Chapter 24

“Miss Clarieaux? There’s a Genevieve Novak on line 6.” Anya Clarieaux looked up from one of five LCD displays that lined two sides of her desk, the solid-state battlements of a 21st Century castle. Her office had one full wall of glass that overlooked Lake Michigan. Her official title was Administrative Assistant and the digital tendrils that formed the network of one of the largest IT companies in the world, came together in her office. In the unlikely event that she needed to write a resume, her current responsibilities would fit into two grammatically incorrect sentences: To make certain that nothing hindered the plans of the CEO. Solve any problems that threatened the good of the Omni Corp.

She tapped three keys in a certain sequence and all screens except one went blank. The last display went momentarily black, then returned to light having all the appearance of a mirror, complete with a gilt frame that would have made a certain fairy tale queen purse her lips in envy.

In the flawless, if not virtual, mirror, was the flawless, if not cosmetically enhanced, beauty of Anya Clarieaux. Her icy blonde hair framed a face that to anyone at a social distance was that of an attractive twenty-something professional woman. And she was that.  A professional woman. Her appearance to one who had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on the circumstance), to be closer than ‘social distance’ was more complicated. There is an interesting category of timeless sayings that have endured through the ages, despite having two decidedly opposite versions; ‘God lives in the details’ and ‘The Devil is in the details’. Either would apply were one to imagine what Anya Clarieaux truly looks like, ‘up close and personal’.

Satisfied that her appearance did not reflect her mood too accurately, she typed the caller’s name and read the profile that displayed all that was known about Genevieve Novak. There was nothing on the screen that Anya did not already know. The Omni Corp was in the information business and was very good at it. At the bottom of the profile, in very red font: ‘Current Nexus’ and below that, ‘Sister Margaret Ryan, novitiate at St. Dominique’s convent, Crisfield MD. *High value recruit (potential)*.’

“Genevieve! How are you? How is Miami? And Leland? Oh, sorry to hear that.” Anya began speaking even before the video image of the other woman appeared on the screen.

Genevieve Novak smiled in return, “Anya It’s good to see you again. When was it we were last together? At that Charity ball in Savannah, two years ago, wasn’t it? It was Save the Something-or-Other Precious-Whatever.”

“I remember that night! There was a certain Ambassador who did a remarkably accurate imitation of a college boy in love. Siegfried … Siegfried Rachnor, that was his name! He was so determined to make you understand what an influential man he was. I trust he made it home alright.” Leaning forward slightly, Anya made laughing sounds as she watched the woman on the screen. “So, what can I do for you?”

Genevieve smiled and said, “I’m doing some research on a young woman. She is creating the beginnings of some negative ripples in our company’s ‘Public Trust’ and ‘Non-negative Reliability’ space. Entirely online, through a surprisingly sophisticated campaign of layered, asymmetric social media programs. Still quite preliminary, no effect on ratings or stock health. However, contrary to the old saying, there is such a thing as bad publicity and the boss said to put a stop to it. One of my background searches shows she interacted with your company last year. I was wondering if it had been a significant enough event to create a record.”

“Sister Margaret Ryan?” Anya lowered her eyelids rather than her voice. She knew the other woman’s abilities well enough to take certain reasonable precautions. A casual observer would not have noticed any change in her demeanor. But then again, Anya Clarieaux rarely, if ever, interacted with casual observers. She smiled inwardly at the barely perceivable intake of breath, more visible than audible on the hi def display.

“You are good.” Genevieve looked to her left, picked up an old-fashioned steno pad and a yellow No. 2 pencil. “But that is what I like about you, always prepared and always having more information than the other person. So, can you tell me anything about our little nun that I can’t find on the internet?”

“She’s quite a remarkable young woman. Don’t let the Sally Fields get-up fool you. I’d suggest you try to recruit her, but I know her and I know the Bernebau Company. It’s unlikely she’d be interested and besides, your boss likes to keep the inner circle small. He’s not, from what I know, inclined to welcome talented young women into the family. Well, not very often.  ‘Fraid I don’t have much more than that. I won’t insult you by saying ‘be careful not to underestimate her’. For all of her gangly, sound-of-music enthusiasm she is a deceptively …able girl. If the truth be told, and we lowly admins always stick together, I did try to recruit her. She turned me down, of course. It wasn’t a total loss, sometimes getting a person accustomed to an idea involves provoking them. They believe that their rejection is the end of the effect. Of course, the first step in love and war is familiarity. Passion is always there, ready and patiently waiting for the opportunity.

She made a friend when she was out here last year, a homicide detective by the name of Maribeth Hartley. Very competent cop, if not a little high-strung.” Anya made a mental note of the dilation of the other woman’s pupils and continued,

“Sounds like our Sister Ryan is in total do-gooder mode. Don’t expect compromise. Hell, for that matter, don’t expect mercy. But then you and that impeccably dressed timber wolf, Constantin Szarbo, are not exactly ‘go along to get along’ types.”

Genevieve smiled at the compliment, “You should talk. If I had half the skill at behavioral control that you exert at the Omni Corp, I’d be in business for myself. You have an entire Board of Directors, as well as that silver fox of a CEO to keep in line.”

Anya laughed, a graceful shifting of every part of her face except her eyes. “Thank you, darling. But next to your mysterious Mr. St. Loreto, my CEO is Dave Thomas.”

Both women laughed. After a brief moment Anya said, “Hell, you could get any admin position in any company on the planet just by the resume entry, ‘Administrative Assistant to Cyrus St. Loreto’.” Anya noted the passing wistful look, the perfection of her face suddenly but only momentarily fading. “If I get anything new on our little red-haired friend, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

***

Sister Cletus rode in the passenger seat with her eyes closed, her face a peaceful if not time-wrinkled mask. One pale hand folded over the other, silver crucifix between her fingers like a bobber that marks the transition of a fisherman’s line from the world of men into a world easily observed, but little understood.

We approached the city by RT 76. On the right, the old, on the left, the new. The seaport in the far distance, the smokestacks of a power plant and the white tower of the old city hall; all the artifacts of power; all the rusted and dead shackles of the powerful. Like most cities, Philadelphia was born of commerce. The GPS whispered the series of turns and exits as we got closer to the hospital where my brother had been admitted.  I looked over at Sister Cletus and decided that I’d never advance in the Order if I wasn’t willing to take a chance. So, my head turned to face the old woman in the black and white uniform of our belief, I raised my right eyebrow. There was a distant honking noise and I managed, barely, to avoid a yellow Porsche that appeared in front of our SUV. I heard a chuckle.

“Practice, young Sister, practice is the path to nearly everything.” Turning and looking out at the skyline, she continued, “Mine was a wealthy and influential family, at least as influential as necessary given we lived in a small town in Croatia. My parents were good people and were well-regarded but none of that mattered when the Nazis arrived. They found the location of Sisak, where the Kupa and the Sava rivers combined to be a moderately useful place for a munitions and troop depot. Geography and strong young men were valuable to Hitler’s ambitions. Children were not.

One day I found myself standing in a long line of quietly crying children outside the train station in Sisak. I was ten years old and the line that I helped form ended in a rust-red train car. I remember noticing that there was chicken wire on the few windows that still opened. I had everything that mattered to me in a blue felt bag and I was three children from the train, when a tall, well-dressed man pointed at me, turned and pointed at the German soldier who seemed to be in charge. Two soldiers grabbed my arms and pulled me from the platform.  Belching sooty black smoke that barely escaped the stack before it fell to the ground, the train pulled out from the station and I remained alone with a total stranger. I survived and lived through the War, those on the train did not. The man’s name was Cyrus Dimineață. I lived in comfort, was educated in America and, for a time returned to Europe.”

Sister Cletus stopped talking and seemed to go away, in that way the elderly have of ceasing occupation of an unreliable vessel, choosing to take flight in the mind or the memory or maybe the emotions. I decided the conversation was over and concentrated on the road ahead.

“I’m sorry, Sister Ryan. The past has such power to call us, forgive my wandering mind.” She started to turn to face the passenger side window.

I reached over and touched her arm lightly and said, “And then you were accepted into the Order and began your life in service to our Lord. Right?” My voice was choking on the hope that her story was as simple and positive as I knew it could never be. I thought that if she would confirm my version of how it played out, it would make such an inspirational story. I even thought that maybe a wild-eyed student reporter, the one who wrote a story about how I was getting a graduate degree online might be interested. I smiled to myself.

I didn’t hear a response from Sister Cletus, so I glanced to my right and saw her smiling at me. I admit that I jumped in my seat, just a little. Rather than the wise-and-serene-old-woman look, thin lips pressed into a quiet smile, she was grinning at me. To further throw my off-balance, I heard her say, “Yeah, sure.”

When a person says or does something totally at odds with what you expect, the eyes are the give-away. Sister Cletus was one of the oldest-looking women I’d ever met. Her face was every badly folded roadmap, taken from a glove compartment when the signal fades for the GPS. To further accentuate the ravages of time and experience the traditional dress of our order, wimple and habit and veil, isolated the face. You cannot but focus on the active parts of the woman, her eyes and mouth. By design or by chance her habit provided the perfect framing of a portrait of the marks of a long life, writ in flesh, skin and muscle.

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Chapter 23

“Mr. Dumas! Glad you could make it. Please, come in. I was just about to settle back and enjoy the latest edition of our school’s illustrious newspaper. Allow me to read aloud.” Peering over the top edge of his reading glasses, Eberto Carloni stared at Alex Dumas and read,

“In next week’s Clarion: a tale of our times. ‘The Nun and the Billionaire’  ‘…David’s dress got longer, but Goliath still don’t stand a chance.’  The story of a young woman’s battle to save an old woman’s home from the money-lender’s greed. The age-old struggle between the powerful and…” 

Across the older man’s face, disapproval semaphored from the down-turned mouth and the gathering of eyebrows. In the depths of his eyes however, there was, for anyone young enough and perceptive enough, a young man waving a banner and a clenched fist. Alex Dumas possessed both those qualities, however he remained mostly ‘a young man’, distracted by the more prominent signals of disapproval. He was about to give up hope when he heard the nearly overweight man behind the desk say,

“Dude!

The Dean of the School of Journalism let his tablet fall to the green felt desk blotter and leaned back. His greying eyebrows relaxed, a silent flag of truce. The ability and willingness to relax was born from an attitude only occasionally exhibited among the dwindling population of full tenure professors. By training and temperament, acceptance of a situation was the useful side of the coin of resignation. While easy to confuse the two, one was far and away more likely to inspire laughter. Eberto Carloni began his teaching career well before there were personal computers. Of late, however, he found himself feeling that he had as much in common with his students as did the European missionary with an isolated tribe of aborigines. Depending on the day and particular academic calamity, he was capable of identifying with either.

“Alex, as faculty advisor to the Clarion, I need to remind you that this is still a college newspaper. Our charter is quite unambiguous; serve the interests of the students of UMUC by focusing on the affairs of the University, its faculty and students.”

Now nearing retirement, Eberto Carloni had long since become comfortable in the role of ‘straight-man’ when advising students, recognizing that of the two, he knew how the story ends.

Alex Dumas, as many intelligent people afflicted with youth, had a tendency to be tone-deaf to irony. Life behind protective ivy-covered walls, while nurturing idealism, tended to prolong immaturity. As the student editor of the UMUC Clarion, his contribution was an un-alloyed enthusiasm, one that inspired the students that made up the small staff.

Eberto Carloni smiled and pointed at the green wingback chair opposite the paper-and-plastic cluttered desktop, waited and watched as the young man let himself fall over the curved arm of the chair. One leg found the floor, the other hooked itself on the leather and brass tacks of the upholstered arm and got comfortable. Pulling his phone from his knapsack, he looked up, face cautiously defiant. Alex liked Professor Carloni.

“No, nothing bad. Your first story, the profile of the young nun enrolled in the graduate program online? Excellent work! You took what, in  lesser hands, would have been an information filled brochure for our online programs and brought it to life. That nun, Sister Margaret? She was perfect for the write-up. Your story is just the kind of thing the endowment committee likes to see, something that’ll get the alumni feeling proud of their old school. Well done. Just one problem. Your upcoming story, with the rather amusing Dickensian subtitle, complete with biblical allusion? Now, that is a horse of a different color.”

“Oh man. Doc, but that’s the real story. That’s the story that needs to be written!” A look of growing suspicion stepped out of the grad student’s eyes and climbed down his face, pressing down the edges of his smile.  As emotion tends to be continuous, like the candy buttons on an endless strip of waxed paper, suspicion shifted seamlessly into anger. “The Bernebau Company has connections? Here at the school? No fricken way.”

“Yes, fricken way.”

“Does that mean I can’t run the story?”

Eberto Carloni, with the safety net of tenure and an oddly impermeable confidence in his intellect, often indulged himself in the use of slang and cultural references. He particularly enjoyed quoting lines from movies, both current and ancient. He was well aware that slang is the ultimate insider language, defying any and all outsiders from willful appropriation. Though decreasing in frequency, an integral part of a tenured professor’s duties meant attending quasi-social gatherings of department heads and members of the school’s administration. Much to his wife’s dismay, Eberto was inclined to punctuate his statements, observations and exclamations with words not of common currency among the academic class. He enjoyed the look on the faces of those he felt needed to be addressed as ‘dude’. On other occasions, he had been heard to conclude a brilliant analysis of an intractable problem in semiotics by letting his glasses fall to the end of their cloth leashes, pinching the bridge of his nose, as if forcing one last grain of wisdom from his mind, looking around and saying, ‘What the fuck! ya know?’

“Bonasera, Bonasera, What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”  Eberto made certain to turn his chair so as to present a profile as he waited for the movie reference to register in the very agile mind of the young man. His favorite grad student appeared exceptionally distracted, not even bothering to look up the quote on his phone. Realizing the moment had passed, he turned and look at the young man and said, “Alex, of course you’re to run the story. I mean, come on, do I look like a lackey of the administration?”

Alex Dumas let out a sigh of relief and tried to present a more professional appearance.  He thought to take his leg off the arm of the chair. Smiling back at the man he sometimes described to friends as, ‘Mr. French with a touch of Jules Winfield’, he said, “but, there is always a ‘but’ and I hear one hanging in the air.”

Eberto leaned forward. “Good boy. You’re learning. Finally I get to talk to you as your advisor.”

They both laughed.

“You’re going to be a good writer someday. Probably turn pro, if you want it badly enough. As for a career in journalism, you’d better hurry the hell up. There are few remaining positions in journalism not a step up from technical writer at a cell phone manufacturer. The problem is you are entering the field at the dawn of ‘the Age of the Amateur’.”

The frown on Alex’s face was accompanied by his leaning forward, tilting towards an uncomfortable wind. ‘Amateur’. Eberto saw the reaction and, ignoring it, said, “How is this story doing out there on the inter webs?”

“You know we haven’t published…”

The older man let one eyebrow loose and stared at the young man, “I know that. I still have some authority in this place. I mean out there, on whatever platform you have it on.”

The frown on Alex’s face, like fog evaporating from a meadow, turned into a sheepish look, “Trending pretty damn good.”

There is the difference, and the definition of the ‘Age of the Amateur’. We are entering a time of steroidal egalitarianism. Everyone can be anything, provided they have enough time and bandwidth. I’ll spare you the lecture and, as scriptwriters once noted, ‘cut to the chase’. You will have interest in your story. There will be  people who want to help you and people who will want to stop you. And, in this bizarro wild west culture of instant gratification, you need to be strong. And, the only useful definition of true strength comes from a very old and very dead man, ‘To thine own self be true’

And, my talented young friend, since you’re determined to play out on the mean streets, instead of the safe playground our university provides, let me remind you, it’s one thing to learn things about people and it’s another thing entirely to tell everyone what you believe you’ve learned. One is your right; the other is not. This is particularly appropriate to your upcoming story. You are talking about very powerful people, which means very dangerous people.” Eberto looked up, the younger man struggled to understand.

“This is exactly my point. Right there! You’re thinking of the Bernebau Company and it’s rather mysterious and scary owner, while I meant both parties.” Alex Dumas looked genuinely surprised.

“Not to condescend, but you’re obviously not accepting which of the two organizations represented in your expose has the longer history of destroying those it considers to be working against its interests.

It’s like doing a story on a crocodile and focusing on the teeth and mouth. You don’t want to get your legs broken by a part of the animal that you did not find interesting enough to pay attention to, careers end that way all the time. Hell, lives end that way all the time.

Be careful. You’re at the start of a career. You don’t have to do it all with this one story. Write enough to get the attention of the established professionals, the news services. Once you do, and this the most important part of my sermon and the part that you are at a genetic and chronological disadvantage to understanding, let them carry the story. Get them to spell your name correctly and if they’re willing to do that, you have taken the first step to becoming a professional writer.

I will now say, “Do I make myself clear?” and you nod your head and say, “As an unmuddied lake, sir.  As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer. You can rely on me, sir.”

The young man looked puzzled at what he assumed was another of the other man’s movie references.

“A Northern English accent would totally be right.”

***

“Mayor? Mr. St Loreto? Could you step over a little and let the Crisfield Crusaders gather round you for a shot.” The photographer for the County Times, Lester Deschanes, waved at the boys in their blue and grey uniforms as they filed off the school bus.

Zacharia Renaude hated baseball, but loved his mother. Because of that most deadly of emotional addictions, he stood on the field, un-scuffed fielders glove on his left hand and tried to look like he didn’t want to run away. He considered it, running away, but then saw his mother get out of a very cool car with a man he immediately did not like. The Little League  team cancelled a game in order to get on a bus and come to drive to his mother’s housing development and have their pictures taken with the Mayor.

Zacharia was there because he was on the team. The only reason he was on the team was that when she suggested he try out, she seemed so happy. He forced himself to join the team, go to practice and play left field. He did everything a good Little Leaguer did, except enjoy himself. But he didn’t need to enjoy any of it, as long as his mother was happy.

Chapter 22

“No, I don’t have an appointment. My name is Sister Margaret Ryan and I’d like to speak to Mrs. Renaude.”

If it weren’t for the young girl at the reception desk, I would’ve just walked to the back of the real estate office. The only private office was in the back left corner, visible from where I stood. The wall dividing it from the open office space was transparent and, from what I could see, everything inside the office was glass. I saw a blonde woman in a dark suit seated at a large desk, also made of glass. The desk, not the woman. She was attractive enough to make an impression clear across the first floor space. Her posture caught my attention, noticeably upright and vertical. There was a sense of pressure and stress to the way she sat that bordered on rigid, even after factoring in the Jetson’s decor. Directly across from her was a man with dark hair and the kind of profile that made beginning writers look up synonyms for regal, inherent power and natural charm. In contrast to the woman, he looked powerful, competent and relaxed. He looked as comfortable seated in the expensive, but still business class furniture, as he might had he  just stepped off his yacht and was having drinks on a restaurant patio people-watching the tourists milling along the Quai Gabriel Péri in Saint-Tropez.

It didn’t look like a pleasant, social visit. I reminded myself that this was a business and clients can do what they want, even make their agent look like they wished they’d studied accounting and had become CPAs. The woman possessed a certain economy of gesture often seen in naturally powerful women. The glass wall and fifty feet between them and myself made me think of the old nature films I used to watch on youtube.  I heard the girl at the reception desk say, “Should I tell her you’re not in?”

The blond woman’s eyes rose as she spoke on the phone. I noticed she chose to pick up the handset, even though the receptionist hit ‘Intercom’ on her phone; she shook her head with a rueful smile. Her visitor, his sculpture-worthy profile visible at this, distance appeared to be amused at the exchange.

“She says you should leave a number where she can reach you and she’ll be happy  to follow-up.” Celeste said, in between glances towards her boss’s office.

I began to feel like you feel when the roller coaster car is almost to the top of the first big drop-off, that maybe dropping in on the Bernebau Company’s local realtor wasn’t my best idea. “Here, let me leave you my email. Mrs. Renaude can reach me there.” I picked up a note pad on the girls desk, wrote it down and turned to leave.

The fingers of my right hand had just wrapped themselves around the old-fashioned polished brass door handle, when I heard a man’s voice, “Sister Ryan. How fortuitous your choosing today to stop by my broker’s office!”

Some men have loud voices. All too often they are men who have little to say. Lacking confidence in the content of their message, they compensate with volume. Even if you might have no interest in what they say, said loudly enough and you will hear them. There is a (much smaller) group who have the ability to project their voice. Common to stage actors and politicians, it’s a talent for some and a skill for the remainder. Volume is not only irrelevant, more often than not, it’s counter-productive. The skill lies in creating a spoken message that makes the listener want to connect, if only to enjoy the tone of the voice, the shaping of the sound.

The man walking towards me was different. It wasn’t the volume that carried from the back of the real estate office to the reception area that made me look longingly towards the exit. It was that I felt, as much as heard, his voice. It was like he was standing just an inch beyond my personal space. Somehow I had the impression that he was whispering to me, yet the words were cloaked in a vitality that lost nothing for the fifty feet of air that separated his mouth from my ear. The sound made me remember my senior year in high school, when a boy asked me to go with him to a carnival. There was excitement and imagined danger in the rides and an unfamiliar feeling of energy, my being out in a strange place with bright lights after dark. I found that I did not particularly enjoy reliving the memory here, standing in a real estate office in the middle of the day with an attractive man drawing closer with each graceful step.

By the time I turned around, the man who only an instant before had been sitting comfortably in an office chair at the far end of the office, was standing in front of me. He smiled in a way that made me think of wolves and hyenas. He was very charming.

“I apologize for being so forward. I am Cyrus St. Loreto. I own the Bernebau Company and I believe you are looking for me.”

I allowed him to take my hand and pull me slightly back towards the reception area. I reluctantly let go of the brass door handle.

“Perhaps we could talk a bit. You surely have some questions for me, am I correct?”

I thought, ‘I now appreciate the use of an odd, old word. This guy is both charming and mesmerizing’. Despite the insight, the fingers of my left hand remained, bent over the ridge of his hand, held in place by how good it felt at the moment. I thought he was going to kiss my hand, but then he raised both eyebrows, as if seeing my habit for the first time and managed to appear to be a sixteen year old boy, trying to stifle his embarrassment. I fought the urge to giggle. There was a distant part of my mind yelling, like a person in a hot air balloon passing flood victims standing on the roof of their half-submerged houses. I knew that there was something important that I should understand, yet all I could do was smile and wait.

Something passed over his face, a cloud-shadow racing across a clearing in a primordial wood. The man stood more erect, his eyes became hooded and, surely a trick of the eye, his ears seemed to pull tighter to his head.

“Sister Margaret, I believe you and I are expected at the hospital. Say goodbye to Mr. St Loreto and we’ll be on our way.” Somehow Sister Cletus was standing to my right, her very old and wrinkled hand on my forearm. It did not feel like she was grabbing my arm, rather it felt like I was leaning towards her.

The man let go of my hand and looked at Sister Cletus with what I assumed was intended to be a smile, the look in his eyes, however, made the word ‘acknowledgment’ come to mind. Smiles were created by man as soon as there were more than three people. While it can convey a number of different meanings, ultimately it was the badge of man, risen above the rule of the jungle. Many want to interpret the look on a tiger’s face as a smile (provided we can observe it from a safe distance), its a safe bet that no other animal in the forest would let their guard down seeing the corners of the predator’s mouth turn upwards.

“Svenlenka! Au fost mulți ani.” (Svenlenka! It has been many years.) A certain energy rose from his eyes.

“Cyrus. Da, dar pentru unii ani nu ajută.” (Cyrus. Yes, but for some the years do not matter.) Sister Cleutus’ s voice changed. Not louder or even stronger, simply more certain. The tentativeness we hear in the speech of an old person is often due not to uncertainty as much as the lack of urgency. It’s an essential paradox of the elderly, the less time that (may remain for them), the less need they have to hurry. Sister Cletus sort of sounded like the Mother Superior, but there was an added sophistication that made each word a multifaceted jewel.

“Este tragic că taxele anilor sunt exact pentru unii dintre noi.” (It is tragic, the toll the years exact from some of us.)

Now free of my momentary paralysis, I turned slightly and looked at Sister Cletus. Her face was different. Still wrinkled with softened canyons ranging down from her eyes, rounded flesh hanging beneath her pale blue eyes. There was something else there a power that, like the light of an arc welder reflected off the sooty, metal walls of a factory, made you step back, look away.

“Shall we go, Sister Margaret?” She was looking past me.

“Until next time, Svetlana.” The man turned his attention to me and I began to hear the carnival sounds in my mind, “My young novitiate, if I may offer a word of advice. It’s in the form of a very old saying, your Sister Cletus will surely translate for you, once she has you safely away. “Cel mai bine este să vezi întregul animal înainte de a începe să-ți tragi coada.” (It’s best to see the whole animal before you begin to pull on it’s tail).

***

“Detective Trahmani? Child services just called. They picked up a girl down on the boardwalk, had runaway written all over her. In any event, she didn’t want to tell the social worker where she was from, yeah, I know, there’s a shocker. But she had a cell phone, of course. Once Lydia got it from the girl, we got everything. Name, address email, everything.” Sitting in the uncharacteristically quiet dispatch room, Hazel Salmone, anticipated a congratulation from the detective. After six years on the job, she knew more about the people who worked in the Atlantic City Police Department, except for the one person that mattered the most to her. Not that she ever shared that with the detective in question.

“That’s kinda heart-warming, Hazel. I can’t remember the last time I took the time to watch the Afternoon Special. Tell me something I care about.”

“Her last name is Avila.”

“What!?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, did I reveal confidential information protected by rules of Child Services? I take it all back. Do me a favor. When a detective finds their way up there into the squad room and lets slip a desire to solve some crime, ask them to give me a call. Tell them to ask for the Admin. Thats spelled with an ‘a”. Hazel hung up the phone and smiled.

Chapter 21

“Mother Superior, may I borrow the car?”

Smiles grew in unison on the faces of the young novitiate and the Mother Superior. The canvas, upon which the second oldest human facial expression is painted, the two could not have been more dissimilar. The result was vivid (and audible) proof of the power of a meeting of opposites.

The young woman expressed, in the quickness of her grin, simple joy, so abundant in youth. One could be forgiven for thinking, ‘if she assessed the situation before reacting, she might be less disappointed with life’. Smooth skin and un-lined face seemed ill-equipped to hide the echo of her reactions to the world around her. Green eyes flashed above a smile showing white teeth; both capable of serving as warning and welcome. Of course, there was a certain matter of an extra half-inch of upturning on one side of that smile.  A wisecrack fidgeted behind the grin, barely under control.  She bent her head downwards in an effort to shade the uncomplicated joy taking possession of her face. She immediately glanced up, like a girl cautiously looking up beyond the edge of an umbrella, the better to judge the conditions around her.

The head of the convent, was an effective leader in large part because she never forgot what it was to be young. She heard the nun’s question and she remembered. Her eyes lit up as she watched across the polished expanse of her desk. The rest of her face, smooth brown leather (which, with each passing year, increasingly became wrinkled brown leather), was less agile than that of the younger woman. This decreased range of motion, the result of both practice of leadership and the effects of the responsibility she bore as Mother Superior. The clothing that marked membership in the Order, while both a badge of honor and a uniform of service, limited the range of physical expression available to the woman wearing it. As a result, intended or otherwise, there was an emphasis on the face for conveying both thought and emotion.  The Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s convent watched the young nun react to her own words. It’s said that incongruity is the bedrock of humor, the multiple contexts of her question was proof. Laughter itself is prayer to the sometimes playfulness of everyday reality.

Sister Bernadine possessed an ability to ‘grin with her eyes’, that was all it took for Sister Margaret Ryan’s self-control to dissolve into laughter.

Maintaining her formal and authoritative posture, the Mother Superior raised one eyebrow and, with a deadpan that a professional comedian would envy, said, “If you’ve finished your chores, you may. I want you back home in time for dinner.”

Sister Ryan laughed with her entire body. Her arms, legs, torso and head resonated with her outburst of simple joy. Standing before the solid formality of the desk, she bent slightly at the waist, rocking gracefully, like a sapling waving in a strong breeze.

Sitting on the opposite side of the desk, Sister Bernadine laughed and the room, (and the building beyond), echoed her un-restrained laughter. A mountain rather than a sapling.

Finally the laughter died down. Everyday reality reasserted itself and Sister Margaret’s simple seven word question became…a simple seven word question.

“Your brother is still in the hospital?” The older woman’s voice held concern for the brother of the younger woman. The penetrating gaze in her eyes held concern for the younger woman.

“Yes. Last week, my mother called to tell me, just in passing, that Matt was running a fever and seemed to have the flu. Yesterday she called to say he was still running a fever and that his doctor insisted he be admitted to the hospital.” Sister Ryan frowned, her attempt to sound like she was relating routine news sounded anything but routine.

“Do me a favor and take Sister Cletus along with you.” The older woman’s tone was one of a simple, off-the-cuff suggestion.

Sister Ryan walked towards the door and stopped, “For moral support? I’m good. I’ve got everything under control. Nothing too exciting in my life this week.” She looked at the floor, as if afraid that locking eyes with Sister Bernadine would lay bare parts of her life she felt needed hiding. She was correct in her caution. However, she underestimated the other woman by an order of magnitude.

“No. Just want someone I trust to have your back.” The Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s looked down at her desk top. Her ability to concentrate formidable; had there been a door in the middle of the office between the two woman and she’d gotten up and closed it, that their conversation was over would not have been any clearer.

***

Celeste Ridgely felt a shiver pull at the skin beneath her shoulder blades as the small brass bell bounced on the curved hanger over the entrance to Renaude and Associates. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the old man standing in front of her desk. She hit her knee on the desk in her haste to turn and welcome the visitor. To her unconscious surprise, she was relieved to have a momentary excuse to put off facing the man.

“Good mornin, darlin. You mind tellin me if your boss is in this morning?” The softest of drawls almost covered a harsher accent, like a layer of fresh dirt on an old grave. Very blue eyes looking down at her tipped the impression of his voice in favor of the more familiar southern accent. The twenty-year-old girl was unable to refrain from giggling. She giggled right after looking up at the tall, smiling man, mostly because she was twenty years old. In her defense, twenty years is rarely enough time to develop the self-control to successfully hide the emotional jolt that results from going from dread to infatuated, without enough time to say hello.

Celeste tilted her head upwards, a small garden sunflower responding to un-imaginable power. A raised eyebrow caused her to come out of her trance and nod her head. She thought that the man looked like a cross between Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Gosling and wondered why she thought his hair was grey or that he was old. It was clear to her this visitor was very charming and not from Crisfield.

“Mmm… Miss?” The man reached over her desk, his dazzling smile migrating to his eyes and picked up the name plate on her desk. “Celeste? Beautiful name, my first serious girlfriend’s name was Celeste. Is Drusilla…”

Fumbling for the handset, she punched in the extension number, heard an annoying beeping noise, looked down at the display and re-entered the correct three digit code. She heard a tine, “Yes, Celeste? What…” then silence.

Looking up, ready to apologize for her boss, Celeste Ridgely completed the very short romantic arc that began with the sound of a bell. The broad, well-tailored back of the man was gliding down the aisle, past the empty agent desks, towards the back of the office. She felt a relief that had nothing to cling to and so, dissipated. Later, meeting friends after work, she would tell them, ‘…this man with incredible eyes came in to see Ms. Renaude. His smile was scary, sexy. He was kind of attractive.’

“Drusilla! I know I should have called ahead! I was dropping Arlen off after our visit to the very charming Martha’s Vineyard and I thought, ‘Why not stop and see Dru?’ So here I am. Hope I’m not interrupting anything important.”

***

“Let me help you with that seat belt, Sister Cletus.” I finished punching in the address of the hospital into the GPS and leaned over to get the loose end of her seat belt properly engaged. She smiled her thanks and closed her eyes. I tried to remember if I’d had the opportunity to drive her anywhere. I couldn’t remember and said a prayer that she wasn’t one of the older nuns who tended to get car sick.  Securing my own seatbelt, I pulled out of the driveway and headed away from the convent.

Stopping at the sign at Rt 413, I turned right instead of left. Sister Cletus, without opening her eyes, said, “A side trip, young sister?”

“Just a short ride into town. I want to see if I can get lucky and…” I saw her right eye brow go up and her lips tighten their hold on what sounded like the first of an outburst of laughter. Forgetting to wonder how she knew where we were at the moment, seeing how there were at least 2 major and three minor turns on the route from the convent to Rt 413, I laughed.

“I mean, there’s a realtor in town that’s doing some work for a company that I’m interested in and I thought I might talk to the woman who owns it. The real estate company, not the company that’s foreclosing on my mother’s house.” I frowned, thinking that I was talking too much, looked at the road ahead and resolved to think before talking, at least for the rest of the day.

“That sounds like a delightful diversion,” Sister Cletus said with genuine enthusiasm, “The side trip into town, not your online campaign against the Bernebau people.” She looked out her passenger window. A very pale, daytime reflection grew in the window glass. It was of her, of course, but smoothed of the stress and corrugations of 80 years of life. Just for a second, I saw a young Sister Cletus.

We drove in silence the rest of the way to the small business district of Crisfield. Once we were on West Main St, the buildings grew taller and commercial in character. I saw the sign for the real estate company on the front of a building that appeared to have once been a department store. Back when there were department stores. As I drove by I could see that Renaude and Associates had the left half of the ground floor. The original plate glass showroom windows put most of the interior in view. There was a  receptionist left of the door and one desk, exceptionally cluttered, on the far left. Beyond both were rows of desks with short dividers, looking, for some reason like old-fashioned spats in the otherwise modern business office.

The parking downtown was, like the ribs of a dinosaur, at an angle with the metal lollipops of parking meters marking each space. I tried to imagine how different the world must have been when they came up with that design. Easy enough to get into, but an insurance agent’s nightmare when backing out to leave. I was spared the decision, as there were no empty spots. A block further down West Main was the Post Office and beyond that, a small park that looked out towards the docks and the Bay beyond.

“Sister, I’ll only be a minute. I’ll park here by the Post Office, you’ll have a nice view of the boats and the water. Be back before you know it.” I was out of the SUV before I finished talking. I immediately felt guilty, turned, opened the driver’s door and put the keys in the ignition. “In case you want to listen to the radio.” I returned Sister Cletus’s smile, felt better and headed up the block to the real estate company.

Chapter 20

“Knock, Knock.”

Even before looking up from her computer screen, Drusilla Renaude’s scalp tingled as countless hair follicles attempted to follow a primitive directive to rise and make the young woman appear larger than life. This, surely the most fundamental of human defensive strategies, was the last resort when flight was not an option.

Her office was mostly glass and had a single entrance, which was the current location of the perceived threat. Still very much on a pre-conscious level, she recognized the voice as belonging to Constantin Szarbo, which in and of itself, was sufficient cause to trigger an alarm response. As her higher brain centers came on-line, the sounds could be interpreted; an onomatopoeic greeting more commonly found among casual friends in an informal setting. That neither of those social contexts came even close to an accurate description of the moment was, of course, irrelevant. It was the incongruity of the style of greeting that caused her body to  increase the levels of adrenaline in her bloodstream.

Drusilla was a talented and accomplished woman, not given to being intimidated. She paused in her acknowledgement of the man’s presence longer than the distance, volume and source of the two words should warrant.  Twisting her hips and legs to the left, visible through the glass-topped desk as one half of a pair of quotation marks, her upper body turned, courtesy of the swivel-bearing in her chair, to face the door into her office. Had he not already been long dead and buried, Isaac Newton would have smiled in approval at her strategic application of his Third Law of Motion.

“Yes?” The owner of Renaude and Associates presented a welcoming smile appropriate to asking a stranger who has clearly lost their way, if they need some direction.

The doorway of her office was full of Constantin Szarbo. He was impeccably dressed in a suit from Savile Row, shoes from the Marche region of Italy, wristwatch from La Chau-de-Fonds in Switzerland and a smile from the primordial jungle.

***

Sister Catherine stood in the doorway and surveyed the room, it was as she imagined, given her relationship as the girl’s seventh grade teacher. To her mother’s eyes, however, Patrice Avila’s bedroom was as vacant as an empty cardboard box. The lack of a favorite backpack on the bed, enough missing clothes to leave gaps in the closet and a half-closed bureau drawer, whispered ‘missing’.

Above the bureau, like a police line-up for celebrities, Patrice had carefully taped photos of her favorite singers and other people significant in the half-real, half-dream world of a teenage girl. One photo was missing, that of a young Taylor Swift. Roanne recalled the day the photo arrived at the house. The runners-up prize in a ‘Complete That Lyric’ contest sponsored by the singer’s record company, it was delivered by FedEx, a touch that added an exotic flourish to the over-sized shipping envelope. It could have been a telegram from Stockholm announcing the award of the Nobel Prize, for the look on the young girl’s face.  It was a publicity photo with ‘Chase your dream before it gets away’, written above the singer’s signature. All in the too-perfect cursive handwriting that some people managed after years of practice and every computer printer had as one of ten default fonts. Roanne was silent on her opinion of the singer and vocal in joining her daughter’s celebration of being singled out from the countless other fans.

Roanne Avila stood in the middle of the small, bed-centric room and tried not to cry.

Sister Catherine stood in the doorway and tried to not remember a time when she felt like both the mother and the absent daughter. She felt fear permeating the air, driving out the childishly persistent scent of the perfume currently favored by seventh grade girls. Her lips together in the pressed-smile of the determined introvert, the older woman put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and with a roughness that was both deliberate and long practiced, said, “That will be enough of that, Miss Avila. We have work to do so let’s get to it.”

***

I took a bit of a side trip to the living room; down a side hall, across the landing of the back staircase and into the kitchen. My decision to make my entrance by way of the dining room made before I was aware of it being a consideration. Sister Cletus was sitting at the kitchen table, shelling peas. She was listening to the old tube radio that sat on the top of the refrigerator, it’s yellowed dial glowing with a dying light. The chain-linked notes of Bach fell off the white cliff of the Amana and spilled across the black-and-white tile floor. She looked up with an intensity that caused me to bump my leg on the corner of the table. I laughed self-consciously.

The intricate hieroglyphics of wrinkles on the old woman’s face reconfigured around her eyes and she smiled. Something in her smile made me feel very young and somehow un-worthy. Sitting alone in the kitchen, a blue and pink-banded ceramic bowl, half-full of green peas, the look on her face wasn’t any as simple as the peacefulness of the elderly. Everything about the old nun projected competence, the full-hearted embracing of a mundane household task. The overt show of effort that’s all too often observed whenever an expert performs a task, be it art or science, oratory or music seemed bumbling and self-important in comparison to what I saw in Sister Cletus’s face.

I walked into the living room. A young man, his back to me, was looking at the photos on the top shelf of the bookcase. Before he could turn, I said, “Hi! I’m Sister Margaret. You must be Alex Dumas from the University of Maryland.”

It worked. He was startled, tried to turn too quickly and sort of stumbled in place. His mouth and eyes got into a fight and neither won. He looked at me, clearly at a loss for words, a confident smile crumbling into goofiness.

He was well over six feet tall, had very dark hair cut in what should be referred to as ‘rake occasionally’ style and his jacket was a once-expensive sports coat. Once he recovered from the shock to his expectations, his eyes took over the conversation. I felt for the crucifix at my waist and smiled up at him.

“Hey pleasure to meet you Sister Ryan! I’m Alex Dumas. No, no relation, but thanks for being well read enough to ask.” The young man seemed to have difficulty remaining still. He remained standing in the same spot, in front of the bookcase, but everything about him gave the impression of being in motion. I decided to make it easier on both of us.

“Alex, would you like a tour of the grounds?” I started walking to the front door as I said the word ‘you’. It was a trick I learned from Sister Bernadine. I figured if it helped her control student population of a hundred and fifty plus students, it would work on my guest.

I walked just ahead of him towards the front door. I didn’t slow down, fortunately he managed to get to the door before I walked into it.

“So tell me about this story you think you want to write about me or the Order or modern online education. Sounds fascinating. Do you have a website?”

***

“So, are you hitting that yet?” Cyrus St. Loreto spoke conversationally to the broad expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

“What?” Arlen felt a flush of referred embarrassment warm his face and pretended to be interested in the roof of the house, the better to see if their real estate agent was in earshot. Like the projections of an animated sundial, the two men formed competing gnomes at disparate points on the broad expanse of the mahogany deck. The last of the three properties that Arlen had arranged to see, the house sat at a ridge in the middle of a meadow. It overlooked the endless sand that formed the southerly shore of Martha’s Vineyard. Cyrus had taken Arlen up on his offer to stay at his family’s summer home in Oak Bluffs. The company jet stopped in Maryland and in less than two hours landed at the airport in Vineyard Haven. There was a car and driver waiting for the two men.

To Arlen’s increased discomfort, he  realized he was making an effort to project a tone of ‘what are you talking about?’ The implications of a need to pretend he didn’t know who Cyrus was referring to complicated the calculus of a business/pleasure relationship. Instinctively, he recognized that the question wasn’t merely crude sexual innuendo or off-color humor in the service of social bonding. While he had no problem accepting that Cyrus’s question was, at least in part, a dominance move, the fact was the owner of the Bernebau Company never gave the impression that he cared what other people might think of him. That was one of the things Arlen admired the most in his weekend guest.

He wanted to let Cyrus St Loreto to believe that he did not have complete control of the relationship. Walking across the deck, towards the other man and the growing dusk, Arlen said, “Nah, I figured I’d save some for you.”

Cyrus turned and looked at Arlen with an expression that was both challenging and appraising. The silence stretched out like molten glass between the two men and the glowing spot where the ocean swallowed the sun.

He laughed. His laughter woke the sea birds hidden in the waving dune grass and made the animals that hunted in the early summer dusk, freeze in an ebony stalk.

***

“I haven’t seen a case of rabies in over 17 years.” Dr. Henshaw looked at the old woman and wondered at the power of the human will to resist the ravages of the world. “And that case involved a young girl who had just moved to Philadelphia from Haiti.”