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.”

Chapter 19

“Tell me what your project is about. Spare me the tech-jargon. What are you doing and what is it you hope to accomplish.” The Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s swiveled the high-back leather chair 180 degrees away from Sister Margaret Ryan. The tall bay windows were open, the scent of salt air sat quietly on the window sill and pointed towards the Chesapeake Bay.

“Well, it’s not such a big deal. Started a Facebook group, joined a couple of financial rights groups. Wait,” with a smile that failed to repress the slight lip curl of a smirk, the younger woman continued, “Oh, and I may have started an online petition against illegal foreclosures. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I did that too. Getting some good traffic.” Her voice carried a subtle, grating tone, like a barely heard radio outside of a church during a funeral. The effect  a result of an obviously rehearsed explanation combined with a nonchalance that danced on the edge of insolence. That Sister Ryan was accustomed to being called before the head of the convent was reinforced by her posture. One would be forgiven for characterizing it as slouching in her chair. The dark face of the Mother Superior darkened further; a non-verbal warning clearly wasted on the young novitiate, who glanced around the room, the embodiment of youthful boredom.

An unconscious smile flickered across Margaret Ryan’s face as she identified the rare and exotic woods used in the room’s parquet floor. She was certain the very dark strips that formed the borders with geometric precision was ebony. Such luxurious architectural details were common in many of the older buildings at her former college. Radcliffe University was nothing if not luxurious and old. Her reminisces were interrupted by a quiet voice.

I really don’t believe you’re taking this matter quite as seriously as you should.” Sister Bernadine had not moved, yet for the intensity of her words, she might have been standing on top of her desk, staring down at the young nun sprawled in the plain wood chair.

Sister Margaret glanced towards the door. Like the spasm of a pinched nerve, she felt an unpleasant jolt, somewhere between her heart and her brain. Sister Bernadine was staring at her, with an expression that managed to convey both anger and concern and said, “Lets begin again, shall we?”

Sister Ryan pressed the palms of her hands on the edge of her seat and the soles of her feet against the floor in an effort to sit straighter.  She glanced down at her habit, the skirt bunched and disheveled, gave up her efforts and looked at the other nun with a hopeful expression.

“Perhaps you misheard me, Sister Ryan. I said, ‘Lets begin again, shall we?’ That means you have not yet entered the room. And it certainly means that you’re not sprawled out in that chair, like you had nothing better to do.” The older woman’s smile remained unchanged.

A feeling of danger re-established its grip in her stomach. The young nun managed to stand and walk to the office door. Despite being a large, ornate brass fixture, her first attempt to grasp the doorknob failed. The second time was the charm.

Disorientation accompanied her out into the empty corridor. From somewhere within, an archly gleeful voice whispered, “So she thinks she can play with our head, does she.”

Sister Margaret Ryan stood still, much like a rabbit frozen in the middle of an open field, the hawk circling in the sky and a fox standing at the edge of the surrounding woods; no motion was good motion.

“Some time this afternoon, Miss Ryan.” The Mother Superior’s voice didn’t so much overcome the barrier of the heavy wood door as it reverberated through it. Her words were high fidelity through the door, a 100-year-old stereo speaker.

Directly across from the entrance to the library were double doors that opened out to the courtyard. The corridor ran left and right, window lined and brightly lit; to the left, an archway that led to the convent, to the right, through a set of fire doors, the school. At the moment, a weekday in August, the only sound was that of lawn mowers, advancing and receding as they ate the green grass that lead to the Bay. Nothing moved inside the building. Margaret Ryan reached for the doorknob.

“A word of advice, Sister Margaret?”

Her leg muscles tensed in the most basic of human thought, fight or flight. Glancing to her left, Sister Margaret Ryan saw a small section of the darkness that filled the arched entrance to the residential wing begin to move. The shade-in-the-darkness rearranged itself into the shape of a woman. An old woman. A square of dark grew light and Sister Cletus appeared. Even down the length of the corridor, the nun’s eyes seized her attention like a mother cat lifting one of her kittens by the nape of the neck.

“The path to a life in our Order is not always a straight one. It is not a particularly smooth road. For better or for worse, some who arrive here are fleeing a battle within themselves.” The nun turned, the light tones of parchment flesh and deep blue eyes sank back into the daytime dark of the convent hall. The old woman’s voice slipped from the dark and lightly touching the young nuns, whispered, “I’d knock first, if I were you.”

***

Sister Catherine stepped into the living room of the Avila home.

Roanne Avila put her phone on the coffee table like a half empty pack of cigarettes and shyly looked at the nun, who sat patiently on the dark blue sofa. “Thank you for coming, Sister Catherine. I just don’t know what to do. None of her friends have seen Patrice since they all left the beach yesterday. She told them that she was going to ride her bike home. Should I call the police?”

Sister Catherine felt fear creep over the cushions of the couch and tug at her habit. Like someone reaching for a light switch in a dark room, her hand found her crucifix and tried to steel herself for what she would see with the lights on.

***

I waited a full three seconds after I heard, “Come in.”

As I opened the door I felt like I used to, back in my college days, when our sensei clapped his hands to begin a sparring match. I loved the martial arts. I loved the dance-like movements of the kata. I loved how I felt after a workout. Sparring was an essential element to training; it was, after all, a martial art. In every match there comes a point when one combatant (or two) knows that victory is imminent. I always hated that feeling. A powerful voice pulled me out from my past.

“Come in. Sit down. Listen to me.”

I walked through the door, sat in the single, plain wood chair and waited.

“The Bishop called me yesterday.” Without preamble, Sister Bernadine began, “He believed that I thought it was a friendly, ‘stay in touch with the flock’ call. I did nothing to dissuade him. However, just before he ended the conversation, he said, ‘I recently had a parish priest in my office. In the course of our discussion, he mentioned a sister in the middle of her novitiate, down there in Crisfield. He mentioned her name,  ‘Maryellen’, or ‘Maryanne Ryan.'” Sister Bernadine made a sound that the look in her eyes made redundant.

“Obviously, I was supposed to correct him. That way it would’ve been me who brought you into the conversation. Our Bishop has that approach to his approach to others.” It occurred to me that I should nod or do something to indicate that I was listening, but my rebellious side had crossed her arms and was kind of pouting.

“Be that as it may. I told Bishop Ellerby that you were making good progress in your studies. I also let him know that you were engaged in a number of activities online, including earning a Master’s degree in Education.” She waved away the look on my face that reflected my surprise at how she knew about my efforts to get an advanced degree in less than four months, and continued, “I told His Eminence that I had complete faith in you and that you would do nothing that would embarrass us. Or cause problems for our Order or the Church. He pretended to be satisfied with that and that was the end of our conversation.”

I felt like throwing up. Sometimes throwing up provides relief, but at a price. Like when you’re in bed, feel something crawling up your leg and instantly crush it. Its only when you get out of bed and pull back the blankets do you pay the price. Seeing the overly-appendaged splotch of spider does nothing to enhance your relief.

“I am responsible for the women in this convent. All the women. Tell me what it is you’re really doing online.” The Mother Superior surprised me, yet again, by turning her chair to the windows behind her and Chesapeake Bay beyond.

“I promised my mother I would keep the bank from foreclosing on her house.” The simple statement felt right. Unfortunately there was no agreement, acknowledgment or indication that I needed to elaborate on my answer. A younger, defiant voice in my head added, ‘in terms that she’ll believe.’ That scared me. A lot. I glanced at the door.

I looked up. Sister Bernadine had turned in her chair and was staring at me with an expression both intimidating and protective.

I started to say something about how I would promise to stop. Almost immediately, I decided it was better that I make her understand how important it was and how I almost had the parent company on the ropes, that they were just about to give up and leave my mother alone. The intensity in Sister Bernadine’s dark face locked the words in my head. Hers was the look of a person hearing another’s thoughts. Nothing like a late night talk show mentalist act. More like two people playing a duet, reading from sheet music. Disapproval flashed across her face as I thought about lying, and even now, there grew a look of gentle but amused sorrow.

Quietly, almost as if to herself, she said, “Do you know what it is to be responsible for other people?” I stopped fidgeting, captured by her voice. Her eyes were focused on a place not anywhere near the office of the Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s, “Most believe that being responsible for others means having the power to tell them what to do. Some realize that being responsible for others, is to take on their problems, to accept the blame when things go wrong. This second group tends to do better than the first.

To be responsible for others is to place their interests before your own. Few people attain this level of understanding. The real secret, however, is much more difficult. It’s difficult because it involves you more than the people in your charge. It requires a willingness to project a sense of peace and confidence. It is this attitude within that helps those you lead to attain their potential.

This is not to ignore or deny your inner struggles. We all have them. And there are many people who will help you. But you are the only person responsible to God. You might ask another’s help, but only because it suits a certain purpose. There can be no asking others to do for you what only you can do for yourself.”

“Do you understand me?”

I was about to answer when Sister Clare opened the door and said, “Pardon me, Mother Superior, there’s a man here from the University of Maryland. He says he’s here to do a story about the young nun and success through online education.”

I was startled more by Sister Bernadine’s laughter than I was about the news of a visitor.

Chapter 18

Genevieve Novak squirmed in her chair, body expressing what her mind lacked the words to describe her feelings. It was nothing as mundane as her physical situation, which was as conducive to physical comfort as money could provide. It was not the social setting, a meeting between her boss and the Cardinal of the archdiocese of Miami. Stress, at least over the execution of her professional duties did not exist, as Genevieve Novak was as competent as she was elegantly dressed. She possessed the depth of skill that made what she did look effortless. Her professional responsibility was to administer to the needs and requirements of the Bernebau Company. Her personal interests were, by definition, more personal. What made her unable to sit still at the moment was the overwhelming presence of both power and prey.

Cyrus St. Loreto was smiling.

By the standards of most cultures, Cyrus was a handsome man. The somewhat old-fashioned description would be that he was possessed of a ‘noble bearing’. A broad forehead, lined only enough to remind the other person that looks were not everything, a strongly ridged nose and smile that seemed to default to charming with an undertone of the sardonic. Not exceptionally tall or muscular, the founder of the Bernebau Company had a vitality that manifested in his slightest gesture, the most casual of movements. Meeting him for the first time, an impartial observer might resort to the deceptively simple description of ‘feral’. While it might be argued that the feral nature of man was the wellspring of the more socially favored quality of ‘animal magnetism’, Cyrus St Loreto was a man who would never be mistaken for an ‘innocent bystander’. In the world through which Cyrus St. Loreto moved, people were divided into two categories: those who liked, (maybe even loved) him and those who hated (and very often feared) him.

“I appreciate your coming by to visit, Ignacio.” Cyrus sat at the head of the conference table. He nodded very slightly towards Genevieve. She immediately put down her ever-present steno pad and walked down the side of the long table to where Cardinal Ignacio Chavez and his assistant sat. Serving them from the silver carafe, she filled the cardinal’s cup with coffee. She smiled, reminding herself of the time of day and the location of her hospitality. Looking up at her, the most powerful man in the Catholic Church, south of New York City smiled and said, “Thank you, my child”. Genevieve felt his left hand brush against her thigh as he turned to allow her to fill his cup. A very subtle glow deep in her eyes flared slightly and then subsided.

Genevieve glanced at the young priest in the chair to the Cardinal’s right and raised her eyebrows in invitation. The priest, the Cardinal’s principle legal counsel, looked at her and smiled. That he separated these two normally integral social responses made her feel that her choice in dress, (more expensive than currently stylish), had been a good decision.

Genevieve felt calmer now, no longer confined to the seat at the right hand of her boss. Even as she smiled at Father Mannheim, she felt Cyrus’s gaze. Stepping back towards the wall of glass, she turned to face both clergymen and said, “Is there anything else you need?” Her tone was soft enough to induce the older man to turn to look at her, now backlit by the sunlight reflected by the neighboring skyscrapers. Even with the engineered glass holding back the glare, the curve of hip and prominence of breast made the towering skyscrapers behind her incidental and at best a distraction. After pausing for an interval refined by women down through the ages, she returned to her seat at the head of the conference table. The sighs of the recipients of her hospitality were, mercifully, inaudible.

“The Church is indebted to you, Cyrus. Your generosity has been a godsend, especially in light of the current political climate. I would hate to think about how much worse conditions would be were it not for the outreach program that your support makes possible. I thank God for your donations. They have made all the difference in the world for those in need.”

The Cardinal frowned suddenly, clearly uncomfortable, stood up and stepped to the broad wall of glass that overlooked Miami’s financial district. He started to speak, stopped, as if re-thinking what he wanted to say, finally turned to face the far end of the conference table and began,

“Of the other matter we discussed…” the white-haired man glanced at Genevieve and Constantin sitting at Cyrus’s sides and, looking directly at the man in the middle, raised his eyebrows.

Cyrus smiled and said, “Aceste două? ele îmi aparțin.” He paused long enough for the look of non-comprehension in the face of the cardinal’s assistant to change to one of annoyance and continued, “That, Father Mannheim, was an ancient Romanian saying,  ‘These people are family, whatever you would say to me you may say to them.” Unheard by anyone other than Genevieve, was a short, muffled laugh from the dark man who sat on Cyrus St. Loreto’s left.

Looking relieved, Cardinal Chavez continued, “The problem in Crisfield is proving more intractable than I’d anticipated. Forgive me, I must be getting old. When you asked if I would help you, my answer was, ‘anything’. That is still true. My mistake was, I fear, to underestimate the degree of change that has occurred, in the Mother Church.  The world I think I see is the world as it was in the past, not the present.  Only one is an illusion. The ways of the young people, the ways of the Church have changed in a very fundamental way. I am sorry, my friend. There is nothing I can do to stop this problem from growing worse.”

Father Mannheim noticed that Genevieve Novak appeared to be dividing her time between staring at her boss and looking at him. What disturbed him was the fact that  her expression remained virtually the same. He was startled at how uncomfortable this made him feel and found himself re-assessing his ambitions. Suddenly, the idea of getting off the fast-track to the Vatican and settling down in the role of pastor at St Emily’s, where he grew up, seemed very appealing.

“That is very kind of you to say, Your Eminence.” The owner and CEO of the Bernebau Company’s voice was softly respectful. Genevieve Novak, sitting to his right, picked up her steno pad and held it before her, a smokeless thurible, and continued her note-taking. She looked at the man to her left with the quiet gratitude of a lamprey eel clinging to the under-jaw of a great white shark.

“Be sure and tell the Bernebau Bears that the National Title is theirs for the taking.” Cyrus St. Loreto stood with a grace that any tiger would recognize and approve of, drawing up with him, the beautiful woman on his right and the silent man on his left. They were as synchronized as the lion in chase, adjusting to the desperately zigzagging of a gazelle fleeing across the savannah.

The cardinal and his assistant stood, the morning light casting their oddly stretched shadows over the expensive wood of the table, in every important way an altar in the church of commerce. Cyrus St. Loreto, as would any gracious host, walked between the two men to the elevators and waited until final handshakes were completed.

The elevator doors closed and swallowed the clergymen. Cyrus turned and walked into the boardroom. Without looking at either Genevieve or Constantin, he began to speak. His tone was one familiar to anyone who has been a member of an athletic team, in a locker room at the end of a halftime meeting, listening to the coach remind them that although favored to win by 20 points, they trailed their opponent.

“I want that nun, her website, her petition drive and every-fuckin-other-thing shut down now. Whatever else she is doing, online or off, I want it stopped. Now! It all stops. If she’s leading that bunch of old maids in morning, afternoon or nap time prayers in their damn chapel, you are to make her stop. Now.  And that goes for everything and everyone helping her, encouraging her or saying fucking hello to her when she walks down the goddamn street!”

Genevieve thought about the investigators who’d been making polite, seemingly deferential, but increasingly frequent requests for information on the Bernebau Company. For such an attractive young woman, Genevieve Novak had a marked tendency to worry.

Constantin Szarbo stood quietly and watched Cyrus. The stillness of his body was all that showed of the barely contained energy that grew ever more lethal.

***

“Sorry, must have the flu or something.” Father Matthew Ryan turned towards the door of the sacristy, seeing the worried look on the face of the altar boy. His coughing fits had increased over the last two days. He felt a bead of sweat tickle its way down into his eye. ‘A fever would not be helpful’, he thought as he prepared for the baptism scheduled for the afternoon.

In the nave, Father Ryan grimaced as the sweat on his palms caused them to slip as he began the ‘Prayer of Exorcism’. Seeing the concerned look in the face of the young man and older woman, who held the infant, started to reassure both the godparents and the child’s actual parents, when the coughing began. The already frightened altar boy looked around the church, hoping that an adult would tell him to go get some water. Deciding that he needed to take matters into his own hands, he started towards the sacristy when he heard a gasp. Turning he watched as Father Matthew Ryan collapsed to the cool marble floor.

Chapter 17

It was the first Tuesday morning of August, after morning prayers and Mass,  when I walked into the kitchen and saw Sister Catherine standing at the sink. It was my job to wash the dishes; being a novitiate makes one eligible for the most sought-after chores. We are not a monastic Order, so along with everyday housekeeping, there is the work of running the school. Those suited by education and temperament, taught the children, others served in more administrative capacities. And, as with any elementary school, the summer months can be as busy for the teachers as the rest of the year.

Smiling a bit mischievously, I stepped as quietly as possible into the kitchen. For un-examined reasons, I thought to sneak up on Sister Catherine, seeing how she appeared to be staring out the window. I decided to set the plates and glasses on the counter without preamble, you know, kinda surprising her. Without moving, Sister Catherine said, “Sister Margaret, you’re looking somewhat stressed. When was the last time you went for a run?” Her reflection in the window smiled with more feeling than I could recall ever witnessing in my face-to-face encounters. Before I could answer, she continued, “Wait, I believe I know the answer! Not since June 3rd.”

I was having less trouble believing that Sister Catherine knew the date of my last run than I was accepting the sly humor that changed her words into italics, the laughter implied. I started to reply, “There are 7 cases of text books that were delivered yesterday and they need to be …”

She turned with surprising quickness and in the manner of helping an elderly aunt get from the table to a comfortable chair on the porch, walked me by the elbow, to the door to the dining room. “I believe Sister Cletus and I can manage the dishes. We promise not to break too many. Now go upstairs and put on those … running shorts, that your friend, the detective, gave you and get some fresh air!”

I turned to Sister Cletus, who was sitting at the kitchen table writing a shopping list. Without looking up from the yellow-lined pad, she said, “Best that you take her up on her offer. Blue moons are a touch more common than Sister Catherine offering to take over your chores.”

It was past mid-morning by the time I ran down the long driveway to the stone pillars that marked the border between the convent and the outside world. The sun was completing the last of its upwards rise towards noon. Any lingering night-mists had long-since joined the non-existent clouds in the clear sky. Once through the gates, I turned right and headed east. I reminded myself it was August and not early June, when last I went for a run. I kept an eye out for cars of beach-goers and speeding bicyclists, whose attention tended to be up the road and not on the road. The stream of humanity swelled as we got nearer and nearer to the ocean. Like those unfortunate baby sea turtles, focused only on their destination as they cross a lethal sandy beach in order to reach the welcoming ocean.

As my body found its rhythm, legs and heart synchronizing, I was free to try to quiet my mind.

My summer was a very busy time, busier than I’ve been for as long as I can remember. First and foremost was the training that was my novitiate. It was not simply learning the history of the Order, it was not merely prayer, meditation and religious instruction; it was embarking on a path to a new life. Though involving much study, the process was more of a joining than it is was a learning. All the women of the convent shared themselves and their stories, in order to help me find my own path from the secular world to a life of the spirit.

Although the pace of study eased a bit in summer, it still filled most of my days. As it must. Of course, I was also working on getting my Masters degree and there was the matter of my ‘special project’. Few were the hours not committed to work and study.

It was my ‘special project’, my social media campaign to stop the foreclosure of my mother’s house that was most taxing, both mentally and emotionally. What twisted my stomach into painful shapes was that in order to accomplish what I set out to do required that I become the girl I left outside the stone gates the night I was welcomed into the convent at St. Dominique’s. What woke me at two in the morning and distracted me in the middle of the simplest tasks was the ease, the naturalness of letting myself become that person, that other Margaret Ryan. She was everything I was not. Rather, she was everything that I no longer am. I could still keep her at bay, under control, but that was becoming increasingly difficult as the demands of the project grew. The more successful my efforts, the stronger and more persistent was her presence within me.

I couldn’t discuss my fears with Sister Bernadine. Chicago, and the immediate aftermath, was still too raw a wound. Although she never spoke of it, it was clear the Mother Superior felt responsible for getting me involved in a matter that not only threatened my life, but caused me to risk my Calling. I refused to put the burden of my struggles on her. She pulled me back into the safety of the Order when it seemed certain my old life would force me to walk away. I refused to be so selfish as to ask to be saved again.

Oddly, the one person who was aware of my online activities and yet provided a measure of support, was Sister Catherine. The people foreclosing on my mother’s house were also trying to take the home of one of her pupils. Sister Catherine never spoke about my past or how difficult it was to call on the skills from a time in my life I very much did not want to face. But one afternoon she appeared in the library door and as I started to shut down all the different screens I had up, she waved her hand in a way that said, ‘Don’t stop what you’re doing on my account.’ As it happened, I was done with what I was doing, which was to set up an automatic telephone campaign aimed at the politicians susceptible to a grassroots petition. I turned in my chair and looked at her.

She touched the crucifix she wore around her neck and seemed to withdraw to a place distant not only in space, but in time. In a tone that sounded almost as if she were praying, she said, “Family is everything. Not because of the people who are in it, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters. What makes family everything is you. Family is the you that’s not limited by the physical. You are not simply a member of a family, a mere component part. Family is a part of you. As much or as little as is appropriate to you as a person, to you as you develop. A person does not require a family, however a healthy person finds and nurtures a family.”

We sat in the summer-quiet school library and neither of us spoke. She continued to hold the crucifix and I felt closer to my new life than my old. It was only for a moment, but there are things in life not measured in seconds and minutes.

I ran the obstacle course that was the Crisfield Town beach. I felt good that I wasn’t winded and could speak as I passed by Morris Richmond. He stood, as he had every morning that I reached the halfway point of my morning run, at the edge of the water. I noticed that he stood without fishing pole, his constant accessory through my Spring-into-Summer runs. No doubt out of deference for the children who ran up and down the wave-stroked beach. Instead of holding a pole and pretending to fish, he held a worn-edged copy of the book, ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’. I was willing to believe that even this might be a prop to avert well-intended interruptions. A half-past middle-aged man, leather sandals, too-long greying hair and a far-away look in his eyes would be a major temptation to the mothers and their companions to point and wonder. The yellow Labrador who had been as constant a companion as his fishing pole was further up the beach, teaching a group of twelve-year-old boys how to catch a frisbee.

“Suppose the person you once were did some very bad things. But had also acquired certain skills now necessary to help good people. Its like there is an orphan inside who can help but to ask is to invite her into my life again.”

I wasn’t sure if Morris would remember the way we used to speak to each other, a statement exchanged for a statement. Today it was more of a direct question than it had ever been. It didn’t always make sense. But then it didn’t always have to.

I turned at the halfway point and waving to some very surprised looking pupils from the year before, I headed back towards the parking lot and the road home. Morris stood as still as he had been when I passed him on my right. I heard him quite clearly as I passed him on my left. His was a thoughtful voice, as if we were sitting in a quiet study and he’d discovered a passage in a book worth sharing,

“We are the sum of our days. There is no subtracting any of the days that came before, in the hope of making our past self more acceptable to our current self. If we try to ignore or deny who we were, how can we possibly hope to be who we are?”

I ran back to the convent.

***

“Don’t hurt it!” Violet McKenna, all five foot, three inches of her, chased after Matthew Ryan from the vestibule, down a side aisle. A modern-day Marlin Perkins, the housekeeper’s whispered voice was urgent with concern for the well-being of the small flying creature. Father Ryan was more concerned with keeping the animal moving along the side aisle, where the ceiling was not too much more than a broom’s length above their heads. Well, his head, at any rate.

“Did you bring that burlap sack?” the young priest asked, never taking his eyes off the corner where he last saw fluttering wings. He regretted not taking the time to pick up some gardening gloves. He was working on his next sermon when, with a sudden knocking, the woman burst into his study. Given to a tendency to exaggerate, she launched into a plea to, “Save the wee creature.” Deciding that to follow directions would be less tiring than to try to get more information from the woman, he followed her to the back of the weekday-empty church. Holding the straw broom over his head, he kept the thing between the wall and the statue of St. Francis.

Now, less than six feet away, the sound of fluttering wings was decidedly more ‘leathery’ than usually accompanied the low passing of a robin or starling.  Stepping into the transept, the bird flapped it’s decidedly smooth wings.

“Can you get it to fly into the sack?” Matthew reflected on the likely tenure of the small woman to his left and the decidedly non-avian animal just over his head. He did the math of who he would have to listen to for the remainder of his assignment to St. Agatha-James and decided the bat needed to be in the bag.

A prayer to St. Francis seemed to do the trick. With a wave of the broom-end towards the sack, the bat proceeded to roost on his left index finger, which held the burlap open. Father Matthew Ryan felt a sting at the same moment he was able to make a fist of his left hand, which allowed the open sack to collapse around the bat, trapping it inside.

Burlap bag in one hand, he turned and walked down the aisle towards the vestibule. Mrs. McKenna preceded him, holding the broom, its yellowish straw head above her head like a processional cross. He smiled to himself and immediately frowned at the welling of blood between the fingers of his clenched fist.

Chapter 16

“Father Ryan. Please, come in.”  The friendly voice of Edward Ellerby pushed back some of the daytime darkness of the Bishop’s study. Nevertheless, Matthew Stephen Ryan hesitated at the threshold of the room, his raised eyebrows elicited the instruction, “Yes, please, close the door.”

To any number of the older parish priests in Philadelphia, Edward  Ellerby’s study was the physical manifestation of success in the service of the Lord. The room was a symphony of carved-wood, expensive leather and exquisitely crafted leaded glass. One wall held a fireplace, bracketed by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The mantle was stone, elaborately carved and shouted of power and wealth. Two wing-backed leather chairs faced the broad hearth. Between them, a low table on which two glasses and a cut glass decanter waited. The Bishop’s desk was directly opposite the door, behind it, a bay window that looked out over the city; the white-painted, quintessential tower of City Hall dominated the view. In front of the desk, a pair of uncomfortable-looking chairs, clearly designed to inspire brevity. Stephen crossed the oriental carpet and chided himself for thinking that the cost of either the rug in front of the fireplace or cushioning the Bishop’s desk would have easily funded the daycare program at St. Agatha-James for more than a year.

Sitting, Father Matthew managed a smile that he hoped projected the blessed fraternity of the priesthood. He hoped for confident, but would settle for competent; his discomfort at being summoned, without explanation, to the Bishop’s office gave lie to his outwardly calm demeanor.

Edward Ellerby seemed in no hurry to get to the point of the meeting and chatted amiably. Father Matthew Ryan was impressed despite himself as the Bishop demonstrated a depth of knowledge of St. Agatha-James’s that exceeded any profile in an HR file. He asked about the rectory’s housekeeper by name and even knew that one of Violet McKenna’s grandchildren had just been accepted at the Naval Academy. Given that this particular information became available at the end of the school year, 6 weeks prior, Matthew found himself liking the man sitting across the yard or so of carved-wood desk.

Finally, the Bishop stood up and said, ‘This feels too much like a job interview or..”

“…being called to the Principle’s office?” Matthew said with an optimistic grin.

The Bishop looked at the young priest, laughter gave voice to his surprise, “Why yes, almost exactly like that! Let’s go sit somewhere a little less formal, shall we?” He stepped around the desk and walked to the fireplace, Matthew followed and was relieved to see that there was no fire in the hearth. Even with air conditioning, a roaring fire in a fireplace during high-summer in Philadelphia would be a bit much. He waited for the older man to sit first.

“Stephen, you know that passage from Matthew 22:21? ‘Render unto God the things that are God’s,…'”

“…and render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”  Stephen finished.

“Well, as much as it pains me to have to ask, I need a favor.” Edward Ellerby turned in his chair and leaned slightly towards Matthew Stephen.  “Your sister is a novitiate at St Dominique’s, yes?”

Father Matthew Stephen Ryan nodded.

“A very intelligent, resourceful young woman. She’ll be an asset to the Church. I’m hearing very good things about her teaching, ‘gifted’ was one of the words used. From what I’ve been told, she’s already been of considerable service, in a rather delicate situation.” Seemingly captivated by the mood his words brought the conversation, the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia failed to notice the puzzled look on the other priest’s face. His failure to understand the relationship between Sister Margaret Ryan and her brother, Father Matthew Ryan, would eventually exact a cost far in excess of the seemingly simple misunderstanding. “Her handling of that unfortunate matter of the priest in Chicago.” Oblivious to the lack of comprehension on the other man’s face, the Bishop continued, “It’s her exceptional talent for… ‘problem solving’ that has created a delicate situation, one that I need your help in resolving.”

“I agree. And she is, in fact, my sister. But if there’s something you need from Sister Margaret, surely you have more direct channels of communications?” Matthew smiled inwardly at his own choice of words. He made a mental note to add a prayer to his daily devotions that he would someday acquire conversational skills such as were demonstrated by his superior.

“Well, you’re quite correct, Father Ryan. There is a protocol for communications with the sisters at St. Dominique’s. Their Mother Superior is a remarkable woman by the name of Sister Bernadine Ellison. However, she is not always the most amenable woman in the Church, especially when she fails to properly appreciate the importance of matters that are beyond the four walls of her convent.”

“I heard she has a temper.”

“Be that as it may. I need you to ask your sister to cool the rhetoric on her campaign.”

“Campaign?”

“You weren’t aware of it? She is quite the social media provocateur, that one.” Stephen saw an expression of what might have to be called, ‘an amused fondness and interest’ when the Bishop spoke about his sister. He felt increasingly uncomfortable with the tone of the conversation, somehow drifting from professional to collegial, with the best of the former being replaced by the worst of the latter. He said a prayer for patient understanding and turned to face the other man more directly, “I’m sorry Bishop Ellerby, my sister and I do not currently enjoy a relationship that involves all that much communication. I confess that I know little about what it is you’re referring to, for that matter, I knowing about what she did in Chicago. The embarrassing fact of the matter is that I only learned that she’d joined the Order this summer.”

Bishop Ellerby smiled and appeared to relax. Father Ryan began to feel the opposite, tension grew with the dawning realization that his superior had been on his guard since turning the conversation to matters concerning his sister. He felt an ember of resentment flare up; that he was unable to identify the source of irritation added to his growing anger. His first thought, that his admission to knowing less about his sister’s activities than did the Bishop seemed reasonable cause. Less understandable was his reaction to the man’s too-familiar attitude. Without thinking, he said, “However I do know of Sister Bernadine Ellison. Talk about your impressive women, I for one, would not want to have to force anything on her. If even half the stories are a quarter true…” Matthew Ryan was rewarded with signs of change in the Bishops expression. The older man’s self-assurance eroded, replaced by something that he couldn’t immediately put a name to, although the word, ‘peeved’ came to mind and he had to catch himself to avoid laughing out loud.

Trying to mimic the confident, one-professional-to-another-professional tone, Father Ryan said, “Even in the seminary, when the topic of the Church’s relationship and responsibility to the religious Orders came up, there was always a story about a young nun and a priest who tried to put her on the spot during a synod. I forget his name, but everyone laughed in sympathy.”

“Lets get back to your Sister Ryan. If you have any influence with her, I need you to do your best to convince her that the Church has a responsibility to the community. A much larger community than a nun, a novitiate nun, is qualified to appreciate. Her current efforts to bring attention to the plight of a woman in Crisfield who is caught in a financial bind are not appropriate. That sort of problem is for the parish priest to determine the best course of action. Not a nun and certainly not in the arena of the so-called social media.” The Bishop stood abruptly.

“Can I count on your help, Father Matthew?”

Standing, Matthew Ryan faced the older man and nodded, “I will do whatever I can for the Church.”

Bishop Ellerby held out his hand and the young priest bent, kissed the proffered ring and tried not to think about Francis Ford Coppola’s Academy Award winning movie from the 1970s.

Chapter 15

If Spring is a demonstration of birth and the beginnings of life, then Summer is surely the domain of adolescence and the approach of adulthood. The life brought forth by the months of Spring cannot be restrained as they grow into their inherent potential. During the longest days of the year, skills for the coming lifetime are practiced, bonds are formed (and broken) and beneath all, the primal drive to leave a mark on the earth, or failing that, to reproduce.

If a child, (of any species), spends his or her Spring learning to walk, Summer is the time they discover the joy of running. While undeniable that running is a capability meant to aid survival as well as propagation, it could be argued that running is the most sublime form of mobility.

Crisfield, Maryland came to life during the Summer months. Provided, of course, one defines life as an increase in activity and the initiation of processes that lead to greater numbers in subsequent Summers. The population of the handful of small towns along the coastal edges of the Delmarva peninsula increased by a factor of five at the beginning of July and remained, so elevated, until September. Then, with the call of the school year, it slowly decreased, like a minute pinhole leak in an inner tube, until the end of the month and the onset of Autumn.

Sister Margaret Ryan spent the summer season earning credits towards her Masters degree in Elementary Education. She discovered that the University of Maryland was a leader in online education. Enrolling as a nun living in a convent, Sister Margaret Ryan’s application was immediately flagged and she received a call from the assistant Dean of the University’s new ‘At-a-Distance’ program. The young man was excited about ‘her story’ and went on at lengths to convey how much UMUC would love to make her a part of their efforts to promote and publicize the newly created department. Sounding very much like an eighteen year old boy trying to convince a girl to go on a second date, he told the increasingly amused nun that, being a young woman in a setting that ‘spoke to’ those who might feel less a part of the mainstream, she was ‘perfect for the part’. He told her that, once he had the approval of the Dean, he would come to Crisfield and interview her and do a ‘complete work-up’. Sister Margaret smiled to herself and promised the eager young man that she would get back to him after she spoke to her Mother Superior. There was an abrupt silence, she thought she heard an intake of breath and, the man burst into excitement, “No way! You have a Mother Superior? Your story, the modern online student just writes itself! My god! Sorry, didn’t mean to offend you, not that I don’t believe in God, I went to catholic school once…”

Laughing, Margaret Ryan assured Alex Dumas that she was in no way offended and would be happy to help him in any way possible. She told him that the Order had policies regarding publicity, especially when involving novitiates, and that she was going to do nothing to go against the Order. He sounded relieved and at the same time even more enthusiastic about meeting with her.

Sister Margret  promised to call him, hung up the phone and immediately enrolled herself in the schools Elementary Ed Graduate program. Finding a system backdoor, she transferred as many credits from her time at Radcliffe as possible, without drawing undue attention. When she was done with the school computer system, all that remained for her to be awarded a degree were three core courses and a Practicum requirement. She took the core course as would any student attending the graduate school online and ended up with a 3.89 GPA. She thought she saw a loophole in the way the college accounted for a student’s practicum work. She planned on receiving her degree before Thanksgiving.

Each July, the seven convents in the Order would exchange three nuns,  one professed and two novitiates. The program helped broaden the experience for the new nuns by increasing their interaction with the women in other convents. One Sunday evening in mid-July, while clearing the dinner table, Sister Imelda, a young novitiate from the convent in suburban Chicago, asked Sister Margaret why she left Radcliffe only three semesters from graduation.

Sister Margaret was taken aback at the question. Her background and life before standing on the doorsteps of St. Dominique’s with only a single suitcase, was not something she shared with strangers from outside the convent. She was spared having to respond by Sister Cletus. The old nun, standing at the sink, washing dishes, managed to capture the young Sister Imelda by nothing more than the tone of her voice and the reflection of her very intense eyes in the window over the sink. She said in a quiet, patient voice, “Most of us are here in the Order because we seek a better life. Some of us view this as an extension of childhood, a natural and eagerly taken next step in life. Others have had to fight to get here. And, a very small number of women here among us, are required to pay a price for membership that you can barely imagine, much less be willing to pay. The Order cherishes all and is grateful for some.”

***

“Hey, Dru, did you see the write-up about the Bernebau Company in the Washington Post? They’re kinda piling on our client.” Arlen Mayhew walked into Drusilla Renaude’s office, a newspaper in one hand. The principle broker of Renaude and Associates looked at the tall, slightly dis-shelved man and smiled distractedly. Two open laptops on the desk in front of her were vying for attention, like the men that were still leaning against the bar at last call. She wouldn’t admit it, but she was grateful for his interruption. She’d been in the office since six that morning. The very early hours in the office allowed her to focus on the demands of her newest client, the Bernebau Company. The solitude enhanced her ability to focus on problems, at least until nine o’clock, when the routine distractions of running a real estate brokerage became impossible to ignore.

“This reporter, some guy named Andrew Lassiter, pretends he’s doing a business article about the company’s growth. But he spends nine out of ten column inches focused on the recent spike in foreclosures. According to him, the lending division of Bernebau is the leader there too.” Arlen sat in the nearest of the two leather and chrome chairs. “It’s all focused on Vérszívás Lending and Mortgage. How their growth paralleled the market recovery. But he really gets into the pain and personal tragedy of foreclosures. Worse, he mentions us!”

Drusilla looked startled and defensive, never a good combination, at least for the whoever or whatever elicited that response.  The exponential rate of growth of her (formerly) small brokerage did nothing for what little sleep she normally allowed herself.  She was one of those exceptional people who were able to relax more when presented with a problem than she would confronted with idle time. As Arlen, sitting opposite her in her office, described a potential marketing problem, she felt a renewed sense of purpose. She swiveled her legs around, the three-inch heels stopping her motion like a pencil thrown into an acoustic tile ceiling. “What do you mean us? ‘Renaude and Associates’, us or ‘Crisfield’, us?”

Arlen slouched back into the chair, his broker’s complete attention now secured, he could relax. Experience taught him that although getting the woman’s attention was difficult, once she focused on an issue, there was no turning back. Drusilla Renaude did not like problems, she lived for them. While it might be argued that women, at least in the current culture, were more inclined to use fashion to enhance their attractiveness, when fully engaged in problem solving, Drusilla wouldn’t have been more alluring had the lights suddenly dimmed and her tailored suit replaced by a negligee.

“Go on, what exactly do they say about us?” The look in her eyes made his bringing the  newspaper article to her attention a higher stakes bet than Arlen had originally calculated.

Picking up the newspaper as a priest might pick up his bible, not for the information it held, but for its power as a symbol of authority, Arlen continued, “Bernebau’s mortgage division, this Vérszívás Mortgage company, is under investigation by both the DOJ and the CFPB. Their focus is on questionable loan origination practices and suspiciously selective record keeping on foreclosure.”  Seeing a slight glazing to her expression, Arlen Mayhew hastened to add, “But, I know, what else is new? Wells Fargo and Chase are the pioneers in the profit at any cost business model.  And, sure, this reporter decided to get all up close and personal with the ‘real life’ examples. He gives us a blow-by-blow on the foreclosure of a house here in Crisfield where they served papers on a woman whose husband died, like the same week!”

Arlen watched as the expression on Dru’s face began to resemble that of a fisherman, fighting a pole-bending fish for thirty minutes only to see a minnow-sized prize come up over the side of the boat. “But that’s not the only local connection this Lassiter fellow makes in his story. The second human interest element to the article is about a little old lady in the Fishkill section of Philly. She’s losing her house because her deceased and, apparently heavy-drinking husband, used the equity in the house like an ATM for his buddies at the local bar. But that’s not the good part. The good part is that our little widow has two children, one a priest and the other a nun. Wait for it. A nun stationed, or whatever they call it, at St Dominque’s out on Hammock Point Rd.”

“No. Way.” Drusilla smiled a smile that almost always causes adult men to suddenly remember a pressing appointment elsewhere and women of all ages to smile in envious acknowledgement.

“But that’s not the best part.” Arlen felt stronger, an almost pre-limbic response to the avidness blossoming in Dru Renaude’s face. It was the beginnings of the transition from very attractive to irresistible. “It seems that the daughter, the nun, has started a social media campaign against the Bernebau Company, aka, our client. She’s remarkably skilled, for a nun. I don’t have to tell you that this is not a helpful development.”

“Shit.” A flash of pain in her left shoulder reminded Dru that she wasn’t feeling all that well. Lately, her nights were as restful as sleeping on a mattress full of mice. She hadn’t felt well for the last four weeks, since they’d returned from the meeting in Miami. She passed it off to the stress and excitement of getting the Hunting Meadows development off the ground and on the market. The speed with which the full resources of the Bernebau Company was able to go from planning to operational was somewhat breath-taking.

Within six weeks of their meeting in Miami, the sales office at the entrance to Phase 1 was open and the model home was almost complete. A multi-phase residential community, Hunting Meadows was scoring with the first home buyers and the Senior buyers demographic. It was, as she recalled hearing Cyrus call it, ‘the first cradle to grave housing development’. The local papers referred to it as, ‘a 21st Century lifeline to a small seasonal community’ and went to lengths to quote the marketing information provided by the Bernebau Company.

“Well, lets keep an eye on the nun angle. Not that anyone reads the papers anymore, but I don’t want to lose a single sale to whatever it is she’s trying to do. Grassroots campaigns have been known to do considerable damage to the most bullet-proof, sure-thing marketing. The first sign of this,” Drusilla leaned across the desk, picked up the newspaper and said, “Sister Margaret Ryan person showing up in any of our market sampling, I want to know. I didn’t… ” she sat back in her chair, “go to all this… trouble, to have a nun fuck it up on me.”

Arlen felt the hair on his neck start to do some light stretching exercise. There was a look in Drusilla Renaude’s eyes that made him want to go back to teaching privileged children in private schools.

“Got it, boss lady” Arlen put his tablet on the desk top and said, “Early stats are telling me this project is going to be a home run. Hey, that’s a good line! Hold on, I’ll send it down to our marketing department. Ought to do well on the Fall advertising cycle, World Series and all. So, here’s the new schedule for the staffing at the Sales Center. Gonna have to do some agent recruiting. The Buyers are there, all we have to do is not screw this up.”