No tale is much of a story without a good villain. What would Othello be without Iago, Peter Pan without Captain Hook, or the Silence of the Lambs without Hannibal Lecter? You might have thought this tale already has its share: Razuni, Barabbas and Judas Iscariot, Darsi and Morgause, Mordred and Father Ignatius—not to mention Fido-Narc-Narc. But no, the worst of the lot is still to come, a seemingly mild-mannered Irish FBI agent named, improbably enough, Sean Dalton (Sean Connery had already made a name for himself playing James Bond, and Timothy Dalton would follow in his footsteps more than a decade in the future).
Big Brother was in full retreat back in 1975. Our withdrawal from Vietnam had finally brought an end to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. J. Edgar Hoover was dead and Henry Kissinger on the way out. Wire tapping had been declared illegal by the U. S. Supreme Court. The CIA was trying to restore a reputation badly tarnished by its shenanigans in Southeast Asia while the FBI was still looking for the missing Jimmy Hoffa. So you’d think an insignificant newspaper article buried in the Metropolitan section of the Houston Post might have escaped the attention of the U.S. Intelligence Agency. Not a chance. Some faceless wonk who perused major U.S. newspapers and prepared a daily summary flagged the article; Gerald Ford’s chief of staff bumped it over to the FBI to investigate.
Sean Dalton was one of those Southern Boys who measured their manhood by their willingness to die for their country. We’d been doing that regularly since Shiloh and Antietam; a century later we’d been the most numerous Vietnam volunteers (I use the pronoun ‘we’ strictly in the geographical sense). But Dalton had missed out on his opportunity to fight the godless commies because he’d graduated from law school and while army needed lots of lawyers, they weren’t sending them out on patrol. Dalton’s other dream was to become a Jesuit priest—fighting the godless commies on the home front, I guess. But he screwed up that chance as well because, having succumbed to weakness of the flesh with his high school sweetheart, he felt honor-bound to marry her. Pretty flimsy excuses for abandoning one’s adolescent dreams, if you ask me. Particularly if you were going to spend the rest of your life regretting it. But Dalton made up in part for his poor life choices by executing his FBI agent duties with unflagging zeal.
Ordered to “investigate the situation and report back,” he’d displayed some of that unflagging zeal by kicking down my door at 2:30 on a Sunday morning, placing me under arrest, and hauling me away to a safe house in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska. Anne was there at the time and got scooped up in the dragnet, although Dalton’s chauvinism kept him from watching while she got dressed and not slapping her in cuffs, considerations I didn’t get.
We arrived sixteen hours and three bathroom-breaks later, exhausted, hungry, and confused but most of all thoroughly pissed off. Dalton’s supervisor—whose name I never learned—had my cuffs removed, fed us sandwiches and coffee, and offered a vague apology for Agent Dalton’s excesses. But he didn’t propose to immediately fly us back to Houston.
Thus began an extended period of house arrest and interrogation. Dalton had brought The Grail and all my notes, as well as Jimbo Bond’s silenced pistol and the taped-up shoebox full of Louis XIV½. The interrogation team consisted of team leader “just call me John Smith,” a lanky, mercurial sort who played good cop/bad cop with himself, going from your best friend to deadly menace and back again about forty times a day; Dr. Garrett, a ferret-faced analyst with horn-rimmed glasses who’d probably forgotten his own first name long ago; and a very large creature called Fernando watching from the doorway with his arms crossed but never speaking. For two days they poured over my notes, stopping every couple of hours to examine The Grail, while Anne and I held hands and watched with a growing sense of surreality. Then they started asking questions, innocent enough at first and then with growing impatience, about how I had come by The Grail’s story.
I’m sure that ignoring me for the first forty-eight hours was a tried and true interrogation technique intended to soften me up. Unfortunately for their mad scheme, I’d spent the time examining my options and coming up with a plan. So I answered every question with, “It’s a novel. I’m writing a novel.” Both Anne and The Grail backed me up, Anne with an increasingly vehement denunciation of their harassment of innocent American citizens, and The Grail by refusing to talk to them. Also, I don’t know where my interrogators got their information from, but they were very, very careful never to give me an opportunity to get my hands on The Grail.
After a week of playing the game of many questions, one answer, Smith and Garrett left us in the keeping of the caretaker team and flew back to Houston to question Dr. Giles, Ms. Doubletree, the history department, the newspaper reporters, my former neighbors, and anyone else they could dig up who might shed some light on the mystery. They even tracked down Dr. Shapiro, but to all indications he stuck with the story that we’d agreed on. They came back ten days later, absolutely certain that I wasn’t telling the truth but with no real evidence to the contrary.
In the meantime Anne and I enjoyed an extended vacation/honeymoon. We were fed well, given clothes and books and music and a TV of our own, and left to our own devices (although we assumed our room was bugged). Dalton and Fernando took us out for a daily walk, after cautioning us that any attempt to get away would result in house confinement for the “rest of our stay.” They needn’t have worried about me; I wasn’t running away and leaving The Grail. Anne was mad enough to try something foolish, at least for a while. But we soon decided to just consider it a paid vacation and enjoy the time together rather than make ourselves miserable over it (my first notable signs of maturity).
It took a couple of months for The Boomer to track us down; shows how well they’d covered their tracks (other than the busted door). But the week before Halloween he showed up with a lawyer in tow and the fun began in earnest.
I’d assumed that we were out in the Nebraska cornfields because it was far from civilization, but we quickly learned the real reason: the FBI had the local federal judge deep in their pockets. Long before anyone had even dreamed of The Department of Homeland Security, the Fibbies pulled out a little-known version of The Official Secrets and National Security Act, which basically gave them the right to keep The Grail until they were satisfied that it posed no threat to national security. And although in theory they eventually had to give it back, in practice they could keep it as long as the judge reviewed and approved their application semi-annually. In addition, he let me know in no uncertain terms that I would be held in contempt of court—which meant swapping my current status for real prisoner in a jail with real bars—if I went to the media. Our lawyer postured and blustered and threatened, but in the end the only concession he got was that I was free to go anytime. The judge did sternly admonish the FBI for bringing Anne along, for all the good that did; she’d already missed half a semester.
When I told them hell no, I wasn’t leaving without The Cup, they just shrugged.
Our lawyer forced the issue a few weeks later when he filed civil suit in county court for compensation, which he grandly calculated at $1,641,700 per year (which equates to well over five million today). This time it was the Fibbies and their lawyers who postured and blustered. But unlike the federal judge, the county judge was a crusty old codger who wasn’t intimidated by the FBI, ruling early on that I had standing to sue and refusing to dismiss the case. So we sat down like responsible people and hammered out a settlement without any judges involved.
Here are the terms of the agreement we signed.
The government gave me a job as ‘Special Projects Historian’ at the outrageous starting salary of $16,700 per year, along with standard government service benefits. My projects would vary, but in no case would they consume more than six hours per day. In addition, they purchased two houses side-by-side in a nice suburban neighborhood, one for me to live in rent-free, the other for their ongoing evaluation of The Grail. I got visitation rights, an hour a day, although there was no touching until they figured out a way for me to do so safely. And Dalton was forbidden to come within a hundred miles of me or The Grail (I insisted on that last part).
I agreed to tell them everything I knew about The Grail, and not to go public.
Anne got a full scholarship to finish college at any university in the country, along with a liberal allowance for plane tickets back and forth. She agreed not to go public and to quit denouncing them except for an occasional barb.
The Boomer got a two million dollar grant to develop a device to communicate with paranormal beings, although all commercial rights belonged to the government. He too agreed not to go public.
The toughest negotiations were over how long they got to keep The Grail. The government wanted a hundred years; we stubbornly insisted on ten. In the end, just before midnight on the fourth day of arguing, the figure of thirty-nine years got enshrined into the agreement.
Our lawyer was handsomely rewarded and disappeared from the story.
* * *
So I have been a historian for the United States for going on forty years. My first project, needless to say, was to write The Grail’s story as an actual history—something I’d been trying to do from the beginning. I wasn’t allowed to publish it, of course, but at least the people who read it didn’t treat it like fiction. Afterward I went to the University of Nebraska and finished my PhD. Since then I’ve worked on a wide range of interesting assignments (none of which was the life of Louis XIV½). I’ve been allowed to publish most of what I’ve written, and thus established a robust reputation as a historian of former U. S. secrets that have been declassified.
Anne elected to go back to Rice, graduating on time (after accounting for the semester it took to complete the agreement) in mathematics. We were married at the end of her junior year, and remain that way. There were never any kids, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter, perhaps because her teaching job exposes her to all the kids she can stand. Or maybe it’s because she’s married to the biggest kid of all.
For a couple of years I faithfully visited The Grail every night without fail, even though I couldn’t hold her—she was kept locked inside a glass case while I was in the room. I told them she had to be nourished regularly with good quality wine, so I was sure she knew I was there. I even held signs up to the glass, telling her I loved her. But of course, she couldn’t answer back. According to the investigators, there was never any communication between her and them (they must have doubted my story, at least a little bit, but they never said so).
Some bright whiz-kid finally figured out that I couldn’t do any harm if I couldn’t speak and invented a quick, comfortable, and foolproof gag that locked in place and kept me from talking. After that I was allowed to actually hold her during visitation hours. It was a joyful reunion. Layl’Annie insisted that they make one for her too, and many nights the three of us would spend our hour together in the embrace of the ultimate ménage à trois. Once she told me she could hear me through the glass, I read her the gospels as I’d promised, as well as volumes of King Arthur stories.
Eventually the feds got tired of investigating with no results. But bureaucracy has its own inertia, and I couldn’t talk them into just ending the agreement early. By that time I didn’t really care. Life was good, and I didn’t see how it would materially improve if I could just take up my Cup and go. It wasn’t like I had the psychological makeup to become the next Jesus.
One piece of this tale does have an improbable storybook ending: The Boomer actually waited it out and eventually married the love of his life, although she is fifteen years his junior. Yes, that’s right: the girl who took apart the tape deck. By the time she was old enough to get married, he had dozens of patents and a shocking net worth. Freed from the constraints of ever having to work, they’ve raised a quartet of young inventor geniuses; the oldest is just out of high school, the youngest not yet a teenager. We all get together every year to drink (at least the adults) and tell stories. I consume more beer during that week than any other three-month period.
He never got the ghost communicator to communicate the other way. The Grail smugly replied, I told you so.
* * *
The end of my contract with the U.S. government is fast approaching. And while my net worth is nowhere close to The Boomer’s, I won’t be looking for a new job. I’ve thought a lot about what I will be doing, with The Grail in my hand and the wind at my back, but don’t have any answers yet. Something to make the world a better place, if I can just figure out what that looks like. As a fall-back position, I’m not too old to become a psionically-enhanced singer.
My keepers have reminded me that the prohibition against publishing a history of The Grail does not expire when the rest of our contract does. But they haven’t been nearly as adamant about fiction. So after a thirty-plus-year hiatus, I once again picked up paper and pen (figuratively, of course. I haven’t actually written anything longer than a grocery list with a pen in years) and attempted a fictional account of The Grail story. Ms. Doubletree is in her 80’s and hasn’t published anything in more than a decade. But I sent her drafts of the first few chapters and she was encouraging, as usual (she didn’t actually say it was good).
So if you’ve gotten to this paragraph, you’ll know that the U.S. government approved my novel. And from that you can surmise it contains enough fiction to make them happy. From the fact that I bothered to write it at all, you can surmise it contains enough truth to satisfy the historian in me. I leave it to you to determine which is which.
You will also know that The Grail and I are back in the real world. If you haven’t heard from us yet, just keep reading the newspaper. We’ll show up there eventually.