, too.” “Yeah, I heard about Angelique before they found her. I’m so sorry, brother.”

“Benoit told you?”

“He called the cops. No one’s seen him, though. We came straight here.”

Around them, police and medics swarmed like ants. They bore Lacnuit from the cave in a stretcher. Medics fidgeted around Gus who sat motionless while they redressed his upper arm.

“Angel died heroically,” Gus said. “But she used you to get close to them. And at the end, she threw away everything we could have had, just because of her idiotic faith in an old bowl. Which I nearly died trying to save also, even though I knew it was probably fake. It’s all so stupid, I can’t begin to put my head around any of it.”

“Angelique truly loved you, Augie; she just loved God more.”

“Ha,” he barked without humor. “Two crazy ideas are not better than one.”

“Ease up, brother. You guys solved it, and on your own.”

“Did we?” He winced as the medic finished taping on the bandage. “Go, see for yourself. I need to talk to Sundog.”

He waved and the agent broke away from his conversation with Marcel and limped over.

“Looks like you had a bad night too, Professor,” the spy said, shaking his head, curls bouncing. “Almost as bad as Taff did after that gang of skinheads were through.”

“No matter, this is important, listen: Dr. Death was here, in case they found the Vials,” Gus said. “He patched me up but cleared out as soon he realized they weren’t in the Tub.”

Sundog whistled. “Really? Maybe they’ll stop looking, then.”

“Let’s hope so,” Skip said, joining them. “But the doctor, the one you called ‘Dr. Death’? Took me a while to remember, but I’ve seen him before.”

“He was at the party,” Gus said, “handed me the package with the damned doll.”

“No, not then,” Skip said, “much longer ago. At the hospital, while you and Mom were sick. The night before she died, he was the nice doctor I told you about who gave me a lollipop and told me she wouldn’t suffer any more.”

“Goddamn,” Gus swore. “How long have they been after us?”

“I don’t know, but we better tell Allie. Come on,” he said.

Nigel rushed out of the cave as they approached. “Skip, you should see it!” he exclaimed. “Smashed to bits, but still, Gus did it! He found the Holy Tub!” He clapped them both on the shoulder, Gus wincing. “This is the biggest story ever! Don’t forget, mates: I get first interviews and all the sweet details. But now, I must find a camera. This is the biggest scoop of my career!”

“And you'll be back in her good graces,” Skip said drily, checking his vest pockets, “Here, take Allie’s. But don’t worry, you’ll get everything. Exclusive, as promised. Later.” Nigel nodded and left.

Skip looked curiously at Gus. “No,” the archeologist admitted with a grimace. “Didn’t have the chance to tell him it might be fake earlier, and don’t have the heart now.”

Allie went inside, squeezing past the disarmed crossbows. Dust motes danced in the early morning sunlight flooding the narrow entrance, vanishing momentarily as people walked by outside.

She knelt next to the edge of the fallen monolith. The Count’s dead hand still protruded from beneath it, blue fingers curled in his last grasp. Shards of pottery and scattered gold and silver coins lay just beyond his reach.

Suddenly, a shadow filled the door. Cindi stood looking down, blue eye wide. “Oh no, it can’t be!” She dropped to her knees next to where Allie sat. “Is this it? All of it?”

Cindi bowed her head. “So the Gracious Lady’s wrath is already released upon the world then.” She breathed in deeply. “Let it be as it was foretold: ‘fate will laugh at them in the end, when death covers all like dust in the wind.’

Behind them, the brothers shared worried glances. Allie sat upon her knees before the gray pottery fragments, quietly shaking.

“Hey, sis,” Skip called gently. “As Dad would say, it can be put back together like new.”

“And this time, it wasn’t my fault,” Gus added. “I tried to save it. If Nigel hadn’t stopped me, I’d have been squashed also. Really.”

She looked up, and slowly stood, taking off her glasses. Tears streamed over her face and her glasses were fogged, but her eyes only held laughter. “This isn’t it. This is not the Holy Tub.”

“What? Are you certain?” Cindi asked, shocked. “So, no forgiveness? No Vials?”

“Don’t take my word for it, take Heronimo’s,” Allie said, gesturing at the wall. “‘Mundus vult decipi’ – ‘the world wants to be deceived.’”

“Back to square one,” Skip said with a groan. “Christ – all that for nothing?”

“Less than nothing,” Gus said flatly. “Just like Dad, we’ll never be clear of it.”

“I understand your despair, Professor MacLantis,” said Marcel, joining them, and taking Allie’s hand. His head might be wrapped in bandages, but he looked happy for once. “Think of it not as your doom, but as I try to do: job security.”

 


 

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“Perhaps
it is but mad folly
to earnestly seek this artifact
whose mysterious appearances
promise naught but death
and horror
on such a monumental scale.”

– Françoise Noël,
The Visions of Old Bellegarde,
1947

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