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.”