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.”