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XIV: THE SHADOW OF THE MADONNA


Chapter 2

The weather that morning was perfect. The blue sky bore decorative puffy clouds, the air warm with a slight breeze perfumed with the scent of roses. The world, at least this small corner of it, seemed at peace again, wondering at the night’s events as if at bad dreams.

Cardinal Mortens declared that despite the troubles, indeed, because of them, the traditional devotions must take place. Townspeople, true believers, and Endurists voluntarily worked hand-in-hand since dawn to repair the mess in the Cathedral in preparation.

The War Memorial stood like a mountain above a lake of humanity when they finally arrived late that morning. Whether in Sunday best or tourist casual, the entire crowd was in a somber mood, sharing the latest rumors. Legions of Church-approved penitents, First Communicants and various prayer sodalities marshaled by the deacons for the grand procession to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Reprimand along the road appeared subdued and anxious. As did the still-excluded but armed Endurists watching from the sidelines.

The police dropped the battered Clan off well before the intersection. “I can’t believe we still have to go through this rigmarole,” Skip complained, beating the dust from his shorts and pocketed vest. “I’m so tired; I could sleep forever. I really need a bath.”

“Yeah, you’re pretty funky, but at this point we all are,” Gus agreed.

“Doesn’t matter; there’s no way even if we had time,” Allie said. “Sorry, I meant to tell you, but the hotel called. Our suite was broken into last night during the troubles and robbed.”

“Oh great,” Skip said. “Still not over, is it? How much more shit must we go through?” No one had an answer. But the sight of Cindi, waiting before the barricades with her entourage, made Skip smile. They hugged for a long moment without speaking. “Thank God that’s over,” he mumbled into her shoulder, “for the moment, anyway.”

“If Allie’s right, now what?” she asked. He stepped back and thoughtfully considered her, his own face unreadable.

“Up to you, I guess. The waiting continues,” he softly said. “We won’t know for sure the identity of the shattered basin until tests are done. But Gus saw it before it fell, and he says there were no containers, just loot.”

“The Lady’s will be done,” she said with a forced smile.

“Why do you seem disappointed?” Skip asked, frowning. “Do you want the Plague?”

“No,” she replied. “We lost some already but Death is the inevitable price of glory. For the prophecies say the Sorrowful Community will survive to rule in the Last Days.”

She smiled and gave him a happy squeeze. “But no need to discuss theology now, lover. I’m just glad you survived.” He answered with a lingering kiss.

“Go on, darling;” she gasped when they parted, “I’ll wait for you right here. They won’t let us join their party but at least they’re not kicking us out. Which is no minor victory, and one for which we have you to thank. I only wish Davey was here to savor it, too.”

Escorted by police, Skip, Gus and Allie threaded their way through the barricades around the Altar. A flustered deacon directed them to their folding chairs in the alcove behind the Altar. “At last,” Allie said as she sat. “Was it only last week we arrived?”

“A lifetime ago,” Gus said. “Which reminds me; I’ve questions for the Cardinal.”

“Please Gus, don’t, not now,” Allie said, putting her hand on his arm. “Bad timing, don’t you think? Let’s just honor the dead, and save those questions for later. They’ll still be here.”

“I suppose,” Gus said. “But an accounting’s overdue.” He looked at the monument. They were sat along the north side in the open space behind the Altar, surrounded upon three sides by the fort-like base with its large bronze dedication plaques. The one directly behind them commemorated the advance forces of the Allied invasion. It honored the OSS with a wreath encompassing an image of the Holy Tub, and the agents who died with a row of stars.

Gus squeezed her hand, rose, and went over to the plaque. “There should be another star,” he said, touching one. “Molehill got Dad, too, in the end, it just took sixty more years.”

“It’s weird,” Allie said. “Here we are, in place and on time, just like he wanted.” She hauled Holy Tub, Holy Pail from her shoulder bag to compare the scene.

There in the dust jacket photo, smiling easily, their father stood with his arms crossed in a vanilla suit. Next to him sat the wheelchair of Françoise Noël, his Resistance contact who had just published the first bestseller about Bellegraal in his final days.

On the opposite side posed Maureen. Their future mother wore a flower-printed sundress, brushing a breeze-tossed curl of brassy hair from her young, happy face. A dapper Fatamorgana, leaning upon his ebony walking stick, casually but possessively draped his arm around her shoulders.

“Not much has changed save for the people,” she said. Even the flowery garlands strewn around the bastions of the pedestal in the playful breeze looked just the same.

“Yet sadly not for the better,” came a familiar voice behind her. Startled, she turned to find the Maestro himself standing there, leaning as in the photo. Apart from a few bruises and tape holding his glasses together, he looked unhurt. His nephew hovered as usual behind him.

“Ah, did I startle you? My apologies, I couldn’t help but relive the moment,” Raimondo said with a sad little smile. “Oh the happy times we shared back then. But you shouldn’t be surprised to see me here today. You know I promised your father I would come. It would take more than a few knocks to keep me away.”

“Do you want something from us, Maestro?” Gus asked, frowning.

“Why yes, this squabbling has gone on long enough, don’t you agree?” he said, “especially if what the reporter says is true. Did you indeed find something out there?”

“Yes, a ceramic pot,” the archeologist admitted, “which broke in the process into a large number of pieces. It held some gems and coins. That’s all anyone can definitely say at this time.”

“You don’t have to admit anything, Professor,” Fatamorgana magnanimously allowed. “Let’s wait for testing. But the dream is over: let it pass. Let the Holy Tub join Piltdown Man and the fairies in Antan or the land of Might Have Been. The Maundy Grail had a good run.”

Shaking his head, Gus turned away. He spotted the Cardinal at the wooden barricade. “Excuse me,” he said through his teeth. “There’s another lunatic I must speak with.”

The Cardinal, vested for the ceremony and wearily leaning upon his golden crosier, his bald head bandaged, listened to an underling. The clerics earnestly talked in low voices.

Seeing Gus approach with clenched fists at his side, the Cardinal shushed his assistant. “Enough,” he said. “Tell them, full procession as usual, but just you, I, and the acolytes will enter the Transept for the censing of the Tomb. Everyone else should be kept out. Now, give us a moment.” The Master of Ceremonies bowed and backed away.

“My son,” Cardinal Mortens said to Gus, placing his gloved hand sympathetically on his shoulder. “I share your grief. Angelique was like a daughter to me. I heard that she died as a true martyr.”

“Yes, but why? Why use her to deal with Hélène and her gang?” Gus demanded. “Sending an innocent lamb among those wolves!”

“For that very reason.” The Cardinal spoke in a low voice. “I knew those people had infiltrated the Church; I couldn’t even depend upon my own staff. What was I to do? She volunteered, freely, generously, to act as a go-between. Her trustworthiness and noble character were known by everyone. I took her gracious offering as a gift from God. It may yet prove to be a great tragedy that results in immense good, if we can return them to the fold.”

“Did my father volunteer, too, Your Grace?”

“What do you mean?”

“My father, Doc MacLantis. I notice you’re not concerned about the Holy Tub. You haven’t said a single word about it. Could it be you don’t believe that was the Maundy Grail any more than I do?”

“What does this have to do with your father?”

“I wonder why he endured three decades of humiliation to hide a secret which serves only you. Did he also volunteer, and swear to keep the Sacred Basin hidden?”

“Not to me, Augustine,” Mortens said, putting his hand over his heart. “I knew there was a great secret but little more. Doc might have been full party to it, but I swear that I no more know where the Holy Tub is than you do.”

“But you don’t believe it’s found.” He made a statement, not a question.

“It makes no sense, does it?” the prelate replied with a crooked smile. “Nobody who went to all that trouble to hide the Sacred Basin would drop a rock on it, would they?”

“Guess not, Eminence.”

“If that’s settled, please take your seat. Go in peace, my son, and let us join together to pray for those we have lost. We can talk more on this later.”

 


 

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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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