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.

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