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XIV: THE SHADOW OF THE MADONNA


Chapter 5

Monday, 12 June 2006

“My, this morning’s more beautiful than the evening we arrived,” Allie said, stepping out of the South Transept with her husband. Gus turned and smiled at them. A few light clouds, delicate pastels of pink and orange, sailed decorously around it in the flawless aquamarine of heaven while songbirds offered loving salutation to the dawn.

“But not as gorgeous as the South Transept, sis.” He nodded at the church. These days Gus was much thinner, his facial fringe now more grey than brown, his face stoic. His smile was less frequent, unlike his frowns. His sister, however, seemed much more lively and open. Allie came through everything with a new poise. Or would have, if she hadn’t grown so enormous.

“You’re too kind,” she said, taking his hand. “But I think they overdid the new altar. They even reproduced all the wormholes. Seems I wasn’t the biggest stickler for accuracy.”

“Oh, don’t let her fool you, Augustine, she was a holy terror,” Anton said, giving her a kiss upon the cheek, and a pat on her swollen abdomen. “The perfectionism she poured into the restoration would have irritated Alfini – as it did her assistants. Discovering the painter’s little joke did nothing to improve her mood, either. I’m not looking forward to her lying in.”

“Even a brave man like you should be,” she said. “I’m sorry, dear, but discovering that Silviano originally depicted the opening to the Vault beneath the repainting was quite a comedown, to say the least. So much for my immense psychic powers.”

“Doesn’t matter, sis. You did a great job. The Ascension looks great there in the Chateau, finally where it should be,” Gus said with a kind smile. He checked his watch. “Anyway, I promised to meet Nigel downstairs. Shouldn’t take long.”

“You go ahead, Gus,” she said. “Too many steps; we’ll wait in front.”

“Okay, don’t sneak out on me now. Back in a moment.”

He trudged up the steps, not as lightly as he would have done a year earlier. But the burden of his responsibilities and second near-fatal bout with the Plague weighed heavily. The soon-to-be head of the International Grail Centre took everything more deliberately these days.

The South Transept had been restored again, most damages repaired. The dark wooden altar screen hung exactly as the original, complete with the Star of Bethlehem in its proper place. Gus strode past the Tomb and screen into the sanctuary with hardly a glance, down the steps in the rear into the crypt and into the Vault through the rear hatch, now enlarged into a proper door.

He glanced around. Though now a gaudy souvenir shop, the Roman basement had been built as a half-pipe of bricks as a temple of a warrior god. The long-blocked hole beneath the Templar’s Tomb in the middle of the stalactite-hung ceiling was illuminated by spotlights. On the wall next to an ancient statue of Mithras slaying a bull and several other historical displays, a new plaque commemorated Friar Lorenzo’s much later concealment of the Maundy Grail.

But Gus looked for something else, quickly spotting it. A simple X scratched upon the rock doorpost near the opening marked the precise spot where the true chunk of the Ark had been found next to a few coins. Gus squatted to look. A shadow fell as a man leaned over him.

“So, Mr. Known Guardian: does ‘X’ really does mark the spot?” Nigel asked.

“You never know,” Gus said, rising. “But I don’t trust them anymore.”

“You’re not the only one. As Pilate asked, ‘What is truth?’” Nigel said, shaking his hand. “I’m beginning to think old Fatamorgana was a starry-eyed idealist in some ways.”

“Only when it came to himself. Anyway, good to see you, amigo, it’s been a while,” he continued. “Good Lord, man, what happened to your head?”

The lanky reporter’s blonde hair had now gone white, with a matching beard as well. “Like it? I felt I earned some credibility after the events of the last year.” He rubbed his chin. “Still feels a bit weird, though.”

“Looks great, though. What’ve you been up to?”

“Deadlines, mainly – never ends, these days. But I did want to say good-bye to your sister and her husband. I figured they’d want to leave quietly, so I appreciate this chance.”

“And? Always an ‘and’ with you, old chum.”

“My, how cynical you’ve become, Gus.” The journalist smiled, pushing his sunglasses further back on his head. “But I do need a final quote, a juicy zinger to finish the piece. Which is why I asked to meet you here today.”

He waved at the displays of merchandise in the shop around them. “Your presentation last night was great; a fitting ending to an amazing year, but I wonder if you realize just how much everything has changed.” He led Gus to a table up front.

Like many others in town, the Cathedral Gift Shop displayed a mass of images of the Scolding Madonna among its devotional offerings. Here at the officially-blessed retailer, they ranged from profoundly devout to pious kitschy knick-knacks and souvenir religious memorabilia.

New faces stood out among them. “Notice, far fewer St. Francises this year – that old hippie’s been replaced by good old St. Roch, patron saint against the Plague,” Nigel said. “But look who’s joined them.

“Presenting the universally-acclaimed people’s hero, the sainted Charles MacLantis,” Nigel proclaimed, bowing with a flourish.

In front of a line of memorial portraits of Cardinal Mortens stood images of a holy man Gus had never seen before. They were hand-painted statuettes of his brother Skip, with scruffy beard, shorts and pocketed waistcoat, standing tall with a halo behind his reversed baseball cap. He held the Vial of Death crooked in his right arm like a football, his other hand raised in greeting or perhaps blocking. A golden cope flowed down his back like a superhero’s cape.

“What the hell? ‘Saint Skip’? Well, I’ll be damned,” Gus said, scratching his chin.

“Likely as not, but is that really the quote you want to go with?”

“If he was here, I’d make a crack about how he’d love it,” Gus sighed. “He’d go along, but for laughs. Skip would actually be horribly embarrassed. But in the end, like our parents taught us, he just tried to do the right thing. Use that, if you want. I guess I’m stuck trying, too.

“So this is why you wanted me to meet you here.” He handed it back to Nigel with a sad smile. “You know, I’ve been so busy lately, I’d started forgetting how much I miss him.”

“Yeah, me too.” Nigel bought several statuettes. Neither had much more to say until they got upstairs. They walked past the stark, empty pedestal where the Monumentum once stood. Outside, Nigel stopped to light a cigarette. “In honor of Skip,” he said.

Anton and Allie were waiting by the statue of the Hermit Philosopher. After exchanging greetings, the large man shook his head. “Whatever you call the reflective device up there, it worked wonderfully last night, Gus. What a triumph for both you and Allie! I thought those reporters might stain themselves once they saw the Vision.”

“Quite so,” Nigel confirmed. “Funny; the more staid and uptight the media, the more gob-smacked the reporter. I thought the man from The Times might burst.”

“Yeah, it was great fun,” Gus had to laugh. “Last night the Moon needed no aid; the natural alignment was perfect, but Aysha made the reflector adjustable. It can be set to work with any full Moon regardless of elevation, all controlled by computer. Visions almost upon demand.”

“I hope they don’t overuse it,” Allie said, “and take what little’s left of the magic away.” They began moving again towards the city gates.

“I think it may be inevitable,” Gus said, shaking his head. “The mayor wanted a projector installed. Aysha held her ground, but the new Archbishop seemed rather taken with the idea.”

“You’ll have to let us know how it turns out,” Allie said, looking at him. She became solemn. “I don’t think we’ll be back here for a good while.”

“What do you mean?”

“Now the affair of the Maundy Grail is settled,” Marcel said, taking her hand. “We’re moving on. I’m retiring from E.U.R.E.C.A. before they send me off to a stinking haunted bog.”

“So we’re not coming back after the delivery,” added Allie, holding her round belly. “We’ve a miracle of our own to attend to which will be quite marvelous enough for me.”

“I’m torn between envying you finally getting away and knowing how much I’ll miss you,” Gus sincerely confessed. Hugs and kisses followed. “I really will. I counted on you both being here when the Grail Research Centre formally opens this fall. It’s going to be nuts. I need people with common sense at my side.”

Anton smiled. “Yet you do not lack advice freely offered by members of every group.”

“Yeah, criticism on all sides from half a dozen flavors of fanatics.” Gus shook his head “I’m no diplomat; I lack the patience to balance all the crazies against each other, especially now.”

“You still grieve for her, Gus, but it will get easier eventually. And you’ll do fine, brother,” Allie said. “We’ll keep in touch. We’re just moving to Switzerland, not Mars.”

“Aha, I caught that!” said Nigel. He took a long drag before grinding the stub out upon the pigeon-stained pavement. “Couldn’t sneak out of town without giving your favorite reporter a scoop, eh?” he said. “I see the headline now, “‘MacLantis Goes to Mars.’ It’s brilliant.”

“On the money as always,” Allie said. “What brings you here this early, Scoop?”

“My spies told me you were leaving,” He dug around in the bag. “And I wanted to give you something nice to remember me by.” He presented the statue of Saint Skip to her.

“Oh my God,” Allie said, shocked. “Thanks, Nigel,” she continued after a pause. “This’ll look great on our Martian mantelpiece.”

“That’s it? All you can say? You’re as bad as your brother,” Nigel complained. “It’s times like this I miss Raimondo – say what you like, the man was a true master of sound bites.” He looked up. “Ah, here comes someone nearly as succinct but far more positive.”

They turned. Rounding the basilica from their left came Cindi, garbed head to toe in tight black satin, accompanied by her retinue. Seeing them wave, she commandeered the baby stroller from her nanny. The others, including several more bodyguards, hastened to keep up in her wake, including the large Polynesian, manfully shouldering a stuffed diaper bag.

“Cindi!” Allie exclaimed. “I worried we’d miss you, I’m so glad you made it.” The two women exchanged polite pecks on the cheek as the infants fussed. “Now, which one of these angels is Chip and which is Maddy? And how do they just get cuter?”

Cindi greeted the others in turn, finishing with her ex-husband. “Nigel, success agrees with you. I like your hair, makes you look distinguished.”

“That’s the idea. It’s a bit different now having people actually pay attention to what I say. I hope the new look will lend me some professional dignity.”

“Anything can happen.” She smiled. “Use the power wisely, for once.”

“Yeah, you, too, old gal,” Nigel said with a wry grin. “Here, I got you this for old time’s sake. What do you think?” he said, offering a figure to Cindi. He fumbled for his notebook. “Seriously, if you have something to say for print, I’d love to hear it.”

She regarded it oddly. “From the Cathedral Shop? Nice work, but it’s too bad; we should have done it ourselves first.”

“Pithy and to the point, but are you sure you want to go with that?”

“For publication? No way,” she shook her head. “How about ‘maybe he deserves it’?”

“Much better. Care to add anything?” Nigel asked as he scribbled.

“Okay,” she said, thoughtfully looking towards the Cathedral’s rose window where the Madonna once stood. “If a fifteen-year-old girl pretending to be the Virgin Mary to save her town could be so inspired by her to prophesy so that she is rightly regarded as a saint herself, why not also somebody who actually saved the world?”

“Oh, good one, thanks.” Nigel scribbled, and paused. He reached into the bag and pressed a Skip statuette into Gus’ hand. “Come on now, don’t be a spoilsport.”

Gus gazed sadly at the figurine in his hand. “Thanks, I really don’t need this, but I’ll send it to Skip’s kids, with a letter. They’ve enough to sort already; getting this without a good explanation wouldn’t help.”

Cindi handed hers back. “That’s sweet, but I don’t need one either,” she began.

“No, you, if anyone, most definitely do, dear,” he said, placing it in her hand and holding it. “This is not to remember him by, but to remind you of what adulation does. A man is still just a man, and a broken pot can’t even hold water.”

“If you won’t keep me humble anymore, Nigel, I guess this will have to do.”

“It’s ‘Nic,’” he said, shouldering his bag. “You know, I’m getting tired of my own lies. There’s no mystic cure, praying to pots or whispering to a man in a box, which does better than making amends. That’s all I’m trying to do – in advance. Remember I apologized for any harm I’ve done or might do to each and every one of you. Sorry; you’ll understand someday.”

“You have changed – Nic,” Cindi said. “You never believed in anything at all before.”

“Don’t get your hopes high.” His smile seemed crooked. “Remember what I said, and don’t take anything too personally, especially what you read. Love to chat, got a deadline to meet, okay?” He kissed Allie and Cindi on the cheek, shook hands with the men and left.

 


 

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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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