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.”

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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.