“How unexpected,” Gus said. “What got into him? I’ve never heard him so preachy before. So why was he apologizing in advance? And of what?”
“Who knows? I hope he’s past his jealousy because I fell in love with someone he can never compete with,” Cindi said, looking at the figurine. “Especially now.”
They resumed their stroll through the town gate, now permanently pedestrian-only. Each kept to their own thoughts until they neared the Maureven War Memorial. There in the shadow of the massive installation, one of the babies began to cry.
Rounding the curve to the south, Cindi sat upon a bench in the warm sunlight to feed the infants. “They are so beautiful,” Allie said. “But it must be so hard on you.” The nanny fished out a bottle from the bag, as her guards casually formed a protective perimeter.
Gus and Anton exchanged glances. “Ladies, excuse us. Allie, I need a few words with your husband,” Gus said.
His sister nodded absently.
“Babies,” Gus said. “Wow.”
“Wow, indeed, my friend,” his brother-in-law said. “I don’t know if I’m up to this.”
“I can’t speak from personal experience, but who is? Anyway, too late now, pal.”
“Under these circumstances, with the fates circling like vultures, I just don’t know,” he said, rubbing his bald spot. “Still, there’s no denying a little one changes everything.”
“Moving to Switzerland?”
“To an isolated valley in a distant canton, perhaps? One with a defensible pass?”
“That’s the idea. Fortunately, I have cousins everywhere,” he shrugged. “We get around.”
“What will you do?”
“I can always go back to waiting on tables, I suppose.”
Gus chuckled, “As a waiter, you make a good cop.” They rounded the Memorial. He finally asked, “Speaking of which, Anton, any sign of Dr. Faustino?”
“No, afraid not, Professor,” the agent replied, “not a hint of a rumor. And with every police force upon the planet looking for both him and the renegade nun, too; it’s a bit puzzling. But I’m not complaining,” he said. “The lingering nightmare is of them working together. But there’ve been no unexplained outbreaks of the Plague anywhere either – we managed to reach everyone that day in time, even the couple from New Zealand. If Dr. Death’s still experimenting, he’s doing it very low key. As are our preparations also, naturally.”
“Maybe he caught it, too,” Gus said. “If anyone ever deserved it…”
“Be best for everyone,” Anton said, “but we dare not count upon it. Sundog still leads the hunt, but meanwhile certain other precautions have been proposed. The world community’s debating secret protocols to enable an emergency planetary medical regime to take over everything on short notice if the worst happens.
“Headed by leading institutions, public health czars or ‘doctators,’ as they’re already being called, will be empowered to do whatever’s necessary. ‘Everything’ and ‘whatever’s necessary’ mean exactly that – dictatorial authority over global public health backed by ruthless military force. It probably won’t happen, but even talking about it shows how scared the politicians are, and I am too.”
“Be scared. Once, I’d have said such a draconian solution would be worse than the disease,” Gus said, “but after two brushes with the Plague, now I just hope they act fast and hard enough. Too bad for Fatamorgana; I’m just glad Skip didn’t have to suffer like that. Still,” he added, “I note you don’t sound very confident.”
“Would you be?” the former agent shrugged with his usual fatalism. “The main problem last year was preventing panic, so a key part of their plans involve managing information. I fear they seek to fight the disease by controlling the story, rather than the other way around.”
They turned the corner. Before them, the Altar was covered with bouquets of flowers. Behind it, the open treasure chamber beneath the Grieving Mother now served as a shrine.
The plaque had been erected like a gravestone before the Memorial. Upon the back a name was boldly inscribed: “CHARLES SCIPIO MACLANTIS,” followed by the date, “23 June 2005,” and a cross. Below ran a long list of smaller names, beginning with Angelique, Hélène, and followed by the dead from the riots, finally ending with the Cardinal and Raimondo. Around the base were heaped more flowers, candles, and cards.
“Raimondo remains the sole fatality from the Plague so far, thanks to Skip’s – and your – quick action,” Marcel said. “But even if more deaths are inevitable, your two are still true heroes. You bought the world time. For that, I am personally grateful. We should all be.”
Meanwhile, the other baby started to wail. As the nanny worked, Allie asked above the cries of the infant, “I have to know, Cindi, what happened? We were in different isolation chambers during that awful time, remember.”
Cindi rocked slightly as she nursed. “It was a horrible time, I wanted to die. I’d lost your brother, and Davey, too; Hélène, and many others. Maundy Grail or not, I didn’t think I could continue alone.”
“At least Skip’s end was merciful; he breathed in millions of spores,” Allie said. “The spikes spared him a worse ordeal, but even so.”
“Still a kind of martyrdom,” Cindi agreed. She switched infants with her helper, and continued.“Thank God, I was allowed to see the Sacred Basin, privately, though only through glass, of course. They say I was there for three hours, but I could swear it was fifteen minutes.”
“Thank Gus; you were the first pilgrim visitor so graced, you know. He shamed the authorities into it as a reward for your having saved the Cathedral. What was it like for you?”
“You know. You’ve seen the Holy Tub, too.”
“Actually I haven’t yet and don’t plan to,” Allie blushed and looked embarrassed. “I don’t yet dare. I got close enough, maybe too close, with the metal bit from the Ark.”
Cindi looked genuinely surprised. “Oh but you really must, you of all people! Don’t be afraid: the longing you spoke of would surely be satisfied by seeing the source. Even I felt it then.” The other baby began to cry. “As I wish I did now.”
“Maybe when the world’s regrets weigh heavier on me. Now I have other priorities. But don’t evade the question. Tell me, I promise I won’t say a thing to Nigel.”
“Sorry, old habits,” Cindi laughed, bouncing the infant upon her shoulder. She looked at the Grieving Mother peering into the distance far above them.
“I’d become an Endurist after my accident, you know,” she said. “I’d lost both my eye and my fiancé in the bike wreck; I was a complete mess. But here I met a man, older but a philosopher, a bit of a rogue, but one hell of an artist. He helped put me back together.”
“You mean Gérard Demorven, don’t you? Angelique once spoke of him.”
“Yes, he’s known mainly as a poet here. Under his influence, I adopted the name ‘Salvage’ because with one eye, I felt so incomplete, like damaged goods. He convinced me I could become a successful singer, long before I ever met the band, or Nigel.
“Truthfully, my faith was shallow, but I reveled in the superficial trappings and power. I became a very big fish in a very tiny pond. Before long I took over as leader, because I could take anything they dished out.”
She sighed. “And then Skip came, like a shooting star in the night. You never really met Davey, but you know Nigel: they couldn’t stand in your brother’s shadow. Skip was a real man. He possessed the kind of strength on which I knew I could rely. Oh, hell –”
The baby belched and threw up. The nanny and another personal assistant silently helped mop up the mess. By now the twin was unhappy. Cindi rearranged herself and waved to her wet nurse to take care of the problem.
“As suddenly as he had appeared, Skip was gone,” the singer continued, “and I’d become pregnant as I’d secretly hoped. But I couldn’t bring a baby into the world facing the Apocalypse, alone at that. So I scheduled a procedure to terminate before I went to see the Holy Tub. With doom and judgment hanging overhead, I desperately needed justification, forgiveness, or something first.
“It wasn’t anything like I expected.” She smiled at Allie. “The moment I saw the Sacred Basin, I actually sensed the babies in me, both of them, no matter what the doctors say. I even knew they were twins, and I suddenly understood.”
Cindi looked in awe at the wrinkled face far above. “A dream of a mother’s fierce love, divine grace hot as a burning fire. A temporary reprieve and an urgent last warning, granted with a vast, tender patience.”
The infant screamed, and she rolled her eyes. “Which I could use myself right now,” she muttered through clenched teeth. She sighed and smiled with effort. “But at least I now know why the Scolding Madonna’s so popular with mothers. Sweet Lady, lend me your serenity.”
By now both infants’ diapers needed changing. Within minutes the four women were busy, and when it was all done, everyone’s mood had greatly improved.
Cindi cooed at the babies, making faces as the maid tucked them in. “Oh, the world’s still doomed, oh yes, my sweet angel, yes. But we’ll be safe in the arms of the Lady, yes, we will.”
She looked at Allie. “The Sacred Basin is returned as prophesied, but in a mysterious way, we are still cared for. Death has been delayed. Best use the time wisely, sister.”
“Don’t worry: I’m not wasting a second either,” Allie said. Seeing her husband and brother approach, she gave Cindi a quick hug and extra kisses for the babies. She stood, smiling. “So this is where we must part, for now,” she said.
Cindi stood also and looked around at the others. “Too bad Nigel ran off so quickly,” she said. “He missed a genuine scoop. Do any of you realize what anniversary today is?”
Ignoring their blank looks, she continued, “Six hundred fifty years ago, the second occurrence of the Vision took place – the first one after the Great Pestilence. It restored their hope that the world hadn’t been completely abandoned by divine grace. Those Seven Blessed Witnesses founded the Sorrowful Community. In other words, it’s our birthday!”
“Congratulations are in order, I guess,” Gus said uneasily. “Are you going to celebrate? Have a party? How do Endurists revel these days, anyway, dare I ask?”
“Not like in tabloid fantasies, Gus,” she laughed. “All of us – even the renegades – know that playtime’s over. The hour is late. We’re returning to our true spiritual roots while there’s time.
“We’re officially, publicly, shamelessly declaring ourselves,” Cindi stated. “No more hiding in the shadows under my leadership. Our prayers have been answered. The Sorrowful Community formally announces our existence to the world today, though I think we may change our name.”
“As an officially-registered organization,” Gus said, “they can no longer refuse you a seat at the table. Politics, negotiations, compromise, selling-out; welcome to the upper world. You may find you miss the caverns. I already sometimes want to just stick my head in the ground.”
“I’m not worried.” Cindi’s shrug was as cynical as his grin. “Fortunately, my career and people like Nigel have taught me the necessity of zealously taking care of my own interests. But you’re right; it’s time to engage. The fight’s just begun.”
“Against whom, Madame?” Anton softly asked.
“Softness, laziness, and pointless contentment, mainly.” Her smile was quick and hard. “Oh, and if God grants us time, Santarovel and her misguided minions will taste the bitter fruits of their errors.”
She softened, and became solemn. “Angelique’s death was not in vain, Gus. We’re still talking with the Church. With his preconditions for reconciliation, Archbishop Galliard is nowhere near as open as the late Cardinal, but we haven’t given hope up yet. Just between us, though, it doesn’t matter. I’m ready for anything now that I’ve seen the Sacred Basin. Thank you again for that.”
Behind them, the Great Clock tolled, announcing the moment for farewells.
Gus cooed at the babies, and briefly embraced Cindi again.
“Good luck, Mistress Cynthia. No doubt a new chapter,” Gus said. “Today’s a big day for me, too. I’ve a zillion things to do before today’s Memorial Service. Since I might not have a chance to see you and Anton off later, Allie, we’d better say goodbye now, too.”
“Gus, be good to yourself,” Allie said, hugging her brother like there was no tomorrow. Standing back, she wiped her eyes and said, “Remember how Dad always ended the show: ‘Keep your hands in the sands, your eyes on the skies, your mind opened wide –’”
Gus smiled sadly as he finished, “To fully enjoy the ride.”
Allie laughed, and her eyes widened. She held her belly. “Cindi’s right. Oh, dear, time is getting short.”