Chapter 19

“Tell me what your project is about. Spare me the tech-jargon. What are you doing and what is it you hope to accomplish.” The Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s swiveled the high-back leather chair 180 degrees away from Sister Margaret Ryan. The tall bay windows were open, the scent of salt air sat quietly on the window sill and pointed towards the Chesapeake Bay.

“Well, it’s not such a big deal. Started a Facebook group, joined a couple of financial rights groups. Wait,” with a smile that failed to repress the slight lip curl of a smirk, the younger woman continued, “Oh, and I may have started an online petition against illegal foreclosures. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I did that too. Getting some good traffic.” Her voice carried a subtle, grating tone, like a barely heard radio outside of a church during a funeral. The effect  a result of an obviously rehearsed explanation combined with a nonchalance that danced on the edge of insolence. That Sister Ryan was accustomed to being called before the head of the convent was reinforced by her posture. One would be forgiven for characterizing it as slouching in her chair. The dark face of the Mother Superior darkened further; a non-verbal warning clearly wasted on the young novitiate, who glanced around the room, the embodiment of youthful boredom.

An unconscious smile flickered across Margaret Ryan’s face as she identified the rare and exotic woods used in the room’s parquet floor. She was certain the very dark strips that formed the borders with geometric precision was ebony. Such luxurious architectural details were common in many of the older buildings at her former college. Radcliffe University was nothing if not luxurious and old. Her reminisces were interrupted by a quiet voice.

I really don’t believe you’re taking this matter quite as seriously as you should.” Sister Bernadine had not moved, yet for the intensity of her words, she might have been standing on top of her desk, staring down at the young nun sprawled in the plain wood chair.

Sister Margaret glanced towards the door. Like the spasm of a pinched nerve, she felt an unpleasant jolt, somewhere between her heart and her brain. Sister Bernadine was staring at her, with an expression that managed to convey both anger and concern and said, “Lets begin again, shall we?”

Sister Ryan pressed the palms of her hands on the edge of her seat and the soles of her feet against the floor in an effort to sit straighter.  She glanced down at her habit, the skirt bunched and disheveled, gave up her efforts and looked at the other nun with a hopeful expression.

“Perhaps you misheard me, Sister Ryan. I said, ‘Lets begin again, shall we?’ That means you have not yet entered the room. And it certainly means that you’re not sprawled out in that chair, like you had nothing better to do.” The older woman’s smile remained unchanged.

A feeling of danger re-established its grip in her stomach. The young nun managed to stand and walk to the office door. Despite being a large, ornate brass fixture, her first attempt to grasp the doorknob failed. The second time was the charm.

Disorientation accompanied her out into the empty corridor. From somewhere within, an archly gleeful voice whispered, “So she thinks she can play with our head, does she.”

Sister Margaret Ryan stood still, much like a rabbit frozen in the middle of an open field, the hawk circling in the sky and a fox standing at the edge of the surrounding woods; no motion was good motion.

“Some time this afternoon, Miss Ryan.” The Mother Superior’s voice didn’t so much overcome the barrier of the heavy wood door as it reverberated through it. Her words were high fidelity through the door, a 100-year-old stereo speaker.

Directly across from the entrance to the library were double doors that opened out to the courtyard. The corridor ran left and right, window lined and brightly lit; to the left, an archway that led to the convent, to the right, through a set of fire doors, the school. At the moment, a weekday in August, the only sound was that of lawn mowers, advancing and receding as they ate the green grass that lead to the Bay. Nothing moved inside the building. Margaret Ryan reached for the doorknob.

“A word of advice, Sister Margaret?”

Her leg muscles tensed in the most basic of human thought, fight or flight. Glancing to her left, Sister Margaret Ryan saw a small section of the darkness that filled the arched entrance to the residential wing begin to move. The shade-in-the-darkness rearranged itself into the shape of a woman. An old woman. A square of dark grew light and Sister Cletus appeared. Even down the length of the corridor, the nun’s eyes seized her attention like a mother cat lifting one of her kittens by the nape of the neck.

“The path to a life in our Order is not always a straight one. It is not a particularly smooth road. For better or for worse, some who arrive here are fleeing a battle within themselves.” The nun turned, the light tones of parchment flesh and deep blue eyes sank back into the daytime dark of the convent hall. The old woman’s voice slipped from the dark and lightly touching the young nuns, whispered, “I’d knock first, if I were you.”

***

Sister Catherine stepped into the living room of the Avila home.

Roanne Avila put her phone on the coffee table like a half empty pack of cigarettes and shyly looked at the nun, who sat patiently on the dark blue sofa. “Thank you for coming, Sister Catherine. I just don’t know what to do. None of her friends have seen Patrice since they all left the beach yesterday. She told them that she was going to ride her bike home. Should I call the police?”

Sister Catherine felt fear creep over the cushions of the couch and tug at her habit. Like someone reaching for a light switch in a dark room, her hand found her crucifix and tried to steel herself for what she would see with the lights on.

***

I waited a full three seconds after I heard, “Come in.”

As I opened the door I felt like I used to, back in my college days, when our sensei clapped his hands to begin a sparring match. I loved the martial arts. I loved the dance-like movements of the kata. I loved how I felt after a workout. Sparring was an essential element to training; it was, after all, a martial art. In every match there comes a point when one combatant (or two) knows that victory is imminent. I always hated that feeling. A powerful voice pulled me out from my past.

“Come in. Sit down. Listen to me.”

I walked through the door, sat in the single, plain wood chair and waited.

“The Bishop called me yesterday.” Without preamble, Sister Bernadine began, “He believed that I thought it was a friendly, ‘stay in touch with the flock’ call. I did nothing to dissuade him. However, just before he ended the conversation, he said, ‘I recently had a parish priest in my office. In the course of our discussion, he mentioned a sister in the middle of her novitiate, down there in Crisfield. He mentioned her name,  ‘Maryellen’, or ‘Maryanne Ryan.'” Sister Bernadine made a sound that the look in her eyes made redundant.

“Obviously, I was supposed to correct him. That way it would’ve been me who brought you into the conversation. Our Bishop has that approach to his approach to others.” It occurred to me that I should nod or do something to indicate that I was listening, but my rebellious side had crossed her arms and was kind of pouting.

“Be that as it may. I told Bishop Ellerby that you were making good progress in your studies. I also let him know that you were engaged in a number of activities online, including earning a Master’s degree in Education.” She waved away the look on my face that reflected my surprise at how she knew about my efforts to get an advanced degree in less than four months, and continued, “I told His Eminence that I had complete faith in you and that you would do nothing that would embarrass us. Or cause problems for our Order or the Church. He pretended to be satisfied with that and that was the end of our conversation.”

I felt like throwing up. Sometimes throwing up provides relief, but at a price. Like when you’re in bed, feel something crawling up your leg and instantly crush it. Its only when you get out of bed and pull back the blankets do you pay the price. Seeing the overly-appendaged splotch of spider does nothing to enhance your relief.

“I am responsible for the women in this convent. All the women. Tell me what it is you’re really doing online.” The Mother Superior surprised me, yet again, by turning her chair to the windows behind her and Chesapeake Bay beyond.

“I promised my mother I would keep the bank from foreclosing on her house.” The simple statement felt right. Unfortunately there was no agreement, acknowledgment or indication that I needed to elaborate on my answer. A younger, defiant voice in my head added, ‘in terms that she’ll believe.’ That scared me. A lot. I glanced at the door.

I looked up. Sister Bernadine had turned in her chair and was staring at me with an expression both intimidating and protective.

I started to say something about how I would promise to stop. Almost immediately, I decided it was better that I make her understand how important it was and how I almost had the parent company on the ropes, that they were just about to give up and leave my mother alone. The intensity in Sister Bernadine’s dark face locked the words in my head. Hers was the look of a person hearing another’s thoughts. Nothing like a late night talk show mentalist act. More like two people playing a duet, reading from sheet music. Disapproval flashed across her face as I thought about lying, and even now, there grew a look of gentle but amused sorrow.

Quietly, almost as if to herself, she said, “Do you know what it is to be responsible for other people?” I stopped fidgeting, captured by her voice. Her eyes were focused on a place not anywhere near the office of the Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s, “Most believe that being responsible for others means having the power to tell them what to do. Some realize that being responsible for others, is to take on their problems, to accept the blame when things go wrong. This second group tends to do better than the first.

To be responsible for others is to place their interests before your own. Few people attain this level of understanding. The real secret, however, is much more difficult. It’s difficult because it involves you more than the people in your charge. It requires a willingness to project a sense of peace and confidence. It is this attitude within that helps those you lead to attain their potential.

This is not to ignore or deny your inner struggles. We all have them. And there are many people who will help you. But you are the only person responsible to God. You might ask another’s help, but only because it suits a certain purpose. There can be no asking others to do for you what only you can do for yourself.”

“Do you understand me?”

I was about to answer when Sister Clare opened the door and said, “Pardon me, Mother Superior, there’s a man here from the University of Maryland. He says he’s here to do a story about the young nun and success through online education.”

I was startled more by Sister Bernadine’s laughter than I was about the news of a visitor.

Chapter 18

Genevieve Novak squirmed in her chair, body expressing what her mind lacked the words to describe her feelings. It was nothing as mundane as her physical situation, which was as conducive to physical comfort as money could provide. It was not the social setting, a meeting between her boss and the Cardinal of the archdiocese of Miami. Stress, at least over the execution of her professional duties did not exist, as Genevieve Novak was as competent as she was elegantly dressed. She possessed the depth of skill that made what she did look effortless. Her professional responsibility was to administer to the needs and requirements of the Bernebau Company. Her personal interests were, by definition, more personal. What made her unable to sit still at the moment was the overwhelming presence of both power and prey.

Cyrus St. Loreto was smiling.

By the standards of most cultures, Cyrus was a handsome man. The somewhat old-fashioned description would be that he was possessed of a ‘noble bearing’. A broad forehead, lined only enough to remind the other person that looks were not everything, a strongly ridged nose and smile that seemed to default to charming with an undertone of the sardonic. Not exceptionally tall or muscular, the founder of the Bernebau Company had a vitality that manifested in his slightest gesture, the most casual of movements. Meeting him for the first time, an impartial observer might resort to the deceptively simple description of ‘feral’. While it might be argued that the feral nature of man was the wellspring of the more socially favored quality of ‘animal magnetism’, Cyrus St Loreto was a man who would never be mistaken for an ‘innocent bystander’. In the world through which Cyrus St. Loreto moved, people were divided into two categories: those who liked, (maybe even loved) him and those who hated (and very often feared) him.

“I appreciate your coming by to visit, Ignacio.” Cyrus sat at the head of the conference table. He nodded very slightly towards Genevieve. She immediately put down her ever-present steno pad and walked down the side of the long table to where Cardinal Ignacio Chavez and his assistant sat. Serving them from the silver carafe, she filled the cardinal’s cup with coffee. She smiled, reminding herself of the time of day and the location of her hospitality. Looking up at her, the most powerful man in the Catholic Church, south of New York City smiled and said, “Thank you, my child”. Genevieve felt his left hand brush against her thigh as he turned to allow her to fill his cup. A very subtle glow deep in her eyes flared slightly and then subsided.

Genevieve glanced at the young priest in the chair to the Cardinal’s right and raised her eyebrows in invitation. The priest, the Cardinal’s principle legal counsel, looked at her and smiled. That he separated these two normally integral social responses made her feel that her choice in dress, (more expensive than currently stylish), had been a good decision.

Genevieve felt calmer now, no longer confined to the seat at the right hand of her boss. Even as she smiled at Father Mannheim, she felt Cyrus’s gaze. Stepping back towards the wall of glass, she turned to face both clergymen and said, “Is there anything else you need?” Her tone was soft enough to induce the older man to turn to look at her, now backlit by the sunlight reflected by the neighboring skyscrapers. Even with the engineered glass holding back the glare, the curve of hip and prominence of breast made the towering skyscrapers behind her incidental and at best a distraction. After pausing for an interval refined by women down through the ages, she returned to her seat at the head of the conference table. The sighs of the recipients of her hospitality were, mercifully, inaudible.

“The Church is indebted to you, Cyrus. Your generosity has been a godsend, especially in light of the current political climate. I would hate to think about how much worse conditions would be were it not for the outreach program that your support makes possible. I thank God for your donations. They have made all the difference in the world for those in need.”

The Cardinal frowned suddenly, clearly uncomfortable, stood up and stepped to the broad wall of glass that overlooked Miami’s financial district. He started to speak, stopped, as if re-thinking what he wanted to say, finally turned to face the far end of the conference table and began,

“Of the other matter we discussed…” the white-haired man glanced at Genevieve and Constantin sitting at Cyrus’s sides and, looking directly at the man in the middle, raised his eyebrows.

Cyrus smiled and said, “Aceste două? ele îmi aparțin.” He paused long enough for the look of non-comprehension in the face of the cardinal’s assistant to change to one of annoyance and continued, “That, Father Mannheim, was an ancient Romanian saying,  ‘These people are family, whatever you would say to me you may say to them.” Unheard by anyone other than Genevieve, was a short, muffled laugh from the dark man who sat on Cyrus St. Loreto’s left.

Looking relieved, Cardinal Chavez continued, “The problem in Crisfield is proving more intractable than I’d anticipated. Forgive me, I must be getting old. When you asked if I would help you, my answer was, ‘anything’. That is still true. My mistake was, I fear, to underestimate the degree of change that has occurred, in the Mother Church.  The world I think I see is the world as it was in the past, not the present.  Only one is an illusion. The ways of the young people, the ways of the Church have changed in a very fundamental way. I am sorry, my friend. There is nothing I can do to stop this problem from growing worse.”

Father Mannheim noticed that Genevieve Novak appeared to be dividing her time between staring at her boss and looking at him. What disturbed him was the fact that  her expression remained virtually the same. He was startled at how uncomfortable this made him feel and found himself re-assessing his ambitions. Suddenly, the idea of getting off the fast-track to the Vatican and settling down in the role of pastor at St Emily’s, where he grew up, seemed very appealing.

“That is very kind of you to say, Your Eminence.” The owner and CEO of the Bernebau Company’s voice was softly respectful. Genevieve Novak, sitting to his right, picked up her steno pad and held it before her, a smokeless thurible, and continued her note-taking. She looked at the man to her left with the quiet gratitude of a lamprey eel clinging to the under-jaw of a great white shark.

“Be sure and tell the Bernebau Bears that the National Title is theirs for the taking.” Cyrus St. Loreto stood with a grace that any tiger would recognize and approve of, drawing up with him, the beautiful woman on his right and the silent man on his left. They were as synchronized as the lion in chase, adjusting to the desperately zigzagging of a gazelle fleeing across the savannah.

The cardinal and his assistant stood, the morning light casting their oddly stretched shadows over the expensive wood of the table, in every important way an altar in the church of commerce. Cyrus St. Loreto, as would any gracious host, walked between the two men to the elevators and waited until final handshakes were completed.

The elevator doors closed and swallowed the clergymen. Cyrus turned and walked into the boardroom. Without looking at either Genevieve or Constantin, he began to speak. His tone was one familiar to anyone who has been a member of an athletic team, in a locker room at the end of a halftime meeting, listening to the coach remind them that although favored to win by 20 points, they trailed their opponent.

“I want that nun, her website, her petition drive and every-fuckin-other-thing shut down now. Whatever else she is doing, online or off, I want it stopped. Now! It all stops. If she’s leading that bunch of old maids in morning, afternoon or nap time prayers in their damn chapel, you are to make her stop. Now.  And that goes for everything and everyone helping her, encouraging her or saying fucking hello to her when she walks down the goddamn street!”

Genevieve thought about the investigators who’d been making polite, seemingly deferential, but increasingly frequent requests for information on the Bernebau Company. For such an attractive young woman, Genevieve Novak had a marked tendency to worry.

Constantin Szarbo stood quietly and watched Cyrus. The stillness of his body was all that showed of the barely contained energy that grew ever more lethal.

***

“Sorry, must have the flu or something.” Father Matthew Ryan turned towards the door of the sacristy, seeing the worried look on the face of the altar boy. His coughing fits had increased over the last two days. He felt a bead of sweat tickle its way down into his eye. ‘A fever would not be helpful’, he thought as he prepared for the baptism scheduled for the afternoon.

In the nave, Father Ryan grimaced as the sweat on his palms caused them to slip as he began the ‘Prayer of Exorcism’. Seeing the concerned look in the face of the young man and older woman, who held the infant, started to reassure both the godparents and the child’s actual parents, when the coughing began. The already frightened altar boy looked around the church, hoping that an adult would tell him to go get some water. Deciding that he needed to take matters into his own hands, he started towards the sacristy when he heard a gasp. Turning he watched as Father Matthew Ryan collapsed to the cool marble floor.

Chapter 17

It was the first Tuesday morning of August, after morning prayers and Mass,  when I walked into the kitchen and saw Sister Catherine standing at the sink. It was my job to wash the dishes; being a novitiate makes one eligible for the most sought-after chores. We are not a monastic Order, so along with everyday housekeeping, there is the work of running the school. Those suited by education and temperament, taught the children, others served in more administrative capacities. And, as with any elementary school, the summer months can be as busy for the teachers as the rest of the year.

Smiling a bit mischievously, I stepped as quietly as possible into the kitchen. For un-examined reasons, I thought to sneak up on Sister Catherine, seeing how she appeared to be staring out the window. I decided to set the plates and glasses on the counter without preamble, you know, kinda surprising her. Without moving, Sister Catherine said, “Sister Margaret, you’re looking somewhat stressed. When was the last time you went for a run?” Her reflection in the window smiled with more feeling than I could recall ever witnessing in my face-to-face encounters. Before I could answer, she continued, “Wait, I believe I know the answer! Not since June 3rd.”

I was having less trouble believing that Sister Catherine knew the date of my last run than I was accepting the sly humor that changed her words into italics, the laughter implied. I started to reply, “There are 7 cases of text books that were delivered yesterday and they need to be …”

She turned with surprising quickness and in the manner of helping an elderly aunt get from the table to a comfortable chair on the porch, walked me by the elbow, to the door to the dining room. “I believe Sister Cletus and I can manage the dishes. We promise not to break too many. Now go upstairs and put on those … running shorts, that your friend, the detective, gave you and get some fresh air!”

I turned to Sister Cletus, who was sitting at the kitchen table writing a shopping list. Without looking up from the yellow-lined pad, she said, “Best that you take her up on her offer. Blue moons are a touch more common than Sister Catherine offering to take over your chores.”

It was past mid-morning by the time I ran down the long driveway to the stone pillars that marked the border between the convent and the outside world. The sun was completing the last of its upwards rise towards noon. Any lingering night-mists had long-since joined the non-existent clouds in the clear sky. Once through the gates, I turned right and headed east. I reminded myself it was August and not early June, when last I went for a run. I kept an eye out for cars of beach-goers and speeding bicyclists, whose attention tended to be up the road and not on the road. The stream of humanity swelled as we got nearer and nearer to the ocean. Like those unfortunate baby sea turtles, focused only on their destination as they cross a lethal sandy beach in order to reach the welcoming ocean.

As my body found its rhythm, legs and heart synchronizing, I was free to try to quiet my mind.

My summer was a very busy time, busier than I’ve been for as long as I can remember. First and foremost was the training that was my novitiate. It was not simply learning the history of the Order, it was not merely prayer, meditation and religious instruction; it was embarking on a path to a new life. Though involving much study, the process was more of a joining than it is was a learning. All the women of the convent shared themselves and their stories, in order to help me find my own path from the secular world to a life of the spirit.

Although the pace of study eased a bit in summer, it still filled most of my days. As it must. Of course, I was also working on getting my Masters degree and there was the matter of my ‘special project’. Few were the hours not committed to work and study.

It was my ‘special project’, my social media campaign to stop the foreclosure of my mother’s house that was most taxing, both mentally and emotionally. What twisted my stomach into painful shapes was that in order to accomplish what I set out to do required that I become the girl I left outside the stone gates the night I was welcomed into the convent at St. Dominique’s. What woke me at two in the morning and distracted me in the middle of the simplest tasks was the ease, the naturalness of letting myself become that person, that other Margaret Ryan. She was everything I was not. Rather, she was everything that I no longer am. I could still keep her at bay, under control, but that was becoming increasingly difficult as the demands of the project grew. The more successful my efforts, the stronger and more persistent was her presence within me.

I couldn’t discuss my fears with Sister Bernadine. Chicago, and the immediate aftermath, was still too raw a wound. Although she never spoke of it, it was clear the Mother Superior felt responsible for getting me involved in a matter that not only threatened my life, but caused me to risk my Calling. I refused to put the burden of my struggles on her. She pulled me back into the safety of the Order when it seemed certain my old life would force me to walk away. I refused to be so selfish as to ask to be saved again.

Oddly, the one person who was aware of my online activities and yet provided a measure of support, was Sister Catherine. The people foreclosing on my mother’s house were also trying to take the home of one of her pupils. Sister Catherine never spoke about my past or how difficult it was to call on the skills from a time in my life I very much did not want to face. But one afternoon she appeared in the library door and as I started to shut down all the different screens I had up, she waved her hand in a way that said, ‘Don’t stop what you’re doing on my account.’ As it happened, I was done with what I was doing, which was to set up an automatic telephone campaign aimed at the politicians susceptible to a grassroots petition. I turned in my chair and looked at her.

She touched the crucifix she wore around her neck and seemed to withdraw to a place distant not only in space, but in time. In a tone that sounded almost as if she were praying, she said, “Family is everything. Not because of the people who are in it, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters. What makes family everything is you. Family is the you that’s not limited by the physical. You are not simply a member of a family, a mere component part. Family is a part of you. As much or as little as is appropriate to you as a person, to you as you develop. A person does not require a family, however a healthy person finds and nurtures a family.”

We sat in the summer-quiet school library and neither of us spoke. She continued to hold the crucifix and I felt closer to my new life than my old. It was only for a moment, but there are things in life not measured in seconds and minutes.

I ran the obstacle course that was the Crisfield Town beach. I felt good that I wasn’t winded and could speak as I passed by Morris Richmond. He stood, as he had every morning that I reached the halfway point of my morning run, at the edge of the water. I noticed that he stood without fishing pole, his constant accessory through my Spring-into-Summer runs. No doubt out of deference for the children who ran up and down the wave-stroked beach. Instead of holding a pole and pretending to fish, he held a worn-edged copy of the book, ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’. I was willing to believe that even this might be a prop to avert well-intended interruptions. A half-past middle-aged man, leather sandals, too-long greying hair and a far-away look in his eyes would be a major temptation to the mothers and their companions to point and wonder. The yellow Labrador who had been as constant a companion as his fishing pole was further up the beach, teaching a group of twelve-year-old boys how to catch a frisbee.

“Suppose the person you once were did some very bad things. But had also acquired certain skills now necessary to help good people. Its like there is an orphan inside who can help but to ask is to invite her into my life again.”

I wasn’t sure if Morris would remember the way we used to speak to each other, a statement exchanged for a statement. Today it was more of a direct question than it had ever been. It didn’t always make sense. But then it didn’t always have to.

I turned at the halfway point and waving to some very surprised looking pupils from the year before, I headed back towards the parking lot and the road home. Morris stood as still as he had been when I passed him on my right. I heard him quite clearly as I passed him on my left. His was a thoughtful voice, as if we were sitting in a quiet study and he’d discovered a passage in a book worth sharing,

“We are the sum of our days. There is no subtracting any of the days that came before, in the hope of making our past self more acceptable to our current self. If we try to ignore or deny who we were, how can we possibly hope to be who we are?”

I ran back to the convent.

***

“Don’t hurt it!” Violet McKenna, all five foot, three inches of her, chased after Matthew Ryan from the vestibule, down a side aisle. A modern-day Marlin Perkins, the housekeeper’s whispered voice was urgent with concern for the well-being of the small flying creature. Father Ryan was more concerned with keeping the animal moving along the side aisle, where the ceiling was not too much more than a broom’s length above their heads. Well, his head, at any rate.

“Did you bring that burlap sack?” the young priest asked, never taking his eyes off the corner where he last saw fluttering wings. He regretted not taking the time to pick up some gardening gloves. He was working on his next sermon when, with a sudden knocking, the woman burst into his study. Given to a tendency to exaggerate, she launched into a plea to, “Save the wee creature.” Deciding that to follow directions would be less tiring than to try to get more information from the woman, he followed her to the back of the weekday-empty church. Holding the straw broom over his head, he kept the thing between the wall and the statue of St. Francis.

Now, less than six feet away, the sound of fluttering wings was decidedly more ‘leathery’ than usually accompanied the low passing of a robin or starling.  Stepping into the transept, the bird flapped it’s decidedly smooth wings.

“Can you get it to fly into the sack?” Matthew reflected on the likely tenure of the small woman to his left and the decidedly non-avian animal just over his head. He did the math of who he would have to listen to for the remainder of his assignment to St. Agatha-James and decided the bat needed to be in the bag.

A prayer to St. Francis seemed to do the trick. With a wave of the broom-end towards the sack, the bat proceeded to roost on his left index finger, which held the burlap open. Father Matthew Ryan felt a sting at the same moment he was able to make a fist of his left hand, which allowed the open sack to collapse around the bat, trapping it inside.

Burlap bag in one hand, he turned and walked down the aisle towards the vestibule. Mrs. McKenna preceded him, holding the broom, its yellowish straw head above her head like a processional cross. He smiled to himself and immediately frowned at the welling of blood between the fingers of his clenched fist.

Chapter 16

“Father Ryan. Please, come in.”  The friendly voice of Edward Ellerby pushed back some of the daytime darkness of the Bishop’s study. Nevertheless, Matthew Stephen Ryan hesitated at the threshold of the room, his raised eyebrows elicited the instruction, “Yes, please, close the door.”

To any number of the older parish priests in Philadelphia, Edward  Ellerby’s study was the physical manifestation of success in the service of the Lord. The room was a symphony of carved-wood, expensive leather and exquisitely crafted leaded glass. One wall held a fireplace, bracketed by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The mantle was stone, elaborately carved and shouted of power and wealth. Two wing-backed leather chairs faced the broad hearth. Between them, a low table on which two glasses and a cut glass decanter waited. The Bishop’s desk was directly opposite the door, behind it, a bay window that looked out over the city; the white-painted, quintessential tower of City Hall dominated the view. In front of the desk, a pair of uncomfortable-looking chairs, clearly designed to inspire brevity. Stephen crossed the oriental carpet and chided himself for thinking that the cost of either the rug in front of the fireplace or cushioning the Bishop’s desk would have easily funded the daycare program at St. Agatha-James for more than a year.

Sitting, Father Matthew managed a smile that he hoped projected the blessed fraternity of the priesthood. He hoped for confident, but would settle for competent; his discomfort at being summoned, without explanation, to the Bishop’s office gave lie to his outwardly calm demeanor.

Edward Ellerby seemed in no hurry to get to the point of the meeting and chatted amiably. Father Matthew Ryan was impressed despite himself as the Bishop demonstrated a depth of knowledge of St. Agatha-James’s that exceeded any profile in an HR file. He asked about the rectory’s housekeeper by name and even knew that one of Violet McKenna’s grandchildren had just been accepted at the Naval Academy. Given that this particular information became available at the end of the school year, 6 weeks prior, Matthew found himself liking the man sitting across the yard or so of carved-wood desk.

Finally, the Bishop stood up and said, ‘This feels too much like a job interview or..”

“…being called to the Principle’s office?” Matthew said with an optimistic grin.

The Bishop looked at the young priest, laughter gave voice to his surprise, “Why yes, almost exactly like that! Let’s go sit somewhere a little less formal, shall we?” He stepped around the desk and walked to the fireplace, Matthew followed and was relieved to see that there was no fire in the hearth. Even with air conditioning, a roaring fire in a fireplace during high-summer in Philadelphia would be a bit much. He waited for the older man to sit first.

“Stephen, you know that passage from Matthew 22:21? ‘Render unto God the things that are God’s,…'”

“…and render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”  Stephen finished.

“Well, as much as it pains me to have to ask, I need a favor.” Edward Ellerby turned in his chair and leaned slightly towards Matthew Stephen.  “Your sister is a novitiate at St Dominique’s, yes?”

Father Matthew Stephen Ryan nodded.

“A very intelligent, resourceful young woman. She’ll be an asset to the Church. I’m hearing very good things about her teaching, ‘gifted’ was one of the words used. From what I’ve been told, she’s already been of considerable service, in a rather delicate situation.” Seemingly captivated by the mood his words brought the conversation, the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia failed to notice the puzzled look on the other priest’s face. His failure to understand the relationship between Sister Margaret Ryan and her brother, Father Matthew Ryan, would eventually exact a cost far in excess of the seemingly simple misunderstanding. “Her handling of that unfortunate matter of the priest in Chicago.” Oblivious to the lack of comprehension on the other man’s face, the Bishop continued, “It’s her exceptional talent for… ‘problem solving’ that has created a delicate situation, one that I need your help in resolving.”

“I agree. And she is, in fact, my sister. But if there’s something you need from Sister Margaret, surely you have more direct channels of communications?” Matthew smiled inwardly at his own choice of words. He made a mental note to add a prayer to his daily devotions that he would someday acquire conversational skills such as were demonstrated by his superior.

“Well, you’re quite correct, Father Ryan. There is a protocol for communications with the sisters at St. Dominique’s. Their Mother Superior is a remarkable woman by the name of Sister Bernadine Ellison. However, she is not always the most amenable woman in the Church, especially when she fails to properly appreciate the importance of matters that are beyond the four walls of her convent.”

“I heard she has a temper.”

“Be that as it may. I need you to ask your sister to cool the rhetoric on her campaign.”

“Campaign?”

“You weren’t aware of it? She is quite the social media provocateur, that one.” Stephen saw an expression of what might have to be called, ‘an amused fondness and interest’ when the Bishop spoke about his sister. He felt increasingly uncomfortable with the tone of the conversation, somehow drifting from professional to collegial, with the best of the former being replaced by the worst of the latter. He said a prayer for patient understanding and turned to face the other man more directly, “I’m sorry Bishop Ellerby, my sister and I do not currently enjoy a relationship that involves all that much communication. I confess that I know little about what it is you’re referring to, for that matter, I knowing about what she did in Chicago. The embarrassing fact of the matter is that I only learned that she’d joined the Order this summer.”

Bishop Ellerby smiled and appeared to relax. Father Ryan began to feel the opposite, tension grew with the dawning realization that his superior had been on his guard since turning the conversation to matters concerning his sister. He felt an ember of resentment flare up; that he was unable to identify the source of irritation added to his growing anger. His first thought, that his admission to knowing less about his sister’s activities than did the Bishop seemed reasonable cause. Less understandable was his reaction to the man’s too-familiar attitude. Without thinking, he said, “However I do know of Sister Bernadine Ellison. Talk about your impressive women, I for one, would not want to have to force anything on her. If even half the stories are a quarter true…” Matthew Ryan was rewarded with signs of change in the Bishops expression. The older man’s self-assurance eroded, replaced by something that he couldn’t immediately put a name to, although the word, ‘peeved’ came to mind and he had to catch himself to avoid laughing out loud.

Trying to mimic the confident, one-professional-to-another-professional tone, Father Ryan said, “Even in the seminary, when the topic of the Church’s relationship and responsibility to the religious Orders came up, there was always a story about a young nun and a priest who tried to put her on the spot during a synod. I forget his name, but everyone laughed in sympathy.”

“Lets get back to your Sister Ryan. If you have any influence with her, I need you to do your best to convince her that the Church has a responsibility to the community. A much larger community than a nun, a novitiate nun, is qualified to appreciate. Her current efforts to bring attention to the plight of a woman in Crisfield who is caught in a financial bind are not appropriate. That sort of problem is for the parish priest to determine the best course of action. Not a nun and certainly not in the arena of the so-called social media.” The Bishop stood abruptly.

“Can I count on your help, Father Matthew?”

Standing, Matthew Ryan faced the older man and nodded, “I will do whatever I can for the Church.”

Bishop Ellerby held out his hand and the young priest bent, kissed the proffered ring and tried not to think about Francis Ford Coppola’s Academy Award winning movie from the 1970s.

Chapter 15

If Spring is a demonstration of birth and the beginnings of life, then Summer is surely the domain of adolescence and the approach of adulthood. The life brought forth by the months of Spring cannot be restrained as they grow into their inherent potential. During the longest days of the year, skills for the coming lifetime are practiced, bonds are formed (and broken) and beneath all, the primal drive to leave a mark on the earth, or failing that, to reproduce.

If a child, (of any species), spends his or her Spring learning to walk, Summer is the time they discover the joy of running. While undeniable that running is a capability meant to aid survival as well as propagation, it could be argued that running is the most sublime form of mobility.

Crisfield, Maryland came to life during the Summer months. Provided, of course, one defines life as an increase in activity and the initiation of processes that lead to greater numbers in subsequent Summers. The population of the handful of small towns along the coastal edges of the Delmarva peninsula increased by a factor of five at the beginning of July and remained, so elevated, until September. Then, with the call of the school year, it slowly decreased, like a minute pinhole leak in an inner tube, until the end of the month and the onset of Autumn.

Sister Margaret Ryan spent the summer season earning credits towards her Masters degree in Elementary Education. She discovered that the University of Maryland was a leader in online education. Enrolling as a nun living in a convent, Sister Margaret Ryan’s application was immediately flagged and she received a call from the assistant Dean of the University’s new ‘At-a-Distance’ program. The young man was excited about ‘her story’ and went on at lengths to convey how much UMUC would love to make her a part of their efforts to promote and publicize the newly created department. Sounding very much like an eighteen year old boy trying to convince a girl to go on a second date, he told the increasingly amused nun that, being a young woman in a setting that ‘spoke to’ those who might feel less a part of the mainstream, she was ‘perfect for the part’. He told her that, once he had the approval of the Dean, he would come to Crisfield and interview her and do a ‘complete work-up’. Sister Margaret smiled to herself and promised the eager young man that she would get back to him after she spoke to her Mother Superior. There was an abrupt silence, she thought she heard an intake of breath and, the man burst into excitement, “No way! You have a Mother Superior? Your story, the modern online student just writes itself! My god! Sorry, didn’t mean to offend you, not that I don’t believe in God, I went to catholic school once…”

Laughing, Margaret Ryan assured Alex Dumas that she was in no way offended and would be happy to help him in any way possible. She told him that the Order had policies regarding publicity, especially when involving novitiates, and that she was going to do nothing to go against the Order. He sounded relieved and at the same time even more enthusiastic about meeting with her.

Sister Margret  promised to call him, hung up the phone and immediately enrolled herself in the schools Elementary Ed Graduate program. Finding a system backdoor, she transferred as many credits from her time at Radcliffe as possible, without drawing undue attention. When she was done with the school computer system, all that remained for her to be awarded a degree were three core courses and a Practicum requirement. She took the core course as would any student attending the graduate school online and ended up with a 3.89 GPA. She thought she saw a loophole in the way the college accounted for a student’s practicum work. She planned on receiving her degree before Thanksgiving.

Each July, the seven convents in the Order would exchange three nuns,  one professed and two novitiates. The program helped broaden the experience for the new nuns by increasing their interaction with the women in other convents. One Sunday evening in mid-July, while clearing the dinner table, Sister Imelda, a young novitiate from the convent in suburban Chicago, asked Sister Margaret why she left Radcliffe only three semesters from graduation.

Sister Margaret was taken aback at the question. Her background and life before standing on the doorsteps of St. Dominique’s with only a single suitcase, was not something she shared with strangers from outside the convent. She was spared having to respond by Sister Cletus. The old nun, standing at the sink, washing dishes, managed to capture the young Sister Imelda by nothing more than the tone of her voice and the reflection of her very intense eyes in the window over the sink. She said in a quiet, patient voice, “Most of us are here in the Order because we seek a better life. Some of us view this as an extension of childhood, a natural and eagerly taken next step in life. Others have had to fight to get here. And, a very small number of women here among us, are required to pay a price for membership that you can barely imagine, much less be willing to pay. The Order cherishes all and is grateful for some.”

***

“Hey, Dru, did you see the write-up about the Bernebau Company in the Washington Post? They’re kinda piling on our client.” Arlen Mayhew walked into Drusilla Renaude’s office, a newspaper in one hand. The principle broker of Renaude and Associates looked at the tall, slightly dis-shelved man and smiled distractedly. Two open laptops on the desk in front of her were vying for attention, like the men that were still leaning against the bar at last call. She wouldn’t admit it, but she was grateful for his interruption. She’d been in the office since six that morning. The very early hours in the office allowed her to focus on the demands of her newest client, the Bernebau Company. The solitude enhanced her ability to focus on problems, at least until nine o’clock, when the routine distractions of running a real estate brokerage became impossible to ignore.

“This reporter, some guy named Andrew Lassiter, pretends he’s doing a business article about the company’s growth. But he spends nine out of ten column inches focused on the recent spike in foreclosures. According to him, the lending division of Bernebau is the leader there too.” Arlen sat in the nearest of the two leather and chrome chairs. “It’s all focused on Vérszívás Lending and Mortgage. How their growth paralleled the market recovery. But he really gets into the pain and personal tragedy of foreclosures. Worse, he mentions us!”

Drusilla looked startled and defensive, never a good combination, at least for the whoever or whatever elicited that response.  The exponential rate of growth of her (formerly) small brokerage did nothing for what little sleep she normally allowed herself.  She was one of those exceptional people who were able to relax more when presented with a problem than she would confronted with idle time. As Arlen, sitting opposite her in her office, described a potential marketing problem, she felt a renewed sense of purpose. She swiveled her legs around, the three-inch heels stopping her motion like a pencil thrown into an acoustic tile ceiling. “What do you mean us? ‘Renaude and Associates’, us or ‘Crisfield’, us?”

Arlen slouched back into the chair, his broker’s complete attention now secured, he could relax. Experience taught him that although getting the woman’s attention was difficult, once she focused on an issue, there was no turning back. Drusilla Renaude did not like problems, she lived for them. While it might be argued that women, at least in the current culture, were more inclined to use fashion to enhance their attractiveness, when fully engaged in problem solving, Drusilla wouldn’t have been more alluring had the lights suddenly dimmed and her tailored suit replaced by a negligee.

“Go on, what exactly do they say about us?” The look in her eyes made his bringing the  newspaper article to her attention a higher stakes bet than Arlen had originally calculated.

Picking up the newspaper as a priest might pick up his bible, not for the information it held, but for its power as a symbol of authority, Arlen continued, “Bernebau’s mortgage division, this Vérszívás Mortgage company, is under investigation by both the DOJ and the CFPB. Their focus is on questionable loan origination practices and suspiciously selective record keeping on foreclosure.”  Seeing a slight glazing to her expression, Arlen Mayhew hastened to add, “But, I know, what else is new? Wells Fargo and Chase are the pioneers in the profit at any cost business model.  And, sure, this reporter decided to get all up close and personal with the ‘real life’ examples. He gives us a blow-by-blow on the foreclosure of a house here in Crisfield where they served papers on a woman whose husband died, like the same week!”

Arlen watched as the expression on Dru’s face began to resemble that of a fisherman, fighting a pole-bending fish for thirty minutes only to see a minnow-sized prize come up over the side of the boat. “But that’s not the only local connection this Lassiter fellow makes in his story. The second human interest element to the article is about a little old lady in the Fishkill section of Philly. She’s losing her house because her deceased and, apparently heavy-drinking husband, used the equity in the house like an ATM for his buddies at the local bar. But that’s not the good part. The good part is that our little widow has two children, one a priest and the other a nun. Wait for it. A nun stationed, or whatever they call it, at St Dominque’s out on Hammock Point Rd.”

“No. Way.” Drusilla smiled a smile that almost always causes adult men to suddenly remember a pressing appointment elsewhere and women of all ages to smile in envious acknowledgement.

“But that’s not the best part.” Arlen felt stronger, an almost pre-limbic response to the avidness blossoming in Dru Renaude’s face. It was the beginnings of the transition from very attractive to irresistible. “It seems that the daughter, the nun, has started a social media campaign against the Bernebau Company, aka, our client. She’s remarkably skilled, for a nun. I don’t have to tell you that this is not a helpful development.”

“Shit.” A flash of pain in her left shoulder reminded Dru that she wasn’t feeling all that well. Lately, her nights were as restful as sleeping on a mattress full of mice. She hadn’t felt well for the last four weeks, since they’d returned from the meeting in Miami. She passed it off to the stress and excitement of getting the Hunting Meadows development off the ground and on the market. The speed with which the full resources of the Bernebau Company was able to go from planning to operational was somewhat breath-taking.

Within six weeks of their meeting in Miami, the sales office at the entrance to Phase 1 was open and the model home was almost complete. A multi-phase residential community, Hunting Meadows was scoring with the first home buyers and the Senior buyers demographic. It was, as she recalled hearing Cyrus call it, ‘the first cradle to grave housing development’. The local papers referred to it as, ‘a 21st Century lifeline to a small seasonal community’ and went to lengths to quote the marketing information provided by the Bernebau Company.

“Well, lets keep an eye on the nun angle. Not that anyone reads the papers anymore, but I don’t want to lose a single sale to whatever it is she’s trying to do. Grassroots campaigns have been known to do considerable damage to the most bullet-proof, sure-thing marketing. The first sign of this,” Drusilla leaned across the desk, picked up the newspaper and said, “Sister Margaret Ryan person showing up in any of our market sampling, I want to know. I didn’t… ” she sat back in her chair, “go to all this… trouble, to have a nun fuck it up on me.”

Arlen felt the hair on his neck start to do some light stretching exercise. There was a look in Drusilla Renaude’s eyes that made him want to go back to teaching privileged children in private schools.

“Got it, boss lady” Arlen put his tablet on the desk top and said, “Early stats are telling me this project is going to be a home run. Hey, that’s a good line! Hold on, I’ll send it down to our marketing department. Ought to do well on the Fall advertising cycle, World Series and all. So, here’s the new schedule for the staffing at the Sales Center. Gonna have to do some agent recruiting. The Buyers are there, all we have to do is not screw this up.”

Chapter 14

“Drusilla! Finally we meet.” The voice, commanding and yet personal, preceded Cyrus St Loreto into the Board Room. The owner of the Bernebau Company spoke as he crossed the distance between an un-marked, (and otherwise, unremarkable), door at the far corner of the Board Room. Taking up half of the 36th floor, three sides of the room were ceiling-to-floor glass. The one interior wall was punctuated by a set of double doors that led out to the reception area and a plain, single wooden door. The CEO of the Bernebau Company made his decidedly non-formal entrance from the second door. There was no formal announcement, no, ‘Mr St Loreto will be joining you in a moment’ from speakers built into the business-opulent conference room. Just the un-assuming sound of an ordinary door opening and closing followed by the man’s voice.

Drusilla Renaude stood between the conference table and the broad expanse of glass, her runner’s legs showed in silhouette through the light fabric of her dress; the corporate castles that lined Brickell Avenue reflected more than enough light to provide a contrast between the woman and the dress. Her clothing, chosen for comfort during the two hour flight to a near-tropical city, was not meant to be worn to a business meeting. Despite the surprise announcement at the airport that she and Arlen were expected in the penthouse boardroom immediately upon landing, Drusilla gave no outward sign of being intimidated by the change in plans. She leaned slightly against one of the few non-glass sections of wall. She might have been an exchange student standing on the far shore of the Nervión River, trying to make sense of the soaring shapes of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. There was a energy about her, even standing in thoughtful contemplation. Her eyes appear to focus beyond the glass wall. She had a look of satisfaction, a person at the start of a journey recognizing landmarks that up until this moment were entries in travel guides and maps, mere words of description.

Arlen Mayhew smiled as Drusilla paused before responding to the client’s voice. His tone was at once charming and insistent, like the dog that repeatedly drops the ball at his human’s feet and crouches in play posture. Her eyes locked with Cyrus St Loreto’s, quite in advance her turning to face him. She smiled in a way that, somehow, added a sense of italics to her greeting. An amused curiosity crept into her face, as if she were at home when a friend let themselves into the house and were calling out a greeting from the kitchen. By the time she’d turned completely towards the interior of the room, Cyrus had covered three-quarters of the distance to the table.

Despite the fact that three of the four walls were glass, there was a surprising amount of darkness in the vast room. By virtue of inspired design and special properties of the engineered glass, the incursion of over-powering daylight was limited to where the conference table stood, in parallel to the window wall. From the center of the room all the way to the double entrance doors, the ambient light was weak enough to allow recessed lighting to create perfect circles at intervals across the floor.

“I realize the conventional approach to a meeting like this is to allow one’s guest to freshen up after their trip, maybe spend some time enjoying the amenities, sit by the poolside or even walk into the blue sea. But I’m kinda different.” Cyrus paused as he walked out of the final pool of artificial illumination and into the last of the relatively dark zones. “Well, it’s just that, ‘Thats the Way It’s Done’, has never set right with me. I’ll tell you, conventional wisdom makes my skin crawl. Someone tries to advise me how everyone else approaches a problem? I stop, turn around, no matter how close to my goal I might actually be,” he interrupted himself with a short outburst of laughter, “and I start running the other way. Jesus Christ! How I managed to get as rich as I am, it’s a miracle!” Laughter grew as the man stepped into the slanted trapezoid of bright June sunlight that fell across the exotic wood of the conference table and breaking on the far edge, somehow did not make it to the floor beyond.

“Cyrus St Loreto, at your service.”

Arlen’s left eyebrow began a barely noticeable move upwards as the man held out his hand, palm up. Drusilla, for her part, smiled and extended her own, fingers bent downwards. Cyrus brought her hand to his lips, never taking his eyes off hers. Still slightly bent at the waist, the two cast a shadow across the surface of the table behind them. By a trick of light, the taller of the two figures appeared to bend to the throat of the thinner, more graceful silhouette. Feeling oddly self-consciousness, Arlen took a step backwards, towards the windows. The change in his position made the shadow figures seem to twist, elongate and meld into one sinuous shape.

Looking at the two, their hands still in a balanced embrace, Arlen felt an amused shock. The man Forbes magazine described as, ‘the next Warren Buffet’, was dressed in jeans, Topsiders and a T-shirt. His Topsiders were worn, the jeans looked new and the T-shirt had (the) Rocky Horror Picture Show (complete with bitten lip) in red against the black. The shirt looked like it cost more than the shoes and the jeans.

Arlen liked Cyrus St Loreto from the minute the CEO turned from kissing Drusilla’s hand and offered him his hand. A glint in the other man’s eye left Arlen no doubt that he was thinking of the same, obvious joke about greetings.

Cyrus turned to Arlen with a smile that reminded him of his best friend in grade school. The friend was constantly involving Arlen in pranks that got them both sent to the principal’s office and, later, finding friends more daring than Arlen, was  constantly in and out of reform school, mostly for crimes-of-excitement. The CEO smiled and said, “Ah! The spear carrier!” Drusilla’s sharp intake of breath and the beginnings of a step in front of Cyprus basely broke the rhythm of the CEO’s introduction. “Arlen Mayhew, I’m honored to meet you.” His smile was genuine, his handshake as competitive and as friendly as pre-adolescent boys racing their bicycles through neighborhood streets.

“Dru, please, I mean you and your associate, no disrespect. Do I Arlen?” Cyrus backed towards the conference table and sat on the edge. Leaning forward, his hands at the edges of the table, he continued, “Spear carrier is not an insult, I assure you. I read every one of your associates reports and marketing analyses and they were a major, very major factor in my decision to hire Renaude and Associates. A spear carrier, or if you’d prefer the more modern analogue, caddy, is an honorable and critical profession. Both are the expert to the expert. A spear carrier is as every bit as important as a caddy, except instead of merely helping a golfer win a trophy, a spear carrier often is the only reason the hunter remains alive…un-eaten by those the two chose to hunt. Do  you understand?”

Drusilla swayed a bit towards Arlen, a look of calculation in her eyes. “I believe I agree with you, Cy. When the hunter is eye to eye with the hunted, there’s rarely time to say, ‘Hey I need that Number Two flint headed spear.” A moment passed, the motion of the traffic on the street unheard activity.

Cyrus laughed. He laughed the way that a guy hopes the girl will laugh on the first date and the way a girl hopes the guy will laugh after she jokingly says no to his proposal of marriage.

“She’s a keeper, Arlen. Hey speaking of keepers, does your family still have the house on the Vineyard? I’m thinking of getting a place, maybe you could invite me up for a weekend?”

Arlen maintained only a couple of friendships after beginning his professional life; despite attending an Ivy League school and establishing a modest, if not, respectable reputation in education, he never cared to maintain the network of contacts so common among his contemporaries. Accepting his lack of professional accomplishment as the price of his tendency to find virtually everything interesting, Arlen Mayhew was one of those people who would be described as ‘lacking discipline and drive’ by those who didn’t like him and ‘free from the compulsion to chase the Almighty dollar’ by those that did. Money was never a motivating force in his life, his family was from the class of wealth that allowed the children to pursue their dreams without the constraints of worrying about mortgages or car payments. The Mayhew children were free to follow their interests and establish their place in the world, as opposed to being assigned one.

His brother, Anthony, on the rare occasions that the Mayhew family gathered at the family homestead in Vineyard Haven, would often tease Arlen. After making certain there was a sufficient audience, he’d say, “All that time and tuition to a degree from Yale and the best you can do is teach at a private school?” At that time, a Christmas three years previous, Anthony was up for promotion to Captain. Graduating from the Naval Academy with honors, Anthony Mayhew was about to become the youngest naval officer to be responsible for the domestic operations of one of the spookier three-letter agencies. His office, reflecting a view of the world that only the truly bureaucratic mind would come up with, and operations center was housed in a building in a Beltway office park full of CPAs, attorneys and orthodontists.

Arlen glanced at his watch and saw that, somehow, their host had been talking for ten minutes.

“So are you two ready to sell my development out in record time?” Cyrus’s voice had a casual tone that accentuated the look in his eyes, which was anything but casual. He might as well have been saying, “What do you say to my holding you by the hand and you lean out over the edge of this building. I promise nothing bad will happen. Are you ready to do that?”

Arlen watched Drusilla listen, and her dark eyes reminded Arlen of the professional gamblers at the  Atlantic City casinos. They smoldered with an intensity that washed out all other physical cues that might signal her interest in what the well-tailored, poorly dressed man was saying.  Arlen nodded, as much to himself as to the man, as Cyrus outlined the Bernebau Company’s role in the marketing and selling Hunting Meadows. She exhibited all the signs of self-cascading emotional investment of a young woman, sitting in an expensive restaurant as her boyfriend opened his palm to reveal the engagement ring. Drusilla would’ve been annoyed were Arlen to lean over to Cyrus and said, ‘Hey look at my principle broker, that girls in love.’

For his part Arlen Mayhew felt his initial excitement begin to cool.

“Wasn’t that a lot better than a Client meeting in a room full of accountants and lawyers filling the air with justification for their exorbitant hourly rates?” Cyrus stepped between both Drusilla and Arlen, put an arm around their shoulders and turned them to face out the window.

“I believe in the personal approach to business.” he stared through the glass and down Brickell Avenue, “You’ll find that we’re very much a family here at Bernebau, and, like any family, loyalty is everything. Blood is thicker than water. I believe I wrote that in the original company charter.” Sensing a change in Arlen, Cyrus smoothly added, “But contracts are the modern way and your attorney in Crisfield has already received everything from our legal department. By the time you two get back to Maryland, he’ll have had a chance to review them for your signatures.”

Without looking away from the corporate mountain tops beyond the glass, Drusilla said, “One of the reasons I have Arlen with me is that, while I make the deals, he has a remarkable eye for details. Like Peter Fabergé and his insanely jeweled eggs, he believes that ‘God lives in the details.”

Drusilla and Arlen both felt a surge of strength ripple through the arms bracketing them, Arlen laughed in surprise and Drusilla seemed to relax. Cyrus stepped between the two and backed towards the windows, “And you? Drusilla Renaude? What is it that you believe? For every truth there is an alternate perspective, the same thing, but different. I believe the other view would be, ‘the devil is in the details’. I suspect that your able… caddy will keep everything orderly, which is all God seems to ask. You are different. You are of the fire. The warnings about dangers in the underbrush does not even come into consideration. It’s not that you don’t care about mistakes and missteps. You are about the battle, the action. If the devil arises somewhere, in those famous details, then you will just deal with him. So, I can put you down in the column here that says, ‘Fuck the devil and the gods, lets get started’?”

Cyrus was almost toe-to-toe with Drusilla. There  was no sense of an adversarial tension between the two. What there was would be best described as simpatico. Cyrus stepped back from the two and clapped his hands. A single clap, as much the clap of command as the indication of appreciation of a performance. He was clearly pleased with the events of the morning. “You are perfect. Not that I under-estimate people, but in this case, I know that you, both of you, will be an asset to our company.”

Speaking to the air, Cyrus called out, “Genevieve! I want my table at Los Fuegos tonight! Tell Francis I’m in the mood for asador and I want only his hands on the steak. Oh, and plan on us picking you up at six. I know you prefer to go out on your own, but tonight it is to be a double date.” Cyrus looked at both Arlen and Dru and seemed to have a second thought and continued, “And tell Constantin to plan on joining us later in the evening.”

***

“Lady and Gentleman, this is your pilot, the guy behind the door about twenty feet in front of you. We’re on our final approach to Salisbury Airport. Should be about five minutes. Thank you for flying Bernebau Air.”

Drusilla Renaude stared out the window of the jet, she watched the the earth below grow in detail, little by little, as the plane banked to take aim at the runway, a cement-white ruler laying on the greenery of the Delmarva lowlands.

Arlen Mayhew sat across from her, having spent the last hour asleep in his fully-extended seat across the aisle. The stewardess showed him how to adjust the seat into the next best thing to his bed at home. Pressing down along the lapels of his sports coat, in a futile effort to decrease the density of the wrinkles, he smiled as Drusilla  said, “Arlen, this is the return home part of our trip. Wrinkles don’t matter.”

He replied, “Like I said, either last week or 5 years ago, ‘you set ’em up and I’ll knock ’em down.'”

Drusilla returned his smile, “This is going to be exciting.”

Arlen put his hand lightly on her wrist and said, “I agree. I do have one request. If you remember what happened last night during our night on the town with the Bernebau family, will you promise to tell me?”

With a serious look she took his hand and said, “Only the good parts.”

Chapter 13

It was 2:23 pm on the last Tuesday in June and St Dominique’s Elementary was summer quiet. The hallways were empty, the cafeteria silent, and chairs were perched upside-down, like catatonic ducks in a farmyard. The sea of pale green linoleum floor tiles offered little resistance before the low roar of the floor stripping machines.  I parted the double swinging doors and stepped into the library, the one place in the school that did not echo with the absence of children. Standing in front of the circulation desk, I looked to the right at what was now referred to as ‘the computer corner’. It was not, technically, a corner, as the broad conference table was quite out in the open, between the librarian’s desk and the periodicals section. That the computer corner was effectively in the middle of the library was, one part me and one part me-unknowingly-working-with Sister Catherine.

St. Dominique’s school had a website and a small, but enthusiastic computer club. I built the site during my first semester here and organized the club after the Mother Superior gave it her blessings. Well, in the interest of honesty, a quality in abundance among the women in our convent, I got the website online before Sister Bernadine learned of its existence. She was quite understanding, and immediately let Sister Catherine know that she did not disapprove of the 21st Century. And that was how solid-state technology found its place among the shelves of books and racks of periodicals.

The ‘me-negotiating- with-Sister Catherine’ accounts for the location of the school computer. Hers was the voice of tradition in our convent, and, although she did not prevail on the question of yes or no to the internet, she assumed the role of guardian of the gates. Flat screen display and keyboards notwithstanding, the gates were quite real and she took it upon herself to stand watch against the dangers that were a part of the virtual world, at least when it came to children. She was a natural for the job, being second only to Sister Bernadine, the most strong-willed woman I’ve ever known. A gatekeeper is not necessarily limited to controlling access, and when the person that assumes the role places the values of others before their own interests, the guard can become a guardian. Sister Catherine accepted the fact that there would be a door into the virtual world at St. Dominique’s. Her primary interest was in assuring that it become a resource both safe and fun for the children.

Sister Catherine’s first step was to arrange for a large conference table for the monitors and keyboards. Recognizing that various groups of students at different levels of proficiency would avail themselves of it, she made certain there was plenty of room for all who might want to access the system. She ordered a whole new system and when the delivery and installation date was scheduled, put out a school-wide announcement. When I built the original website, it was on the computer that was a gift from a parishioner, complete with a 1990s 14 inch CRT monitor and dot matrix printer.  I smiled at the expressions of surprise on the face of the children who gathered in the library when the Geek Squad showed up. The monitors were  24″ flat screen HD. The printer was full color, of course. The care and effort she put into setting everything up was reflected in the delighted faces of the children.  The location of the computer corner reflected Sister Catherine’s primary interest. It was out in the open, very easy for adults to supervise without appearing to be doing so. She achieved the proper balance between guard and guardian. Which, of course, was her plan from the beginning.

I sat down in front of the computer and watched the monitor draw a doorway into the virtual world.  The old excitement stirred within me and, for an instant, I wanted to hate the feeling. I felt like an un-reformed criminal released from prison.

Once online, I typed into existence three separate identities, created a couple of different Facebook accounts and groups and, after a thought, started a blog. The ‘About’ page, with a photo borrowed from my high school yearbook, reeked of the desperate sincerity of a person reaching into the virtual in the hope of finding something missing in the real world. In other words, just another online encampment, among the millions of blogs that light the perpetual darkness of the virtual wilderness.

My fingers roamed the keyboard, like a musician picking up an instrument and, after a few practice notes, is relieved to discover that the music is still at her finger tips. I knew what I needed to create and, once set free in the virtual world, I proceeded to become a member of the world of chat groups, trolls, insipid online polls and all the other elements of the online world. In each of my three identities, I began to connect with other online groups, chat groups. I sought and found the others who were gripped by a soul-deep dissatisfaction with the state of the world. On an impulse, I opened an online savings and checking account, complete with debit card. I couldn’t have told you why I thought I might need a card, if for no other reason than that for the last thirty minutes my state of mind was one that came from a time of life very far removed from St. Dominique’s convent. Choosing not to think about what I was doing, I did recall that my instincts often anticipated circumstances beyond what could be extrapolated from the present. I stopped and looked around the empty library. I felt a slight tightness in my shoulders and a furrow of concentration grow as I hit ‘Send’ on my application for a credit card. My phone chirped a discrete alert that my PIN was now available. Within minutes I had a decent enough line of credit available for whatever use I might encounter. I was certain my brother would not mind my using his old, pre-seminary address. All this effort was for the good of the family after all. Somehow.

I felt my face suddenly flush with a heat that should have set off the library’s fire alarms. Just as quickly, the feeling was gone. Unfortunately, whatever set fire to the underside of my face now hid in my stomach. And, by all physical indicia, it was not a lightweight mental/emotional event; my insides felt twisted up into near pain, very much the feeling I had when I was first caught bunking school on the first day of the sixth grade.

I fought to push past the mix of guilt and remorse, yet something inside dared me to look at my feelings closer. Rejecting that idea with surprising vehemence, I sat back and stared at the flat screen display, as my new identities became real. Resisting the temptation to do more, I drew on past experience that’d taught me, in a world where effect follows cause at the speed of light, it’s rarely a good idea to do too much, too quickly. In the virtual world, it was wise to let newly created people to settle in and become accepted.

I accepted the fact that there was nothing I could do to help my mother stay in her home. The Bernebau Company, as the first lien-holder, was within its legal rights to take possession of the small, two-story house on Tulip Street.  All legal appeal was now moot. The only remedy was to pay off what was owed, and she simply did not have the money. The foreclosure process required only a certain waiting period, ending with an auction. My mother would simply be a statistic, collateral damage in a war that was as off-sided as the decimation of the passenger pigeon or the American buffalo. The price of progress into a faster, more profitable future. It  was a matter of business, nothing personal.

There was one avenue left to me, that was to try to find a way to apply pressure against those that seemed to have all the power. I experienced a surprise memory of the first day of freshman Geology at Radcliffe. It was an accident of scheduling that I signed up for an eight o’clock class. The professor, recognizing the signs of an insufficiently caffeinated group of young adults, threw out a teaser fact, “A single raindrop falling on a mountain, if repeated, will reduce the tallest peak to a featureless sand plain”. My friends and I tried to bring the blackboard and podium into focus from our seats in the upper-back row of the small auditorium. The more mathematically inclined among us did the calculations and, in a voice, whispered loudly enough for everyone to hear, said, “Hey somebody better tell Dr. Denolle that it’ll take 88,480,000 years and I haven’t had breakfast yet!” A laughing voice added, “Yeah, Meg, ‘course if you spent less time in the computer lab and the bars and more time in class, you might learn something”.

The virtual world of the internet, with all the irony one could ask of a technological culture, provided a platform for a modern-day David to take on Goliath. The collection of virtual places, digital town squares and solid state bullhorns found in abundance online was nothing, if it wasn’t an updated sling and stone. All the original David needed was the skill to turn a length of leather strapping into a deadly weapon and he brought a giant to his knees. I sat with my hands on a plastic and metal sling, all I needed was the will to use it. I realized that what my burning face and twisted stomach was trying to warn about, was that I knew just the girl to do it.

I leaned towards the computer screen and thought, ‘Lets help those righteous-cause-deprived masses learn of the plight of Mary Alice Ryan, of Fishtown, PA. A kindly widow who’s only dream is to live out her life in the modest home where she raised her family.’ And I let a part of my personality, a part that I had hoped to not ever see again, take up the sling and find a stone.

“Good Afternoon, Sister Margaret, I hope I’m not disturbing you.” Sister Catherine appeared to my right, with what she clearly hoped to be a friendly smile on her face. Unfortunately, a lifetime of disuse of the legendary seventeen muscles to smile, like a patient waking from a years long coma, resulted in the product falling short of the intention. Seeing my face and its non-reciprocating smile, she walked somewhat quickly to the circulation desk and began to rearrange the stacked books that lined the counter.

“No, Sister Catherine. Just doing a little personal work on the computer.” I looked away almost immediately, forgotten instincts protecting me from what they knew to be a threat. I swept my right arm over the yellow pad on the table next to the keyboard. It wasn’t anything but notes and, curious diagrams, mostly arrows and brackets. Without a thought, but accompanied by a growing dismay, I minimized the multiple open windows that, like playing cards in the early stages of a game of solitaire, spread across the screen. I recognized myself at a distance and found the silver crucifix in my left hand.

“The children really enjoy the school’s website and the incredible online resources you’ve made available here in the library.” Sister Catherine spoke in a tone that was both matter-of-fact and yet had a certain shyness to it. The effect was a bit startling. I realized, with a sense of wonder, that she was complimenting me. That she approved of what I’d done in breaking down the wall to the virtual world and making it available to both children and the nuns of St Dominique’s. I must have let the fear of my younger self leak out into my expression, changing a look of concentration into a slightly raised eyebrow. Misinterpreting, Sister Catherine hastened to add, “We must protect the children from those loose in the world who have appetites for the innocent. But I sense that you know that quite well, Sister Ryan. The truth of the matter is that I rest easier knowing that your special skills are applied in the service of the Lord.” Looking around the empty library and unable to find anything else that needed straightening out, the older nun walked towards the door. Pausing, she turned and said, “Thank you for your referral for the lawyer for Roanne Avila. Sadly, there is nothing that can be done to stop the foreclosure on her house.”

I looked at Sister Catherine with what I hoped was a friendly, welcoming expression. “Well, I might not go so far as to say that, Sister.”

“Oh? What do you mean?” Sister Catherine stood, one hand on the door and one to her side.

I turned, and, using my left foot, hooked the leg of a chair and turned it to face more towards her. Sister Catherine stared for a moment, looked around, walked over and sat at the computer table.

I told Sister Catherine about my visit to my mother’s and the notice on the door. I told her about my brother trying unsuccessfully to discover a legal remedy and failing. Finally, I told her about my sudden departure from the house and unhappy resolution to do something. I immediately turned away, feeling ashamed of the behavior of the nun in my story.

“This plan of yours, to attract as much publicity to your mother’s plight, would it help to have another situation, one involving a widow who has two young children?” Sister Catherine’s voice carried a tone of hope that was at odds with the look of determination behind the silver wire-rimmed glasses.

“Well, it appears that we have a coincidence that might be to our advantage, the foreclosing lender is the same, this Bernebau Company.”

“Well, I know that they say, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. What do you say we put that hypothesis to the test.”

***

“I’m Genevieve Novak, welcome to Miami. If you don’t mind, Cyrus would like to have his meeting right away. That way you’ll have the rest of the day to…relax.” The blonde woman looked at Arlen, but spoke to Drusilla. She managed this by directing the first sentence to both, the second to Dru and the last to Arlen. She did, however, smile when she spoke to Arlen.

“I think the second in command likes you.” Dru leaned against Arlen as they stepped off the jet and walked behind the woman who, upon completing her welcome, immediately turned and walked towards the waiting limousine.

“How’d you know she’s second in command?” Arlen tried to not sound like he cared. He took note of the extra animation in the tall, blonde woman’s voice. He did, in fact, care but he was also on alert. The woman was remarkably sexy, quite beautiful and very attractive, she made the brief welcome at 11:00 in the morning feel like two drinks past midnight.

The dark man, Constantin Szarbo, was nowhere to be seen.

Chapter 12

“I’m afraid there’s very little I can do, Mrs. Avila. This Demand notice appears to be in order. The bank is foreclosing on your house.” The attorney took note of the woman’s wavering attention, flickering like a candle in a log cabin and added, ” You have certain rights, unfortunately they all involve immediately paying the full amount of money in arrears.”

Sister Catherine sat next to Roanne Avila at the long, shiny and mostly empty conference table. Her attention was on the woman, not the man. Sister Catherine did not particularly enjoy being in an attorney’s office, the request by her former pupil was sufficient for her to ignore her own feelings. It was not that she was intimidated by the arcane language of the legal profession, or the off-putting formality of the typical conference room; none of the ways and protocols daunted her, she was, after all, a nun and a teacher in a parochial school. If pressed on the topic, and there were few people with the nerve to ask un-welcomed questions of her, she would simply state that she didn’t like lawyers. To her credit, and the peril of the person who might comment, her face would then flush self-consciously at admitting to such a prejudice.

“That’s not right,” Roanne sat behind the wheel of the old Nissan and stared at her phone. She held it, both hands resting at the top of the steering wheel, like true north on a compass dial.

“What’s not right, Roanne?” Sister Catherine closed her hand around her silver crucifix, a necessary preparation for the 35 minute ride back to the convent. She was not comfortable riding in cars. Nearly every minute she spent as a passenger she had the overwhelming desire to grab the wheel, as soon as the car began to move. Despite the fact that she’d never learned to drive, she recognized how ill-advised such an effort to help would be. The one exception was Sister Margaret. The first ride with the young novitiate set a tone that made all the difference to Sister Catherine’s emotional state during any of the rare, but necessary trips into town. Starting the convent’s SUV, Sister Margaret laughed and looking straight ahead, said, “Won’t God be surprised if we get to Heaven before Sister Cletus.” The older nun stared in shock at the driver who smiled at her, like a nine-year-old girl walking away from her first Ferris Wheel ride. After what seemed an eternity, something old and hidden in her shifted and she joined the young nun in laughter, as they pulled out of the parking area of St. Dominique’s.

“Patrice is not answering my text. She should be home by now. It’s not like her to ignore a text.” Roanne looked at her phone with a combination of frustration and fear. The fear made her throw the phone into her handbag, the frustration made her over-rev the car’s engine. Sister Catherine pulled her own seatbelt across her chest and clicked it into place and remembered a time when she felt that running was the only option.

The car pulled out of the parking lot of the Law Offices of Michaels, Raphael, Gabriel & Visconti LLP onto Rt 13 and headed south at twenty miles per hour faster than was legal.

***

“You drive. I’ll give directions.” Drusilla Renaude threw the words over her shoulder as she walked out of the offices of Renaude and Associates.  Arlen Mayhew managed to get to the door first and thereby avoided an unseemly conflict between successful woman real estate broker and stubbornly solid glass door. He glanced back at the receptionist and said, “We’ll be back in about …however-long-she-needs.”

As he hurried to catch up, Arlen looked back through the plate-glass storefront and saw the young girl laughing. When he got to his car, Drusilla was standing at the passenger side, very much engaged in a phone conversation.

Arlen enjoyed the break to his normal routine. While a certain amount of office time is essential to a successful real estate practice, too much made it seem like the emails and the ad writing and the spreadsheets were the business.  Unless his clients drove into Crisfield and sat down at his desk, Arlen was not making any money. While he had enough of a following to maintain a healthy cash flow, the prospect of marketing a multi-million dollar development was very much a priority. Never being hampered by a need to be the star, Drusilla’s invitation to assist her on the project played to Arlen’s strengths.

“The key to this project is Periwinkle Dr. It’s one of those jigsaw puzzle things. The neighborhood was developed during the late 60s, just before the seafood industry began to decline. The developer had enough foresight to plan on tourism and the beach being a factor in the growth of Crisfield. This particular neighborhood has a homeowners association and every lot has deeded beach rights. To the north and to the south, especially to the north, are large tracts of land acquired by our client. In order to secure beach rights, they’ve had to acquire a certain percentage of the houses in the homeowners association.”

“So our client is buying up single family houses?”

“Fewer than  you’d think. According to Constantin Szarbo, they have only two more houses to acquire before gaining a controlling interest in the association.”

Arlen stared at Dru, “Constantin Szarbo?” A grin pulled at the corner of his mouth.

“What?” Her voice was serious, her eyes laughed quietly.

“Far be it from me to make a joke about foreign investors. I met your man Constantin, on the day of my interview with you. I remember, because he wore a watch that cost more than this Audi. Well dressed guy, I’d love to meet his tailor. It’s not like we talked or anything, but he struck me as a scary, intense guy. Which makes me wonder why someone like that is doing the legwork for a developer? Hell, the car he drove away in that morning cost more than I made last year. Now, mind you, I’m not being critical of our new client.”

“Well, you’d better be planning on making as much money this year as our client spent on transportation.” Drusilla put her phone in her bag and turned to face Arlen, a silent and not overly reassuring look of appraisal in her eyes.

The two real estate brokers spent the afternoon driving up dirt roads and down paved country lanes, from Crisfield to the east and through the open land that accounted for much of the southern end of the Delmarva peninsula. They drove as far to the east as the Pocomoke River, which formed, in part, the border between Maryland and Virginia. They’d stop from time to time and got out of the car, tablets in hand, like 21st century bird watchers, making certain that they were looking at what they were hoping to see. Surveys and aerial maps in hand, they both looked at empty farmland and clusters of houses that needed to be painted and overlaid a vision of a massive mixed used residential development. The land had been acquired and consolidated by the Bernebau Company, like sewing a patchwork quilt, except the squares of cloth were homes of families unable to refuse the offer or tracts of wilderness that had no say in the process. It was as close to building a town as would be possible for two people.

After the sun had entered the last quarter of its trip across the sky, they stopped at a Dunkin Donuts on RT 413 near the turnoff for the Municipal airport.

“Well, what do you think? Are you up for this kind of project?” Drusilla’s tone was casual, her expression was anything but, “A lot of work, a lot of money to spend before we start to see a return.  But by the end of the first Quarter,  you better be in a position to upgrade your Rolex.”

Arlen Mayhew heard Drusilla’s voice and thought of Lia and laughed to himself, “Count me in, boss.”

“Glad to hear you say that, Arlen.  We’re due in Miami to meet our client this Friday.”

“What airline?”

“Didn’t you know, we’re flying Bernebau Air. Sorry, just kidding, company jet. Gulfstream G something…  It’ll be waiting for us at Salisbury Airport.”

“OK now I’m officially impressed. I’ve worked on development projects of decent enough size, when I was in Atlantic City. Single family developments, fifty, sixty house neighborhoods. But this is in another league all together.”

“Mr. Mayhew, do I need to worry that you’re gonna get the bends? Not everyone can deal with this size and scale a deal. nothing to be ashamed of.” The look in the woman’s eyes said very much the opposite. “Can’t have you getting glassy-eyed when we meet people who are willing to bet a million or two on our knowing our business. This ain’t Mom and Pop real estate. They want us, well at this point, they want me, to represent their interests. You up for this?”

“No, not a problem. I’m the perfect straight man. I’m thinking this’ll be fun. You don’t have to worry, Dru. You set ’em up and I’ll knock ’em down. I’ll have the facts and figures, financing and numbers. You’re the closer of this team. I’m totally comfortable.”

(Friday 9:00 am)

“Gulfstream 659ER, you’re cleared for take off.”

Drusilla smiled at the dark man sitting across from her in the luxurious cabin of the Bernebau Company jet and thought of her son Zacharia. The evening before, he’d sat on the bed and stared at her as she packed her bags for the overnight trip to Miami. His face was as peacefully trusting as dogs always are and children can be, if they (and their parent) are blessed. “I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon, kiddo. Total beach day on Sunday, you down with that?” The boy’s laughter obliterated the last of the butterflies that had tried to establish themselves in anticipation of the trip.

Arlen Mayhew watched his broker watch the exceptionally well dressed man in the paired seating on the opposite side of the plane’s cabin. He repressed a growing alarm at the quietly feral appearance of Constantin Szarbo. ‘A wolf in well-dressed wolf’s clothing’ Arlen thought, his own cleverness helped settle his nerves. He noted that there wasn’t a hint of fear in Drusilla Renaude’s face and decided that he would watch her back, despite how vehemently she would have opposed the idea.

Constantin Szarbo sat and admired the simple beauty of the woman opposite him. He also noted the protectiveness that grew in her companion. Constantin was not curious why Cyrus St. Loreto wanted these two people. He was not curious why he was told to personally accompany them to Miami. He was not curious why the owner of the Bernebau Company was devoting so much attention and resources to this project. Constantin Szarbo watched the two people in his temporary charge and knew that all as it must be, closed his eyes and rested.

The voice on the intercom, in the denim-ordinary accent of seemingly all jet pilots, announced,  “Lady and Gentlemen, we’re currently at 30,000 feet and out the left windows is the blue of the Atlantic Ocean. We’re accelerating to the south and will be in Miami before you realize it.”

Chapter 11

“If only your father had lived to see this day. His favorite son and precious daughter, in the calling of the Lord.”

My mother paused in the kitchen doorway. Although she faced Matthew Stephen and me sitting on opposite sides of the dining room table, her eyes reflected a scene very, very much farther away. Even as she paused in her mealtime bustling, her hands remained in motion, wrestling with each other, like over-tired children. Her voice skittered on the edge of shrillness; she was one of those women prone to gaining octaves as stress increased. She brought out more food than either one of us would eat in three days; the frantic mother robin, driven by instinct and the threat hidden behind gathering storm clouds, desperately trying to build a nest, not bothering to see if there was anyone to occupy it. From the corner of my eye, I saw my brother smile.

“What?” I could almost feel my posture slip back into a teenage slouch, my eyes sought the floor, while at the same time, my voice grew a defiant tone, bristling with italics. I tried to rein in this unexpected feeling of hostility and failed, by asking, with exaggerated interest, “Tell me, what is the proper form of address for a relative in the priesthood. Is it Father brother or Brother father or simply, ‘hey, Matt’?”

Like the sliding back of the screen in a confessional, my brother locked his smile into position and, a mischievous light in his eyes, said, “Well, my daughter…” His hand went to his face, in serous consideration, “sister Sister?”

“Are you two arguing again? Well, its good to know that some things never have to change.” Sitting down at the kitchen-end of the dinning room table, my mother stared intently at my brother. I watched with fascination as he turned from Matty to Father Matthew Stephen, the transformation no less undeniable, had he changed torn blue jeans and tee shirt for a Roman collar and a sincere expression. Looking around the table, Father Matthew Ryan bent his head in prayer,  “Bless us our Lord for these thy gifts… including our prodigal daughter-slash-sister, who joins us for this fine meal.”

Set loose from whatever secret place I had it confined, something in me elbowed out my brother’s words and, instead, forced me to see the dining room from the perspective of a passing stranger. A young priest, tailored black blazer, black Michael Kors dress shirt and the white clerical collar, his hair short but stylish, the modern Catholic priest.  A nun in full-on habit, the only human part of her being the face, isolated from legs and shoulders, breasts and arms. Only her eyes, nose and mouth were available to identify the young woman who provided life to the black and white cloth. And, of those three features, two were clearly engaged in conflict with an unseen opponent. And, finally, an older woman in a colorful floral print dress that highlighted the tired grey of her thinning hair. It was a timeless portrait of the devout family, separated by time, re-united by a threat to one; the power of family re-asserted.

I felt a familiar struggle grow within myself. I leaned to my left, lifted the tattered lace tablecloth, took aim and launched my right foot.  I was rewarded with a look of genuine surprise on my brother’s face. I noted, with disturbing satisfaction, in a fleeting second the professional reflexes changing anger to a look of innocent surprise on Mathew Stephen’s face. To his credit, he swung his foot back in a shallow crescent and got a good clip to my shin.

“So, what is this all about?” I put the foreclosure notice on the table, weathered corners slightly curled, a spoiled garnish ruining the main course.

My mother was not an un-intelligent woman; she simply never felt the need to look beyond the circle of family.  She stared at the sheet of paper; her expression was one of patient exasperation, as if, by my holding it, she was relieved of all responsibility.

“Well, I thought you would call these people and explain to them that there must be some mistake.” She sat much more erectly in her chair, an echo of a time when chores might be assigned while the children were captive at the dinner table.

I looked at my brother. He was focused on the food on his plate, looking disappointed at how little remained. The size of the morsel of food on his fork decreased steadily. Each slice he cut, more precise than the last. His only concern was that the food on his plate last longer than my increasingly terse conversation with his mother. White flags may be the universal signal for a truce, but a clean plate was very much the opposite, he wanted no part of the discussion. I wasn’t about to let him get off so easy, “Were you aware of this?” I felt the edge in my voice even before I saw it reflected in his eyes. I resisted the urge to run for the SUV parked in front of the house.

“Your Mother Superior is very highly regarded, not only in your Order, but in the archdiocese as well.” My brother folded his napkin no less carefully than had he been in the middle of saying Mass. I looked at my mother, but she was totally focused on the young priest sitting at her dining table. “You might’ve let us known that you found your Calling. I heard about your, rather radical change in lifestyle, from no one less than Bishop McLaren, himself. I gotta tell you, sis, it was embarrassing to have to pretend that I already knew my precocious sister had left her Ivy League school in the middle of her senior year and joined the Order at St. Dominique’s.”

The thought came, quite un-welcomed, that if I closed my eyes, it would’ve been very easy to believe that my father was sitting across the table. At least the father I had until I got to be about eleven years old, the sober father. After that time, which was so long ago, my father would not have been found in the dining room while the sun was still in the sky. He’d have been at work or with his friends in a bar.

I picked up the notice, “What I mean is why is this taped to the front of this house? I thought the mortgage was paid off years ago. I distinctly remember there was a party and everything.” I looked at my mother,  “I was still in high school, when you and Dad burned the mortgage.” My left hand still clutched the crucifix and I focused on the slightly throbbing ache in my palm. My brother looked at me with an expression of ‘who are you to question me’? He seemed to be planning on getting angry.

“Given that your contact with the family in the last five years can be measured in hours, I don’t quite know where to begin.” He seemed to relax. The prospect of telling a story, an impromptu sermon, made his frown recede. He took off his horn rim glasses, the better to allow the sincerity in his eyes to show, the serious nature of what he had to say was not to be undermined.

“He drank it away, right?” My brother’s face was a storm of expressions. That I had the audacity to interrupt his soliloquy was making it difficult to play the role of older and wiser brother. I heard Sister Bernadine’s voice in my head, reminding me that the past exists only as a script that we chose to read from, a role to play.

“Yes. Sad to say, he was eaten by the American dream. The barrage of ads to use the equity in the house, got to him. The money was used to improve the house with new windows and a furnace and all. Unfortunately, the mortgage expert suggested that, rather than take a set amount money out, they should open a line of credit. You can imagine the rest.”

“Your father was a good man. His drinking, well, it was a strong man’s weakness.” My mother interrupted Matthew with a frown of annoyance, that grew from the old-school parenting advise of children-are-to-be-seen-not-heard. “You’ve always been a smart girl. I know you can do something to make these people stop sending us letters.” The strict tone that grew in my mother’s voice startled me, an indication of her being somewhere other than at the table with us. “Now that you’re finally done with whatever you were doing up in that… college,” she pronounced the word like she was holding it with two fingers, at arm’s length. “You can help your brother straighten everything out. This house is all that I have and I won’t ever leave. It’s good to see my favorite daughter and son back home. It’s like it used to be. I’ll get desert now.”

“You know there’s not likely to be anything that can be done about this, right?” Matthew Stephen sat back in his chair in silent acknowledgment of my assessment. “This is a foreclosure. It’s a legal process. She needs a lawyer, not a nun. A novitiate nun at that.”

Matthew leaned on his elbows, closing the distance between us. I repressed the impulse to turn my head to the side, and say, ‘tell me your sins’, the urge to laugh seemed very un-funny. The realization that I thought that would be funny scared me.

“Yeah, I know. I asked an attorney in my parish to look at the paperwork. He said it was in order. He had a bit of a reservation when he saw the name of the lender. Apparently this Bernebau Company has started to draw the attention of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Nothing that’s even made it to the level of a newspaper story.” He looked at me with an expression of an invitation to confide in him.

“I repeat, I’m a nun-in-training. I’ll say as many prayers as I can. I don’t have any money, but if she needs money for an attorney, I’ll give you what I have, but that’s all. I’m Sister Margaret Ryan of St. Dominique’s…”

“Who helped the Chicago Police Department investigate a serial murder and provided a connection that implicated a multinational corporation in the death of a parish priest.” My brother, pastor of St. Cecilia, looked very priestly. “Father Noonan was very well-known and liked by the priests in this part of the country. And, as I said, your Sister Bernadine is something of a legend in her own right.”

I heard my mother call out from the kitchen, “I have pie and I have cake. Which do you want?” I got up, looked back at my brother still sitting at the table and said, “My sudden departure will not be particularly out of character. Tell her that I’ll make some phone calls. And for God’s sake she needs to stop throwing out registered mail. I’ll call you if I find out anything useful.”

In less than a minute, I was behind the wheel of the SUV that, in shiny gold lettering,  identified the owner, if not the driver. Before either my brother or mother could get to the door I was down the street and headed south at an unsafe speed.

Chapter 10

Lilani Gometchikov stepped to the side as the elevator doors allowed themselves to be swallowed by the wall. The young man who spent the thirty-six floor trip standing breath-close, managed to precede her into the reception area. His path away from the elevator car was that of every fish, once successfully maneuvered out from reeds or fallen trees, the nearly invisible filament plotting his course through now clear waters to the waiting fisherman.

“Good morning, Miss Novak.” The head of Bernebau’s legal department smiled like a high school boy wearing his first letter sweater.  Lilani felt both proud and relieved that she avoided laughing out-loud.

The reception area on the thirty-sixth floor of the Espirito Santo building was the public face of the Bernebau Company. Fully a quarter of the 20,000 square feet of the topmost level, was devoted to the reception area. For guests and dignitaries, it’s wall of glass provided an awe-inspiring view of the Atlantic ocean. In certain, wordless ways, far more commanding, Genevieve Novak sat behind her desk, both guardian and gatekeeper of the conference room and Cyrus St. Loreto’s office. The CEO’s private space occupied less area than did either the reception or the conference room. It abutted the elevator shaft and had neither windows nor ocean views. (Among the more recent additions to the corporate mythos, is the tale of how the design of the top floor was finalized. During the last phase of construction, as the owner and the architect walked through the half-acre of sub-flooring, wiring conduits and steel girders, she asked him how extensive a view he would like to have from his office. The reply was, “I don’t need windows. I don’t get any pleasure from staring at the ocean. There’s nothing out there that I want or need.”) Of the top floor, fifty percent was finished as the Board Room. It is where all Company meetings involving more than three people were conducted. One entire wall, and portions of either end of the room, is glass. No display case providing protection and un-impeded view of precious stones or fine art had anything on the wall-to-ceiling windows. The financial district and the city of Miami lay just beyond the glass, waiting to be picked up and …appreciated.

Genevieve Novak sat behind her desk to the left of the double doors to the Board Room. On this morning in June, she wore a Carolina Herrera lambs leather sleeveless v-neck dress that fit her like the velvet scarab of an ornamental dagger. The softness of the brown gave lie to the fact that the dress was leather, the preferred material for battle clothing down through the ages. On a whim, and admittedly a bit rushed getting dressed, Genevieve put on her favorite earrings, a pair of Azure Malachite pendants, with diamond pave triangles that seemed to float beneath the darkened green stones. Offset by her blond hair, they were what she sometimes jokingly called, ‘my Angler Fish bling’. Wearing fashion that cost more than three-quarters of the people in the building made in a month, Genevieve smiled a welcome that would incite men to fight and women to hate.

Her fashion decisions, perhaps unconsciously, were meant to lend a certain restraint to her somewhat elevated mood. She woke only 90 minutes prior to sitting down at her desk, feeling… adventurous. It had been a very good night. She barely had time to clean up her apartment before it was time to leave for work.

“Good morning, Mr. Kristopek,” Genevieve aimed her smile at the attorney, but glanced beyond him to the young woman, still just steps from the elevator. She missed the crestfallen look on his face, but enjoyed the hopeful smile returned by the woman. Other voices mingled around her desk as the department heads filed into the conference room, “Morning, Miss Novak!” “Ata pai, Mz Gwen,” …”G’day, Miz Novak”.

“Lilani, it’s good to finally meet you.” If a Fortune 500 were compared to a high school, Genevieve Novak would have been voted Most Popular by all the employees and the majority of the clients. Not the least of her skills was that she knew virtually everyone she allowed herself to encounter, by name. As she nodded and exchanged morning greetings with the department heads, she recognized Lilani as being the recently promoted head of the North American operations.  At the sound of her name, Lilani Gometchikov smiled somewhat randomly and, with a slight stagger, walked towards the meeting room. Carrying and/or wearing a purse, a briefcase and a laptop, Genevieve had a fleeting image of a mule heading down a dangerous mountain path, under the burden of too many bales of coca leaves.

Genevieve smiled, “You must only take one device to the meeting. If you need your handbag, then the device must fit inside it. Mr. St. Loreto is adamant on this point.”

Lilani’s eyes grew wide, panic making her look everywhere/anywhere for an escape path. The young executive glanced towards the double doors, ricocheted to the elevators and fell, exhausted, among the assorted technology that, like tranquilized  Capuchin monkeys, leaned against her ankles.

“Not a problem.” Coming around her desk, Genevieve put a very manicured hand on the woman’s shoulder. Smiling, she lifted the strap that held the laptop off her shoulder. Then, the third most powerful person in the Bernebau Company, crouched before the girl and picked up the handbag that bulged with case folders and hardcopy files. Before standing, Genevieve reached out and lightly touched the gold chain ankle bracelet, slightly caressing the smooth skin underneath. Getting back up, with the practiced grace of a gymnast who misses a vault, the older woman said, “Let me help you. You can leave all this stuff over behind my desk, until the meeting is over.”

“Thank you so much, Miss Novak.” With the look of a person just stepping off a carnival ride that was far more disorienting than it appeared, Lilani found herself staring into eyes that were both kindly and somehow, undefinable. “I’m so grateful. I can’t decide what I should take.” She laughed, “You wouldn’t believe how late I was up last night, trying to get everything together.”

“Just the laptop. You have everything you need and you’ll be fine.” Genevieve  stepped back behind her desk, put on a phone headset and began to speak, even as she smiled reassuringly.

“The department heads are all here. Your tailor called to say there’s been an emergency back in Milan. He promised to get here as soon as he could this morning.” Her blonde hair, held back with a clip fashioned from an Etruscan arrow-head, formed a decidedly profane halo around her head, as she spoke with a confident intimacy that, were her surroundings not a Friday morning in the Miami financial district, one could be forgiven for feeling jealous of the person on the other side of the conversation. She nodded in response to the un-seen voice as she walked to the double doors of what employees referred to as ‘the pit’.

***

The monthly departmental meeting started at precisely nine o’clock. The CEO walked from his private office towards the head of the conference table. He began speaking as soon as he stepped into the first of the artificial light that pooled across the vast space of the room. As he walked under the lights, his eyes grew darker, the light contrasting a prominent brow, classically aquiline nose and dark hair combed back in a polished-1980s-look. No one on record has ever mentioned the outdated look to the owner. He was dressed as impeccably as near limitless money could buy.

“Everyone, look out that window for a moment.” Heads turned and chairs swiveled, the furniture of sufficient quality that there wasn’t a sound, as ten executives oriented themselves towards where the CEO was pointing. “See those buildings? They’re full of people who have our money. There are people, people almost like you, in each of those buildings who have our money. You are here to find ways for us to get our money back. Now, each of you tell me how successful you’ve been doing that this month.”

As soon as the first department head started to speak, Cyrus began to move about the room. Ten department heads on both sides of the table paid very close attention to whichever of their colleagues was reporting the fortunes and failures of their respective departments. Those with experience managed to listen closely and yet be very aware of the chief executive as he listened and interrupted, shouted in frustration at setbacks and yelled congratulations at victories unexpected.

“Growth in all vectors of our Latin American market will result in a total increase in revenue of 8%.” Taking note of the approving nod of appreciation from the head of the legal department across the table from her, Salma Nguyen-Garcia sat back in her chair, certain her report was well-received.

“Miss Garcia, are you certain you want to give us that 8% as your final number?” The anticipation of an outburst pulled the eyes of everyone at the table, with the exception of Ms. Garcia, downwards to the safety of tablets and laptops. It was the protective coloration of the Twenty-first Century prey, standing in the open upon the arrival of the predator, hoping to blend into inconsequentiality. Cyrus gave flesh to the quality of mercurial. Although, to be fair to the description, mercurial has a connotation of a linear range, temperature or motion, cool to hot, slow to fast. To intimate the range of responses the CEO of the Bernebau Company was capable of and quite willing to display, it would be best to add ‘volcanic’ to the description, ‘mercurial’.  The owner of the company proceeded to cite detailed statistics of the Latin America division of the company down to three decimal places. Without looking at a screen or a piece of paper. The tension increased, as the demonstration of the depth of his understanding grew with every tiny financial  detail.  “Would you accept my, off-the-cuff opinion that growth in your department will be 7.325 by the next time that we all gather together?” He smiled a smile that would have made any mother tiger shark beam with pride.

“Lilani! Our newest colleague. No, don’t get up! I’ll come to you.”

“Ladies, gentleman…. Sean” the laughter that greeted the CEO’s singling out Sean Kristopek was perfunctory, the participants having highly developed enthusiasm skills. The expression on the young attorney’s face was that of a very hungry person finding a tiny spot of mold on the very last pastry in the box; calculation and resignation fought for the spoiled prize.

“Ms. Gometchikov comes to us from the Omni Corporation. Well, to be honest, we stole her from that company, because, well, because she was so goddamn good at running their Marketing Technology department.” Cyrus stood directly behind the young woman. The light of the June sun, having nothing but crystal-clear glass between it and the assembled executives, bathed the conference room. Cyrus St. Loreto, standing between the young woman and bright sun, cast an ebony shadow that embraced silken-light shoulders and lay, darkly draped over her face, a caul to be removed by the end of her first executive level meeting.

The other department heads applauded softly. They watched the CEO and avoided looking at the young woman. This was a survival strategy embraced by bystanders at accidents and catastrophes down through the ages.

“We’ll spare Miss Gometchikov the ordeal of giving us an update. In addition to her duties over-seeing all domestic operations, she’ll be working with Mr. Szarbo on a pet project of mine.” Control of non-verbal expressions of emotion was amply demonstrated by the men and women sitting at the very, very expensive custom conference table. A professional poker player would have nodded in appreciation of the fact that, despite everyone’s projected interest and excitement, there was not a single negative sign, not one ‘tell’ to be seen.

The double doors to the reception area opened in a reverse of a predator’s final display of teeth and mortality. A short, middle-aged man with casual clothes and expensive shoes walked across the room; his eyes squinting in a desperate effort to distinguish among the human shaped shadows that sat at the table. He focused his attention on the only person standing. A yellow cloth measuring tape, worn around his neck like a flattened feather boa, trailed behind him. That single accessory, along with a salt and pepper mustache provided more insight than the most comprehensive resume. Closing the doors behind the man’s entrance, Genevieve Novak threw a smile over the heads of the assembled executives to Cyrus St. Loreto.

“Alphonse! Come in! Come in! Hey!  Everyone here knows my tailor, Alphonse, right?  He is, without question, the most talented man-of-the-cloth in the world.” A chuckle managed to get free before he completed his sentence. Cyrus added, “Well, I certainly don’t mean that kind of man-of-the-cloth! Hell, no!” Leaning over, his silk tie falling forward to caress the delicate face of the young woman seated in front of him, Cyrus said, “Ms. Gometchikov, this charming Italian fella is none other than the world-famous Alphonse Alighieri.  The best damned tailor in the whole world. ” Straightening up, he stepped closer to the windows.

Like grandiose water shows, wetly shilling pedestrians into garishly lit Las Vegas hotels, greetings and acknowledgements shot up from the length of the table. In an orderly procession, from head of table down both sides, there was a certain escalation of volume and sincerity, as if each person was deathly afraid of not providing a sufficient welcome.

The tailor smiled at the assembled executives, but never took his eyes off the CEO. Like a surgeon, marker in hand, considering the how to make the beautiful patient even more beautiful, his gaze traveled up and down Cyrus’s body.

Putting a pencil above his ear, the tailor hesitated as he veered to walk around the end of the table nearest his trajectory, “Well, il bio patrono, if you would have me wait until you are finished with your meeting.”

Cyrus smiled, “No! You have business that calls you home to Milan. I am in your debt that you delay even a moment. But,” Cyrus extended his arms straight to his sides and looked down at himself, “I am a child wearing his father’s clothing! Too much stress, Alphonso! I need clothing that fits!”

The tailor stood next to Cyrus and glanced towards the doors at the far end of the room that lead to the CEO’s private office, “I need to do complete measurements. Di fronte a queste person?”

Laughing,  the CEO of the newest Fortune 500 company, took off his tie and began to undress. “What? Lets go, Al! Since I’ve lost ten pounds, my old clothes look like… well, they look like fuckin old clothes. What else would they look like?” Cyrus asked rhetorically. He smiled a smile that demanded agreement as he looked up and down the table. The men in impeccably tailored, off the rack and the women in Nordstrom Power Woman business suits. He turned towards the interior wall and shouted, “Hey! Gwen, get in here!” Before he finished speaking, the door opened and Genevieve Novak stood in the doorway. With a steno pad in hand, she looked at Cyrus and waited.

“Take this suit and give it to the first job applicant that shows up today. Tell him or her,” Cyrus glanced at Trilby Morgenstern, of Human Resources and winked, “that if they come back with the suit fitting perfectly, they can have the job.”

By this point, Cyrus had his trousers off and stood between the conference table and the wall of glass, wearing only black silk briefs, old-fashioned styled undershirt and black socks.

“Alphonse, my man! Come and work your magic.” He smiled broadly at the man who walked over and, without preamble, began to take measurements. Looking over the tailor’s back, Cyrus St. Loreto shouted, “Come on people. I don’t fuckin pay you to admire my splendid physique. Report your reports!!” His brow furrowed for a second and then he began to laugh. It was a sound that initially made a person feel like laughing, but beneath it was what might, had the sound been isolated and paired with the sight of a wolf running out ahead of it’s pack, have been a howl.

Nearly every one of the men and women at the table heard the laughter and felt the urge to follow the sound wherever it might lead.

Chapter 9

“Bless you too, my son.” I smiled and waved as I cut across two lanes of the Delaware Expressway. For whatever reason, the DOT seemed to have moved Exit 20 and it was closer than where I last remembered it. Several of the drivers of the surrounding cars waved back with expressions that ranged from surprised-but-friendly to simply surprised. For the hundredth time I marveled at the ‘Power of the Habit’.

Having ‘St. Dominique’s Convent’ in gold lettering on the side of the SUV probably didn’t hurt. It’s not like everyone in Philadelphia attended parochial school. That being said, for those that did, eight years living in fear and awe of the Habit can’t help but make a driver think twice about acting out. Which was not a bad thing, seeing how we were all speeding along at seventy miles an hour, on the interstate, on an afternoon at the end of June.

I managed to safely get off at the Columbus Ave Exit, and slowing to city-streets-speed, made my way north, in the shadow of the highway. It had been a bit more than two years since I was last home in Fishtown.  There had been changes. The streets and the buildings were the same, just cleaned up and, somehow, more expensive looking.

Of course, the major landmarks had not changed. Looking to my right, I saw the battleship, ‘New Jersey’, as always, across the Delaware River, framed by storage buildings and condominiums. I remembered, as a girl, thinking that it looked like a castle, toppled into the grey-blue water. Now, for some reason, I thought about the end of the old movie, ‘Planet of the Apes’.

Continuing north, I went through the sudden-shade of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and, coming out into the sun, drove past a truly imposing and impressive Dave & Busters, standing at the river’s edge, like a 21st Century Fort Mifflin. The street on either side still had the traditional bars, tattoo parlors and the occasional pawn shop, the natural habitat of the poor and the disadvantaged. Traveling, as I was, through the arteries of a living city, the scene around would have demanded a diagnosis of early onset atherosclerosis. Old warehouses, their existence dictated by function, and the function demanded by their location, were shedding old, white block lettered paint for anodized balconies and reflective glass, as the market for upscale condos ate the old city alive.

I sat at a traffic light in front of the Sugarhouse Casino. A sign on the manicured lawn informed visitors that the gaming complex was, ‘Another dream made real!’  by the Bernebau Company. The grass was so green and so perfect, it looked artificial.  The casino, which was an abandoned warehouse complex the last time I was here, had more signs than widows. The outrageous architecture of the buildings, in the bright summer sunlight in the middle of the afternoon, lost it’s capacity to project the glamour of the slot machines, table games and free buffets. As I sat waiting for the light to change, I watched a group of six women walk from the bus stop on North Delaware Ave. up the drive, towards the casino. As they approached the main entrance, they veered off to a side entrance, clearly bound for the employees entrance to begin the afternoon shift. Some in the group wore their pink uniforms, with old-fashioned looking white aprons. The older women seemed cheerful and spoke to each other with waves of the hand and pointing of fingers, the better to articulate telling points regarding errant husbands and favored children. At the rear of the group was a much younger woman, a girl, really. She walked with that relaxed way the young have, arms and legs moving in silent unison; it was very much un-like the determined trundling forward of the majority. She was probably eighteen, had long brown hair and skin not yet tugged and creased by life. She wore a pair of ear buds, and an absent-minded smile. She appeared to be looking at something the women in her group might remember seeing. There was an un-worried look in her face that arose from self-confidence rather than immaturity. This girl would’ve looked as ‘at home’ walking along Garden Street in Cambridge, books under her arm, as she did heading towards a casino, a day of her life for minimum wage.

I left home the Monday after my high school graduation. I returned once, for my father’s funeral, in the middle of the fall semester of my junior year at Radcliffe. The house on Tulip Street did not rank high in my places-I-love-to-be.

***

An envelope addressed to ‘Margaret Ryan c/o St. Dominique’s Crisfield, MD’,  arrived at the convent in the first week of June. Being the end of the school year, my days were busier than when school was in session. It sat on my desk un-opened for two weeks. Finally, after the last of the books were put away in the book closet, (‘Charlotte’s Web’, ‘Sarah, Plain and Tall’ and, the result of no small amount of campaigning on my part, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’), I sat down at the desk in the room I shared with Sister Claire.

It was mostly junk mail, anachronistic credit card offers, (how they managed to find me here is either amusing or depressing), and, at the bottom of the small stack, was the envelope with the return address of 1851 Tulip Street, Philadelphia PA.  Inside was the license renewal form from the State of Massachusetts and a note from my mother. Written with a careful neatness that screamed of a need to control what little, (in her life), that could be controlled.

The note read, “Please come to see me. I need your help.”

There was nothing else, no ‘love, Mom’, ‘your Mother’, ‘Alice Ryan’, just ‘Please come to see me. I need your help’. The price of not responding was, of course, written in the invisible ink favored by the passive aggressive.

It was a measure of how far I’ve come, since finding my way to Crisfield, that I didn’t crumple up the paper. I returned the license renewal form with a check, and put the envelope back in the drawer of my desk.

Two days later I stood in the Mother Superior’s office. I was pretty sure she wanted to commend me on my first year teaching the third grade at St. Dominque’s. And she did. Sort of. Sister Bernadine sat in her high-backed leather chair, turned to the view of the south lawn and Tangier Sound beyond. Without speaking, I sat in one of the two chairs in front of her desk and waited. I was not new to this. I didn’t say a word. Finally, after a period of silent indifference to my presence that was longer than polite, but shorter than hostile, Sister Bernadine, arguably the most important woman in my life, swiveled the chair to face me. She smiled. That scared me.

“You’re making good progress in your novitiate, Sister Ryan.”

I waited, the sudden desire to agree with her assessment made me frown. I forced myself to remain silent.

“Sister Catherine tells me your students did very well on their final assessment.”

This time, her statement was reinforced with an extended stare. Like the filigree on illuminated manuscripts, the duration of her eye contact had no special meaning, but was very much a part of the conversation. I began to think about my morning runs down to the beach and back. That the woman across the very expensive desk could almost read minds, was an article of faith among the other nuns. I decided to try to keep my mind occupied, until I could believe that I was able to answer appropriately.

“Sister Cletus has confided in me how proud she is in the progress you’ve made on your running times.”

“I give up! No. Way. It’s scientifically impossible for one person to read another person’s mind.” I looked at Sister Bernadine with what I was hoping was a non-challenging expression.

With the ghost of a smile, visible only to a person who knew what to look for and was very motivated to see, the Mother Superior of St. Dominiques leaned forward, her elbows on the blotter in front of her and said, “What part of our Life of Faith, Devotion and Service here at St. Dominique’s, were you under the impression was scientific?”

Her ability to move without apparent effort was one of the more remarkable things about her. A very large woman to begin with, her imposing size, enhanced by the mostly black habit, she was easily the most graceful woman I’ve ever met. There is the somewhat trite expression, ‘poetry in motion’. Applied to Sister Bernadine, one would have to say, ‘Will in motion’.

I laughed. It was all I could do. Despite the love for the Order and the community I was welcomed into, there remained a part of me that whispered advice about critical assessment. It said, usually on the edge of sleep, that only by balancing my thoughts with a healthy amount of skepticism, was I likely to be a true positive influence on those around me. It was very much an echo of my life before coming here. But there were times that I was able to appreciate how much more there was here than I was able to understand. It was the difference between understanding and faith.

Sister Bernadine watched me laugh. She nodded slightly, as if she was identifying with me. The result was a massive feeling of humility.

“As long as you understand that what we do here, in the Oder, is help women grow into the person that God would have them become. It’s not always a straight path. It’s not always a comfortable process. Free Will is very much a double-edged sword.”

I stopped laughing and sat forward in my chair, “What more must I do? I’ve learned the ways of the convent. I am becoming a good teacher. I love being a nun.”

“You need to go home.”

“Why must I go home?” I jump up from my chair, grateful that I didn’t knock it out-of-place. The hair on the back of my neck pulled at the rough cotton of my habit. I had the feeling of watching myself. I got scared.

“Do you think that our way of life here is meant to be a hideout? Did you think that, once accepted , your past life would be cancelled, like a kindly librarian stamping paid on your overdue books?”

“But I can’t go through that, I can’t go back, I…” I sat in the chair and stared at the carpet to the side of my foot.

I felt a hand on my shoulder, somehow, Sister Bernadine was standing behind me. Her voice was near, “The old saying about, ‘how we can’t go home again’? It works both ways. All that remains the same, of the home when you were a girl, is the wood and the plaster. The home that you need to go back to, in order to heal, is in your heart and the hearts of the people still living. Dreams and memories can only be resolved by calling them up. Remember, as a Sister of our Order, you will never be alone again.”

I got up and walked out of the office and up to my room to pack.

***

I stood on the porch and knocked on the door. There was a paper that had the words, ‘Notice to Foreclose’, taped to the glass of the storm door. There was something about the use of black electrical tape to hold it up to eye level, that seemed to shout in a voice at once evil and not very intelligent. I pulled it off the door. It was a ‘Final Demand for Payment’. At the bottom it said, for information contact the Bernebau Company 800-666-1212

I tried the door and found it un-locked. I opened the door to a dark wedge and spoke into the space beyond, “Hello! Anyone home?”

I heard a voice from inside, “Is that you Margaret? I’m in the kitchen. For goodness sakes! Don’t stand out there on the porch, this is your home!”

I shut the door behind me and walked towards the kitchen. As I passed the parlor, I heard a voice, “Well, if it isn’t the prodigal daughter.”

I turned and stared at my brother Mathew Stephen. I corrected myself, as I took in the black clothes and clerical collar, “Father Ryan, I presume.”

“Sister Ryan.” Matthew remained standing in front of the dark blue couch, a tablet and a phone on the coffee table.

I raised an eyebrow, “Upper case ‘S’? You’re really going to try and pull rank?”

The silence grew. He cracked first and, laughing stepped forward and pulled me into a hug.

“Look at you two, it’s like you never left!” My mother stood in the door way and Matthew and I laughed.

Chapter 8

“Are you sure my mother knows you?”

Patrice Avila stood at the street-edge of the sidewalk that ran down the right side of Periwinkle Drive.  Her backpack rested, like a sandbag holding down a road construction sign, on top of her sandaled feet. It was the last day of school, the bag wasn’t anywhere near as heavy as it had been during the school year; nevertheless, it felt good to not have the weight on her shoulders. Patrice knew that she shouldn’t stop, certainly not actually talk to the man in the black car. Like her decision an hour earlier to get on the bus and go home instead of going with her friends to the beach, it just happened. The car slowed a little ahead of her as she walked alone, the window slid down and a voice slid out, “Excuse me, young lady, could I ask you something?” She stopped and turned towards the car. Simple as that. But she felt more grown-up, like Alice in the old Resident Evil movies.  She reminded herself that no adult could be trusted, unless they were a teacher or a policeman, or, like, someone she knew’s uncle. Movies still in mind, she stepped back to the center of the sidewalk, thinking, ‘ready to move in any direction’; the image in her mind was of Alice vaulting over the car and getting away from the monsters. She bent forward, so she could see the man behind the wheel.

‘Sure, I know her! Not real well, it’s not like I’m a long-lost uncle or anything.” The man was wearing a suit, had dark hair, and when he laughed, Patrice felt like laughing with him. It was almost like he was laughing at himself.

“No, I only met her once, a couple of weeks ago. But I took a picture of us. See?” Leaning across to the passenger window, he held out a phone. A photo of her mother and him on the screen. Her mother’s face had a look somewhere between scared and annoyed. The man in the car was in the photo, but mostly the side of his face. Patrice noticed the man’s fingernails as he held the phone, she was pretty sure they were manicured, and his watch looked very expensive.

“I took this when I talked to her. I like to take pictures when I’m working, even though my boss sometimes gets mad at me. Thing is, I kinda like having pictures to remember people, you know?” His voice, which sounded at first like an adult, a doctor or lawyer, sounded younger now and, it seemed, embarrassed. Patrice nodded her head in unconscious agreement.

“So, I dropped off some papers with her, but since they’re important papers, I’m supposed to get them initialed by her. She wasn’t home just now but I saw you walking from the bus stop and thought, ‘Oh man! Maybe Patrice will help me out and I won’t get in trouble back at the office!'”

The ‘almost twelve-year-old’ girl felt the hair on the back of her neck tickle, slightly. Being as young as she was, her instincts were very sensitive. Being as young as she was, her life experiences limited the practical usefulness of those instincts. Straightening up, she looked down the street, two contradictory feelings growing, one in her mind and one in her heart. She was afraid that one of the neighbors would see her and tell her mother that she was talking to someone she didn’t know and, at the same time, she was hoping to see a neighbor so she would know that there was someone nearby, just in case. Unfortunately, despite her measured intelligence, she did not yet have the maturity or sophistication to separate the two conflicting emotions. Or take the lesson they offered. One of the most fundamental definitions of ‘intelligence’, is ‘the capacity to solve problems with limited resources’.

Patrice wondered if her friends were already at the beach. Her best friend, Emma Cavenaugh’s mother was parked in her minivan, in front of the school after last bell, the plan was to go to the beach rather than take the bus. She now wished she’d gone with them, rather than take the school bus home. Not counting the monitor, she was the only person on the bus when it stopped at the end of Periwinkle Drive.

“You don’t do that, do you?” Patrice remembered going to Confession the week before; it was the same tone that Father Morgan used, a voice you couldn’t see but didn’t dare ignore. Before she could say anything, the man continued, “Talk to strangers? You mustn’t ever do that. Like they say in those assemblies at school, ‘If you don’t know, don’t go'”.

There was a note of sadness in his voice that she was sure wasn’t there before. Patrice leaned towards the open window, her response as fervent as only the innocent can be, “I would never do that! I promise!”

She felt better knowing that this man, who had a picture of himself and her mother, reminded her of the safety lectures at school. Her smile faltered at how, even though it was a sunny June afternoon, really dark the inside of the car seemed.  A show on TV she watched just last week came to mind. It was TMZ or one of those Hollywood news shows, they had a story about the limousines that some singers and a lot of movie stars rode around in, they all had either reflective glass or all darkened-out windows.

Patrice was glad that school was over for the year. Fifth grade at St. Dominique’s hadn’t been all that bad. At least the first part of the year. She was smart, enjoyed most of her studies, had a head for math and did her homework.

The second half of the year was different. She started having the dreams. Always the same, always bad and she always woke up scared and embarrassed. She thought about telling her mother, but she and her father were arguing more. There never was a time that seemed right. Her grades started to slide, but she didn’t seem to care. Her teacher, Sister Catherine, who all the kids were scared of, asked her a couple of times if everything was alright. She didn’t seem scary when she did, and Patrice thought about telling her about the dreams, but never did.  She had friends and they didn’t mind if she was quiet and just went along with what everyone was doing.

Then her father died.

Despite doing what she knew was a bad, or at least, dangerous thing, Patrice didn’t want to go home. The whole time she’d been standing there, not a single car passed along the street. It was just her and the very black car. The man’s voice interrupted her daydreams of fashion models, limousines, and, for some reason, Taylor Swift. Without remembering when, Patrice realized that she was walking along the sidewalk towards her house.

“Yeah. Your mom knows me very well. We go back quite a ways. But mostly we have business to attend to with your house. You like living in Crisfield, don’t you Patrice?” Unconsciously, she brushed her long blonde hair back from her ear, the man’s voice sounded very close. But, he was driving the car, just fast enough to keep the open window right next to her. Looking up the street, Patrice saw the empty driveway at her house and her heart skipped a beat.

“Like I said, I left some papers for your mom. If you wouldn’t mine helping me out, I totally need them back. If I can’t get them back before tomorrow, I’m gonna be in so much trouble. I might even lose my job, ya know?”  The voice faded back into the interior of the car as it slowed to a stop.

She felt her phone vibrate and knew it must be her mother checking up on her, like she was a little kid. The excitement of doing what she knew everyone would disapprove of burst within her and instead of reading the message, she ran up the steps, across the porch and in through the front door.

The screen door banged shut as she crossed the living room, headed towards her bedroom. Just as she got to the hallway, she heard the man’s voice outside on the porch,

“Hey! I’m in luck! I see the papers on the fireplace, from when I gave them to your mom!”

Patrice, now halfway down the hall, hesitated. Being in the house alone changed her mood. Talking to a total stranger, even if he knew her mother, seemed less of an adventure. As much as she wanted to impress her friends when she told them about how she made him laugh, it didn’t seem as much of a sure thing. Looking at her bedroom door, with the ‘Keep Out’ sign she’d taped to the outside, her stomach dropped just little, a reminder that her dreams of being a bad-ass woman like Alice or even Lara Croft, were all in her head. The man was actually at the front door and that didn’t make her feel so certain of herself. She wished he’d go away.

“I can get them and be outta your way before you know it. If it’s alright with you for me to come in, I’ll grab them off the mantle and be on my way.”

The man’s voice sounded closer than it should have, like a random sound in the middle of the night. Patrice decided that once he got what he came for, he’d leave and then everything would go back to normal. Leaning out of her bedroom doorway, in unknowing imitation of her mother’s meeting with this very same man, she kept one hand on the half-opened door and called out, “Whatever.”

“So it’s ok with you that I come in?”

“I said yeah, whatever.”

“Perfect.”

Frowning in concentration, Patrice Avila strained to hear the screen door open. It always squeaked, and most of the time, banged shut, but there was no sound or noise or anything. Desperately trying to re-kindle the daydream about being the girl in the action movies, she tried to imagine what Alice would do in this situation. She laughed at the image of wearing a red cocktail dress and knee-high Pradas. After what seemed like minutes, but was probably only seconds, she heard a car start. By the time she got to the living room window, all she saw was the rear end of the car, the license plate ‘Hereafter’.  She looked at the fireplace, the mantel was bare except for two waxy candle holders and a crucifix that was laying, face down on the white-painted wood.

‘Almost twelve-years-old’ Patrice Avila smiled, she thought she’d done alright for not hiding in her room. Her phone buzzed.

She swiped past the text from her mother and saw the new text. In big letters it said, ‘Thanks’. There was a link that brought up a cartoon wolf who smiled out from the display. He, she was sure it was a guy from the way he winked, had really big teeth, but being a cartoon it made sense. As soon as the wolf winked, a little girl dressed up like Little Red Riding Hood appeared next to the wolf. He held out his hand in a ‘high five’. The girl, much smaller than the wolf, managed to jump up enough to slap his hand.

Patrice laughed and thought about how she was glad she decided to take the bus home alone and not go the beach with her friends. It was kind of a little kid thing to do anyway. As she walked back to her bedroom, she hoped her mother wouldn’t be too mad at her for not texting her back. Patrice decided to wait and not say anything about the man in the black car.

Chapter 7

“Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I do work downtown.”

Genevieve Novak enjoyed nighttime Miami. The near tropical climate was quite conducive to roaming the city streets after hours; the daylight routines as assistant to the CEO of the Bernebau Company left behind (and above) in penthouse offices of the Espirito Santo building. Asked if she was afraid of running into the wrong person, on a dark street, she might have smiled. Genevieve was the wrong person. No more than a person, unable to feel the nascent cancer cell that spontaneously withers and dies, suddenly celebrates their health, those who crossed paths with Genevieve Novak almost always failed to take notice of their good fortune.

Deciding to accelerate the socialization process, she put a hint of ‘how-could-he-know-that’ in her voice. And, being impatient, she added a down-lilt of modesty to her answer to the young man’s question. She smiled at him from her seat at the bar of Miami’s hottest nightspot, the Blue Dolphin.

“Don’t tell me, let me guess. You’re an attorney in the M&A Department of one of the banks.” Xavier Lorenzo smiled at the woman he’d been playing eye contact tag with for the past hour.

Genevieve’s smile grew more intense as the handsome, predator-turned-prey, planted his elbow, on the bar next to her. The newest executive vice president of a successful hedge fund felt much the same un-justified confidence as the hapless explorer stumbling out of the jungle, in his right to claim whatever bounty the unexplored land possessed. His own feelings of impatience transformed the somewhat bored acquiescence on the part of the very attractive woman into validation and verification of his charm.

Genevieve swiveled slightly, hips turning towards Lorenzo, causing his pupils to instantly dilate (and other physiological responses). Her change in position was just enough to justify leaning on her right elbow on the polished wood of the bar, very much a mutual staking of a claim. It was a claim she expected to be vigorously contested, as the evening progressed.

She let the young man talk. Her occasional laughter every bit a love potion, a finger-tip touch to his forearm, a potent spell. Being a young, successful man, he had no idea that he was swimming in a river that hid currents far more powerful than he could imagine. His only wish, therefore the only thing that mattered, was simply to wash up on a friendly shore.

Xavier Lorenzo, executive vice president, (it said so on the door of his very new office), saw a passionate future in the eyes of the dark-haired woman. The two now sat, thigh to thigh, as they watched the other men and women in the bar disappear and leave, as bold a signal as a sign saying, “Make your move! She’s all yours if you make your move.”

Convinced that there was a connection happening at the bar in the Blue Dolphin at 12:39 on a work night, he made his move. And he felt the power grow as she appeared to submit. Later that early morning on a work night, Xavier Lorenzo would feel otherwise. In as intimate an activity as is available to young couples, it’s sometimes forgotten that both people have moves to make. It was later on in the evening that Genevieve made her move.

***

I woke from a very strange dream. That it was strange was not noteworthy, that I went from lying under my blankets to standing next to my bed in one motion, was. Worse, as my mind entered a fully alert state, I realized that I was standing in a crouched posture, staring at the bedroom door. The sound that woke me was fading in my memory; a simple, non-metallic thud from somewhere downstairs. In the way of dreams and sudden awakenings, the sound was shedding its fantastical associations, it’s ‘dream clothing’, as my mother used to say, when sitting on my bed, calming the fear that often broke my childhood sleep.

The ‘dream clothes’ that remained in my mind had something to do with computers, ancient ledgers and a man with hollow eyes. I remember running down a corridor lined with palm trees and penguins, who projected stern but friendly attitudes. (In the dream), I had a sense of a door opening behind me and the sound of it slamming shut was the spark into sudden wakefulness.

My body still tense, I moved to the door. My fingers found the silver cross around my neck, and felt a pang of sadness. I stopped. I heard Sister Clare breathing softly and then what could only be a repeat of the sound that woke me. It definitely came from the main floor, probably the living room. A taunt, growing from my feeling of regret passed whispered, ‘so much for faith and priority’.

I walked down the stairs towards the small pond of yellowish light spilling out of the living room.

Sister Catherine was sitting at the desk, in a small alcove to the side of the fireplace. A place for communal study, leaving notes, or for activities that involve the other nuns.

She turned and looked at me as I crossed the living room. Putting the black Cross pen down on a blank sheet of paper next to the open yellow pages, she said, “Sister Ryan. No, you’re not disturbing me.”

I smiled inwardly at the underlying assumption that shaped her greeting, then chided myself for being small-minded. I stood close enough to her to see the word ‘Attorney’ at the top right of the open phone book.

“You’re looking for an attorney?”

“Not for me,” She raised an eyebrow in a way that had the same effect that another woman might achieve by smiling, perhaps chuckling. Sister Catherine was capable of communicating very effectively employing a subtle angle and arch of her eyebrows, emphasis added by a pursing of her lips. I watched her, early in the semester, as she quieted an angry father who, in the middle of a parent teacher conference, loudly demanded to know how his son could fail gym. With nothing more than a slight down-turn at the corner of her mouth and an elevation of both eyebrows, Sister Catherine managed to stop his outburst long enough to explain the reason. Now, in a night-quiet living room of the convent, the angle of her head and the very slight curve of her lips made it clear that she was wryly amused at the image of a nun searching for an attorney.

I decided that if one were a painter and wanted to improve their technique, the best way was to learn from the artist they most admired, so I raised my right eyebrow. I hoped for a, ‘thoughtful interrogative’, but would settle for not ‘comically surprised’.

She smiled in return and said, “I’m trying to help Roanne Avila. She is in dire need of legal advice.”  As she spoke, she reached up and touched the silver crucifix she wore, “I know that God hears my prayers, but in the meantime, I’m looking for a lawyer. Roanne is a good woman but has little experience in matters of probate and estates. If that weren’t enough, the bank is starting foreclosure on her home. And if that weren’t enough there’s a detective from Atlantic City asking questions about her late husband. Unfortunately I don’t have any more experience than she in matters involving lawyers. I dread the thought of her getting someone who doesn’t care, worse, someone interested only in how much money they can get from a grieving widow.”

I sat at the end of the sofa facing the fireplace. “If I could help, I would be more than happy to…”

A look of guarded hope grew in Sister Catherine’s eyes. It was an expression that seemed out-of-place. There was something in her upright posture, that even now, at 11:30 pm, spoke volumes about a woman who learned to be strong and resourceful out of necessity. It was not pride that made her reluctant to ask for help, rather it simply did not occur to her to wait for someone to come to her rescue. Despite her calling as a nun, a life of belonging to an Order, there would always be a part of her that knew she was alone in the world and could only rely on herself.

“Well, as you know, I had some dealings with attorneys in Chicago last summer. One in particular, was someone I would trust for advice. So…”

I saw a change, so unexpected that I almost missed it, in Sister Catherine’s face. It was what I could only describe as impish, as if she knew something funny, but was afraid I wouldn’t find her thought amusing. Suddenly it dawned on me what she was thinking. I repressed a grin and, lowering my voice, asked, “Sister is there something you’d like to ask me?”

With the facial expression of a woman for whom public humor is very much a novelty, Sister Catherine looked at me and said, “Have you got a guy?”

I nodded and with as stern a voice as I could manage, “Yes, Sister, I got a guy.”

We both laughed together in that special late at night laugh, unrestrained but not overly loud.

Finally we stopped laughing and I said, “I’ll call Stefan McGurn tomorrow and ask him for a referral to a local attorney. I know that Mrs. Avila will be in good and competent hands.”

“Thank you, Sister Margaret” Sister Catherine put the phone book back on the bottom shelf of the bookcase. “I knew that the Lord would provide. He always answers our prayers, if only we can quiet the voice of the devil long enough to hear Him.”

Chapter 6

“Have you ever even caught a fish?”

I passed Morris Richmond, fishing pole angled under one arm, standing at the point on the beach where the dry, white sand became damp and, with the change in moisture content, a sort of Mother Nature’s etch-a-sketch. The subtle balance of wet to dry created a remarkable special effect, make an impression into the surface and instantly a haloed outline appeared. Of course, this magic only happened in the ever-shifting zone between earth and ocean. Sooner or later, usually sooner, a wave erased all signs of change.

Morris, I knew his name because it was stenciled on the canvas bag he always had at his feet, stood facing the water like a lighthouse, except not as tall and not made of stone. His grey ponytail divided the silk-screened words on his tee-shirt; ‘Winterland 1969’, beneath which was a list of groups, about most of whom I hadn’t a clue. He wore sandals and had a green plastic tackle box in the sand, next to his canvas bag. Off to his left, a yellow Labrador, tilted over spread front legs, was concentrating on the half-rotted remains of a pretty good-sized flounder. He (or she) looked up briefly, acknowledged me with a dog smile, i.e. tongue out, teeth showing, ears moving slightly forward, quick wag of the tail, and went back to staring down the remains of a once living creature and possible snack.

In the six weeks or so I’ve been running, Morris has been at the edge of the water with his fishing pole. Somehow, we developed an enjoyably odd sort of conversation; one of us spoke when I passed him on my right and then, after reaching my turnaround point, about 100 yards up the beach,  the other would respond as I passed him the second time. The word ‘respond’ was a very liberal use of the word. Sometimes the two statements made contextual sense, more often, it did not. It was the conversational equivalent of his fishing. Stand near possible fish, throw out a line, reel it in and see what you’ve caught.

Despite the early hour, we had company on the beach; it was the last week in June and the summer vacation season was beginning. That meant out-of-state license plates, teenagers, traffic and noise. The increased traffic was of interest to me, as I had become the designated driver for St. Dominique’s.

Somehow, the renewal for my driver’s license arrived at the convent, courtesy of my pathologically helpful mother. It was from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. Like a time capsule’s collection of old newspapers, it was an artifact from a different time and different place for a different girl. Now, more than a year in the past, not a very impressive time capsule, when you thought about it, it was from when Boston was, not so much my home, as my base of operations. Radcliffe was my almost mater. If I ever wanted to be surrounded by people who knew me and wanted me, (for one of at least three different reasons), I would return to Cambridge.  I didn’t. I haven’t.

At the halfway point, I checked my elapsed time. The temperature was summer high, which, at 6:15 am, meant 70 degrees. I had on a tee-shirt Maribeth recently sent me. ‘Chicago Police Department’ was stenciled across the back and ‘Detective Division’ over the left breast. I smiled as I realized that, including the silk boxing trunks, my entire running outfit was courtesy of my friend. Part of what made it feasible for me to wear such clothing, at least from the perspective of those in authority at the convent, was the fact that although tall, my figure is far less impressive than a certain homicide detective. The trunks hung below my knees and the tee-shirt tended towards a poncho fit. I grabbed a handful of sweaty cotton, and pulling it tight, tied it off at my midriff. I figured I might as well be comfortable, at least until I got in sight of St. Dominique’s.

Running gave lie to the common belief that the return home was always quicker and easier, than the trip away. My run back to the convent seemed longer than the first half. I nodded gravely to the dog, and Morris, who was staring out over the water, said, “It’s said that a good hunter knows his prey, but a great hunter becomes his prey. I often stand here trying to be a thirty-six pound striped bass. Trouble is, the times I’m successful and become my prey, I start to feel like I’m suffocating. Maybe it’s because I’m not meant to live on dry land.”

Eye contact was never an element in our conversations. He didn’t take his eyes off the water as I ran past him on my way back to the convent. I was glad that he didn’t. Sometimes all we really need is to know that someone has heard what we said.  A response or follow-up only risks muddling the thought. The world, it seemed, as I ran through the sand and stone parking lot, has a way of taking the potential of life and making it feel like a threat. Having options and choices sometimes means never being able to rest.

***

“Lieutenant Haynes, man, you’re killin’ me!”

Detective Glen Strahmani was talking, even as he walked into the office of the division commander. He did knock on the office door, as he opened it, his concession to protocol. Impulsive by nature and inclined to act before thinking, Glen was not unintelligent. In fact, if his grade school encounter with the Stanford-Binet was to be relied on, he was very intelligent. But intelligence manifests differently for different people. There are some, often bearing the label ‘genius’, who are methodical, (if not shy), fastidious, (and more than a touch unimaginative) and very likely to present empirically supported conclusions, (aka excessively timid). It was forgivable of the young Glen Strahmani’s teachers to put the test results away and focus on the ‘C’s and ‘D’s that showed with reliable frequency on his report cards. A brief stint in the military following high school provided him with an appreciation of the fact that, like it or not, he needed to counter-balance his impulsiveness in favor of obeying the rules. Joining the Atlantic City police department seemed to offer a good balance of opportunity to act out and a minimum of dressing and acting like a dweeb, or worse, like a stuffed suit.

Once successful in getting assigned to the detective division, the 25-year-old dove into the life of a plainclothes cop; his goal simple: earn a promotion to Lieutenant. Glen Strahmani was intelligent, impulsive, somewhat under-educated and very confident. He had a great future in the police department.

Cornell Haynes swiveled his desk chair to better take advantage of the clear, sunny afternoon. Through his office window he could escape the crushing demands of reports, accountability statements and action plans, in the serrated view of a sometimes-blue ocean, two blocks to the east. A natural overachiever, he found his newest detective a welcome relief to the un-anticipated price of advancement in his profession. That the view from his third floor office was being steadily eaten by the chaotic development of the city, tended to cause more stress than the demands of being in charge of 7 detectives. What made him one of the most effective division commanders was the simple, if odd fact that he knew the men in his command better than he knew his own children. Both his sons and, Gale, his only daughter, now long since escaped home for the allure of the adult world.

Lt. Haynes knew that turning his back on the detective would not interrupt or even slow the younger man’s attempt to understand his place in the chain of command.

“One more case! All I need is to close out one more and I qualify to take the next sergeant’s exam. Which, I might add, is only a month away. So you can certainly understand my whole-hearted desire to be relieved of this dealer and showgirl murder.”

“Glen, you have a case.” Cornell liked the young detective. He reminded him of a younger version of himself, at least the version of himself that he maintained inside his head when he started on the force. It took most of his professional life, and all of the time being a father to realize that maintaining ideals for himself in his thoughts alone was more of a burden than having no ambition at all. Ironically, it was only now, after he’d managed to find success in his profession, that he could recognize his limitations. Or, what he thought then, were limitations. Now, being in charge of men of varying experience, he could see the limited value of a disregard for consequences; all too often the over-riding trait of those patrolmen most often selected for the detective division.

So Cornell Haynes exhibited his skill for listening while appearing to do something else entirely. In this case, he watched, through the salt-hazy window as five seagulls dove for a school of McDonald’s French Fries, that, like spawning salmon in reverse, leapt from the window of a passing yellow school bus and landed on the sidewalk.

“A blackjack dealer with a history of drug abuse and a gambling jones, shacked-up with a showgirl. They both, apparently, commit suicide by strangulation and self-drowning… and, just in case I might think I was being given an easy case, the guy’s widow’s holding an insurance policy that the ink is barely dry on.”

The head of the homicide unit swiveled his chair, surprised to see the detective sitting in front of his desk. This elevated the need to focus on the mans’ concerns to an entirely different level. It was like seeing a neurosurgeon, in the glare of light in an operating theatre, surrounded by technology and highly skilled assistants, light up a cigarette before proceeding.

“Oh man, that’s not the worst! This widow? She’s got a nun for backup at the interview. The family consigliere is a fricken nun! You gave Mannheim and Osterbrook the dead bookie case. Why’d they get the easy one and I get the Case of the Sinister Sister?”

Cornell looked up, silence gripped both men up until the moment they burst into laughter.

Chapter 4

Sister Bernadine appeared in the back of my classroom, a minute before the lunch bell rang. As she scanned the room, I was certain that, somehow, she knew everything important about each of my pupils. Her dark face was quiet; her eyes were, as always, intense. The bell rang and the children, remaining at their desks, looked up at me. The Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s parochial school smiled and I felt like I’d just won the Gold Medal in the Teaching Third Graders Finals.

“Children? We have a visitor! It’s Sister Bernadine.”

As nearly one voice, though Timmy Lewis lagged just a bit, creating the slightest of echoes, the class said, “Good Morning Sister Bernadine. Welcome to our classroom.”

A  dark-haired boy with the delightfully archaic name of Zacharia, remained silent. His attention was on Sister Bernadine, completely ignoring his classmates. That was an interesting reaction for a third grade boy, since most have the attention span of a year old beagle riding in a car with the window down.

“Good Morning, Sister Ryan’s class!” Sister Bernadine was capable of producing a sound that was loud but not jarring. She had talent for commanding attention. Earlier in the year, I watched her stop a fight between two eighth grade boys, with barely the volume heard in a confessional, on a summer’s Saturday afternoon. “William… Theodore… stop.”  More impressive than the immediate cessation of pre-adolescent hostilities, their attention was riveted on her. Her voice commanded and her eyes captured.

Now, in my class, just before lunch period, she employed her joyful voice. It not only caused the children to become quiet, it somehow inspired anticipation of something exciting. They looked at her with smiles that hoped for a surprise, but were satisfied with simply being the object of her attention.

“Eat all of your lunch, leaving nothing to waste. I want you to thank the cafeteria ladies. Then, enjoy your recess. ” She moved her gaze over the class like a spotlight at a Hollywood premiere. “Anthony! Good soccer game last week. Britney, I liked your ‘Show and Tell’ about your grandmother’s knitting needles. Very well done.”

It wasn’t just that Anthony and Britney looked like they’d died and gone to heaven. The proof of her talent for leadership was the expression on the faces of all the other children in the class. Nowhere was the slightest hint of resentment at not being singled out by name.  Instead, I saw a kind of faith, usually seen only in young children, dogs and the elderly infirm. My third graders knew that Sister Bernadine was different from most adults. If she had said, “Lets all go jump off the roof’, there would have been a stampede on the stairwell.

She stepped into the room and, without a word, nodded towards the corridor. Twenty-five third graders filed out of the class amid whispered laughter. It wasn’t simply that they were doing as they were told. They exuded a group pride, much as would an elite athletic team, following a strenuous (and successful) performance.

“I need you to cover Sister Catherine’s class this afternoon.” Sister Bernadine walked to the front of the room, as my eight and nine-year-olds headed down the corridor to the cafeteria.

“Certainly, Reverend Mother. Is Sister Catherine not well?” I felt a twinge of shame for deciding to remain seated. ‘A strategic position’, whispered a part of my mind that I thought was gone, driven out by boredom, ‘the better to hold your own with Sister Bernadine’, it insinuated.

“She and Father Morgan went to the home of one of her students, the Avila girl.’  She paused, surely reviewing the files in her head that she maintained on… everyone. “Patrice. Patrice Avila. Quite bright, a bit of a handful. Her mother, Roanne, was a student here. She had, in fact, been one of Sister Catherine’s pupils. Nice girl. Grew up too fast. She received a visit yesterday from the State Police. Her husband Roger was found dead in a motel room in Atlantic City. He worked as a blackjack dealer at one of the casinos. Terrible thing.”

My mind replayed a memory from the previous week. I’d come upon Sister Catherine erasing, over and over, the blackboard in her empty classroom. I quietly sat at one of the student desks and waited until, finally, she stopped. After staring out the window at the schoolyard for what must have been fifteen minutes, she turned and said, “We have these children in our care for the most important years of their lives. We are not their parents but we are, sometimes, their family in every way important, other than being blood relatives. We are with them as they grow into the world. It’s here, in these classrooms, our pupils learn that the world is bigger than they can know. Home and family are not always synonymous.”

I considered telling Sister Bernadine about my afternoon with Sister Catherine. However, as much as the Reverend Mother assumes responsibility for everyone and everything that happens here at the Convent, even she has limits. An old trait, holding on to information for no reason other than it might prove valuable at a later time, asserted itself and I said nothing. I did not feel good about myself.

Looking up,  I saw Sister Bernadine staring at me. Her expression made me wonder, for the umpteenth time, if she was at least partially telepathic. I refrained from asking about funeral arrangements, as Sister Bernadine never left the Convent grounds.

“I’ll get her class started on a study project as soon as they return from lunch. Just stick your habit in the door every 20 minutes or so.” She smiled at her joke and left without saying goodbye.

***

“I understand you’ve some experience with foreclosed properties.  You started in the business with Joe Sato, up in Atlantic City?” Drusilla Renaude sat opposite Arlen Mayhew in a window booth, in ‘Nan’s Crabshack’, overlooking Tangier Sound.

“First broker. Where I started, after giving up teaching. Learned more about sales from him in six months than most agents do in two years. The man do know how to sell.” Arlen paused in folding his napkin, a ritual that was present in every meal not taken at home, and thought about how he came to be having lunch with his broker.

He preferred to start his workdays in the very early morning. On this Friday, the end of his first full week with Renaude and Associates, he’d finally gotten his desk the way he liked it. Just after one o’clock, as if on impulse, Dru Renaude stopped on her way out of the office and suggested that they have lunch together. Arlen said yes, being totally certain that Drusilla Renaude did very little on impulse.

“Yeah. Old school, Joe is. Probably the best salesman I’ve ever met. He can close anyone. It didn’t matter whether the client was a millionaire looking for a beach house in Ocean City or a young family looking for their first home, Joe treated them the same. They were his. Too many young agents think selling is about the houses or the financing or, even the qualifications of the buyer. It isn’t. It’s about people. Joe Sato knows people. He sells people, he doesn’t sell houses.

“I’m glad to hear you say that. Joe thinks very highly of you, as well.”

Arlen raised an eyebrow and Dru laughed.

“You thought your resume and your understated charm were sufficient for me to invite you to join us at Renaude and Associates?”

Arlen smiled, “Well, I did make you laugh in the course of the interview.”

“When? I don’t recall laughing. It was a very serious interview!” Drusilla’s eyes gave her away, nevertheless, she managed to keep a straight face.

“I distinctly recall my saying something that had you laughing like a school girl.” Arlen was gratified to see genuine surprise touch the woman’s face, as their conversation veered into un-expected territory.

“No way! I’ll have you know that I haven’t laughed like a school girl since,” her last efforts to remain serious crumbled as, in formulating a response, her memory clearly offered her instances that did not support her position, “well, since forever!”

They both began to laugh. Dru reached across the green Formica table and touched Arlen’s hand briefly, the gesture having its desired effect of throwing Arlen off-balance and his normal, somewhat formal demeanor returned.

“I’ve got a shot at a very large project.” She paused for effect, “Very large. I’m hoping you’re the agent that Joe Sato says you are and you have the kind of instincts for the business that will be of use to me,” Drusilla said, looking over the white curve of her coffee mug.

“You’re referring to the short, dark and impeccably tailored visitor from the day I interviewed?”

Dru laughed, a more adult laugh, one that made Arlen feel like he’d succeeded in whatever he was trying to accomplish. Arlen smiled at the woman and felt like he was in 10th grade and the head cheerleader asked him to help her put up some decorations in the school gym.

“I’m glad I was right about you. I know I want you on my team. The people I’m dealing with have no time for amateurs and part-time real estate agents.”

She abruptly stood up from her chair, drawing Arlen out of his, by force of will.

“Get settled in at the office. Bring your book of business on-line, but leave some room in your schedule. Early next week you and I are taking a ride out to see the target area for this project. I’ll want your take on feasibility, but what I really need are workable plans to leverage the company for the ramp up. This is so ground floor that the principals aren’t even done with the land acquisition. I intend to be ready to do what they need done, before they even know they need it.”

Chapter 5

The Espirito Santo building, a thirty-six story glass and steel tower at 666 Brickell Avenue in Miami’s financial district, was built by the newest Fortune 500 company, the Bernebau Company. The top third was utilized as administration offices by the metastasizing organization. The 36th floor served as home for founder and CEO, Cyrus  St. Loreto.

The core narrative of most successful business’s culture is invariably the story of its founder. And, in the myths and legends that take root and grow in the developing social matrix, are found the most telling of insights into the character of the people running the business. These corporate cautionary tales also serve as counter balance to resentment, an inevitable decay in morale, whenever one individual advances too quickly. This is very much the Wharton School of Business’s version of Robert Johnson and the crossroads. The original was the story of a dirt-poor guitar player whose ambition brought him to a midnight meeting with the Devil at a Mississippi Delta crossroads. The bargain: his soul in exchange for becoming the greatest of all bluesmen.  Whether the arts or business, some things never change.

In high-rise cafeterias and commuter train cars, executives and secretaries amused themselves exchanging versions of the story of the beginnings of the Bernebau Company. Like the pages of illuminated manuscripts in Medieval times, the value lay in the exchange of information, real or imagined, rather than in their factual content. Among the tales:

Cyrus is never seen in public, as his face is hideously scarred. (According to the story), the plane he was piloting, crashed off an un-charted Caribbean island.  The CEO of the Bernebau Company has never set foot on bare earth. He suffers from a phobia of germs so powerful that he avoids all surfaces not artificial. One of the first tales of the Bernebau Company a new employee learns is that the company’s founder, Cyrus St. Loreto has never been seen in direct sunlight. (Everyone enjoys that one and it’s the one they would most like to believe is true.)

And so on, each story more fantastic than the last. As with most myths and legends, there is, at heart, something of truth, insinuated like pre-cancerous cells, in the words.

The grand opening of the Espirito Santo tower provided fertile ground for old and new myths to take root and flourish.

To the surprise of the business community, the announcement of a dedication ceremony for the new building appeared to signal a significant change in the corporate demeanor of the aggressively expanding Bernebau Company. It’s founder and CEO, Cyrus St. Loreto, was long known to be a reclusive, albeit, charismatic leader. The list of dignitaries invited to the ribbon cutting was quite ecumenical. Among the guest list were both the Mayor and the Archbishop of Miami, a major Hollywood celebrity, the owner of two professional sports franchises, long rumored to have close ties to the underworld and one Senator. The press, which would not have stayed away for any price, were going all out in their coverage. They hoped for something new and exciting from the person who, single-handedly, built the seventh largest development company in the United States. However, as we all learned before we knew we were being taught, a tiger does not change his stripes.

When the date and time of the dedication ceremony was announced, eye brows were discreetly raised. The ceremony, December 21, 2004, would begin at 5:30 pm.  It was testament to the respect the Bernebau Company had earned, (or extorted,) from the business community, that the unusual time of day generated little speculation and less ridicule. This quiet acceptance was not complete. It was telling that it was noted, discreetly, that given the date, it was actually evening when the festivities were to begin. There were some members of the business press, the younger reporters, could not restrain themselves when a bronze plaque, set a little too high on the lobby wall to be easily read, was unveiled. The positioning on the wall betrayed a somewhat archaic viewpoint. Being the 21st Century, common, everyday technology neutralized what might have been an attempt to make the inscription not overly readable. Of course, the camera in a cell phone solved the problem of reading lettering so high on the wall. Translation of the words required two clicks on the browser. The words:

Fura ceea ce se poate, cumpara ceea ce trebuie atunci repossess rămâne.

It took only minutes for the translation of the obscure Romanian dialect. It quickly reproduced as text messages on any number of phones in the crowd in the lobby: ‘Steal what you can, buy what you must, repossess the rest.’

What the Bernebau Company did was as fundamental an endeavor as fishing the seas or cultivating crops. One might argue that Cyrus St. Loreto became the seventh largest developer (commercial and residential), and a darling of Wall Street, for his talent for the third oldest profession.

The Bernebau Company acquired property and re-sold it at a profit.

***

“Cyrus, Mr. Lassiter from the Financial Times is here for his 6:00 interview.”

Genevieve Novak was loved by all the new employees of the Bernebau Company and respected by the old. She was the third most powerful person in a company that, including subsidiaries and affiliated organizations, employed over 3,000. Common among entrepreneurial businesses, the most powerful people in the organization are those with the greatest tenure. Genevieve Novak also conformed to the profile of an old-school start-up business in her lack of formal education or training. The core employees, in this non-traditional business model are always recruited without the benefit of an outside agency. Of course, none of the twelve apostles were recommended by a head hunter.

Occasionally, a reporter would see Genevieve as the angle to a story, the profile of the founder, Cyrus St. Loreto, being done to death. They would request an interview with the founder, but spend all their time talking to his administrative assistant. The result was the offer of a press release and validation of their parking. On the very rare occasion that a particularly talented man or woman succeeded in asking too many questions about Genevieve Novak, they would be offered an interview with the man, himself. None of their business profiles ever saw the printed page. To say Bernebau was a company where information was kept close to the vest, would be an understatement.

“Mr. Lassiter? You may go in.” The reporter, engrossed in whatever filled the screen of his phone for the 20 minutes he’d been sitting, stood and made a show of stretching. He walked towards the administrative assistant’s desk with a studied casualness, his friendly smile thrown ahead, like chum onto the surface of otherwise quiet waters.  As he stood before her desk, Genevieve said, “May I have your phone? We have a strict policy against cell phones. Mr. St. Loreto is a bit of a photophobe. I’ll have it right here on my desk for when you’re done with your interview.”

“What? I need it to take notes. Surely an exception can be made for me.” His smile had the practiced ease of an experienced pickpocket. Genevieve smiled in return, an expression that would leave a trusting, (or overly confident), person believing that, were it up to her, they would have been allowed to keep their phone.

“I’m so sorry. Mr. St. Loreto is quite adamant on this matter.” She saw the reporter’s smile fall, while simultaneously, the upper edge of his lip began to raise, in curl. The woman continued in a voice that held a suggestion of regret, “Given that Mr. St. Loreto grants so very few interviews, I make it a point to personally write the requirements and expectations letter that you received.”

Andy Lassiter had two Pulitzers and a moderately successful first novel. His attention varied between the short-term promise in the blonde woman, and the longer term potential behind the double office doors. Putting one hand on the desk, he leaned in, prepared to overcome one more obstacle in the endless procession of people who stood before him and his work. His voice dropped half an octave and a third in volume, (the better to get them to lean in to hear), as he turned to his persuasive voice. Skilled in a field in which persuasion was more valuable than knowledge, the tone of his voice conveyed a confident assurance that it was only a matter of understanding his needs that stood between the two. “I get that you have your job to do, I respect that. I really do!” His smile became more personal. “If you want, you can tell your boss that you didn’t think I had a phone with me. I’ll even vouch for you.”

Genevieve smiled back at the increasingly animated man. With a twinge of guilt, sufficient to make its existence felt, insufficient to alter her intention towards the reporter, she leaned towards him and widened her eyes and raised her eyebrows with a hint of desperate hope. “Gee, Mr Lassiter. I don’t know.” As he began to straighten up in his posture, assured of his dominant position in the exchange, Genevieve reached with her right hand into the top drawer of her desk, found a steno pad and offered it to him. “Do you have a pen? I have an extra here somewhere, if you need to borrow one.”

Watching frustration bloom into anger, Genevieve felt her guilt evaporate. The true character of the man, that of a bully and likely abuser, evident in the tensing of formerly relaxed muscles and the increased furrow between his eyebrows. She stood up.

“Or I can have your car brought around. If you’d prefer.” Her smile turned to sweet and  merciful. She felt a momentary desire to prevent this reporter from going in for the interview. She knew that her boss was a man of infinite patience and unlimited appetite, and, for reasons left unspoken, Genevieve made it a part of her job to arrange for disappointment to visit her boss on occasions. She found that it was helpful in maintaining a certain equilibrium and served to keep his ravening ambition in check. The key was the interval and frequency. Too much frustration or too little, both were bad for the Company and, not incidentally, not such a good thing for her. Whenever she manipulated an event that frustrated the owner of the company, he always discovered who was responsible.

She almost wished that the reporter from the vaunted Financial Times would get angry, he seemed the type of man for whom anger must always be justified in the actions of others. To know that it was simply pride was not acceptable, far better it be an obviously bitchy secretary would allow his credibility at the newspapers to remain intact. Better yet, a bitchy dyke of a receptionist.

Genevieve saw the calculus of ambition and pride, work out the equation in the back of his eyes as he took the steno pad and smiled. Less of, ‘have I got a treat for you’ and more of a ‘will I get back at you for this’.

The buzz of the intercom interrupted her speculation as to which would be more pleasant, and turned and looked at the double doors and said,

“Step right through there, Mr. Lassiter. Mr. St. Loreto will be waiting for you.”

***

The police detective seemed to take note of everything in the room, even as Roanne Avila closed the front door behind him. Thin, but not tall, he projected an energy that seemed to cling to the trail of his words as he spoke. Roanne found herself thinking, ‘Like a Jack Russell in a sports coat and an ugly tie’.  A giggle broke free and jumped to it’s death on the living room rug. The sound shocked her more than it offended the policeman.

“May I get you something to drink, Detective…” Roanne felt her face redden, as she groped for the name she’d been given less than a minute before. The policeman didn’t seem to notice and continued his survey of the room and it’s occupants, which consisted of herself and Sister Catherine, who sat quietly on the sofa. Her daughter Patrice was in her bedroom and Edwin, miracle of miracles, was still asleep in his room.

“Sorry, sister, didn’t see you there. The habit kinda blends in with the dark couch and all. Try an smile from time to time, so I’ll know that you’re awake.” Detective Glen Trahmani grinned his laughter, to assure the nun that he was not being too disrespectful.

Sister Catherine sat quietly and watched, as the detective moved about the room. “I have the utmost respect for those in your profession. I promise not to interrupt your questioning.” Her silver wire-rimmed glasses threw shards of light as she continued, with a smile that barely moved her lips, but pushed one eyebrow quite high, “Perhaps you’d like to know my whereabouts at the time of Mr. Avila’s death?”

Naturally competitive, excessively confident, Glen Trahmani possessed a highly developed talent for picking his battles, held up both hands and said, “Ya got me, sister! ‘Sapientiae Timor Domini Initial.'”

Seeing the distress in the face of Roanne Avila, Sister Catherine said, “Your detective here is showing off for me, and just said, in passable Latin, ‘The fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom’.

The homicide detective turned to the young woman, “I have just one question; can you think of anyone who would want to harm you or your husband?”

Roanne Avila seemed startled by the question.

The man nodded and stepped towards the small mantle that framed a soot-browed fireplace, the brass-link screen half-open, a kitchen match,  burnt down to a pencil point lay on the ashes. Picking up the sheaf of papers that was weighted down under a pink and pearlescent conch shell, Glen Trahmani stared at the top page, his eyebrow an unsubtle semaphore, “So, Roanne, it looks like the bank is foreclosing on your house?”

The note of friendly casualness in the detective’s voice fit seamlessly with his use of her first name, Sister Catherine was off the couch and had a protective arm around her before she could respond to the question. Walking her back to the sofa and getting her to sit, the nun turned towards the detective with a smile,  “I can see how much you want to solve this mystery and help Mrs. Avila, Mr. Trahmani, but clearly she’s been through a great deal. Perhaps you could come back and we can continue with your questions tomorrow?”

The police detective, four inches taller than the nun, stared down at her. She smiled back up at him, clearly intent on remaining as she was, for as long as necessary. The tension in the room grew until Roanne got up from the couch, barely-audible sounds of  a waking child coming from the hallway.

“Sure, Sister, thats a great idea. Why don’t we do that.” Glen Trahmani’s smile shrank away from his eyes, which took on a more focused stare. He held out a business card, Sister Catherine, her own hand extended, waited until he placed it in her palm.

Once outside on the porch, the detective turned and said, “Before our next meeting, you might want to ask Mrs. Avila about the life insurance policy that was taken on out her husband a month ago.”

Chapter 3

Arriving early for his meeting, Arlen decided to park at the Municipal launching ramp and walk the three blocks back up West Main Street. The digital display on the First Savings & Trust read eighty degrees, warm for the first week of June. The marinas and boatyards were quiet; the commercial boats were off somewhere on Chesapeake Bay and half of the pleasure boats still wrapped in tailored canvas, waited the arrival of the season, still 2 weeks away. Getting out of his car, Arlen decided to leave his suit coat on, preferring to risk sweat rather than wrinkles from carrying it in the crook of his arm. The dark grey, (with a nearly invisible blue pinstripe), suit was a souvenir of an un-planned trip to London the year before. Lia Amante, his companion and instigator of the luggage-less trip, insisted that he visit Kilgours on Saville Row. Standing on the small tailors platform, Arlen watched Lia smile her approval and ordered three suits.

The smell in the air was very much a factor in Arlen’s decision to park as far from his destination as he did; he enjoyed the take-no-prisoners scent of salt air and dead shellfish as he walked past the white-on-white parking lots that ran along the water side of lower West Main Street.

The ‘Seafood Capital of the World’ for much of the 20th Century, Crisfield, Maryland now found itself every bit the spinster sister, pretending the family home still bustled with loving family members, when, in fact, the only people remaining were the gardener and the banker, the preservation of the property, their only bond.  During its heyday, Crisfield flourished on the sea’s bounty; blue crab and scallops found Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay very hospitable. Seemingly endless catches brought fishermen and processors, who were followed by merchants and shopkeepers and so, the town grew. Now more a tourist attraction than the heart of the town, the fishing boats caught what fish remained to be caught.

Retired fisherman sat on wrought iron and bleached-wood benches overlooking the docks. Land-bound, age and infirmity achieving what neither the elements nor the ocean could, they took obvious pleasure in informing the summer visitors that, ‘the Post Office and the lower half of West Main Street was built on scallops…’ They would invariably pause, to permit their listeners, (not always wide-eyed children), to infer that they were speaking in purely economic terms and only then would finish their sentence, “…shells”.

As Arlen walked, he scanned the rooflines of the buildings that continued up on both sides of West Main Street past the Post Office. What convinced him to move from Salisbury, Maryland was the fact that the commercial, (and municipal), heart of the town was contained in three blocks along one street. Rather than the traditional ‘tree ring’ pattern of development observed in small towns along the Eastern Seaboard, Crisfield’s main street continued until it ran out of land. Leaving the two and three-story, stone and masonry commercial structures behind, it ended at the boatyards and fish processing plants. These buildings, in turn, were square, blocky and thoroughly utilitarian structures; un-bounded by granite-curbed sidewalks, they would never be on a parade route. The warehouses and canneries were wood and corrugated enclosures surrounded by wire fences and un-paved parking lots. They served to protect the noisy, malodorous processing equipment from the elements and nothing more. The docks where the fishing boats tied up to unload their catch were crowded with plastic barrels of bait and coils of salt-encrusted rope. The wooden pilings wore metal dunce-caps, an effort to discourage the seagulls and other birds of opportunity; King Canute would have approved of the ambition, if not the results. The commercial docks became picaresque ghettos, as the fishing industry consumed itself with an efficiency that stole the future to benefit the present. Pleasure boats now far out-numbered the commercial, and history makes clear, when two interests compete, the first battlefield is always real estate.

Arlen cut across the small triangular park at the branching of West Main and ‘MD 413’. At this point, the street quieted down into what locals called, ‘Old West Main’. This un-official name betrayed the stubborn individualism inherent in those born in a small town. That the online maps and the glossy Chamber of Commerce brochures insisted the entire length of highway that ran up from the docks all the way out to Route 13 was ‘MD 413’, the beginning of downtown Crisfield would always be where West Main branched away from the waterfront.

A mere three blocks of two and three-story buildings, downtown Crisfield resisted the development that came when recreational boating began to replace the fisheries as the economic lifeblood of the town. The old buildings on Main Street, with their non-virtual display plate-glass storefronts were coming back to life. That this small downtown could retain it’s identity owed a great deal to the limited amount of useable land. Crisfield, and the shoreline areas of the entire Delmarva peninsula, was primarily marshlands and salt ponds; pretty much suitable only for residential and recreational development. As the 20th Century capitalist saying holds, ‘It takes a highway to build a mall’. When half of the open land in a community is wetlands and ocean, it’s hard to get a good highway built.  Crisfield’s saving grace was that it still had parking meters.

Arlen Mayhew spent the previous year working in a Century21 franchise in Salisbury, the largest city on the Delmarva peninsula. He’d picked Salisbury as a ‘good-enough’ place. ‘Good enough’ to spend time as he waited for his life to re-order itself after an un-anticipated departure from Atlantic City with only two suitcases and a broken heart. He managed to build a following and the start of a decent referral base in his new home city. His business provided for the necessities and enough income for his trust fund to begin to recover from the damages it suffered during his time in Atlantic City. Fortunately, the spendthrift clause protected the core assets from his testosterone-fueled spending. Arlen Mayhew’s newly monastic lifestyle allowed the trust fund’s core assets to generate dividends, which, in turn would be re-invested.

The offices of Renaude & Associates were in a three story, art deco building on West Main Street. Drusilla Renaude was both landlord and first floor tenant. Through the efforts of a very gifted interior designer, a good friend from her successful days in the Baltimore real estate market, the former McCormack’s Department Store became the premier address for commercial space in downtown Crisfield. Bucking conventional wisdom that real estate offices needed to be in suburban strip malls, with their easy access and ‘plenty of free parking’, Drusilla anticipated the revival of Crisfield’s downtown, and bought the three-story building at foreclosure. Less than a year later, she opened her real estate brokerage on the remodeled first floor. As the landlady, she also had the second floor space leased to an attorney and an appraisal company. Half of the third floor was being re-done for a dance/martial arts studio. Three other buildings on the main downtown block were beginning renovation, the revival of downtown Crisfield assured.

The gold-lettered glass door swung open as Arlen was reaching for the polished brass handle and, with a motion at once powerful and graceful, a dark-haired man in a dark suit stepped out through the doorway. Arlen stepped back, held the door open in a parody of a doorman and smiled, “If I may?”

The man turned, and with a feral intensity that made Arlen think of tigers and his ex-girlfriend, looked at him and smiled in a slow sort of way that made it oddly difficult to turn away. Although shorter than Arlen by at least three inches, the dark man managed to look him in the eye. Without a word, he reached out and touched the lapel of Arlen’s suit coat and, smiling, said, “Kilgours. Very nice. You have just made my day in this backwater town a little bit more interesting.” With a nod he crossed the sidewalk to a black Aston Martin, that stood out among the angle parked cars like a surgeons scalpel in a kitchen drawer, got in and drove off.

“Is Ms. Renaude expecting you?” The very attractive young woman at the receptionist desk gave the impression that his arrival was a welcome relief to any otherwise stressful morning. She smiled her question and Arlen enjoyed the brief moment of eye contact before answering.

“Yes, I have an appointment with Miz Renaude.” Arlen heard himself pronounce the un-spelled ‘z’ in Ms. He resisted the impulse to grin, substituting a light frown, hoping it would lend him the sincere gravitas that he could never quite manage, no matter how serious the occasion.

Celeste, according to the nameplate at the front of her desk, picked up her phone and spoke in hushed tones, looking up at Arlen from time to time. Feeling self-conscious, as if, by remaining in front of the receptionist, he was intruding on a private conversation, Arlen turned and stared out the plate-glass window. On the sidewalk, pedestrian traffic was increasing, the noon hour approaching. As he watched, businessmen, phones held importantly to the side of their heads, passed the real estate office and young office workers, their cell phones in front, the better to text as they walked, managed to not run into any buildings, nor walk out into the traffic on West Main Street.

“Ms. Renaude is ready to see you now.” Arlen heard the young woman’s voice before he realized that she was standing next to her desk. Remembering to take a breath and re-center himself, he turned and followed her past six empty desks, towards the back of the office. At the back of the space, on the left side, behind a glass wall, was the private office of the broker, Drusilla Renaude; to the right of that was a conference room and, finally, at the right side, a restroom and small kitchenette.

Celeste opened the office door and stepped back. Arlen smiled at the young woman, knocked on the half-open door and leaning into the room, asked,

“May I come in?”

***

“I’m his wife. I don’t understand the problem answering a simple question. Is he still at work? No, I don’t want to hold one more minute for you to check with his supervisor.” Roanne stood on the porch and waved silently at her neighbor, Mr. Costa, as he began his morning walk out to check his mailbox.

Three-year-old Edwin was sitting in the middle of the spare room, surrounded by his toy cars. The roller coaster-like plastic track was tipped over on its side near the open closet door, clearly not needed. The game he was playing, were he asked by an unimaginative adult would be called, line the cars up in rows.

Roanne walked through the living room to check on her quiet son and so did not see the State Police car park in front of the house. She resumed her mostly one-sided telephone conversation and so, did not hear the thunk of the car’s door closing.

“Yes, I’m still here. Where would I go? Have you found anyone who can answer my question?”

The Maryland State Trooper knocked on Roanne and Roger Avila’s front door. The sound was not excessively loud, however, there was nothing the slightest bit tentative to it. Although she was two rooms away, watching her son play his too-silent game, she heard the first knock. The trooper waited until Roanne came to the door before speaking, “Mrs. Avila? Mrs. Roanne Avila?”

Roanne ignored the tiny voice that came from the phone, now at her side, as fear grew within her, a malignant growth that blossomed within her chest. She managed to nod her head, which served the awful purpose of allowing the process to continue, now well-past the point of no return.

“May I come in?”

Chapter 2

Sister Catherine looked at the woman who sat in the first row of the empty classroom and said, “Thank you for coming in today, Roanne. I’m very concerned about your daughter, Patrice.”

Roanne Avila sat and thought she heard her days at St. Dominique’s whisper from the wood and metal of the desk. She looked up, her caution forgotten among the memories and a wave of her obviously new hairstyle fell to the side of her face. The nun tensed at the brief appearance of a smudge of reddish-orange at the corner of her former student’s eye, an un-noticed stutter in the application of make-up.

Sister Catherine frowned, more to herself than at the young women, who seemed, like so many students at the end of the school year, to be off somewhere in a daydream. Her elementary school years were spent in a very different environment, one unknown to most, even those who thought they knew her well. Among the parents of the children she taught down through the years, very few would have the suicidal daring to ask about her childhood. As a matter of little-known fact, Sister Catherine’s childhood was spent in an orphanage, an institution with the unlikely name, ‘the Miami Children Center,’ only in part unusual, for being in Ohio. She knew all too well the palette of abuse, the colors of shame and secret pain, stepped around her desk and crouched next to the young woman, who tried to turn her head away.

“Roanne, look at me.” Her tone, while not one of a person only hoping to be obeyed, held a barely noticeable tremor of concern. She reached across with thin, graceful fingers, a plain gold band the sole touch of color and held the younger woman’s chin. The nun’s touch was far more gentle than the wire-rimmed glasses and bleached white wimple framing her face would ever suggest; she turned the woman’s head slightly.

“My husband Roger works so hard at the casino providing for me and the kids. He really is a good man. But sometimes I get so scared when we get the letters and the phone calls from the bank, and I take it out on him. I shouldn’t complain so much. It’s my fault he hit me.” The young woman’s voice held more emotions than a single sentence should be able to contain.

Sister Catherine’s touch grew stronger while remaining gentle, as might a mother, holding close a child, against a sudden onslaught of cold wind. The softness of the touch of her hand was far and away offset by the fire in her eyes. The power of a childless mother radiated through every fiber of her being and, leaning in towards the young woman, said in a whispered shout, “You must never say that. You are entitled to live your life without being hurt by another just because they want someone else to feel as badly as they do.”

***

A little more than halfway through her novitiate, Sister Margaret Ryan was almost comfortable in her new life at St Dominique’s. She loved the ordered, (and orderly), life of prayer and service offered those women willing to work hard, (on themselves), and sacrifice, (for the benefit of others); of this, there was no question. There remained within the twenty-four-year-old woman, somewhere between her heart and her mind, a disquiet. It was a subtle and easily over-looked element in her life, more, really, a matter of shadows and echoes rather than granite blocks. This reservation showed itself in effect, rather than being directly observable; she exhibited a subtle tendency to veer, from time to time,  away from the path, the path to a life of peace and quiet contentment.

This disquiet within Margaret Ryan was really about instincts. As some people do, she possessed abilities and skills, appropriate to a life very different from the one she now hoped to lead. Sister Margaret’s disquiet grew from the fact that her life in the convent did not require, value, or, if the truth be told, tolerate some of the instincts that made her who she truly was.

Consider a young, healthy cheetah who lives in a zoo. Better, make that a wildlife habitat, since the archaic diversion of displaying wild animals in cages, in the name of culture, is mercifully, a vanishing artifact in most modern cities. The animal is cared for and perhaps even loved, by those who work in this artificial world. The fenced-in environment offers all the comforts of the cat’s natural habitat, minus the threat of disease, starvation, neglect or (more powerful) predators. The young and healthy cheetah does not, technically, need claws, teeth and the ability to sprint at 75 mph.

Margaret Ryan was capable of sprinting at 75 mph. Sister Margaret Ryan taught the 3rd grade.

***

I left my classroom and walked down the corridor just after 3:30. I preferred to stay after school to correct tests and work on my lesson plans, rather than work in my room in the convent. As silly as it might sound, I enjoyed being able to answer the inquires about being in the school, well after classes have ended with, “Correcting tests! I do that in my classroom after the children go home.” I liked the part about ‘in my classroom’.

Not that too many of the other nuns ask. It’s a small convent, and everyone already knows how I spend my days. Even my early morning runs, I fear, are becoming something of a secret pleasure for some of the younger nuns. Including, apparently, Sister Cletus, who despite being the oldest woman at St. Dominique’s has an endless capacity to startle me. Just last week, as I washed the breakfast dishes, she stepped up behind me in the kitchen and said, “Slipping a little on the first third? Remember the old runners saying, “your muscles take you out, but your heart brings you home.” I knew better than to ask how she would know about my times.

St. Dominique’s School was laid out like a small letter ‘n’. The principle’s office, administration and the first two grades at the top, grades 3-8 along the two legs and the gymnasium/auditorium filling the space between. As I walked down the now quiet hall, I heard the hollow pneumatic pinging of a basketball, punctuated by the impatient squeaks of sneakers on wooden gym floors. From further within the late afternoon school, I heard singing. The young voices, their song starting and suddenly stopping, barely heard instructions met with laughter and the occasional groans; it was the gift of youth, enthusiasm standing in for skill; the result was the sound of joyful singing. Hearing them reminded me that the year-end student talent show was only a week away. Held during Graduation Week, the talent show was more celebration than competition, and I made a mental note to remind Sister Clare that we needed to work on our act. I’d originally suggested we sing Hall and Oates’ ‘Private Eyes’, but my roommate had her heart set on the Eurythmics. I liked her idea and believed I could sell the Reverend Mother, but held out little hope that Sister Catherine would approve. ‘Sargent Catherine’ as we sometimes called her, when we were alone in the laundry or working in the kitchen and in a silly mood.

I was almost to the main corridor that joined the two parallel wings of classrooms when I heard an odd sound. It was the dry-swishing sound of a blackboard eraser, but the rhythm was all wrong. As I approached Room 217, the sound grew louder. Opposite the open door of the fifth-grade classroom, I stood quietly and watched Sister Catherine erase the blackboard. The thing was, she erased it again and again, moving carefully from right to left. Holding the black felt eraser in her right hand, she swiped the black slate side-to-side and then up and down as high as she could reach, down to the carved wooden tray at the bottom. She erased the already very erased blackboard, one section at a time. When she reached the end closest to the door, she walked back to the far end and repeated the erasing.

I watched as she repeated this five times. Finally, Sister Catherine stopped and stood and stared through the windows out on to the empty schoolyard.

I walked into the room, sat at one of the desks and waited.

***

Drusilla Renaude stood in the doorway of her son’s bedroom and watched him sleep. A Dru-shaped shadow protected him from the flashes of movie explosions and news-cycle tragedies thrown soundless from the widescreen TV that dominated the adjacent living room.

Two night-lights came on automatically as she stepped away, her shadow reluctantly followed her out of the room. Turning for a final look, she left the door open a quarter of the way, per their agreement. “I promise I won’t look at the TV, but the light lets me know you’re still here, even when I’m asleep,” Dru experienced a remarkable mix of love and fear at the power of the feelings her son could create in her, especially, when he wasn’t even trying.

She walked through the high-ceilinged living room, pulled off one high-heeled shoe and then the other. The outdoors, now darker, her reflection accompanied her against the sepia backdrop of Chesapeake Bay. Holding her shoes in one hand, she turned to create a profile. The outline of a slender and graceful neck rising from an hourglass figure was replaced by the silhouette of a generously endowed woman, high forehead offset by a strongly aquiline nose. Dru reached with her free hand pinched her waist, smiled and opened the door to her office/gym.

Every home reflects its occupants. Whether a studio apartment in a suburb, a farmhouse in Kansas or a glass and steel contemporary on a hill overlooking the Chesapeake Bay; the person (or people) living within its four walls cause changes that reflect who they are, both consciously, (and deliberately), and unconsciously, (and inadvertently). Sometimes this alteration is barely noticeable, a folded-newspaper on a kitchen table, angry blue circles on the classified pages. Other times its fairly obvious: expensive living room furniture covered in custom slip covers, end tables with glass squares to protect the wood, a coffee table with precisely arranged, un-read magazines. All homes and most houses, from raised ranches to Georgian mansions, are secret diaries of their occupants.

Once she’d made the decision to get her son, Zacharia out of Baltimore, all that remained was scheduling. Drusilla Renaude knew that the contemporary on the hill, with its views of Chesapeake Bay was the house for the two of them,  the moment she saw it.

Drusilla Renaude was successful in real estate because she defined the relationship between herself and her clients before ever stepping into a house. She listened very carefully and had a gift for getting the un-said things said. She knew that most buyers held back when asked what they were looking for in a house. Her clients invariably described her as a good listener and a very perceptive woman. The truth was simply that she got her clients to talk openly about what they hoped to find in a house. Dru always ended her first client meeting by informing them that she and they each had a job: once they had established a timetable, it was her job to find them houses that fit their needs and wants, and it was their job, as Buyers, to buy one of them.

Drusilla Renaude was successful, not because she sold houses. She was successful because her clients loved her and considered it their duty to tell everyone about how no other agent could do the job as well as Dru Renaude.

Just off the living room, was Dru’s workroom, her office/gym. Originally a first-floor master suite, it was nearly as large as the living room. It had a master bath, complete with sauna and dressing room. Two walls of the former bedroom were ceiling-to-floor glass. On one wall was a set of french doors leading out to a patio and on the other, sliders to a deck that extended across to the living room and overlooked the vast expanse of lawn.

Her office had a desk, two computers with assorted printers and other office technology. It also had an assortment of very elaborate exercise equipment. When Dru worked in her office, it was often difficult to tell where one activity started and the other ended.

Closing the door to the living room, she crossed to the dressing room, changed into shorts and a tee-shirt, got on the stationary bike and said, “Messages…email, phone.”

One of the several large displays mounted on the wall lit up with a list of recent emails. Her phone’s computer voice came from the built-in speakers, “You have six new messages.”

Drusilla Renaude started pedaling. The second half of her work day began.

Chapter 1

The halfway mark in my morning run was announced by the cawing of seagulls and the soft, wet crunch of waves. The monotone slaps of my running shoes on the paved road gave way to a rubbery-scraping sound, as the ratio of beach sand to black asphalt increased.

I ran like I was in a hurry. On good days, this made my pace fast enough to remind me how short my hair was; the on-rushing air ruffled my hair, instead of pressing red waves of long, pre-novitiate hair against my neck. I felt a frown begin to spread bony fingers above my eyes; I tried and failed to ignore the growing tension. Today was clearly not starting as a good day, but being only 5:33 am, I held out hope for a turnaround.

An hour before, as I ran down the stairs of the convent and across the courtyard, I felt a twinge of ‘hurry up, you have to get there.’ Running faster never made that feeling go away. The key to turning off the voice was the simple fact that the first third of my morning jogs were still physically demanding and left me little to spare, other than getting my feet to chase each other away from the convent.

The pungent salt and iodine smell of dried seaweed and low-tide demanded my attention. Running is a balancing act: too little commitment and it turns into a more grueling way to worry about the day ahead; too much, and the mind wants it to stop, which usually causes problems when everyday routine makes its demands, just past the finish line. This particular morning I managed to stay between the extremes, my run was the cardiovascular equivalent of morning prayers in the chapel. As I ran, I could hear the individual small round-edged rocks and over-sized pebbles roll beneath the low waves that washed the beach; a serrated sound of giant gravel-filled lungs of some slowly waking creature buried at the edge of the ocean.

Subtle sounds of life colored the stillness of the 5:00 morning along the Chesapeake Bay.

I pulled the stopwatch from the right pocket of my running shorts. The elapsed-time made me smile confidently; I actually looked forward to pushing myself on the return half, knowing that my time slid further down towards my goal of a seven-minute-mile. I crossed the small parking area at the end of the paved road and jumped up on the telephone pole that served to divide the lot from the dunes. Keeping my arms to my sides, I executed a spinning heel hook, came down on the same foot and, as long as I was still on the rounded edge of the pole, went into  a passable ‘Part the Mare’s Tail’, followed by one of my favorite t’ai chi moves, ‘Bend Bow and Shoot Tiger’. I turned towards the dune, let myself fall forward until my knee brushed the sand and sprinted towards the water’s edge. I wanted to spend part of my run in the loose, dry sand of the beach. I enjoyed the strain on the variety of muscles I got when running over the uncertain, constantly shifting surface. It was worth the extra minutes added to my time.

I missed on my first attempt to put my stopwatch back in my pocket, sliding over the smooth fabric, almost dropping it in the sand. I looked down and laughed.

My running shorts were a gift from a friend in Chicago. The over-sized shipping envelope showed up at the convent just a week before. The return address was, ‘Chicago Police Dept. Detective Division, Cicero Ave. Chicago IL.’ No name, just the return address. There was nothing on the packing slip, other than ‘Sister Margaret Ryan’. As soon as I got to my room, I pulled the perforated strip and let the contents fall out onto my bed. My roommate, Sister Clare, whispered a devout, “No. Way.” as I held up the shorts; they were black and pink and very satiny. Embroidered in block letters across the front of the waistband was the word ‘Everlast.’ A card fell from the now empty envelope. I opened it and read to Sister Clare, “For the next time you’re in the ring with the devil. This may not be from Victoria’s Secret, but silk is silk.” It was signed, ‘Love, your friend Maribeth’.

To the scandalized giggles of Sister Clare, I threw my tunic on my bed and stepped into the boxing trunks. They fit. Even though I’m on the tall side, at five foot nine, the legs came down well to my knees. I said a silent prayer of thanks. I had new running clothes.

The very next morning, I was halfway across the courtyard, headed for the gate when something caught my eye. I stopped and looked back at the main building.  Being the estate of a wealthy banker who donated it to the Church, in a desperate hope, I suspect, of ‘shrinking the camel’ the grounds, which ran down to the shoreline of Chesapeake Bay, included several buildings that were converted for use as our convent and parochial school. The first floor of the main house housed the school’s administrative offices, the second floor served as the living quarters. Directly above the main entrance was a bay window, on the hallway that connected the two wings of the three-story building. I saw two shapes, at first indistinct, as the corridor was still dark, the sun just beginning to break free of the morning clouds. Almost immediately, I recognized Sister Catherine and, to her right, Sister Bernadine, the Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s.

Sister Catherine’s wire-rimmed glasses threw sparks of reflected morning light. Her glasses stood out against mild, pale skin surrounded by the brighter white of the wimple that framed her face. From down in the courtyard, she appeared as a ghostly, animated habit, black robes and white face (and chest). It was the bright light from her glasses that demanded attention. She gave life to the dress, to the habit she wore and it, in turn, gave her a presence not easily ignored.

Sister Bernadine Ellison was another story altogether. The Mother Superior was a very large woman. And, just as with Sister Catherine, her dark habit blended with the shadows of the corridor. Very much the opposite of the woman next to her, it was Sister Bernadine’s face that stood out. The snow-white wimple served to contrast her dark brown face, yet it was her eyes that commanded attention. There was a power in her that was little diminished even at the distance between us. Rather than animating the habit of the Order, Sister Bernadine wore them like robes, vestments if you will, as worn by every powerful woman down through under-recorded history.

I saw Sister Catherine purse her lips and make the sign of the cross. I felt the Mother Superior’s keen intelligence and natural power in a moment of eye contact that was nearly palpable. It was a sense of connection that should not have been possible from where I stood. I saw Sister Bernadine throw her head back in laughter, (I imagined I could hear it from outside, down in the courtyard), as she took Sister Catherine gently by the arm and lead her away from the window.

Nothing was ever said about my choice in running clothes. There was a risk that went with my enjoying Maribeth’s gift. There was a part of me, the part I had hoped to leave behind when I walked away from college and stood at the convent door with a single suitcase and a weakly flickering hope. It whispered to me in a voice at once too sincere, while sounding outraged, the voice asked, ‘How dare they try to stifle my individuality’. I promised myself to never been seen wearing the boxing trunks, at least by anyone at St. Dominiques.

I felt a vibration on my left thigh and jerked my head around in a scalp-tingling flash of alarm. The toes of my shoes dug into the nearly dry sand at the edge of the water, but there was no one around, other than a man staring at a fishing pole stuck in the sand and a yellow dog sitting next to him, both about 50 yards up the beach. I waved to Morris Richmond, a retiree who made a point of coming to pretend to fish every morning except Sundays. In the past three months that I’d been running, after returning from Chicago, Morris and I would have a conversation of a peculiar sort. I’d run past him and say whatever might occur to me to say. I did not stop running and he would not attempt to reply. After a hundred yards or so of running in the sand, I’d turn and head back. As I passed him, he would speak and I would listen. On most mornings the two statements stand apart, completely un-related. But there were a couple of days when what he said would return to me, later in the day and, somehow, make sense. I enjoyed this part of my morning run. I believe the dog, who was with Morris most, but not all mornings, was his, but I could not say for sure. I’d nod at him, (or her), as I ran and he, (or she), seemed to acknowledge me.

The vibration skittered against my leg; it was my phone. The phone that I did not own. The phone that the Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s did not give me, when she didn’t say, “I believe that God puts people in our lives for a reason. Sometimes the people who seem the most difficult, who seem to thwart us in our efforts, are serving His purpose. Many, if not most, people believe that a safe and comfortable life is what God intends for us all. They are devout and work hard in the hope of leading peaceful and contented lives. There are people in the world, however, who live only to take as much as they can, no matter what the cost to the people around them. God’s ways are not always understandable. There are other people He puts on earth who find that their lives are difficult and dangerous. I believe these people are put on earth to maintain the balance between Good and Evil. Take this phone and try not to let anyone see you use it. You still have two years remaining to your novitiate, try to stay in the middle of the path. I know you can become a good nun and an asset to our Order, Sister Ryan.”

***

“And the Award for Top Producing Agent of the Year in McCallister County…”

Steve Wein, leaned back in his chair, turned towards the man at his right and said, “Yeah, emphasis on producer.” The moderately forceful nudge of his elbow telegraphed the innuendo at adolescent volume; combined with staring everyone at the table directly in the eyes as he spoke, the balding man screamed with a drunk’s sloppy and aggressive charm.

That Arlen Mayhew sat next to the increasingly boisterous man was not by design, rather an unfortunate miscalculation. Arlen had long accepted the necessity of social interactions as part of his profession of real estate broker and developed a strategy of being late enough to a gathering so as not to have to endure the ordeal of networking, while still arriving early enough to have a choice of seats. He now sat trapped in his seat by the force of politeness, as the awards ceremony held him hostage to his table. He folded his napkin for the eighth time and looked pointedly at the stage, hoping that his apparent concentration on the emcee would serve as a non-verbal Do Not Disturb sign.

“Nice going, Arlen,” he thought, pressing his lips into what passed for a smile.  Arlen Mayhew often addressed himself by name, even (sometimes, especially), when it was a conversation taking place inside his head. To his small group of friends he would explain, with a sincerity that would be disturbing if coming from a total stranger, “…but if I don’t talk to myself, how can I be sure I’m not just imagining it?”

Arlen leaned back in his chair and turned away from the man on his left in the vain hope of being ignored. Deciding to take a risk, Arlen got up, stood behind his chair and surveyed the crowded ballroom. He smiled as Steve Wein,  who he’d worked with only once, began to tell the others agents at the table stories of his own past sales awards.

‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ Arlen smiled and looked around the hotel ballroom; the high-ceilinged room presented an un-obstructed view of the round banquet tables. Each populated with modern-day Crusoes, washed up on white-linen shores, wearing tailored suits and designer gown knock-offs that nearly succeeded in transforming desperation into a public display of enthusiasm.  The murmur of the crowd diminished as the final award of the night was presented.

“…goes to Drusilla Renaude. Come on up, Dru.”

A woman stood up from a table in the row closest to the stage. As the applause grew, she turned with a deliberateness that, somehow, made her more visible. She looked around at the room and smiled. Dru Renaude had very dark brown hair that framed eyes that managed to appear darker yet. Her black, off-the-shoulder dress, was exquisitely tailored; no one would mistake her for being anyone other than a very successful woman. Between her ‘take-no-prisoners’ cleavage and beautiful, predator-intense eyes,  she wore a ruby pendant. It lay near her heart, waiting for whoever stood before her and demanded that they make a choice that they probably were not aware they were making.

Drusilla Renaude walked up to the podium with the confidence and air of entitlement more commonly observed in those who by blood and family were heir to throne or rank. Less so in as modern a profession as real estate brokerage. She crossed the stage to the sound of applause and gathered the attention, as a shark acquires it’s retinue of pilot fish. She accepted the crystal trophy, (all glass and edges, as much projectile as memento of accomplishment), turned and faced the crowd.

Arlen, not bothering to applaud, watched the salesmen and women, dressed in their Awards Night best, as they applauded the recipient of the top honor of Real Estate Agent of the Year. He stared at Dru Renaude. Assured of anonymity by virtue of being just one face in a fairly large gathering of faces, Arlen smiled and, keeping his hand close to his side, gave a ‘thumbs up’.  He was startled as Dru stopped scanning the crowd, looked him in the eye, smiled and gave her own thumbs up. Not surprisingly he saw other people in the crowd return the gesture. Steve Wein burst out with a “Yeah!!”

Arlen Mayhew found himself staring at Dru Renaude and feeling confident. Were someone to ask him the reason for his sudden confidence, he would have been unable to answer.

Not willing to risk breaking the connection, Arlen smiled back and thought, ‘Mind and body. Do not turn your back on either.’

He decided that he would find a way to talk to the woman before the end of the evening’s festivities. It was his responsibility, as a fellow professional, and someone working in the same Delmar real estate market, to convey his congratulations directly. To do otherwise would be rude.

With the final award presented, the conversation at Arlen’s table fractured into pairs, Steve decided that he needed to get to the bar before they closed it for the evening. Arlen decided that rather than risk being pulled into a conversation, he would leave early. He surprised himself by taking a path towards the exit that brought him to the front table, where, by pre-arrangement, all those who were to receive an award were seated. Dru Renaude, surrounded by well-wishers and friends (not necessarily the same personal characteristics), was on the near side of the group as Arlen passed by. He stopped and said, ‘Congratulations, Ms. Renaude’. He was surprised that she turned quickly enough to be facing him as he passed. At least two of the people she had been speaking to were left, mid-sentence, completing their conversation to her back.

“Why thank you, Mr. Mayhew.” She smiled and somehow managed to make him believe that he was there to rescue her from the boring and tedious people who surrounded her. She did it all with a barely discernible arch to one eyebrow and the squeeze of his hand.

***

Roanne Avila stared at the man who filled the space when she opened her front door. Through the screen door, the man had an odd, grainy appearance, like one of the Civil War photos on Public Television during Donation week. The man was large, did not move, but somehow seemed to be pressing forwards, almost into the interior of the house. He filled the opening of the door so completely, Roanne had the feeling that he was blocking escape from the house. She wondered why she would feel the need to escape the house, with her three-year-old down for her pre-lunch nap. Nevertheless, she looked wistfully out at the empty street in front of the house.

“Mrs. Avila?” His smile made her think how, in the nature shows, the wolves always seemed to be grinning, except when they’re running down their prey.

Listening back into the house and not hearing her three-year-old, Roanne answered, “Yes, what can I do for you?” The screen door remained closed; it’s purely symbolic value as a barrier, was felt in the cool morning air that blew in from the covered porch. She kept her left hand on the open door, with its three panes of glass cut into the wood in a pattern that ran down from left to right, down to eye level. She frowned, trying to remember if she’d seen this man through one (or all three) of these otherwise. She realized that she did not see anyone as she approached the door.

“How are you today?”

Roanne felt her scalp creep back from her forehead and the muscles of her shoulders tighten. Again, she turned her head to listen for any sound to indicate her child, Alexis, was awake. Her left arm tensed in anticipation of the need to force the door closed.

The man continued to smile, with a confidence that she associated with doctors and lawyers, just before they delivered bad news or a terminal diagnosis. She could imagine this man practicing his smile, the better to convince the other person of his good intention.

She tried to look past the man who stood on her porch wearing a suit that cost more than the Altima in the driveway. At the moment, Roanne desperately wanted to see a neighbor walk by, just so she could wave, call out a hello. She didn’t feel in danger, but if she could involve someone who didn’t have a large strange man standing in their doorway, then her feeling of threat might ease. It was the edge of the summer rental season in the Newtown section of Schifferville, so the only person she saw was a teenage boy mowing the front lawn of a house two doors down.

She reached to lock the screen door.

The man smiled and said, “I don’t need to come into your house today. I will, however, leave these papers out here on the porch. I suggest you read them and make the right decision. For your two children, if no one else.”

“You have a nice day.”

Roanne stood in the doorway, her left hand trying to push the wood door closed, yet not having any success.

The man stopped at the edge of the porch, put on a pair of very dark sunglasses and, without turning, said,

“When the time comes, you will invite me in. Be assured of that, little Lomasi, you will welcome me.”