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.

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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.