OUTSIDE THE PENDRAGON INSTITUTE (Sequel to "Inside the Pendragon Institute")
Chapter 1: How John the Baptist Nearly Lost His Head
When Lance Dulac, curator of arms and armor at the Pendragon Instititute, staggered in to work on a Monday morning in April, he barely noticed that the small weeping cherry tree in the marble urn next to the entrance was in bloom. He was still in the throes of recovery from the bachelor party that had been held for him in the back room of an upscale pub, down at the South Street Seaport. The party had been on Saturday, and his head was still reeling. It had been organized by Will, the objects conservator, and attended by every single one of the Institute's male employees. Lance wondered whether they were all feeling as fuzzy and wrung-out as he was, and decided that it was very likely, considering the amount of alcohol that had been consumed in the back room of that pub.
His suspicions were confirmed not ten feet inside the museum, when he missed colliding with Leon, the head of Security, by inches. Leon looked alert, and as stalwart and fit as he ordinarily did, but the rims of his eyes were distinctly reddened with the remnants of hangover, and his eyelids were slightly droopy.
Leon chuckled at the sight of his grim-faced associate. "You should see Gaius," he said encouragingly as Lance put out a hand to steady himself. "He's dimmed the lights in the Conservation studios, and he's sitting down there holding an ice pack to his forehead."
Of course Gaius, head of the Conservation Department, was at least seventy, so this was to be expected. He was the second-oldest employee at the Institute (Geoffrey Monmouth, the librarian, was a few years ahead of him), more than a decade older than the Senior Director, Uther Pendragon. Fortunately for the sanity of everybody on staff, Uther now spent most of his time in London, making only periodic (and blessedly brief) visits to the Institute in New York City.
"See you at ten, yeah?" Leon went on, hoping that Lance would be able to stay upright until coffee break, when he could join his equally wobbly colleagues – most of them, like himself, expatriate Brits – in the staff lounge. As the Institute, like most museums in New York, was closed to the public on Mondays, their current state would go unnoticed by the outside world.
"By the way, Gwen's upstairs, and she's been grilling me about what went on at the party. She wants to know if we had a stripper."
Lance groaned, and then put one hand to his aching left temple. "Will thought about hiring one," he said in a half-whisper. "But he knew he wouldn't be able to get away with it."
Leon laughed outright. "No doubt," he replied, glancing up and down the hall to make certain none of the female employees were anywhere about. "Gwen has her spies. Well…I'll see you in an hour, then."
Lance grunted in response and headed down the hallway towards his office, where he felt certain he had a bottle of aspirin in his desk drawer.
In his office at the other end of the hall, behind his massive desk of highly polished dark wood, Arthur Pendragon, Assistant Director, was reading the description of the Pendragon Institute as it appeared in the latest issue of the annually published Museum Directory:
THE PENDRAGON INSTITUTE OF MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE ART
Email: info at peninstitute dot org
Website: www dot peninsitute dot org
Collections: Medieval and Renaissance paintings, sculpture, ceramics, tapestries and other textiles, arms and armor, metalwork; literary, historical, and music manuscripts; musical instruments.
Key personnel: Dir., Uther Pendragon Jr.; Assist. Dir., Arthur Pendragon; Dir. Finance, John H. Draca; Dir. Library and Museum Services, Geoffrey Monmouth; Senior Cur., Morgana LeFay; Cur. Arms and Armor, Lance Dulac; Head, Conservation, Gaius Caledonian; Obj. Conservator, William Percival; Textile Conservator, Gwen L. Cameliard; Assist. Conservator for Paper Conservation, Merlin Emrys
Governing Authority: non-profit organization, tax exempt
Research Fields: all fields of collections
Publications: quarterly bulletin; monthly calendar of events
Activities: guided tours, lectures, gallery talks, concerts, education programs for children, adults, and school groups…
Arthur stopped reading and lifted his head as his office door opened and the senior curator, his stepsister Morgana, entered with her usual rapid step, announced by the staccato tap of her four-inch heels.
"You didn't knock," he muttered, rubbing his eyes. "You're getting to be almost as bad as Merlin."
He thoroughly expected a snarky response but, surprisingly, Morgana assumed an air of sympathetic concern.
"I thought I'd stop in and have a look at you," Morgana replied briskly. "To see if you're in as dreadful a state as every other man on this staff. Aren't you coming to the lounge? It's almost ten."
"Of course I am," said the Assistant Director, hunting through the papers on his desk for a pen. As he turned his head Morgana eyed his chiseled profile and erect posture, noting the absence of hangover bleariness. Arthur's blond hair was as neatly arranged as always, and when he turned to face her there was nothing in his handsome face to hint at Saturday evening's self-indulgence, except for a hint of fatigue in the blue eyes. He pushed his chair back from his desk, stood up, lithe and athletic in his well-cut jacket, and sneezed.
"Allergies," he said glumly, reaching for his handkerchief. "Pollen. Half the bloody trees in the park are beginning to sprout bloody flowers. Is there anything you need to tell me, or did you simply come in here to gloat over my condition?"
Morgana had never been one to mince words. "Uther's just sent me an email. He wants to talk to us via Skype tomorrow – you, me, Gaius, oh, and Merlin. He didn't say what it was about, but of course it will have to take precedence over anything else we need to do."
Arthur ignored the familiar sarcasm.
"At least he's given up the idea of you moving back to London and working from there," Morgana went on. "That never made any sense, although we both know why he wanted you to do that."
Arthur shot his stepsister a wry look but remained silent.
"I think you had better have some coffee."
The Assistant Director sneezed again. "You go ahead, Morgana, I'll need to find a box of tissues. Tell Lance not to eat all the chocolate scones."
By the time Arthur entered the staff lounge nearly all of the regulars were there, ensconced in armchairs, sprawled on the sofas, or waiting their turn to toast bread or muffins in the toaster-oven. A coffee urn and teapot stood on one of the tables, and several male staffers, including Lance, had poured themselves stiff shots of inky-black espresso.
Gwen, Lance's fiancée and the Institute's textile conservator, sat down next to Morgana and quirked an eyebrow at the sight.
"I'd feel sorry for them," she whispered, "if it weren't for the fact that they must have had a blast getting themselves into this condition. It's amazing, though. Look at Lance," she continued, no longer whispering. "Even when he's like this he's never anything but gorgeous."
Glancing over at the blinking armor specialist, Morgana could only agree. Dark, slim but muscular, and with the sort of face teenage girls swooned over, Lance was undeniably one of the best-looking men she knew.
"Of course he's not the first gorgeous man you ever hooked up with," the Assistant Director murmured under his breath as he sat down on Gwen's other side.
Gwen shot Arthur a look of exasperated affection. He had been one of her closest friends for years, but every now and then he felt compelled to tease her about their brief university romance.
"So, gentlemen," Morgana said brightly, sweeping the room with her eyes. "Tell us all about the lovely bachelor party."
There was a collective groan, and Will sniggered. "Luckily there were cabs queueing at the curb just outside, so we were able to get everybody home intact."
"Good lord," sniffed Morgana with a touch of disdain. "Were all of you completely pickled, Will?"
"Well…his lordship could still walk," Will replied, jerking an elbow in Arthur's direction. "But the groom-to-be…I've never seen him that rat-arsed."
Morgana frowned. "I hope you don't use that sort of language when you're giving tours," she said severely.
"No fucking way," said Will demurely. "I'm as good as gold, I swear. But to answer your question, Morgana, yeah, pretty nearly everybody was wasted."
"Not Merlin," Gwen interrupted rather anxiously. "Surely not."
The eyes of every staff member present flickered in Arthur's direction, and then just as quickly turned away, before he could notice.
"Oh, I had my eye on him," Gaius said comfortably as he attempted to balance a cup and saucer on his knee. "You know how anything stronger than ginger beer affects him."
"Where is Merlin?" Lance asked, having suddenly noticed that the conservator in question was not present.
"Downstairs in Objects Conservation," Gaius answered. "Will's working on the gilt-bronze reliquary we're loaning to Philadelphia, and he has a tight deadline. So Merlin's helping him out by stabilizing the surface of our John the Baptist sculpture. It is a mess – so much old insect damage. If we don't get him stabilized, John's head could fall off before the end of the year."
"How appropriate," murmured Gwen, smiling.
"He was at a tricky stage…I believe he's applying some B-72. So he thought he'd stay with it and skip the break."
"B-72…that sounds like a fighter jet, or a rock band," said Leon, grinning. "Or some unbelievably toxic chemical."
"It's a nice acrylic polymer, that's all," replied Gaius loftily. "Not to worry."
"I'll go downstairs and have a look before lunch," Arthur said casually. "That sculpture's given us no end of trouble. I shouldn't be surprised if its head fell off just to spite us."
Then he sneezed again.
Fifteen minutes after the ten o'clock break, the Assistant Director walked down the stairs from the ground floor to the basement, where the Objects Conservation and Paper Conservation studios were located. Adjacent to them was the Conservation Department lab, where Gaius could often be found stirring up some odd-smelling concoction or other. Today he had created a mild adhesive made from seaweed, and the vaguely salty scent had drifted into the corridor, making Arthur wrinkle his nose.
Although the youngest and most recently acquired of the four Institute conservators, Merlin Emrys was the only one (apart from Gaius) qualified to work in both paper and objects conservation. Ever since his student days, other people in the art conservation field had known about his so-called magic touch. It was to his credit, Gaius always said, that Merlin was so modest, as several museums had practically fought to get him on staff before Uther had managed to recruit him for the Institute. He was generally to be found in Paper Conservation, as this was the area for which he had been hired, but today he was stationed in the Objects Conservation studio, and when Arthur peered into the antiseptic white room he could see Merlin's pale face and black hair over the shoulder of the problematic sculpture. The rest of him was hidden by the wooden figure, and when Arthur coughed he kept his eyes on his work but raised his eyebrows with a half-smile.
As Arthur approached he finally looked up and emerged from behind John the Baptist, eyes refocusing, his hair, shorter than it had been when he first arrived at the Institute, as spiky as a child's who had just gotten out of bed, the abbreviated fringe revealing a high, elegant forehead. Still slim to the point of thinness, his face all bold bones and creamy skin, eyes blue beneath black brows, a wide, full-lipped mouth whose boyish grin nipped and jolted and did other funny things to Arthur's heart.
"It was in decent condition last year, to the eye, anyway," he murmured, dabbing at the sculpture with a fine-tipped brush. "And we've had it treated for insects, but look! Some old damage was hidden by nineteenth-century repairs." As he spoke he continued to work on the wooden sculpture, applying B-72 with a careful but rather generous hand.
"Are you certain you should use that much, Merlin?" asked Arthur, perfectly aware that the young conservator knew what he was doing, whereas he, himself (and most of his colleagues), didn't have a clue about this sort of thing.
"I might as well dunk the Baptist in a river of this stuff," Merlin muttered, staring at the insect-pocked surface of the wood.
"I wouldn't if I were you," rebuked Gaius from the other side of the room.
"It didn't look that bad when we let Santa Barbara borrow it last fall." Arthur had a fondness for the fourteenth-century statue, as its loan to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art had marked the first time he and Merlin…
Then he sneezed again.
"Watch it!" Merlin said almost sharply, motioning Arthur back. "Don't sneeze on the art, for pity's sake. Your bacteria are just what this fellow needs."
Arthur stepped back, rolling his eyes histrionically.
Gaius gave a dry, paternal chuckle. "Merlin's become very proprietary about this piece," he murmured. "Won't let anybody near it until he's finished with it."
"Right," said Arthur, still rolling his eyes. "When you have a spare moment, Merlin, I need to have a word." As usual, he put a strong inflection on the first syllable of the young man's name. "With you and Gaius, that is. Morgana's had an email from Uth…from my father. He wants a conference call with her, and with Gaius, tomorrow morning."
"And with whom else?" Gaius asked, crossing the room.
"Myself and Merlin."
It was Merlin's turn to roll his eyes. "Great. Why me?"
There were, he felt, a number of reasons why Uther might be displeased with him.
When it came to skeptical expressions and raised eyebrows, there was nobody on staff who could compete with Gaius. "There's no need to take that tone, my boy," he said mildly. "Let's see what Uther wants. If I'm guessing correctly, he has his eye on a lovely, overpriced fresco, or sculpture, or tapestry, and he wants to discuss it with us before he overrides everybody's objection and spends the Institute's money to buy it."