Chapter 4

Sister Bernadine appeared in the back of my classroom, a minute before the lunch bell rang. As she scanned the room, I was certain that, somehow, she knew everything important about each of my pupils. Her dark face was quiet; her eyes were, as always, intense. The bell rang and the children, remaining at their desks, looked up at me. The Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s parochial school smiled and I felt like I’d just won the Gold Medal in the Teaching Third Graders Finals.

“Children? We have a visitor! It’s Sister Bernadine.”

As nearly one voice, though Timmy Lewis lagged just a bit, creating the slightest of echoes, the class said, “Good Morning Sister Bernadine. Welcome to our classroom.”

A  dark-haired boy with the delightfully archaic name of Zacharia, remained silent. His attention was on Sister Bernadine, completely ignoring his classmates. That was an interesting reaction for a third grade boy, since most have the attention span of a year old beagle riding in a car with the window down.

“Good Morning, Sister Ryan’s class!” Sister Bernadine was capable of producing a sound that was loud but not jarring. She had talent for commanding attention. Earlier in the year, I watched her stop a fight between two eighth grade boys, with barely the volume heard in a confessional, on a summer’s Saturday afternoon. “William… Theodore… stop.”  More impressive than the immediate cessation of pre-adolescent hostilities, their attention was riveted on her. Her voice commanded and her eyes captured.

Now, in my class, just before lunch period, she employed her joyful voice. It not only caused the children to become quiet, it somehow inspired anticipation of something exciting. They looked at her with smiles that hoped for a surprise, but were satisfied with simply being the object of her attention.

“Eat all of your lunch, leaving nothing to waste. I want you to thank the cafeteria ladies. Then, enjoy your recess. ” She moved her gaze over the class like a spotlight at a Hollywood premiere. “Anthony! Good soccer game last week. Britney, I liked your ‘Show and Tell’ about your grandmother’s knitting needles. Very well done.”

It wasn’t just that Anthony and Britney looked like they’d died and gone to heaven. The proof of her talent for leadership was the expression on the faces of all the other children in the class. Nowhere was the slightest hint of resentment at not being singled out by name.  Instead, I saw a kind of faith, usually seen only in young children, dogs and the elderly infirm. My third graders knew that Sister Bernadine was different from most adults. If she had said, “Lets all go jump off the roof’, there would have been a stampede on the stairwell.

She stepped into the room and, without a word, nodded towards the corridor. Twenty-five third graders filed out of the class amid whispered laughter. It wasn’t simply that they were doing as they were told. They exuded a group pride, much as would an elite athletic team, following a strenuous (and successful) performance.

“I need you to cover Sister Catherine’s class this afternoon.” Sister Bernadine walked to the front of the room, as my eight and nine-year-olds headed down the corridor to the cafeteria.

“Certainly, Reverend Mother. Is Sister Catherine not well?” I felt a twinge of shame for deciding to remain seated. ‘A strategic position’, whispered a part of my mind that I thought was gone, driven out by boredom, ‘the better to hold your own with Sister Bernadine’, it insinuated.

“She and Father Morgan went to the home of one of her students, the Avila girl.’  She paused, surely reviewing the files in her head that she maintained on… everyone. “Patrice. Patrice Avila. Quite bright, a bit of a handful. Her mother, Roanne, was a student here. She had, in fact, been one of Sister Catherine’s pupils. Nice girl. Grew up too fast. She received a visit yesterday from the State Police. Her husband Roger was found dead in a motel room in Atlantic City. He worked as a blackjack dealer at one of the casinos. Terrible thing.”

My mind replayed a memory from the previous week. I’d come upon Sister Catherine erasing, over and over, the blackboard in her empty classroom. I quietly sat at one of the student desks and waited until, finally, she stopped. After staring out the window at the schoolyard for what must have been fifteen minutes, she turned and said, “We have these children in our care for the most important years of their lives. We are not their parents but we are, sometimes, their family in every way important, other than being blood relatives. We are with them as they grow into the world. It’s here, in these classrooms, our pupils learn that the world is bigger than they can know. Home and family are not always synonymous.”

I considered telling Sister Bernadine about my afternoon with Sister Catherine. However, as much as the Reverend Mother assumes responsibility for everyone and everything that happens here at the Convent, even she has limits. An old trait, holding on to information for no reason other than it might prove valuable at a later time, asserted itself and I said nothing. I did not feel good about myself.

Looking up,  I saw Sister Bernadine staring at me. Her expression made me wonder, for the umpteenth time, if she was at least partially telepathic. I refrained from asking about funeral arrangements, as Sister Bernadine never left the Convent grounds.

“I’ll get her class started on a study project as soon as they return from lunch. Just stick your habit in the door every 20 minutes or so.” She smiled at her joke and left without saying goodbye.

***

“I understand you’ve some experience with foreclosed properties.  You started in the business with Joe Sato, up in Atlantic City?” Drusilla Renaude sat opposite Arlen Mayhew in a window booth, in ‘Nan’s Crabshack’, overlooking Tangier Sound.

“First broker. Where I started, after giving up teaching. Learned more about sales from him in six months than most agents do in two years. The man do know how to sell.” Arlen paused in folding his napkin, a ritual that was present in every meal not taken at home, and thought about how he came to be having lunch with his broker.

He preferred to start his workdays in the very early morning. On this Friday, the end of his first full week with Renaude and Associates, he’d finally gotten his desk the way he liked it. Just after one o’clock, as if on impulse, Dru Renaude stopped on her way out of the office and suggested that they have lunch together. Arlen said yes, being totally certain that Drusilla Renaude did very little on impulse.

“Yeah. Old school, Joe is. Probably the best salesman I’ve ever met. He can close anyone. It didn’t matter whether the client was a millionaire looking for a beach house in Ocean City or a young family looking for their first home, Joe treated them the same. They were his. Too many young agents think selling is about the houses or the financing or, even the qualifications of the buyer. It isn’t. It’s about people. Joe Sato knows people. He sells people, he doesn’t sell houses.

“I’m glad to hear you say that. Joe thinks very highly of you, as well.”

Arlen raised an eyebrow and Dru laughed.

“You thought your resume and your understated charm were sufficient for me to invite you to join us at Renaude and Associates?”

Arlen smiled, “Well, I did make you laugh in the course of the interview.”

“When? I don’t recall laughing. It was a very serious interview!” Drusilla’s eyes gave her away, nevertheless, she managed to keep a straight face.

“I distinctly recall my saying something that had you laughing like a school girl.” Arlen was gratified to see genuine surprise touch the woman’s face, as their conversation veered into un-expected territory.

“No way! I’ll have you know that I haven’t laughed like a school girl since,” her last efforts to remain serious crumbled as, in formulating a response, her memory clearly offered her instances that did not support her position, “well, since forever!”

They both began to laugh. Dru reached across the green Formica table and touched Arlen’s hand briefly, the gesture having its desired effect of throwing Arlen off-balance and his normal, somewhat formal demeanor returned.

“I’ve got a shot at a very large project.” She paused for effect, “Very large. I’m hoping you’re the agent that Joe Sato says you are and you have the kind of instincts for the business that will be of use to me,” Drusilla said, looking over the white curve of her coffee mug.

“You’re referring to the short, dark and impeccably tailored visitor from the day I interviewed?”

Dru laughed, a more adult laugh, one that made Arlen feel like he’d succeeded in whatever he was trying to accomplish. Arlen smiled at the woman and felt like he was in 10th grade and the head cheerleader asked him to help her put up some decorations in the school gym.

“I’m glad I was right about you. I know I want you on my team. The people I’m dealing with have no time for amateurs and part-time real estate agents.”

She abruptly stood up from her chair, drawing Arlen out of his, by force of will.

“Get settled in at the office. Bring your book of business on-line, but leave some room in your schedule. Early next week you and I are taking a ride out to see the target area for this project. I’ll want your take on feasibility, but what I really need are workable plans to leverage the company for the ramp up. This is so ground floor that the principals aren’t even done with the land acquisition. I intend to be ready to do what they need done, before they even know they need it.”

Chapter 5

The Espirito Santo building, a thirty-six story glass and steel tower at 666 Brickell Avenue in Miami’s financial district, was built by the newest Fortune 500 company, the Bernebau Company. The top third was utilized as administration offices by the metastasizing organization. The 36th floor served as home for founder and CEO, Cyrus  St. Loreto.

The core narrative of most successful business’s culture is invariably the story of its founder. And, in the myths and legends that take root and grow in the developing social matrix, are found the most telling of insights into the character of the people running the business. These corporate cautionary tales also serve as counter balance to resentment, an inevitable decay in morale, whenever one individual advances too quickly. This is very much the Wharton School of Business’s version of Robert Johnson and the crossroads. The original was the story of a dirt-poor guitar player whose ambition brought him to a midnight meeting with the Devil at a Mississippi Delta crossroads. The bargain: his soul in exchange for becoming the greatest of all bluesmen.  Whether the arts or business, some things never change.

In high-rise cafeterias and commuter train cars, executives and secretaries amused themselves exchanging versions of the story of the beginnings of the Bernebau Company. Like the pages of illuminated manuscripts in Medieval times, the value lay in the exchange of information, real or imagined, rather than in their factual content. Among the tales:

Cyrus is never seen in public, as his face is hideously scarred. (According to the story), the plane he was piloting, crashed off an un-charted Caribbean island.  The CEO of the Bernebau Company has never set foot on bare earth. He suffers from a phobia of germs so powerful that he avoids all surfaces not artificial. One of the first tales of the Bernebau Company a new employee learns is that the company’s founder, Cyrus St. Loreto has never been seen in direct sunlight. (Everyone enjoys that one and it’s the one they would most like to believe is true.)

And so on, each story more fantastic than the last. As with most myths and legends, there is, at heart, something of truth, insinuated like pre-cancerous cells, in the words.

The grand opening of the Espirito Santo tower provided fertile ground for old and new myths to take root and flourish.

To the surprise of the business community, the announcement of a dedication ceremony for the new building appeared to signal a significant change in the corporate demeanor of the aggressively expanding Bernebau Company. It’s founder and CEO, Cyrus St. Loreto, was long known to be a reclusive, albeit, charismatic leader. The list of dignitaries invited to the ribbon cutting was quite ecumenical. Among the guest list were both the Mayor and the Archbishop of Miami, a major Hollywood celebrity, the owner of two professional sports franchises, long rumored to have close ties to the underworld and one Senator. The press, which would not have stayed away for any price, were going all out in their coverage. They hoped for something new and exciting from the person who, single-handedly, built the seventh largest development company in the United States. However, as we all learned before we knew we were being taught, a tiger does not change his stripes.

When the date and time of the dedication ceremony was announced, eye brows were discreetly raised. The ceremony, December 21, 2004, would begin at 5:30 pm.  It was testament to the respect the Bernebau Company had earned, (or extorted,) from the business community, that the unusual time of day generated little speculation and less ridicule. This quiet acceptance was not complete. It was telling that it was noted, discreetly, that given the date, it was actually evening when the festivities were to begin. There were some members of the business press, the younger reporters, could not restrain themselves when a bronze plaque, set a little too high on the lobby wall to be easily read, was unveiled. The positioning on the wall betrayed a somewhat archaic viewpoint. Being the 21st Century, common, everyday technology neutralized what might have been an attempt to make the inscription not overly readable. Of course, the camera in a cell phone solved the problem of reading lettering so high on the wall. Translation of the words required two clicks on the browser. The words:

Fura ceea ce se poate, cumpara ceea ce trebuie atunci repossess rămâne.

It took only minutes for the translation of the obscure Romanian dialect. It quickly reproduced as text messages on any number of phones in the crowd in the lobby: ‘Steal what you can, buy what you must, repossess the rest.’

What the Bernebau Company did was as fundamental an endeavor as fishing the seas or cultivating crops. One might argue that Cyrus St. Loreto became the seventh largest developer (commercial and residential), and a darling of Wall Street, for his talent for the third oldest profession.

The Bernebau Company acquired property and re-sold it at a profit.

***

“Cyrus, Mr. Lassiter from the Financial Times is here for his 6:00 interview.”

Genevieve Novak was loved by all the new employees of the Bernebau Company and respected by the old. She was the third most powerful person in a company that, including subsidiaries and affiliated organizations, employed over 3,000. Common among entrepreneurial businesses, the most powerful people in the organization are those with the greatest tenure. Genevieve Novak also conformed to the profile of an old-school start-up business in her lack of formal education or training. The core employees, in this non-traditional business model are always recruited without the benefit of an outside agency. Of course, none of the twelve apostles were recommended by a head hunter.

Occasionally, a reporter would see Genevieve as the angle to a story, the profile of the founder, Cyrus St. Loreto, being done to death. They would request an interview with the founder, but spend all their time talking to his administrative assistant. The result was the offer of a press release and validation of their parking. On the very rare occasion that a particularly talented man or woman succeeded in asking too many questions about Genevieve Novak, they would be offered an interview with the man, himself. None of their business profiles ever saw the printed page. To say Bernebau was a company where information was kept close to the vest, would be an understatement.

“Mr. Lassiter? You may go in.” The reporter, engrossed in whatever filled the screen of his phone for the 20 minutes he’d been sitting, stood and made a show of stretching. He walked towards the administrative assistant’s desk with a studied casualness, his friendly smile thrown ahead, like chum onto the surface of otherwise quiet waters.  As he stood before her desk, Genevieve said, “May I have your phone? We have a strict policy against cell phones. Mr. St. Loreto is a bit of a photophobe. I’ll have it right here on my desk for when you’re done with your interview.”

“What? I need it to take notes. Surely an exception can be made for me.” His smile had the practiced ease of an experienced pickpocket. Genevieve smiled in return, an expression that would leave a trusting, (or overly confident), person believing that, were it up to her, they would have been allowed to keep their phone.

“I’m so sorry. Mr. St. Loreto is quite adamant on this matter.” She saw the reporter’s smile fall, while simultaneously, the upper edge of his lip began to raise, in curl. The woman continued in a voice that held a suggestion of regret, “Given that Mr. St. Loreto grants so very few interviews, I make it a point to personally write the requirements and expectations letter that you received.”

Andy Lassiter had two Pulitzers and a moderately successful first novel. His attention varied between the short-term promise in the blonde woman, and the longer term potential behind the double office doors. Putting one hand on the desk, he leaned in, prepared to overcome one more obstacle in the endless procession of people who stood before him and his work. His voice dropped half an octave and a third in volume, (the better to get them to lean in to hear), as he turned to his persuasive voice. Skilled in a field in which persuasion was more valuable than knowledge, the tone of his voice conveyed a confident assurance that it was only a matter of understanding his needs that stood between the two. “I get that you have your job to do, I respect that. I really do!” His smile became more personal. “If you want, you can tell your boss that you didn’t think I had a phone with me. I’ll even vouch for you.”

Genevieve smiled back at the increasingly animated man. With a twinge of guilt, sufficient to make its existence felt, insufficient to alter her intention towards the reporter, she leaned towards him and widened her eyes and raised her eyebrows with a hint of desperate hope. “Gee, Mr Lassiter. I don’t know.” As he began to straighten up in his posture, assured of his dominant position in the exchange, Genevieve reached with her right hand into the top drawer of her desk, found a steno pad and offered it to him. “Do you have a pen? I have an extra here somewhere, if you need to borrow one.”

Watching frustration bloom into anger, Genevieve felt her guilt evaporate. The true character of the man, that of a bully and likely abuser, evident in the tensing of formerly relaxed muscles and the increased furrow between his eyebrows. She stood up.

“Or I can have your car brought around. If you’d prefer.” Her smile turned to sweet and  merciful. She felt a momentary desire to prevent this reporter from going in for the interview. She knew that her boss was a man of infinite patience and unlimited appetite, and, for reasons left unspoken, Genevieve made it a part of her job to arrange for disappointment to visit her boss on occasions. She found that it was helpful in maintaining a certain equilibrium and served to keep his ravening ambition in check. The key was the interval and frequency. Too much frustration or too little, both were bad for the Company and, not incidentally, not such a good thing for her. Whenever she manipulated an event that frustrated the owner of the company, he always discovered who was responsible.

She almost wished that the reporter from the vaunted Financial Times would get angry, he seemed the type of man for whom anger must always be justified in the actions of others. To know that it was simply pride was not acceptable, far better it be an obviously bitchy secretary would allow his credibility at the newspapers to remain intact. Better yet, a bitchy dyke of a receptionist.

Genevieve saw the calculus of ambition and pride, work out the equation in the back of his eyes as he took the steno pad and smiled. Less of, ‘have I got a treat for you’ and more of a ‘will I get back at you for this’.

The buzz of the intercom interrupted her speculation as to which would be more pleasant, and turned and looked at the double doors and said,

“Step right through there, Mr. Lassiter. Mr. St. Loreto will be waiting for you.”

***

The police detective seemed to take note of everything in the room, even as Roanne Avila closed the front door behind him. Thin, but not tall, he projected an energy that seemed to cling to the trail of his words as he spoke. Roanne found herself thinking, ‘Like a Jack Russell in a sports coat and an ugly tie’.  A giggle broke free and jumped to it’s death on the living room rug. The sound shocked her more than it offended the policeman.

“May I get you something to drink, Detective…” Roanne felt her face redden, as she groped for the name she’d been given less than a minute before. The policeman didn’t seem to notice and continued his survey of the room and it’s occupants, which consisted of herself and Sister Catherine, who sat quietly on the sofa. Her daughter Patrice was in her bedroom and Edwin, miracle of miracles, was still asleep in his room.

“Sorry, sister, didn’t see you there. The habit kinda blends in with the dark couch and all. Try an smile from time to time, so I’ll know that you’re awake.” Detective Glen Trahmani grinned his laughter, to assure the nun that he was not being too disrespectful.

Sister Catherine sat quietly and watched, as the detective moved about the room. “I have the utmost respect for those in your profession. I promise not to interrupt your questioning.” Her silver wire-rimmed glasses threw shards of light as she continued, with a smile that barely moved her lips, but pushed one eyebrow quite high, “Perhaps you’d like to know my whereabouts at the time of Mr. Avila’s death?”

Naturally competitive, excessively confident, Glen Trahmani possessed a highly developed talent for picking his battles, held up both hands and said, “Ya got me, sister! ‘Sapientiae Timor Domini Initial.'”

Seeing the distress in the face of Roanne Avila, Sister Catherine said, “Your detective here is showing off for me, and just said, in passable Latin, ‘The fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom’.

The homicide detective turned to the young woman, “I have just one question; can you think of anyone who would want to harm you or your husband?”

Roanne Avila seemed startled by the question.

The man nodded and stepped towards the small mantle that framed a soot-browed fireplace, the brass-link screen half-open, a kitchen match,  burnt down to a pencil point lay on the ashes. Picking up the sheaf of papers that was weighted down under a pink and pearlescent conch shell, Glen Trahmani stared at the top page, his eyebrow an unsubtle semaphore, “So, Roanne, it looks like the bank is foreclosing on your house?”

The note of friendly casualness in the detective’s voice fit seamlessly with his use of her first name, Sister Catherine was off the couch and had a protective arm around her before she could respond to the question. Walking her back to the sofa and getting her to sit, the nun turned towards the detective with a smile,  “I can see how much you want to solve this mystery and help Mrs. Avila, Mr. Trahmani, but clearly she’s been through a great deal. Perhaps you could come back and we can continue with your questions tomorrow?”

The police detective, four inches taller than the nun, stared down at her. She smiled back up at him, clearly intent on remaining as she was, for as long as necessary. The tension in the room grew until Roanne got up from the couch, barely-audible sounds of  a waking child coming from the hallway.

“Sure, Sister, thats a great idea. Why don’t we do that.” Glen Trahmani’s smile shrank away from his eyes, which took on a more focused stare. He held out a business card, Sister Catherine, her own hand extended, waited until he placed it in her palm.

Once outside on the porch, the detective turned and said, “Before our next meeting, you might want to ask Mrs. Avila about the life insurance policy that was taken on out her husband a month ago.”

Chapter 3

Arriving early for his meeting, Arlen decided to park at the Municipal launching ramp and walk the three blocks back up West Main Street. The digital display on the First Savings & Trust read eighty degrees, warm for the first week of June. The marinas and boatyards were quiet; the commercial boats were off somewhere on Chesapeake Bay and half of the pleasure boats still wrapped in tailored canvas, waited the arrival of the season, still 2 weeks away. Getting out of his car, Arlen decided to leave his suit coat on, preferring to risk sweat rather than wrinkles from carrying it in the crook of his arm. The dark grey, (with a nearly invisible blue pinstripe), suit was a souvenir of an un-planned trip to London the year before. Lia Amante, his companion and instigator of the luggage-less trip, insisted that he visit Kilgours on Saville Row. Standing on the small tailors platform, Arlen watched Lia smile her approval and ordered three suits.

The smell in the air was very much a factor in Arlen’s decision to park as far from his destination as he did; he enjoyed the take-no-prisoners scent of salt air and dead shellfish as he walked past the white-on-white parking lots that ran along the water side of lower West Main Street.

The ‘Seafood Capital of the World’ for much of the 20th Century, Crisfield, Maryland now found itself every bit the spinster sister, pretending the family home still bustled with loving family members, when, in fact, the only people remaining were the gardener and the banker, the preservation of the property, their only bond.  During its heyday, Crisfield flourished on the sea’s bounty; blue crab and scallops found Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay very hospitable. Seemingly endless catches brought fishermen and processors, who were followed by merchants and shopkeepers and so, the town grew. Now more a tourist attraction than the heart of the town, the fishing boats caught what fish remained to be caught.

Retired fisherman sat on wrought iron and bleached-wood benches overlooking the docks. Land-bound, age and infirmity achieving what neither the elements nor the ocean could, they took obvious pleasure in informing the summer visitors that, ‘the Post Office and the lower half of West Main Street was built on scallops…’ They would invariably pause, to permit their listeners, (not always wide-eyed children), to infer that they were speaking in purely economic terms and only then would finish their sentence, “…shells”.

As Arlen walked, he scanned the rooflines of the buildings that continued up on both sides of West Main Street past the Post Office. What convinced him to move from Salisbury, Maryland was the fact that the commercial, (and municipal), heart of the town was contained in three blocks along one street. Rather than the traditional ‘tree ring’ pattern of development observed in small towns along the Eastern Seaboard, Crisfield’s main street continued until it ran out of land. Leaving the two and three-story, stone and masonry commercial structures behind, it ended at the boatyards and fish processing plants. These buildings, in turn, were square, blocky and thoroughly utilitarian structures; un-bounded by granite-curbed sidewalks, they would never be on a parade route. The warehouses and canneries were wood and corrugated enclosures surrounded by wire fences and un-paved parking lots. They served to protect the noisy, malodorous processing equipment from the elements and nothing more. The docks where the fishing boats tied up to unload their catch were crowded with plastic barrels of bait and coils of salt-encrusted rope. The wooden pilings wore metal dunce-caps, an effort to discourage the seagulls and other birds of opportunity; King Canute would have approved of the ambition, if not the results. The commercial docks became picaresque ghettos, as the fishing industry consumed itself with an efficiency that stole the future to benefit the present. Pleasure boats now far out-numbered the commercial, and history makes clear, when two interests compete, the first battlefield is always real estate.

Arlen cut across the small triangular park at the branching of West Main and ‘MD 413’. At this point, the street quieted down into what locals called, ‘Old West Main’. This un-official name betrayed the stubborn individualism inherent in those born in a small town. That the online maps and the glossy Chamber of Commerce brochures insisted the entire length of highway that ran up from the docks all the way out to Route 13 was ‘MD 413’, the beginning of downtown Crisfield would always be where West Main branched away from the waterfront.

A mere three blocks of two and three-story buildings, downtown Crisfield resisted the development that came when recreational boating began to replace the fisheries as the economic lifeblood of the town. The old buildings on Main Street, with their non-virtual display plate-glass storefronts were coming back to life. That this small downtown could retain it’s identity owed a great deal to the limited amount of useable land. Crisfield, and the shoreline areas of the entire Delmarva peninsula, was primarily marshlands and salt ponds; pretty much suitable only for residential and recreational development. As the 20th Century capitalist saying holds, ‘It takes a highway to build a mall’. When half of the open land in a community is wetlands and ocean, it’s hard to get a good highway built.  Crisfield’s saving grace was that it still had parking meters.

Arlen Mayhew spent the previous year working in a Century21 franchise in Salisbury, the largest city on the Delmarva peninsula. He’d picked Salisbury as a ‘good-enough’ place. ‘Good enough’ to spend time as he waited for his life to re-order itself after an un-anticipated departure from Atlantic City with only two suitcases and a broken heart. He managed to build a following and the start of a decent referral base in his new home city. His business provided for the necessities and enough income for his trust fund to begin to recover from the damages it suffered during his time in Atlantic City. Fortunately, the spendthrift clause protected the core assets from his testosterone-fueled spending. Arlen Mayhew’s newly monastic lifestyle allowed the trust fund’s core assets to generate dividends, which, in turn would be re-invested.

The offices of Renaude & Associates were in a three story, art deco building on West Main Street. Drusilla Renaude was both landlord and first floor tenant. Through the efforts of a very gifted interior designer, a good friend from her successful days in the Baltimore real estate market, the former McCormack’s Department Store became the premier address for commercial space in downtown Crisfield. Bucking conventional wisdom that real estate offices needed to be in suburban strip malls, with their easy access and ‘plenty of free parking’, Drusilla anticipated the revival of Crisfield’s downtown, and bought the three-story building at foreclosure. Less than a year later, she opened her real estate brokerage on the remodeled first floor. As the landlady, she also had the second floor space leased to an attorney and an appraisal company. Half of the third floor was being re-done for a dance/martial arts studio. Three other buildings on the main downtown block were beginning renovation, the revival of downtown Crisfield assured.

The gold-lettered glass door swung open as Arlen was reaching for the polished brass handle and, with a motion at once powerful and graceful, a dark-haired man in a dark suit stepped out through the doorway. Arlen stepped back, held the door open in a parody of a doorman and smiled, “If I may?”

The man turned, and with a feral intensity that made Arlen think of tigers and his ex-girlfriend, looked at him and smiled in a slow sort of way that made it oddly difficult to turn away. Although shorter than Arlen by at least three inches, the dark man managed to look him in the eye. Without a word, he reached out and touched the lapel of Arlen’s suit coat and, smiling, said, “Kilgours. Very nice. You have just made my day in this backwater town a little bit more interesting.” With a nod he crossed the sidewalk to a black Aston Martin, that stood out among the angle parked cars like a surgeons scalpel in a kitchen drawer, got in and drove off.

“Is Ms. Renaude expecting you?” The very attractive young woman at the receptionist desk gave the impression that his arrival was a welcome relief to any otherwise stressful morning. She smiled her question and Arlen enjoyed the brief moment of eye contact before answering.

“Yes, I have an appointment with Miz Renaude.” Arlen heard himself pronounce the un-spelled ‘z’ in Ms. He resisted the impulse to grin, substituting a light frown, hoping it would lend him the sincere gravitas that he could never quite manage, no matter how serious the occasion.

Celeste, according to the nameplate at the front of her desk, picked up her phone and spoke in hushed tones, looking up at Arlen from time to time. Feeling self-conscious, as if, by remaining in front of the receptionist, he was intruding on a private conversation, Arlen turned and stared out the plate-glass window. On the sidewalk, pedestrian traffic was increasing, the noon hour approaching. As he watched, businessmen, phones held importantly to the side of their heads, passed the real estate office and young office workers, their cell phones in front, the better to text as they walked, managed to not run into any buildings, nor walk out into the traffic on West Main Street.

“Ms. Renaude is ready to see you now.” Arlen heard the young woman’s voice before he realized that she was standing next to her desk. Remembering to take a breath and re-center himself, he turned and followed her past six empty desks, towards the back of the office. At the back of the space, on the left side, behind a glass wall, was the private office of the broker, Drusilla Renaude; to the right of that was a conference room and, finally, at the right side, a restroom and small kitchenette.

Celeste opened the office door and stepped back. Arlen smiled at the young woman, knocked on the half-open door and leaning into the room, asked,

“May I come in?”

***

“I’m his wife. I don’t understand the problem answering a simple question. Is he still at work? No, I don’t want to hold one more minute for you to check with his supervisor.” Roanne stood on the porch and waved silently at her neighbor, Mr. Costa, as he began his morning walk out to check his mailbox.

Three-year-old Edwin was sitting in the middle of the spare room, surrounded by his toy cars. The roller coaster-like plastic track was tipped over on its side near the open closet door, clearly not needed. The game he was playing, were he asked by an unimaginative adult would be called, line the cars up in rows.

Roanne walked through the living room to check on her quiet son and so did not see the State Police car park in front of the house. She resumed her mostly one-sided telephone conversation and so, did not hear the thunk of the car’s door closing.

“Yes, I’m still here. Where would I go? Have you found anyone who can answer my question?”

The Maryland State Trooper knocked on Roanne and Roger Avila’s front door. The sound was not excessively loud, however, there was nothing the slightest bit tentative to it. Although she was two rooms away, watching her son play his too-silent game, she heard the first knock. The trooper waited until Roanne came to the door before speaking, “Mrs. Avila? Mrs. Roanne Avila?”

Roanne ignored the tiny voice that came from the phone, now at her side, as fear grew within her, a malignant growth that blossomed within her chest. She managed to nod her head, which served the awful purpose of allowing the process to continue, now well-past the point of no return.

“May I come in?”

Chapter 2

Sister Catherine looked at the woman who sat in the first row of the empty classroom and said, “Thank you for coming in today, Roanne. I’m very concerned about your daughter, Patrice.”

Roanne Avila sat and thought she heard her days at St. Dominique’s whisper from the wood and metal of the desk. She looked up, her caution forgotten among the memories and a wave of her obviously new hairstyle fell to the side of her face. The nun tensed at the brief appearance of a smudge of reddish-orange at the corner of her former student’s eye, an un-noticed stutter in the application of make-up.

Sister Catherine frowned, more to herself than at the young women, who seemed, like so many students at the end of the school year, to be off somewhere in a daydream. Her elementary school years were spent in a very different environment, one unknown to most, even those who thought they knew her well. Among the parents of the children she taught down through the years, very few would have the suicidal daring to ask about her childhood. As a matter of little-known fact, Sister Catherine’s childhood was spent in an orphanage, an institution with the unlikely name, ‘the Miami Children Center,’ only in part unusual, for being in Ohio. She knew all too well the palette of abuse, the colors of shame and secret pain, stepped around her desk and crouched next to the young woman, who tried to turn her head away.

“Roanne, look at me.” Her tone, while not one of a person only hoping to be obeyed, held a barely noticeable tremor of concern. She reached across with thin, graceful fingers, a plain gold band the sole touch of color and held the younger woman’s chin. The nun’s touch was far more gentle than the wire-rimmed glasses and bleached white wimple framing her face would ever suggest; she turned the woman’s head slightly.

“My husband Roger works so hard at the casino providing for me and the kids. He really is a good man. But sometimes I get so scared when we get the letters and the phone calls from the bank, and I take it out on him. I shouldn’t complain so much. It’s my fault he hit me.” The young woman’s voice held more emotions than a single sentence should be able to contain.

Sister Catherine’s touch grew stronger while remaining gentle, as might a mother, holding close a child, against a sudden onslaught of cold wind. The softness of the touch of her hand was far and away offset by the fire in her eyes. The power of a childless mother radiated through every fiber of her being and, leaning in towards the young woman, said in a whispered shout, “You must never say that. You are entitled to live your life without being hurt by another just because they want someone else to feel as badly as they do.”

***

A little more than halfway through her novitiate, Sister Margaret Ryan was almost comfortable in her new life at St Dominique’s. She loved the ordered, (and orderly), life of prayer and service offered those women willing to work hard, (on themselves), and sacrifice, (for the benefit of others); of this, there was no question. There remained within the twenty-four-year-old woman, somewhere between her heart and her mind, a disquiet. It was a subtle and easily over-looked element in her life, more, really, a matter of shadows and echoes rather than granite blocks. This reservation showed itself in effect, rather than being directly observable; she exhibited a subtle tendency to veer, from time to time,  away from the path, the path to a life of peace and quiet contentment.

This disquiet within Margaret Ryan was really about instincts. As some people do, she possessed abilities and skills, appropriate to a life very different from the one she now hoped to lead. Sister Margaret’s disquiet grew from the fact that her life in the convent did not require, value, or, if the truth be told, tolerate some of the instincts that made her who she truly was.

Consider a young, healthy cheetah who lives in a zoo. Better, make that a wildlife habitat, since the archaic diversion of displaying wild animals in cages, in the name of culture, is mercifully, a vanishing artifact in most modern cities. The animal is cared for and perhaps even loved, by those who work in this artificial world. The fenced-in environment offers all the comforts of the cat’s natural habitat, minus the threat of disease, starvation, neglect or (more powerful) predators. The young and healthy cheetah does not, technically, need claws, teeth and the ability to sprint at 75 mph.

Margaret Ryan was capable of sprinting at 75 mph. Sister Margaret Ryan taught the 3rd grade.

***

I left my classroom and walked down the corridor just after 3:30. I preferred to stay after school to correct tests and work on my lesson plans, rather than work in my room in the convent. As silly as it might sound, I enjoyed being able to answer the inquires about being in the school, well after classes have ended with, “Correcting tests! I do that in my classroom after the children go home.” I liked the part about ‘in my classroom’.

Not that too many of the other nuns ask. It’s a small convent, and everyone already knows how I spend my days. Even my early morning runs, I fear, are becoming something of a secret pleasure for some of the younger nuns. Including, apparently, Sister Cletus, who despite being the oldest woman at St. Dominique’s has an endless capacity to startle me. Just last week, as I washed the breakfast dishes, she stepped up behind me in the kitchen and said, “Slipping a little on the first third? Remember the old runners saying, “your muscles take you out, but your heart brings you home.” I knew better than to ask how she would know about my times.

St. Dominique’s School was laid out like a small letter ‘n’. The principle’s office, administration and the first two grades at the top, grades 3-8 along the two legs and the gymnasium/auditorium filling the space between. As I walked down the now quiet hall, I heard the hollow pneumatic pinging of a basketball, punctuated by the impatient squeaks of sneakers on wooden gym floors. From further within the late afternoon school, I heard singing. The young voices, their song starting and suddenly stopping, barely heard instructions met with laughter and the occasional groans; it was the gift of youth, enthusiasm standing in for skill; the result was the sound of joyful singing. Hearing them reminded me that the year-end student talent show was only a week away. Held during Graduation Week, the talent show was more celebration than competition, and I made a mental note to remind Sister Clare that we needed to work on our act. I’d originally suggested we sing Hall and Oates’ ‘Private Eyes’, but my roommate had her heart set on the Eurythmics. I liked her idea and believed I could sell the Reverend Mother, but held out little hope that Sister Catherine would approve. ‘Sargent Catherine’ as we sometimes called her, when we were alone in the laundry or working in the kitchen and in a silly mood.

I was almost to the main corridor that joined the two parallel wings of classrooms when I heard an odd sound. It was the dry-swishing sound of a blackboard eraser, but the rhythm was all wrong. As I approached Room 217, the sound grew louder. Opposite the open door of the fifth-grade classroom, I stood quietly and watched Sister Catherine erase the blackboard. The thing was, she erased it again and again, moving carefully from right to left. Holding the black felt eraser in her right hand, she swiped the black slate side-to-side and then up and down as high as she could reach, down to the carved wooden tray at the bottom. She erased the already very erased blackboard, one section at a time. When she reached the end closest to the door, she walked back to the far end and repeated the erasing.

I watched as she repeated this five times. Finally, Sister Catherine stopped and stood and stared through the windows out on to the empty schoolyard.

I walked into the room, sat at one of the desks and waited.

***

Drusilla Renaude stood in the doorway of her son’s bedroom and watched him sleep. A Dru-shaped shadow protected him from the flashes of movie explosions and news-cycle tragedies thrown soundless from the widescreen TV that dominated the adjacent living room.

Two night-lights came on automatically as she stepped away, her shadow reluctantly followed her out of the room. Turning for a final look, she left the door open a quarter of the way, per their agreement. “I promise I won’t look at the TV, but the light lets me know you’re still here, even when I’m asleep,” Dru experienced a remarkable mix of love and fear at the power of the feelings her son could create in her, especially, when he wasn’t even trying.

She walked through the high-ceilinged living room, pulled off one high-heeled shoe and then the other. The outdoors, now darker, her reflection accompanied her against the sepia backdrop of Chesapeake Bay. Holding her shoes in one hand, she turned to create a profile. The outline of a slender and graceful neck rising from an hourglass figure was replaced by the silhouette of a generously endowed woman, high forehead offset by a strongly aquiline nose. Dru reached with her free hand pinched her waist, smiled and opened the door to her office/gym.

Every home reflects its occupants. Whether a studio apartment in a suburb, a farmhouse in Kansas or a glass and steel contemporary on a hill overlooking the Chesapeake Bay; the person (or people) living within its four walls cause changes that reflect who they are, both consciously, (and deliberately), and unconsciously, (and inadvertently). Sometimes this alteration is barely noticeable, a folded-newspaper on a kitchen table, angry blue circles on the classified pages. Other times its fairly obvious: expensive living room furniture covered in custom slip covers, end tables with glass squares to protect the wood, a coffee table with precisely arranged, un-read magazines. All homes and most houses, from raised ranches to Georgian mansions, are secret diaries of their occupants.

Once she’d made the decision to get her son, Zacharia out of Baltimore, all that remained was scheduling. Drusilla Renaude knew that the contemporary on the hill, with its views of Chesapeake Bay was the house for the two of them,  the moment she saw it.

Drusilla Renaude was successful in real estate because she defined the relationship between herself and her clients before ever stepping into a house. She listened very carefully and had a gift for getting the un-said things said. She knew that most buyers held back when asked what they were looking for in a house. Her clients invariably described her as a good listener and a very perceptive woman. The truth was simply that she got her clients to talk openly about what they hoped to find in a house. Dru always ended her first client meeting by informing them that she and they each had a job: once they had established a timetable, it was her job to find them houses that fit their needs and wants, and it was their job, as Buyers, to buy one of them.

Drusilla Renaude was successful, not because she sold houses. She was successful because her clients loved her and considered it their duty to tell everyone about how no other agent could do the job as well as Dru Renaude.

Just off the living room, was Dru’s workroom, her office/gym. Originally a first-floor master suite, it was nearly as large as the living room. It had a master bath, complete with sauna and dressing room. Two walls of the former bedroom were ceiling-to-floor glass. On one wall was a set of french doors leading out to a patio and on the other, sliders to a deck that extended across to the living room and overlooked the vast expanse of lawn.

Her office had a desk, two computers with assorted printers and other office technology. It also had an assortment of very elaborate exercise equipment. When Dru worked in her office, it was often difficult to tell where one activity started and the other ended.

Closing the door to the living room, she crossed to the dressing room, changed into shorts and a tee-shirt, got on the stationary bike and said, “Messages…email, phone.”

One of the several large displays mounted on the wall lit up with a list of recent emails. Her phone’s computer voice came from the built-in speakers, “You have six new messages.”

Drusilla Renaude started pedaling. The second half of her work day began.

Chapter 1

The halfway mark in my morning run was announced by the cawing of seagulls and the soft, wet crunch of waves. The monotone slaps of my running shoes on the paved road gave way to a rubbery-scraping sound, as the ratio of beach sand to black asphalt increased.

I ran like I was in a hurry. On good days, this made my pace fast enough to remind me how short my hair was; the on-rushing air ruffled my hair, instead of pressing red waves of long, pre-novitiate hair against my neck. I felt a frown begin to spread bony fingers above my eyes; I tried and failed to ignore the growing tension. Today was clearly not starting as a good day, but being only 5:33 am, I held out hope for a turnaround.

An hour before, as I ran down the stairs of the convent and across the courtyard, I felt a twinge of ‘hurry up, you have to get there.’ Running faster never made that feeling go away. The key to turning off the voice was the simple fact that the first third of my morning jogs were still physically demanding and left me little to spare, other than getting my feet to chase each other away from the convent.

The pungent salt and iodine smell of dried seaweed and low-tide demanded my attention. Running is a balancing act: too little commitment and it turns into a more grueling way to worry about the day ahead; too much, and the mind wants it to stop, which usually causes problems when everyday routine makes its demands, just past the finish line. This particular morning I managed to stay between the extremes, my run was the cardiovascular equivalent of morning prayers in the chapel. As I ran, I could hear the individual small round-edged rocks and over-sized pebbles roll beneath the low waves that washed the beach; a serrated sound of giant gravel-filled lungs of some slowly waking creature buried at the edge of the ocean.

Subtle sounds of life colored the stillness of the 5:00 morning along the Chesapeake Bay.

I pulled the stopwatch from the right pocket of my running shorts. The elapsed-time made me smile confidently; I actually looked forward to pushing myself on the return half, knowing that my time slid further down towards my goal of a seven-minute-mile. I crossed the small parking area at the end of the paved road and jumped up on the telephone pole that served to divide the lot from the dunes. Keeping my arms to my sides, I executed a spinning heel hook, came down on the same foot and, as long as I was still on the rounded edge of the pole, went into  a passable ‘Part the Mare’s Tail’, followed by one of my favorite t’ai chi moves, ‘Bend Bow and Shoot Tiger’. I turned towards the dune, let myself fall forward until my knee brushed the sand and sprinted towards the water’s edge. I wanted to spend part of my run in the loose, dry sand of the beach. I enjoyed the strain on the variety of muscles I got when running over the uncertain, constantly shifting surface. It was worth the extra minutes added to my time.

I missed on my first attempt to put my stopwatch back in my pocket, sliding over the smooth fabric, almost dropping it in the sand. I looked down and laughed.

My running shorts were a gift from a friend in Chicago. The over-sized shipping envelope showed up at the convent just a week before. The return address was, ‘Chicago Police Dept. Detective Division, Cicero Ave. Chicago IL.’ No name, just the return address. There was nothing on the packing slip, other than ‘Sister Margaret Ryan’. As soon as I got to my room, I pulled the perforated strip and let the contents fall out onto my bed. My roommate, Sister Clare, whispered a devout, “No. Way.” as I held up the shorts; they were black and pink and very satiny. Embroidered in block letters across the front of the waistband was the word ‘Everlast.’ A card fell from the now empty envelope. I opened it and read to Sister Clare, “For the next time you’re in the ring with the devil. This may not be from Victoria’s Secret, but silk is silk.” It was signed, ‘Love, your friend Maribeth’.

To the scandalized giggles of Sister Clare, I threw my tunic on my bed and stepped into the boxing trunks. They fit. Even though I’m on the tall side, at five foot nine, the legs came down well to my knees. I said a silent prayer of thanks. I had new running clothes.

The very next morning, I was halfway across the courtyard, headed for the gate when something caught my eye. I stopped and looked back at the main building.  Being the estate of a wealthy banker who donated it to the Church, in a desperate hope, I suspect, of ‘shrinking the camel’ the grounds, which ran down to the shoreline of Chesapeake Bay, included several buildings that were converted for use as our convent and parochial school. The first floor of the main house housed the school’s administrative offices, the second floor served as the living quarters. Directly above the main entrance was a bay window, on the hallway that connected the two wings of the three-story building. I saw two shapes, at first indistinct, as the corridor was still dark, the sun just beginning to break free of the morning clouds. Almost immediately, I recognized Sister Catherine and, to her right, Sister Bernadine, the Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s.

Sister Catherine’s wire-rimmed glasses threw sparks of reflected morning light. Her glasses stood out against mild, pale skin surrounded by the brighter white of the wimple that framed her face. From down in the courtyard, she appeared as a ghostly, animated habit, black robes and white face (and chest). It was the bright light from her glasses that demanded attention. She gave life to the dress, to the habit she wore and it, in turn, gave her a presence not easily ignored.

Sister Bernadine Ellison was another story altogether. The Mother Superior was a very large woman. And, just as with Sister Catherine, her dark habit blended with the shadows of the corridor. Very much the opposite of the woman next to her, it was Sister Bernadine’s face that stood out. The snow-white wimple served to contrast her dark brown face, yet it was her eyes that commanded attention. There was a power in her that was little diminished even at the distance between us. Rather than animating the habit of the Order, Sister Bernadine wore them like robes, vestments if you will, as worn by every powerful woman down through under-recorded history.

I saw Sister Catherine purse her lips and make the sign of the cross. I felt the Mother Superior’s keen intelligence and natural power in a moment of eye contact that was nearly palpable. It was a sense of connection that should not have been possible from where I stood. I saw Sister Bernadine throw her head back in laughter, (I imagined I could hear it from outside, down in the courtyard), as she took Sister Catherine gently by the arm and lead her away from the window.

Nothing was ever said about my choice in running clothes. There was a risk that went with my enjoying Maribeth’s gift. There was a part of me, the part I had hoped to leave behind when I walked away from college and stood at the convent door with a single suitcase and a weakly flickering hope. It whispered to me in a voice at once too sincere, while sounding outraged, the voice asked, ‘How dare they try to stifle my individuality’. I promised myself to never been seen wearing the boxing trunks, at least by anyone at St. Dominiques.

I felt a vibration on my left thigh and jerked my head around in a scalp-tingling flash of alarm. The toes of my shoes dug into the nearly dry sand at the edge of the water, but there was no one around, other than a man staring at a fishing pole stuck in the sand and a yellow dog sitting next to him, both about 50 yards up the beach. I waved to Morris Richmond, a retiree who made a point of coming to pretend to fish every morning except Sundays. In the past three months that I’d been running, after returning from Chicago, Morris and I would have a conversation of a peculiar sort. I’d run past him and say whatever might occur to me to say. I did not stop running and he would not attempt to reply. After a hundred yards or so of running in the sand, I’d turn and head back. As I passed him, he would speak and I would listen. On most mornings the two statements stand apart, completely un-related. But there were a couple of days when what he said would return to me, later in the day and, somehow, make sense. I enjoyed this part of my morning run. I believe the dog, who was with Morris most, but not all mornings, was his, but I could not say for sure. I’d nod at him, (or her), as I ran and he, (or she), seemed to acknowledge me.

The vibration skittered against my leg; it was my phone. The phone that I did not own. The phone that the Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s did not give me, when she didn’t say, “I believe that God puts people in our lives for a reason. Sometimes the people who seem the most difficult, who seem to thwart us in our efforts, are serving His purpose. Many, if not most, people believe that a safe and comfortable life is what God intends for us all. They are devout and work hard in the hope of leading peaceful and contented lives. There are people in the world, however, who live only to take as much as they can, no matter what the cost to the people around them. God’s ways are not always understandable. There are other people He puts on earth who find that their lives are difficult and dangerous. I believe these people are put on earth to maintain the balance between Good and Evil. Take this phone and try not to let anyone see you use it. You still have two years remaining to your novitiate, try to stay in the middle of the path. I know you can become a good nun and an asset to our Order, Sister Ryan.”

***

“And the Award for Top Producing Agent of the Year in McCallister County…”

Steve Wein, leaned back in his chair, turned towards the man at his right and said, “Yeah, emphasis on producer.” The moderately forceful nudge of his elbow telegraphed the innuendo at adolescent volume; combined with staring everyone at the table directly in the eyes as he spoke, the balding man screamed with a drunk’s sloppy and aggressive charm.

That Arlen Mayhew sat next to the increasingly boisterous man was not by design, rather an unfortunate miscalculation. Arlen had long accepted the necessity of social interactions as part of his profession of real estate broker and developed a strategy of being late enough to a gathering so as not to have to endure the ordeal of networking, while still arriving early enough to have a choice of seats. He now sat trapped in his seat by the force of politeness, as the awards ceremony held him hostage to his table. He folded his napkin for the eighth time and looked pointedly at the stage, hoping that his apparent concentration on the emcee would serve as a non-verbal Do Not Disturb sign.

“Nice going, Arlen,” he thought, pressing his lips into what passed for a smile.  Arlen Mayhew often addressed himself by name, even (sometimes, especially), when it was a conversation taking place inside his head. To his small group of friends he would explain, with a sincerity that would be disturbing if coming from a total stranger, “…but if I don’t talk to myself, how can I be sure I’m not just imagining it?”

Arlen leaned back in his chair and turned away from the man on his left in the vain hope of being ignored. Deciding to take a risk, Arlen got up, stood behind his chair and surveyed the crowded ballroom. He smiled as Steve Wein,  who he’d worked with only once, began to tell the others agents at the table stories of his own past sales awards.

‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ Arlen smiled and looked around the hotel ballroom; the high-ceilinged room presented an un-obstructed view of the round banquet tables. Each populated with modern-day Crusoes, washed up on white-linen shores, wearing tailored suits and designer gown knock-offs that nearly succeeded in transforming desperation into a public display of enthusiasm.  The murmur of the crowd diminished as the final award of the night was presented.

“…goes to Drusilla Renaude. Come on up, Dru.”

A woman stood up from a table in the row closest to the stage. As the applause grew, she turned with a deliberateness that, somehow, made her more visible. She looked around at the room and smiled. Dru Renaude had very dark brown hair that framed eyes that managed to appear darker yet. Her black, off-the-shoulder dress, was exquisitely tailored; no one would mistake her for being anyone other than a very successful woman. Between her ‘take-no-prisoners’ cleavage and beautiful, predator-intense eyes,  she wore a ruby pendant. It lay near her heart, waiting for whoever stood before her and demanded that they make a choice that they probably were not aware they were making.

Drusilla Renaude walked up to the podium with the confidence and air of entitlement more commonly observed in those who by blood and family were heir to throne or rank. Less so in as modern a profession as real estate brokerage. She crossed the stage to the sound of applause and gathered the attention, as a shark acquires it’s retinue of pilot fish. She accepted the crystal trophy, (all glass and edges, as much projectile as memento of accomplishment), turned and faced the crowd.

Arlen, not bothering to applaud, watched the salesmen and women, dressed in their Awards Night best, as they applauded the recipient of the top honor of Real Estate Agent of the Year. He stared at Dru Renaude. Assured of anonymity by virtue of being just one face in a fairly large gathering of faces, Arlen smiled and, keeping his hand close to his side, gave a ‘thumbs up’.  He was startled as Dru stopped scanning the crowd, looked him in the eye, smiled and gave her own thumbs up. Not surprisingly he saw other people in the crowd return the gesture. Steve Wein burst out with a “Yeah!!”

Arlen Mayhew found himself staring at Dru Renaude and feeling confident. Were someone to ask him the reason for his sudden confidence, he would have been unable to answer.

Not willing to risk breaking the connection, Arlen smiled back and thought, ‘Mind and body. Do not turn your back on either.’

He decided that he would find a way to talk to the woman before the end of the evening’s festivities. It was his responsibility, as a fellow professional, and someone working in the same Delmar real estate market, to convey his congratulations directly. To do otherwise would be rude.

With the final award presented, the conversation at Arlen’s table fractured into pairs, Steve decided that he needed to get to the bar before they closed it for the evening. Arlen decided that rather than risk being pulled into a conversation, he would leave early. He surprised himself by taking a path towards the exit that brought him to the front table, where, by pre-arrangement, all those who were to receive an award were seated. Dru Renaude, surrounded by well-wishers and friends (not necessarily the same personal characteristics), was on the near side of the group as Arlen passed by. He stopped and said, ‘Congratulations, Ms. Renaude’. He was surprised that she turned quickly enough to be facing him as he passed. At least two of the people she had been speaking to were left, mid-sentence, completing their conversation to her back.

“Why thank you, Mr. Mayhew.” She smiled and somehow managed to make him believe that he was there to rescue her from the boring and tedious people who surrounded her. She did it all with a barely discernible arch to one eyebrow and the squeeze of his hand.

***

Roanne Avila stared at the man who filled the space when she opened her front door. Through the screen door, the man had an odd, grainy appearance, like one of the Civil War photos on Public Television during Donation week. The man was large, did not move, but somehow seemed to be pressing forwards, almost into the interior of the house. He filled the opening of the door so completely, Roanne had the feeling that he was blocking escape from the house. She wondered why she would feel the need to escape the house, with her three-year-old down for her pre-lunch nap. Nevertheless, she looked wistfully out at the empty street in front of the house.

“Mrs. Avila?” His smile made her think how, in the nature shows, the wolves always seemed to be grinning, except when they’re running down their prey.

Listening back into the house and not hearing her three-year-old, Roanne answered, “Yes, what can I do for you?” The screen door remained closed; it’s purely symbolic value as a barrier, was felt in the cool morning air that blew in from the covered porch. She kept her left hand on the open door, with its three panes of glass cut into the wood in a pattern that ran down from left to right, down to eye level. She frowned, trying to remember if she’d seen this man through one (or all three) of these otherwise. She realized that she did not see anyone as she approached the door.

“How are you today?”

Roanne felt her scalp creep back from her forehead and the muscles of her shoulders tighten. Again, she turned her head to listen for any sound to indicate her child, Alexis, was awake. Her left arm tensed in anticipation of the need to force the door closed.

The man continued to smile, with a confidence that she associated with doctors and lawyers, just before they delivered bad news or a terminal diagnosis. She could imagine this man practicing his smile, the better to convince the other person of his good intention.

She tried to look past the man who stood on her porch wearing a suit that cost more than the Altima in the driveway. At the moment, Roanne desperately wanted to see a neighbor walk by, just so she could wave, call out a hello. She didn’t feel in danger, but if she could involve someone who didn’t have a large strange man standing in their doorway, then her feeling of threat might ease. It was the edge of the summer rental season in the Newtown section of Schifferville, so the only person she saw was a teenage boy mowing the front lawn of a house two doors down.

She reached to lock the screen door.

The man smiled and said, “I don’t need to come into your house today. I will, however, leave these papers out here on the porch. I suggest you read them and make the right decision. For your two children, if no one else.”

“You have a nice day.”

Roanne stood in the doorway, her left hand trying to push the wood door closed, yet not having any success.

The man stopped at the edge of the porch, put on a pair of very dark sunglasses and, without turning, said,

“When the time comes, you will invite me in. Be assured of that, little Lomasi, you will welcome me.”