Chapter 32

“O God, Whose attribute it is always to have mercy, we humbly present our prayers to Thee for the soul of Thy servant, Mathew Stephen Ryan, which Thou has this day called out of this world, beseeching Thee not to deliver it into the hands of the enemy. We pray that your everlasting love and mercy may bear the soul of our brother into paradise;  that it may be delivered from the pains of hell and inherit eternal life through Christ our Lord. Amen”

Like the quiet, muffled roar of pebbles and shells pulled, tumbling towards the ocean, the church was filled with the response, ‘Amen’.

Alone together in the front pew, stood four women. Three wore the habits of their Order, individual identity concentrated in a white-framed oval of flesh. The more mundane function of clothing, that of providing protection from the elements was consigned to simple lengths of black cloth. The fourth woman bore the mark of age and loss, unassailable credentials for her place in the first row of the devout.

Sister Bernadine, Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s, stood at the aisle end of the pew. Her massive frame, softened by the black cloth of her habit seemed a quiet protection, until, that is, one was in a position to see her face. Her eyes were not quiet, beneath the protection of the beige ridge of a frown; they glowed like the remains of a campfire on a stormy night. She was the epitome of barely restrained vigilance. Face to face, or even from eight rows back in the pre-quiet of a funeral mass, any temptation to dismiss her as an overweight, middle-aged black woman vanished. Her right hand rested, immovable, on the pew rail, a stanchion for the young woman to her right.

Standing next to Sister Bernadine was Sister Margaret Ryan, novitiate at St. Dominique’s. She stood between the ruler-straight pews as upright as any young willow tree reaching for the sun. It was beneath the shapelessness of her veil and habit that the slight swaying of her body gave lie to her calm demeanor, as winds of rage and grief tore at her; only her eyes, blazing over tear-softened cheeks hinted to the battle within. She gripped the railing with both hands; the paleness of fingertips, the only clue to how precarious her balance, both physical and emotional.

On Margaret Ryan’s right, her mother stood like the statue seen in certain religious festivals, usually of a medieval origin. Like the icons of old, carried from station to station, Alice Ryan allowed others to move her from place to place, trusting that she was of use and value to the ceremony, now standing in a cathedral, as still as eighty-year-old bones permitted.

The last woman in the front pew was Sister Cletus. If time is the measure of all, she was now a ruler worn smooth of markers and marks, as straight and true as ever, her wisdom offered to those in need un-adorned of complication or apology.

Margaret Ryan watched as the Archbishop of Philadelphia stood between the casket that held the remains of her brother, Father Mathew Ryan and the altar. With practiced gravity, he held the silver thurible over his head and let it swing. Intoning the words of the ceremony, a solemn soundtrack as the pungent smoke rose; rivulets into tendrils, ever reaching upwards. Like a fairy tale creature, its wings and therefore, its magic torn by the morning sun fighting to escape the grip of the cold and rational earth, the smoke disappeared into the dusk of the upper reaches of the cathedral.

***

I stood still. For no reason, a line from an 80s song, ‘eyes without a face’ came to mind and, rather than grimace, I smiled inwardly. It was exceptionally quiet in my head and Billy Idol would not be the worst houseguest. I heard the growing crescendo of padded wood-on-wood thumps as the kneelers were reset; it was the sound of the wheel turning. I could even sense the increase in light, as the doors, somewhere, too far away, opened. The world beyond the unseen doors was a place now changed. It was a place of school and sorrow, it was the everyday world of work and ‘learning to deal with it’, it was a place that, as long as the church doors remained shut, I never need to face.

I stood still. If I didn’t turn, didn’t move, then nothing would happen. I did not want to move. Everything was fine. Sister Bernadine was on my left and my mother was on my right. Sister Bernadine had become a part of the pew and therefore the church. She hadn’t said a word since she arrived, late, just before the start of the service. I felt something inside relax, a wave of peace, as I recalled her arrival, almost late. The Archbishop was at the back of the church, his full retinue arrayed around the casket; a proud general heading into a battle that he knew he could not lose, no matter how many of his soldiers were wounded.

The morning outside was sunny and bright; a shadow grew up the aisle as Sister Bernadine stood in the open doorway. The bishop stepped forward as if to walk her to the front. With a nod so slight, only those who knew her could see it, she continued; the bishop stepped back to the head of the casket and waited for her to reach the front pew.

Sister Bernadine walked up the aisle towards where I stood with my mother and Sister Cletus. Her eyes never stopped moving, yet her body projected a peace at rest. In the small, hidden part of my mind, rose the image of a lioness in the tall grass of an African savannah, eyes half closed at rest and body full of life. I felt safe and secure.

I sensed movement and willed my eyes to shift from the altar to the woman now standing in the aisle. Sister Bernadine looked back at me. There was no urgency or impatience. Not the slightest hint of worry that I wouldn’t do what I was supposed to do. For the second time in two minutes, a small, secret smile grew inside me. I recalled a late afternoon sitting in her office, neither of us speaking, until day turned into night. That she would stand in the aisle watching me (and everything else in the cathedral) forever, if necessary, gave me a new feeling of strength.

I nodded to Sister Bernadine. I turned back to face my mother. Her pale and tired face was filled with a childlike trust; armor against an enemy still in the un-seeable distance. Her hand grasped my wrist, the dry delicate touch of the tendrils of an ancient vine clinging to stone.

I knew Sister Cletus was next to my mother without even looking directly at her. She has that power to be where needed, sometimes before anyone recognizes it.

I stepped into the aisle with my mother on my right side and we proceeded towards the light at the back of the church. A frown grew in the lower back of my mind. I felt my jaw muscles tighten and my lips pressed together.

***

Moving up the aisle towards the back, I saw the church was three-quarters full; parishioners and friends of my brother. They would forever be people who were friends of my brother, friends by rite of death. The frown hidden behind my eyebrows grew deeper. I felt a certain….certainty; it was the feeling of a beast waking, not from sleep but from hibernation.

My friend, the Chicago police detective, Maribeth stood at the end of a pew. I was surprised and, somehow, alarmed. I only then remembered that she showed up, un-announced, at the wake. I know we spoke and cried, but could not remember when. The evening had been an endless series of hugs from strangers and condolences from people who wanted me to know how much my brother meant to them. I looked at her in her favored outfit of a nearly-mens-tailored suit, a glint of gold from the badge on her hip. I looked for her gun  and I smiled. It was the first genuine smile I could remember in the last three days. She frowned affectionately at me and silently lip-spoke three words. Then I was past her and she returned to what I knew she’d been doing, memorizing everything about everyone in the church.

I saw a blonde girl looking at me from a pew in the back left. Her remarkably pretty face showing as much desperation as I suspected mine was sad. Her name appeared a blank rectangle in my memory. I continued to stare at her until I remembered she was a part of the same outlier group of nerds and malcontents I was part of when I was still at Radciffe. Her name remained at the far edge of my mind, something about a mineral or jewel. As I flipped through my memory, she slide-stepped out of the pew to the far aisle and, without a backward look, disappeared into the vestibule.

There was a man, in the next to the last pew that I only glimpsed before a family stood up  waiting for us to pass and blocked my view. When I passed them, he was nowhere to be seen. There was something about him that made me certain that,  were you to ask anyone there, they would say with certainty he was there for most of the Mass. I was equally certain not one of them would have been able to describe him other than, darkly dressed.

Standing in the middle of a pew was a very large man wearing a white suit and a smile that would seem inappropriate to the occasion. Next to him was a young man I recognized only after doing a little memory editing. His clothing was very expensive in a low-key way, but when I superimposed a University  of Maryland tee sheet and  dirty Adidas on the Harris tweed and Bruno Maglis, I immediately recognized Alex Dumas. He was the grad student behind a series of articles profiling me for his college newspaper. Originally intended as a PR-friendly piece on my efforts to earn a Masters degree through their online program, it became much more. Alex got wind of the social media campaign I’d launched to try and stop the foreclosure of my mother’s house. To his credit he should not have been able to find me beneath the fake names and avatars. The title of his story was changed to, ‘The Billionaire and the Nun’ and it kind of went viral. Last I’d heard, there was talk of a book deal and maybe even a byline on one of the ‘investigative-human-interest’ cable tv shows that were always spring up.

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Chapter 31

“You know, you’re a lot younger than you sound in your little college newspaper articles.” The immense man lifted the espresso cup to his mouth, as ineffective camouflage of the assessment in his eyes as glitter pasties on a stripper.

“Dude, you’re a lot fatter than… well, than your voice messages. I’d of thought pinky rings were passé with guys with multiple vowels in their name. Even the old crime bosses, not exactly GQ followers wore rings with a single diamond, not, not whatever that thing is supposed to be.” Alex was surprised at his growing self-assuredness. His shoulders felt three feet across, like in high school when he walked down the corridor the Monday morning after Diane Arnold let him get to second base.

“In reverse order, my young protegé! Bloodstone. You should be much more knowledgeable in matters both criminal and fashionable. I’m actually slimmer than I’ve been in decades.” The slight up-turning at the corners of Phil Borastein’s mouth managed to convey the impression his very white teeth were forcing their way out from behind his thin lips.

Alex Dumas’ expression of rapt attention began to decay into a grimace as he stared at the pale man in the worn suit and expensive jewelry. Youth curtailed is ability to mask his fear. He was like the wilderness camper yelling at the intruding bear, any other defensive strategy would merely highlight his inferiority. Not such an uncommon response to stress. With a click inside the jukebox, Paul McCartney, immediately joined by John Lennon and George Harrison began to sing, “Paperback Writer…”

Recognizing the old Beatles song, Alex closed his eyes to better hear the lyrics. Without warning, as the last verse came around, the fat man opposite him in the booth began to sing. With uncanny pitch his voice was barely distinguishable from the record, except for the lyrics, “You know I really like it and I want the rights, It could make a million for you overnight.”

The former graduate journalism student was three-quarters of the way to upright when without warning, his left foot found the bass rhythm of the underlying the chorus. He gave in to the mood and began to sing. “I wanna be a paperback writer…” laughing the lyrics, Alex Dumas sat back down and looked into the hungry eyes of the obese man on the other side of the table.

***

The monthly management meetings were one Cyrus St. Loreto’s favorite things about owning the Bernabau Company. The first Monday of every month, the heads of the divisions would show up at board room, armed with laptops and the youthful ambition. The agenda was always the same, describing their success in adding to the value of the Company since the last meeting.

Cyrus’ gave the recruiters in HR two criteria for candidates: extreme competence in their field and a burning ambition to succeed.

‘I’d rather have some kid fresh out of grad school with too much ambition than an old pro who already made his bones and looking to get comfortable’, Cyrus would respond to the inevitable question from the occasional reporter noting the lack of grey hair or wrinkles among upper management. An equal opportunity recruiter, he asked only for complete loyalty and a willingness to do whatever it took to get the job done. From his headquarters in Miami, Cyrus charged his executives with one mission and one mission only: identify opportunity and add value to the Company. Cyrus kept his finger on the pulse of the company, he felt the rhythm of steady growth, technology made ‘hands-on’ a relative term. However, there was no substitution for the feeling of having the actual living and breathing people in his reach.

“What the fuck am I paying you people for? This?!” The CEO of the Bernabau Company grabbed the head of the M&A Division’s forearm, “This….wrist watch?!!”

Cyrus looked at his own watch, then at the younger mans’ and then back again, “Hey, that’s a nice watch.” Nick Smith smiled uncertainly up at the man towering over him as he sat at the conference table. Sneaking a look at the other members of upper management he found no help or support. With the exception of Lilani Gometchikov, sitting to his right, all other division heads were suddenly engrossed in something on their laptops.

“Give it to me.”

His arm still in the grasp of the owner of the company, Nick smiled and said, “Really? This watch? It’s an heirloom. It was my grandfathers.” Resentment edged each impersonal pronoun, his smile began to flatten and stretch as he fought the growing anger.

“What is it you want Mr. Smith. That watch or …a future with the company?” Cyrus’s voice had a tone of casual curiosity.  Like a tourist in a curio shop holding up an item that was odd but frivolous. The top floor conference room was pin-drop quiet.

A laugh tried to escape the young man’s lips, slipped and fell to its death. No one in the room volunteered first aid or resuscitation.

“Quick, make your decision and make me happy with it.”

The young man pushed back from his place at the table, stood up, pulled at the lapels of his new Brooks Brothers suit. Unclasping his watch he held it in his open palm and said with enthusiasm. “Cyrus! How did I manage to miss your birthday?! Let me make it up to you. Please accept this as my gift to you.”

Without looking at anyone other than the man he just handed his most treasured possess to, Nick Smith sat down. Lilani’s eyes widen slightly as she heard him singing to himself, yet she could hear the words from an old song, “I’m-a make a deal with the bad wolf  So the bad wolf don’t bite no more…” Her mouth, loosened by surprise, formed an ‘O’ but was deprived of breath and become a silent movie emoticon. On Nick’s opposite side, blocked by the CEO, his friend Sean Kristopek repressed a smirk.

Silence grew until it seemed the glass walls overlooking Miami’s financial district were taking on a slight but definite concave shape. Cyrus moved towards the head of the table, he ran his hand along the backs of the very, very expensive chairs and when he reach his own chair said, “Ladies and Gentleman, let me be the first to announce the latest promotion among the ranks of management of the Bernabau Company. Formally the head of our M&A Division, Mister Smith here is now in charge of a new division, Special Operations. Mister Smith? I am impressed and pleased.”

Turning and facing the interior wall of the room, somewhere far enough from the windows to be nothing more than shadows, Cyrus shouted, “Genevieve! How much are we paying Mr. Smith here?”

Her voice dropped from the speakers hidden throughout the conference room, “$150,000.00 per annum. Mr. St. Loreto.”

“Make that 200 and get him a new office and staff.”

Cyrus looked around the table, the stunned expressions ranged from disbelief to outright envy. “I know what I told all of you when you started here. The path to success starts almost anywhere. The thing is, you must have the presence of mind and the will to step up and start walking.”

“OK enough with the fun of owning a company. Who’s next with their monthly report?

Cyrus had plans for the young man he just promoted to the head of a Division that he had only just decided to create.

***

“I’m sorry Sister. Your brother passed away last night.” The young doctor, on the verge of tears, reached up and touched one end of the stethoscope draped around her neck. The glistening of her eyes faded as she remembered the price of learning to save lives, which all too often was to bring the news of a lost life to a friend or family member.

I stood still. I looked at the girl, really just a girl. My vision seemed to be over-focused yet not in a tunneling kind of way. I saw her face and not her nameplate or white doctors coat. She could have been someone from school or the convent. Her hair was pulled back and clipped too tightly, as if impatient with the demands of fashion. Her eyes were brown and had the extra shine of approaching tears.

I nodded, reached out and touched her arm, to comfort her. I saw her draw strength from the stethoscope, a symbol as much an instrument. My hand felt her arm start to recede. I held on more tightly. She looked surprised. I felt a flush rise from my body, embarrassed by my need for a physical touch, the nurturer in need. We stood together outside my brother’s hospital room. As long as this young woman needed my help I didn’t have to move. Or turn around. Or walk to the bed that held the brother that I used to have.

Chapter 30

Sister Catherine felt her smile touch the corner of her eyes. That simple connection between heart and mind marked her regaining control of her physical body. A whispered prayer of thanks sent her right hand towards her waist and the silver crucifix. Her fingers found fine fabric, a band of leather and nothing more. Frowning, she stood up and stared at the reflection in the full-length mirror that rested against the wall opposite the sofa. Thought faltered, a momentary amnesia that found expression in the tone of her voice, which gave the character to the sound to the thought, ‘Dear God, that’s me?!’

The variety of design and cut of the clothing that her mirror-self wore, demanded her attention the way that an alarm bell in a darkened room does: little information, excessive demand for attention. Standing, she waited for the novelty overload to dissipate, content to look and touch her clothing. Obviously stylish, undeniably expensive, the woman in the mirror was dressed as any other well-to-do woman of her age, provided, of course, that woman was not a nun.

However, Sister Catherine, the former Eleanor McManus, was a nun. Her wardrobe, drawing from the simplest of color palettes, consisted of a habit covering the body in black and framing her face, a wimple in pure white. Reading the label on an inside seam of her blouse, she found herself smiling at the thought, ‘As much as the Second Vatican Council has brought needed and welcomed changes to our lives at the convent, I’m certain that Neiman Marcus is not the new supplier of habits.’

Sister Catherine of St. Dominique’s, after turning right-to-left and then left-to-right, pulled her grey slacks enough to expose the tops of decidedly non-black non-oxford shoes. These were as much like her normal footwear as a Maserati was to a Mazda. They covered her feet, both cars had four wheels and that was the extent of their similarities.

‘Curiouser and curiouser’ the famous phrase sparked surprise laughter. Even as the image of Lewis Carroll’s heroine faded, her need for reason and rationality to prevail asserted itself. She faced the mirror and said, ‘I certainly did not wander into a department store and traded in my habit for this clothing!’ She felt an oddly re-assuring flash of panic at the thought that she was suffering from a drug-induced amnesia. For the second time since waking, her hand moved to her waist, a lifetime of habit clearly immune to any drug-caused memory loss.

Sister Catherine surveyed the room. Rectangular in shape and by extending her arms to the sides, she estimated the dimensions to be ten feet in width by perhaps sixteen feet. Reminded by the slight pressure on the back of her legs, she looked down at the sofa on which she returned to consciousness, ‘Like the sleeping princess in every fairytale ever told. Of course it’s never too early to teach us the joys of passivity.’ Sister Catherine’s lips pressed together in an expression that a stranger might take for a smile but a friend would see as determination.

‘Enough with the injustices of life, Catherine. Learn what you can and do something!’ The admonition had the desired effect and she took stock of the interior of the space.

The sofa was a sectional; or rather it was two-thirds of one, the middle and one end. It was upholstered in a rough cloth with threads of blue and grey running through it in no particular pattern. The arm of the end unit was smooth and stained. Where her head rested for however long she’d been here, was simply a raised extension of the cushion. The back was tufted and rose to large billowy cushions, but drooped unevenly, like melted wax. She decided that whoever put her on it had not just returned from a furniture store.

At the end of the sofa was an octagonal-shaped table of dark wood and glass. Like the couch it was worn and tired looking.

On the glass top was a cell phone, a credit card and a manila folder. Her right hand in mute reaction to a new wave of un-reality, reached yet again towards a missing crucifix. Instead she felt the soft wool of the slacks, bordered along the top by an equally soft leather belt. Pinching a fold of the fabric, she marveled at the luxurious feel and immediately stopped.  ”Luxurious feel’, really Sister? Ten minutes in a stranger’s clothing and you’re developing a taste for couture? Clearly you need to figure out what’s going on, find your real clothing if possible and get out of here.’ The angle of the grin that pulled at her lips drooped. ‘Wherever it is ‘here’ happens to be.’ The follow-up thought sparked a touch of alarm, blunting her growing confidence.

She stepped closer to the end table. Ignoring the phone and the credit card, Sister Catherine picked up the manila folder and let it fall open in her palm. The relief that grew from the moment she realized that she was not blind, paralyzed or otherwise incapacitated evaporated at the sight of the single sheet of paper in the folder.

A piece of letterhead, the type found in any motel chain with the ambition of serving a clientele in need of quality writing paper, and across the top: ‘Comfort Inn, Maumee, Ohio’.

Sister Catherine felt the stale breath of a near-forgotten past stir the hair behind her ear.

Catherine picked up the cell phone. ‘ Ah! a ‘burner phone’ just like in those police shows that Sister Cletus enjoys so much!’  The memory of the old nun patiently explaining to her how criminals used this type of pre-paid phone because they were impossible to trace, brought a feeling of anger mixed with sadness. The anger became determination and brushing aside cloying fingers of fear, picked up the phone. Not the cheap generic devices favored in the shows, it was the latest model Samsung. She pressed the button on the left edge and the screen came to life. Rather than the usual assortment of icons, there was a youtube screenshot (in black and white) of a concert stage. Superimposed was the white triangle invitation to view the video. The title along the bottom read, ‘The Beatles at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in Ohio in 1966’.

Her finger hovered over the touchscreen. Remembering that her location was the first problem to be solved, put the phone in her pants pocket and picked up the credit card. It was a pre-paid Platinum Visa card.

Like a hospital patient seeing her chart left on the foot of the bed by an absent-minded physician, the former Eleanor McManus picked up the letterhead again. There was something handwritten on it. In an odd color, (neither blue nor red), the penmanship looked, ‘Well, like good old-fashioned penmanship’ she thought. Twenty-five years of teaching parochial school children to write made her assessment of slope of the letters, roundness of curves and regularity of spacing automatic. The writing was of an odd style, and almost certainly the writer used a fountain pen, ‘Or perhaps a quill pen?’ Chiding herself for fanciful speculation, she read:  115 Thorpe Way, Mendocino California. Below the address,  Per ardua ad astra

Underneath the sole source of light, a small rectangle of glass, etched in chicken wire, was a wooden chair. Quite simple a design, un-padded, sculpted seat and half-curved back the chair was a white hand bag (with what appeared to be a gold padlock), and draped across the back, a coat. Without thought, she transferred the phone and credit card to the purse.

The rest of the space making up her cell (for surely it could be called nothing else), was both empty and featureless. Looking towards the left, Sister Catherine’s eyebrow tugged at her mind, unlike the other three walls, this one appeared to be corrugated. Smiling, she stepped in front of the wall and thought, ‘Very well, Mr Carroll. When is a wall not a wall? What? No answer?’ Looking down she saw an orange canvas strap attached to a metal handle in the center bottom of the door. ‘When the wall is really a door.’

Pulling upwards, a cool breeze pressed against her, starting at her ankles and proceeding upwards, like a new and very enthusiastic tailor, determined to take the measure of her body. Letting go of the strap, she held one hand, a brief salute to the sun, it’s light made painful by her time in near darkness. As her eyes struggled to accommodate the light, she saw that she stood in an alleyway, formed by a row of identical orange plastic doors. Stepping forward, bending slightly, Sister Catherine took three steps forward and looked down the row to where it ended in an open gate.

‘In Maumee, Ohio,’ she reminded herself as she walked down the row of storage units. It occurred to her that, despite the fact that an amnesic awaking in one’s hometown is a cliché among plot devices, her first thought was not the somewhat trite, ‘I’m home.’ In fact, the absence of this response bolstered her confidence.

The narrow road, really more of a lane, if for no other reason than it lacked the most basic of painted lines on the asphalt. As she walked, she passed an unremarkable assortment of industrial and commercial buildings and a single residential home lining the un-named street. In the distance, Sister Catherine saw a sparkle of blue water. She walked towards it.

‘River Road’ was the green and white metal claim fixed to a telephone pole. Something within the nun tried to hide.

“Mother Superior, this is Sister Catherine.” After a walk of a mile or so, Sister Catherine found a bench overlooking the Susquehanna River. Taking the cell phone from the pocket, she discovered that the number for St Dominique’s was already in the phone book.

“Yes, Sister Catherine. We missed you at breakfast… the last two days. And dinner as well. Are you alright?” Sister Catherine found herself tensing at the other woman’s tone of voice. It took only a brief time for the nuns of St. Dominique’s to learn that when the Mother Superior sounded peaceful, there was reason to be concerned.

“I’d love to say it’s a long story. However you’ve just provided me with useful information, the length of time that I’ve…been away or whatever the best descriptive word is.  ‘Kidnapped’ sounds right, except for the fact I’m sitting on a bench in my hometown in Ohio and don’t have anyone chasing me. As a matter of fact, you’re the first person I’ve talked to since… my optometrist appointment in Pocomoke. I was sitting on the bench outside Dr. Restivo’s offices, waiting for the bus. Now I’m sitting on a bench in Ohio and I have a feeling that I’m still waiting for something.

“Remind me to have you write ‘My convent has a vehicle, I do not need to wait for the bus in Pocomoke’ fifty times on your class’s blackboard. When you get home.” The voice of the Mother Superior struggled to convey nonchalance despite her natural instinct to take command of a situation.

“I do know that, it was just that Sister Margaret was headed to Philadelphia to be with her brother. My spending some time on public transportation was a small inconvenience in comparison to how she must have felt as she drove off.” Sister Catherine idly ran her fingers along the hem of her coat. It was of such comfort and quality that she lacked the fashion vocabulary to describe. She imagined movie stars and women from old money would surely have such a garment in their wardrobe.

“About that transportation…” Catherine spoke slowly, the novelty of the plan taking shape in her mind refused to fit any familiar category. Confronted with the undeniable fact of being back in the place of her childhood caused long-buried memories to stir and begin to rise.

“Let me tell you what happened after I woke up a short time ago. And then I will ask you a question that I pray you will be able to answer.” Without waiting for an acknowledgement, Sister Catherine described her experiences since waking in the dark. She concluded by telling the other woman that she sat on a bus stop bench that afforded a view of a river. She hesitated and then described the green lawns and beige fields across the road, the only evidence of the institution in which she spent her childhood.

“Did you know that the last time I was here, I was given the name ‘Eleanor McManus’ by a very nice woman who worked the night shift at the Miami Children Facility?” Her thoughts, now somewhere halfway across the two lane state road on the way towards a building that existed in memory only, were pulled back by the sound of Sister Bernadine’s voice, ‘Yes, Catherine, you told me that when I first arrived at the convent. I remember quite distinctly…”

In what would not be considered an interruption, by virtue of her being only half in the present, Eleanor McManus continued, “My mother’s name was Cindy Marie Duquette and she named me Star Grace. I don’t think that more than four people knew my real name. She didn’t leave anything behind with me on the doorstep other than a note, ‘Please take care of my baby. I don’t know what else to do.’ And the institution did what institutions are created to do, keep order in the world as best they can. And order, especially among children, begins with having a name.”

“I did not know that, Catherine,” The voice on the cell phone was as strong as it always was, with a slight hesitation. It was a pause of uncertainty, which in some women (and men) can be as debilitating as a blow to the head. “We will work this out. The first thing is to get you home.” Sister Bernadine’s tone became more confident, a plan of action was the perfect fix for uncertainty. It conveyed a self-assurance that even 4G service could not carry.

Sister Catherine continued, in a musing tone almost as if talking to herself, “I was going to ask you what I should do about the address on the hotel stationary. Then I realized this is something between me and God. Yes, I understand that whoever put me here, in this clothing, provided me a credit card and phone and information is a dangerous person or persons. God’s plans for us don’t always come with a syllabus. Free Will must be accepted first before it can manifest as a gift from our Creator. I must decide my course of action. You agree with me, don’t you?”

“Well, I’m glad that you left me a question!” Concern was barely overridden by the natural command in Sister Bernadine Ellison’s voice. “We, you and I, are here where we are through the grace of God. Our lives are not merely a series of choices. Our lives are defined by the challenges that we, all men and women, confront each day. It’s nothing unique to being a nun or a member of a religious order. If we  have faith and work hard, the relationship we have with God grows.

We know who is behind your disappearance. We also know, thanks to our sister Cletus, the kind of man Cyrus St Loreto is and what he is capable of and for that I am fearful. However, sometimes God uses the devil to advance his plan. That the devil is one of Gods creations, just as we are, is important to remember. It is not the forces in our lives that make us who we are, it is how we relate to and deal with the forces in our lives that make us who we are.

We will be here at the convent. Follow the trail that God seems to have made obvious at this moment in your life. Even if the agency for the beginning of your journey is of such questionable virtue, it will lead you where God wills.”

Chapter 29

‘The tests confirm that your brother has rabies. He has entered the neurological phase of the disease and we’ve initiated the Milwaukee protocol. His initial response was encouraging. Last night, however, his vital signs dipped. We were able to stabilize them but only by interrupting the protocol. His condition is grave.’

The woman’s voice, with the tone of certainty common to computers and young adolescents, filled the interior of the SUV. I thumbed my phone to google search and asked, “prognosis for acute rabies infection.’ The same of-no-woman-born voice filled the car as I approached the Philadelphia city limits.

‘The acute period of disease typically ends after 2 to 10 days. Once clinical signs of rabies appear, the disease is nearly always fatal, and treatment is typically supportive.

The SUV, ‘St Dominique’s Convent’ in gold-lettering on each side, shot down the highway at a speed that made prayer as necessary as oil in the crankcase. The dashboard claimed I was traveling at 84 miles per hour. My stomach disagreed with that assessment and with every medical fact crawling out of my phone, it seemed to lag a little farther behind. My grip on the steering wheel tightened, as if the parts of me not directly involved in keeping on the road were falling behind, like a weakened mountain climber pulling downwards on those connected by a safety line. I knew that I couldn’t think about how I felt, not even to encourage myself, that my only hope lay in going forward faster and faster.

As if to sabotage my resolve to focus on driving and only driving, it occurred to me that I hadn’t even thought about praying. The ‘me’ to whom I’d relinquished control was apparently too busy or, worse, not inclined to pray. Even this feeling, the fear that I was losing something very precious was relegated to the category of  ‘no time for anything other than get to the hospital and fight’. I felt a momentary resistance to having my recently acquired way of life shunted to the side, like a child wishing extra hard for the thunder to stop, it felt increasingly like an effort to hold onto a world that was in danger of disappearing.

***

“Hey, Alex! Over here.”  Alex Dumas heard the voice even before his eyes could make the adjustment from the cloudless October sunlight on the sidewalk to the pretend-night of the bar on E. Pratt St.

After six voice messages consisting entirely of, “We need to talk. You’ll be glad you did.”, Alex picked up his phone just as Phil Borastein was leaving his seventh. In what seemed to be a single breath, the man explained that he, among all literary agents in the world, was the only one qualified to turn, ‘The Nun and the Billionaire’ into a bestseller.

The ‘Nun and the Billionaire’ was the title of the series of articles the graduate student just completed for his college newspaper. A five-part chronicle of the efforts of a novitiate nun, one Sister Margaret Ryan, to stop the foreclosure of her elderly mother’s home by a predatory corporation, by the name of the Bernabau Company, it was, by all measures, a monster hit.  The article broke records for views on the university’s website; his personal website remained in an upward curve, as the article spread throughout the internet. It was on the edge of going viral.

The voice came from a booth far to the back of the half-lit bar; too far to allow its occupant to be visible.

The bar was of a tried-and-true layout:  a bar with stools on the left and a row of booths opposite, along windows that looked out over the Baltimore sidewalk. The effect was of a Hieronymus Bosch-paintingas-performance art. A world of light and a world of darkness, separated more by the nature of their respective inhabitants than by any physical barrier.

The last booth was backlit in reflected neon red and silver light that shimmered like the waters of a fountain of youth, (or failing that, a fountain of forgetfulness). The decidedly non-digital jukebox sat in the corner. Behind a broad glass display, a vertical stack of shiny black 45-rpm records, waiting for the machine’s mechanical tongue to find it and hold it spinning against its single diamond tooth. It sang songs and tunes that made one remember the past as they believe it should have been.

Alex sidestepped the few customers at the bar; supplicants to glass gods of forgetfulness and forgiveness that stood in silent rows overlooking all. Men, (and one girl-trapped-in-a-frightened-woman’s-body) perched on lonely stools, their heads bowed. They looked at their drinks in quietly desperate attempts to find their way out of a world they couldn’t remember seeking.

The owner of the voice that called his name became clearer, or at least more visible. It was as if, by demonstrating his willingness to come this far, the lighting surrounding the far booth increased. Alex’s first impression of the person was that of a toad. Not so much having a slimy skin, more of being an animated pile of compressed fat with a toxic smile, wearing a worn-out suit.

“Sid down…Sid down” The sibilance giving a shredded edge to the simple command. It also prompted a mental image of a frog’s tongue snatching a hapless fly out of the air. Alex looked around, a guilty reflex offering mute testimony to the vigor of the young man’s imagination. The man pointed to the bench on the opposite side of the booth, his hand smooth but crowded with jewelry. The effect was of glittering acne, rings on three of five fingers and a watch that, like the bucket on an old-fashioned well, hung below his shirt cuff and rested on the back of his hand.

“Hold on,” the man spoke with an implied courtesy despite Alex saying nothing, “Waiter, bring my friend…” at a loss for the specifics, the man’s brow bent in a spasm of mute anger, only to disappear as quickly,  “whatever it is he wants!” The bald man laughed the way a dog barks to convince their human to keep throwing the ball.

“Nothing, I’m good.” Looking down at the table, Alex saw: an ashtray, a half empty cup of coffee, a lighter that, for no reason, struck him as being very old and expensive and a small notebook. The man looked up at him and stared. “Alright…. a coffee.”

***

“No, Genevieve, I don’t mind holding.” Drusilla Renaude turned in her chair and faced the glass wall that created her office at the back of Renaude and Associates. She thought about how far from the streets of Baltimore she’d come. Desperate to make ends meet, she worked days and sang on weekends in the local clubs. Sitting in with the occasional rock band, singing with just a backing track. Weekends spent pretending to be someone she wanted to be, in a place where she’d rather be other than a smoky, badly lit bar.

As the on-hold music played, Drusilla was surprised to think that it might be fun to look up some old friends, those still active in the music scene in Baltimore. ‘Just for a change of pace’ she added to temper the excitement the idea seemed to generate. If it turned out that they invited her to come to the city and maybe join them for a set at the end of the night, how irresponsible would that make her? Her answer to herself was interrupted by a voice, “Drusilla! My favorite real estate broker! You know you’re the shining star of the Bernebau family.” Drusilla felt surprise turn to guilt as the charming good will of the man’s voice caressed her.

“What the fuck is this bullshit about you leaving us?”

***

Sister Catherine could not move. The more she tried, the more she realized that she wasn’t restrained by anything as mundane as shackles or duct tape. She could not move a muscle that is, as far as she could feel, she had no muscles. For that matter, her entire body seemed to be missing.

A sensation of sudden cold flashed through her scalp with such force that she was sure it was on fire. It was so overwhelming as to almost convince her to panic.

Panic, a response to threat so basic as to almost be a part of the autonomic nervous system, nevertheless required participation on the part of the panic-ee. A certain shutting of eyes when they should be open, the willingness to stop when go was the more effective action. In other words, practice.

Some people are pre-disposed to the panic response. Star Grace Duquette, (later named Eleanor McManus by the weekend shift nurse-in-charge at the Miami Children’s Center), was not.

Letting go of the voice that screamed that the uncontrollable needed to be controlled, she moved her eyes from one side to another. That she had eyes and could move them was not lost on the once very young and gifted, Star Grace. A smile rose within her mind and found expression somewhere below her eyes. With the realization that her physical body was still hers, although mostly asleep, she noticed that there was a section of black that stood out in the universe of darkness. A lighter black if you would. The every day world reformed, as the section of lighter black became a grey rectangle and, most importantly, moved down the wall.

Sister Catherine smiled a prayer of thanks.

 

Chapter 28

“Now that you’ve eaten the candy in Crisfield, its time to get to work on the Thanksgiving decorations.” I smiled at the mix of theatric groans from the boys and subdued cheers from my girls as we returned from noon recess. The empty classroom was pleasantly chaotic as twenty-five boys and girls moved among the desks. Like a stream of water that subdivides as it encounters obstacles too solid or high to overflow, they filed into the room. From outside in the hall, I noticed something was caused the forward-moving line to come to a halt. Stepping into the room, I saw Sister Bernadine standing in the aisle between the two rows of desks closest to the windows.

The boisterous atmosphere muted as suddenly as a car radio driving under a highway overpass. With the natural sensitivity to the presence of power found in dogs and children under the age of ten, they responded by becoming silent and taking their seats.

“What a pleasant surprise! Class, what do we say to visitors to our classroom?” Remembering a scene from the old movie, ‘The Wizard of Oz’, I almost laughed at the extra cheeriness I’d put in my voice.

“Good Afternoon, Sister…” before they could complete their welcome, the Mother Superior of the convent was at the front of the room, waiting as I walked to my desk. There are people who have a certain presence, the innate force of their personality makes them, ‘un-ignorable’. Once she locked eyes with me, we might as well have been in her office or in another state. It completely un-necessary to tell the twenty-five children not to listen. Like a herd of pre-historic marsupials, surprised at a watering hole by two large and powerful dinosaurs, the children did everything they could to appear un-interesting and not worth a second thought. It was very much the sociological manifestation of the color-changing skin of a chameleon when confronting deadly force.

“Sister Margaret. I received a call from the hospital about your brother. He is not doing well. I will take over your class. Stay within twenty percent of the speed limit.”

I nodded and was stepping through the door when I heard, “Yes, Sister Bernadine”. As I passed the second of the classroom doors, I saw twenty-five children in their seats, heads bent, hands folded in prayer.

***

“What?”

“I said, ‘I wouldn’t of been late if that guy from your office hadn’t stopped to offer me a ride. You beat me here by five minutes,” Zach’s disappointment at seeing his mother’s car in the driveway quickly changed to something akin to alarm as the front door opened for him.

“What man? Arlen? It couldn’t have been, I left him at the office. We were working right up to the moment I got a call from one of your little friend’s mother, asking if you got home all right.” Drusilla Renaude stood in the entry hall, unaware of the fact that she was blocking her son from stepping through the doorway. Seeing him walk up the driveway was all it required to spark the emotional alchemy common in mothers, worry and fear turned into anger.

“I didn’t say ‘Arlen’. I know Arlen. If it was Arlen, I would’ve said, ‘Arlen offered me a ride home.’ And, if it was Arlen, I’d of taken him up on the offer. Jeez.” Much as did his mother, the twelve-year-old boy experienced a somewhat less sophisticated emotional transmutation. As his disappointment turned into guilt, it almost immediately began to sound like exasperation as he tried to relate his experience into something an adult could understand.

Dru felt her son’s impatience as a push-back and it served the purpose of re-establishing a level of everyday-normal to her world. Anything was better than the range of possibilities that existed in the few seconds when she stepped into the house, calling her son’s name and hearing no response. While the house itself did not change due to it being unexplainably vacant, everything in her world did, for a split second. She stepped back from the doorway and, for a reason not in any way rational, took a single step back.

Zacharia Renaude watched his mother take a step back into the hallway. She didn’t say anything yet there was a question in her eyes. He considered that she might have a reason but couldn’t imagine why she would stare at him. Once he’d stepped over the threshold, his mother pulled him into an awkward hug, his backpack and her half-crouched posture combined to create a very unstable stance.

Standing up, Drusilla tried to sort through the wash of emotion that only now was ebbing. She decided it had something to do with the girl in his class being missing and then returning, from New Jersey, of all places. As a rational explanation, it left a lot to be desired, but her fear and anxiety responded to the label. She moved on to being angry with her son.

“We’ll talk about why you didn’t ride home with your friends later. Who was this man you say works with me?”

“I don’t know his name. I only saw him once. But he had a really cool car. It was an Aston Martin… you know, a British car that James Bond drives.”

Drusilla felt fear crawl with too many sinuous fingers up from her gut and try to squeeze her heart into silence.

***

Sister Cletus was, at eighty-nine, the oldest woman at St. Dominique’s. She had long since come to terms with the occasional ache, split-second twinge of pain, even the rolling-ships-deck uncertainty that sometimes came from standing too quickly at morning prayers. These very fundamental reminders of human frailty held no special power in her daily life. This was, in no small part, due to her ability to accept the day as her life. The past was over but available; tall, dusty shelves of books, some exciting, some frightening, most mundane. The future, which did not yet exist, was consigned to another room entirely, in her metaphorical library. She knew it was there, yet felt no need to visit it, confident that the story of her life would unfold at its rhythm.

This particular late morning in November, she felt a chill course over her shoulders and down into her chest. Walking along the hall of the residence wing of the convent, she stopped at a window that looked out over the courtyard. Like an exceptionally bright shooting star, the unforgiving-red of automobile brake lights flared, at the gates of St Dominique’s. She watched as the black SUV pulled out onto the main road and headed north.  As she turned away, something on the far side of the field stone wall caught her eye. As the red of the departing SUV implied acceleration, this other motion was the opposite. It was a non-color, darker than black and unlike the shrinking into the distance of Sister Margaret’s vehicle, it, somehow, seemed to fall into itself and paradoxically grow larger, all without changing its relative position.

Feeling an echo of her years reverberate, the old nun kissed the crucifix she held in worn fingers and headed towards the staircase. She was suddenly convinced that was critical that she speak to Sister Catherine.

***

“I don’t give a fuck. This thing has gone on long enough. Tell Constantin to make something happen up there.”

Genevieve Novak smiled and held up one finger, the men with the briefcases who stood in front of her desk looked apologetic, as if they had stumbled into a tryst in the back of a Four Star restaurant. The voice coming from the earphones she wore was loud enough to be heard throughout the reception area.

“Enough of the fuckin hints and suggestions. I want something that makes that nun understand. Tell that overdressed hell-hound of mine that he needs to make them all understand. This has gone on too fucking long.”

***

Alex Dumas smiled with disbelief at the email. Apparently his series, ‘The Nun and the Billionaire’ got the attention of not only the mainstream press, but Hollywood. Some guy, claiming to be an agent wanted to meet with him to discuss movie rights.

***

Sister Catherine woke up in the dark. Someone, somewhere nearby was playing a Beatles record.

Chapter 27

Zacharia Renaude walked along Eller’s Corner Rd. He announced to the three boys who waited in front of the gym that his mother was picking him up. They pretended that they cared, one of them even said, ‘Don’t forget what happened to Patrice.’ Nevertheless they all climbed into Jimmy Sorenson’s mom’s Escalade’ leaving him in the school parking lot. Zach felt a twinge of guilt as he shouldered his backpack and started to walk towards home.

Just that morning, about to jump from the car in front of the school, Zach’s mother decided they needed to talk. His hand was actually on the door handle when he heard the clicks at each of the four doors. He pretended not to notice and pulled up his door’s lock release. He was not surprised when, as he pulled on the door handle, there was a muffled ‘kha-lunk’ sound. Zach smiled at the door. His mother pretended to be reading something on her phone. Normally they would play the ‘unlock-the-door’ game until one or both was giggling; however, on this occasion, the stream of kids walking past the car was beginning to dwindle. It was increasingly likely that some kid would take notice. Zacharia Renaude was not a fan of being the center of attention.

“Ma-ahm! Cut it out!” He knew enough not to look over at her. She was one of the few people he could tolerate direct eye contact with, and even then, only if it was a good reason, like asking why they were moving out of the city or if he had to be on the Little League team every year.

“I can keep this up all morning, kiddo.” Dru Renaude continued to stare at her phone, but a slight up-turning at one corner of her mouth provided all the information the boy in the passenger seat required.

Zach sat back in his seat and stared mostly out the windshield. He knew from a lifetime of experience that when his mother wanted to talk to him, like it or not, she would talk.

“Be sure you get a ride home with one of your little friends today. I’ll be on a conference call from 2:00 to god-knows-when. Promise?” She looked up from her phone. Zach looked directly into her eyes, a rarity in and of itself. “Aiight?”

Like a crystal growing in speeded-up-nature-film-time, one corner of Zach’s mouth twitched and then the motion spread across his face.  The smile broke free and he laughed, “Aiight!” His hand rose in an enthusiastic if not overly authentic gang sign, as out-of-place in the German luxury car as a bowling ball in a bassinet.

It was a two-mile walk home, but felt like less with the un-seasonably mild weather. Corn fields, farm stands and the occasional new house bracketed the single lane road.  The new houses were always set back, way off the road. The fields and farm stands weren’t.

“Hey Zach…”

Zacharia Renaude looked up from the road in front of his feet to the space slightly behind his left shoulder.

He was surprised by the voice, then by the car, and then not so surprised by either.  It was an Aston Martin DB11, whispering along 5 mph, like the low growl of a wolf finding a scent. It wasn’t like the boy was paying attention to the road behind him, or, for that matter, the road in front of him.

The car that lagged behind him as he walked, was black. Totally black. There was not a single piece of chrome anywhere on the car. It was to Zach Renuade, a black-on-black bad-assed automobile.

Despite being four years shy of a learners permit, and something of a shy and quiet eight grader, he nevertheless was growing up male in 21st Century America. That meant he knew that, given the opportunity, he could slip behind the wheel of the car and make the world take notice. Were someone to suggest that all he need do is give up his soul in exchange for the car keys, Zach, and too many other boys of that age, would have said, ‘Where do I sign?’

In a sense, that unspoken deal had already been struck, albeit in much less obvious terms than those portrayed in movies and fairy tales. One of the greatest advancements in sales and marketing, (or, for that matter, the eternal battle between God and Satan for the souls of Man), was the ‘opt out of a sale’ clause. The individual was required to cancel the deal, in order to not sell. In less enlightened times, a man, (women being curiously absent in tales of soul bartering), desperate enough was required to seek out the devil in order to make a deal.

The car came abreast of Zach, which brought a smile to his face. His very facile imagination threw up a scene of a ten cylinder engine red-lining, muffler screaming as the car fought  to catch up with the boy in the khaki pants and gum sole kung fu shoes as he walked down the road. The voice coming out of the passenger side window made him think of both Patrick Stewart and the guy who did the commercials for the sandwich meats. “Sorry, man. I work with ya mom. I shoulda said that first. Don’t want to, like scare you sounding like a … not that you looked scared, but you know.”

Zach worried his mother at times. He was quiet when most boys his age made the most noise, which is to say, whenever possible. He was calm when most of his friends were clearly excited or fearful, the distinction not always easily discerned.

He  recognized the man in the car as someone having something to do with his mother’s real estate business. He was almost her boss, but not really. He didn’t work in her office. But whenever he showed up, her mood always changed. Not in a good way.

“So, you need a ride home, or what?” There was something in the man’s voice that had Zach’s eyebrows mirror his smile. There was an extra something to his tone that seemed to make it harder to see the guy’s face behind the wheel. The boy decided that, while he was supposed to be respectful and polite to adults and the people his mother worked with, he was not going to get into the car.

In Zach’s head the voice that always wanted him to be like other kids and not be such a weirdo, piped up, ‘Stop being such a dweeb, the guy works with your mother. Like he’s really gonna kidnap you or something.’

He turned towards the car as the dark-tinted window sank into the door, ‘Tick Tock’ from Peter Pan came to mind. He didn’t even wonder why, accustomed to a capacity to make associations faster than he could follow. Zach was certain that if he took the time, he could discover the connections between a very cool car and a very old fairy tale character. Instead, he put his hand into the pocket and pressed a sequence that caused his phone to ring.

Zach pulled the phone out of his pocket and said, “Hello? Yeah nothin. Just outside.” He resumed walking, turning his head as often happens when speaking on the phone. “No. I won’t forget. Hold on….” He noticed that the car had not kept pace with him and was now about twenty feet back the way he came.

Zach looked at the windshield of the exotic car. The face of the driver came out of the darkness of the interior, as if the lights of the dashboard suddenly rose in illumination. There was a smile on the man’s face that made the darkness in his eyes look like desperate sadness. Zach immediately thought of a picture he saw of a starved wolf in a cage. In the photo was a woman feeding the wolf through the bars of the enclosure. The wolf looked towards the woman and the woman was watching the wolf’s face. Both seemed poised for something to happen.

Without warning, the car stopped slightly back down the road. The driver put it in reverse and backed into a turn. More frightening than anything Zach had witnessed since he became aware of the car, was how the driver chose to turn around. Being a single lane country road, the obvious approach would be to back up while turning as far as the pavement allowed and then forward with an opposite turn on the wheel. Given that the cornfields came right to the edge of Eller’s Corner road, it would probably take a couple of reverse-turn-forward-turns in order to get the car facing the opposite direction.

The driver turned the wheels slightly and drove into the cornfield, autumn-stumble of stalks still marking the rows. Clearly not concerned with getting back on the road as quickly as possible, the car accelerated in a shallow curve across the field, dust and dirt thrown up behind as the powerful engine began to roar. With an angry squeal, the tires found the macadam road and the black car disappeared down the road.

Zach watched, the hair on his neck rising like a group of boys at their first dance, slowly at first and then all at once.

Chapter 26

“The bidding is over. Title is awarded to the plaintiff.”

The old two-story house to his back, Sheriff Daryl Finnegan’s voice was very much that of a bingo caller at the end of an exceptionally long night. He clicked the end of his ballpoint pen and made a check at the bottom of a paper on a really cheap clipboard. His pen had the words, ‘YOUR NEW HOME’ in shiny gold lettering right above the face of a smiling real estate agent. Sheriff Finnegan would not have recognized the irony, being in a profession in which irony, while abundant, was little appreciated. Those who dealt in ‘distressed properties’, (the kinder, gentler euphemism for foreclosed), tended to be naturally tone-deaf to the whimsical aspects of the world.

Of the three men in attendance at the auction of Item# 78726 (1851 Tulip St Philadelphia), the one wearing the expensive suit got into his double-parked car and drove away. The other man remained behind. Watching the Sheriff drive off, he reached in through the open passenger-side window of his car, took a single sheet of paper and a role of clear plastic tape and walked up the concrete stairs. Taking care to be certain that it was both level and centered on the glass of the storm door, he taped the Notice along all four sides.

On the single 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper, in 36pt., Times New Roman, the single word: ‘FORECLOSED’. In the center of the bottom half, in smaller, friendlier, 18pt Courier font: ‘In Case of Vandalism or Damage call 1-666-BER-NBAU’.

Stepping back down onto the sidewalk, he held his phone up and took a photo of the Notice, a ghastly parody of a priest’s final benediction. He then backed out to the middle of the street and took several photos of the front and sides. Returning to the curbside, leaning against his car, he swiped through the pictures. He stopped after the first. In each of the five subsequent photos, there was a woman, just barely visible in the front window. She must have been a step or two back from the window and blended in with what interior was visible through the slightly dirty glass. She was in all five photos, an unintended homage to Andy Warhol, the features of the old woman’s face came into focus courtesy of the repetition. Not enough detail to allow him to spot her in line at the Stop n Shop, but sufficient for him to feel the emotion was frozen in 12.5 million pixels. It was the expression of a person, fortunate enough to find a floating seat cushion in a storm-tossed sea, unfortunate enough to be watching their ship sink beneath the surface.

The woman’s face was a portrait of wonder and awe at how something so very familiar could be transformed into something so unfamiliar and hostile.

The man looked up from his phone and saw the woman standing on the small porch in front of the house. He nodded acknowledgement and, without waiting for a response, stepped around the front of his car, got in and drove away.

He resolved, (not for the first time), to find work that did not involve people who were watching their lives being torn apart silently and politely.

***

“Patrice why did you run away?”

“I can’t tell. The man said if I told my mother anything, something bad would happen.” The thirteen-year-old fidgeted less than girls of her age were inclined to when being somewhat interrogated by an adult. This was especially noteworthy given that the adult was her eighth grade teacher, Sister Catherine.

They sat in the living room of the Avila home. Patrice’s mother had driven into town to pick up some Chinese food. It was a celebration of sorts, the return of a missing and/or runaway child. The police detective who brought her back to Crisfield from Atlantic City seemed, surprisingly, not entirely convinced that Patrice was, in fact, a runaway. The social worker, more expert for spending her professional days amid the incomprehensible suffering of dysfunctional families was satisfied that she had simply acted on impulse. The sudden death of her father, like the currents beneath the surface of the sun, flared up and she ran. In part to find closure, but mostly to escape the incomprehensible change in her life.

When a person is unable to cope with extreme tragedy, physical action often holds a non-specific promise of relief. To a person not under duress the act may seem childishly pointless. It didn’t help that Patrice was still a child.

The police detective, Glen Trahmani, brought her home, asked a few perfunctory questions and left, promising to call if any leads appeared in the death of Roger Avila. It looked for all the world to be one more cold case that added numbers to the statistics of human suffering.

The Chinese food was a slightly misguided attempt to celebrate her daughters return. Sister Catherine was invited and now the teacher and the 8th grader sat in the living room.

“Well, I’m not your mother, so it would be alright to tell me, wouldn’t it?”

“But you’re just like her.” Patrice Avila looked startled, at the expression on her teacher’s face. Sister Catherine began to laugh and Patrice forgot for a second that she was an adult and a nun.

“I’m so not like her. Let me tell you about my mother and then, after you know something about Sister Catherine, I’ll ask you again. It might turn out that you can talk to me about the things that happened. It might even be something that could prevent another girl, somewhere, from being hurt. Deal?”

“Deal”

The middle-aged women in the ancient fashion of her order sat on the blue sofa and began to speak to the young girl. Her voice was more of a person who might start out saying, ‘Once upon a time…’ than an adult telling her students about the Magna Carta.

“It all started with the Beatles…”

***

For all of his grey hair and wrinkled face, Morris Richmond offered me his hand. That he demonstrated out-of-time manners was not surprising, one look at the pony-tail and the Fillmore East tee-shirt made it clear that he had not let go of a time past. It was how he went from sitting-in-the-sand to standing-up that made me catch my breath. None of the ‘roll from cross-legged to kneeling’ or ‘lean forward and try to get his feet under him, pushing up with both arms’. One minute he was sitting in the sand in a loose lotus-style posture,  the next he was casting a shadow and reaching down to help.  He simply stood up.

Other than my tai ch’i instructor in college or the occasional ballet dancer, I can’t recall ever seeing anyone move as effortlessly.

I reached up and allowed myself to be pulled into a standing position.

“Have you ever wondered if God is disappointed in you?” I spoke on impulse, the oxygen-deprivation had rendered my mind relaxed and somewhat un-focused.

“At some point in life, don’t we all?” Morris took the fishing pole that he’d stuck in the sand and held it, cradled in his left forearm. The line, still lost beneath the growing waves, pulled taut by the receding tide rather than a doomed fish.

“The feeling that I’m just not worthy of the way of life that I’m totally lucky to have found is so …bad.” I crouched in the sand next to the dog who lay just above the seaweed line. “Its like there’s a part of me that insists another part of me is the reason for everything going wrong, while at the same time insisting that I can never stop trying.”

“Sounds like a trap to me. Perhaps you’re asking the wrong question.”

I laughed at the memory-collage of discussions of free will and life marked nights of conversation during my three and a half years in college. My much more recent life in the Order made debate obsolete. I reminded myself that faith is more useful as a verb than a noun. I looked up and said with a smile, “Please, spare me the zen master’s ‘if you have to ask the question, you cannot understand the answer’. I am way, way too tired to contend with that.”

He laughed, “Damn! That was my big close. Totally out the window ’cause the grrl nun be reading her Castaneda!”

We both laughed. Ragnorak raised his head from his front paws and wagged his tail in agreement.

I borrowed a smile from the dog in the sand and speaking in a voice that wanted to be a whisper, “No, it’s worse than that.”

Morris did not turn, determined not to let the endlessly advancing waves out of his sight, “How so?”

“My best efforts to save my mother’s house from foreclosure? Failed. My brother is in a hospital, on the critical list, and though I don’t have a prayer of proving it,” I interrupted myself to laugh. It was such a sharp-edged laugh, I chose to ignore it. “I’m convinced his illness is connected to what I was trying to do to save our mother’s house.” Grey clouds, hunched low over the land to the west, seemed to sense an opportunity and began to grow tall and threatening. As if in sympathy, the breeze off the water began to increase. The small waves, emboldened by the clouds above, grew in height and broke with a noticeably louder splashing.  My sweat-soaked tee-shirt seemed to thicken and clump at my waist. “It’s not the failure that depresses me, it’s the fact that I can’t accept it.”

“I suspect that you don’t, at this moment want to hear me praise the value of perseverance. Conventional wisdom and common sense does possess a certain magic.” I looked at Morris, his back remained the only part of himself he made available. I  started to say something I suspected would be rude when he continued, “The magic is that, like poles of a magnetic field, the opposites that form the foundation of the reality most of us experience usually keep their distance. Nevertheless, nearly every adage, insight and ‘moral of the story’ has a matching and opposite half.  They are the binary code of the human condition. The ‘on’ to every ‘off’. If one person is saved by hearing that, ‘Haste makes waste’, there is one other person saved by the knowledge that ‘Easy does it.’

“So there’s no right way to do anything?” I rose and stepped to Morris’s left side. “The version of me inside, the Margaret who has no problem attacking the company that took my mother’s house from her, she is the real me?”

Morris began turning the handle of the fishing reel. The nylon line went taut, the water at the point where the line disappeared into the wave started sliding towards us. Reflective beads of sea water making a last effort to die in the most alien of worlds, dry land.

“‘Cause she could, or rather ‘I’ could totally bring bad events to the people who are hurting my family. She is so very good at that sort of thing. If it’s true the world is a binary place, where ‘no’ is equal to ‘yes’ and our lives are ruled by a coin in motion, I should follow the teachings of my new family and forgive and love my enemies? Tell me, Mister Scarecrow, which is the right road?”

Morris turned and took a couple of steps to a spot that made him one point of a triangle, me being one and the yellow lab sitting in the sand the third. Pointing at me, arm fully outstretched and looking at the dog, he said, shouting in a voice of alarm, “Ragnorak!! Protect me!  Attack!!”

The yellow lab lifted his head at the sound of his name. He looked up at the man, followed the pointing arm and looked at me. The dog looked back at Morris and wagged his tail, got up, came to my side and sat, looking back at the man.

I put my hand on Ragnorak’s head and he lifted his face, cold nose touched my inner forearm. I started running. As I passed Morris, which was pretty much immediately, I said, without looking at him, “Thanks.” And I ran.

Chapter 25

I walked across the cobblestone courtyard, trotted down the winding drive and once through the stone gates of St. Dominique’s, ran toward the ocean. My customary route was out to Jacksonville Rd, across the highway at North Somerset Ave past the high school and from there, straight down to the town beach. This morning, three days after seeing my brother tied to his hospital bed by life-giving tubes and sickness-detecting sensors, I felt like Christopher Reeves in that scene towards the end of the first Superman movie. Lois Lane is trapped in a car in a crevice caused by an earthquake and he, Superman, is too far away to help, so in desperation he flies around the Earth, faster and faster. For reasons not understood, perhaps because he flew in the direction opposite the globe’s rotation, time not only stopped, but reversed itself. As a result, Lois didn’t die. Some part of me this morning must have thought, ‘Well, it can’t hurt to try’. Kinda did, though.

The roads were small-town-weekday empty. Plus it was both September and no longer summer. I hadn’t run since, since I couldn’t remember, which pretty much qualifies as a long time ago. I had on my normal jogging outfit and felt the coolness of near Autumn. A Tee-shirt with ‘Chicago Police Department’ stenciled black-on-grey across the back, very large and extra pink satin boxing trunks, ‘Everlast’ across the waistband and a pair of very orange Newton Motions.

I ran too fast to start and sped up from there. The reasonable part of my mind was alarmed but unable to make my body to listen. For all of the low-50s temperature, by the time I passed the high school, my shirt was sweat-glued across my back. Without slowing, I grabbed a handful of the extra-large tee and tied it in a knot at my left side and continued on towards the water, damp-salt-air seasoning the morning haze.

I ran out of asphalt pavement and crossed the crushed  oyster-shell parking lot of the town beach. Cresting the low dune that hid the view of the bay, the entire length of the beach came into view.  It was deserted. Except for a man with grey hair and a Labrador with yellow fur. One of them was fishing, the other watched me approach.

“I can’t seem to stop.” I said in a conversational tone as I ran past Morris Richmond. He didn’t appear to notice, his fishing line connected him to the sea, like some infinite telegraph cable.

I kept running up the beach. I was beginning to worry what would happen when I ran out of either breath or sand. I heard a lightly musical metallic sound, like tiny alarm bells being rung. I looked back and saw the yellow lab gaining on me.  Drawing abreast, he kept pace for a second and then pulled ahead.

Despite his having an advantage, what with the extra pair of feet, I caught up with him. As soon as I did so, he managed a look that clearly was an acknowledgment of my effort and, with the natural ease with which dogs do most things, ran ahead. The first time was amusing, the rest of the times made me angry. I  ran faster, my eyes open yet seeing almost nothing.

Finally, without warning, the dog stopped running. He was far enough ahead to turn, sit on his haunches and watch as I caught up. He was barely panting, I was barely conscious.

I swerved to avoid him but the sand under my shoes refused to help. I left my feet slightly behind my center of gravity.

As I lay in the sand, staring up at an empty sky, my mind replayed the memory of my trip to the hospital to see my brother.

***

“There’s an experimental protocol I want to try. It’s radical but offers great promise. It involves removing all the patients blood, heating it, cooling it and returning it to the body.”

“It has .004 percent chance of curing patient.” He glanced towards the intern at his side. She, in turn, held a tablet; a 21st Century scribe. A slight elevation in his eyebrows elicited a nod from the young woman. He then looked up and, somewhat incongruously, smiled broadly.

“Isn’t that a little extreme? Those are pretty low odds.” I spoke to him but I looked at the intern. No one looked at my brother, unconscious in the hospital bed.

“Not zero odds, you see? Zero odds are those of your brother recovering if we do not do anything.” He looked at the intern, satisfied to see her typing notes.

“Yes, doctor, please proceed.”

With a nod that altered his posture in a way as to make it seem like he bowed, he walked out of the room and down the corridor.

“Miss… ah, Sister Ryan, Could you help with some information on the patient.” The young woman looked at me, her eyes hopeful.

“You mean, my brother Matthew?” It seemed like, somehow, everyone on the 12th floor of the hospital stopped at that precise moment. I felt like I did when, as a child the dentist would, in the middle of a long Novocaine augmented procedure, tell me to spit in the little paper cup. No matter what, there’d be a long string of saliva trailing off my numb lips as I leaned back in the chair. For some reason I felt anger grow and although I tried to pray it away, it only grew more intense.

I walked out of the sun-filled hospital room. It was too bright, too …too healthy looking with the light from the autumn-shaded sun hitting the perfectly smooth sheets on Matthew’s bed. The intern with the tablet followed me out into the corridor and walked at my side, as if we were college students together between classes. I felt like lashing out, but caught myself and stopped in the middle of the corridor.

“Yes, what can I do for you Miss…. or is it Doctor or …” I was beginning to feel aghast at my escalating meanness,  “Doctor-ette Elizor?”

“Jennie would be good. Sorry to be bothering you at a time like… when your brother is so ill. The information is not necessary for the treatment but the CDC requires we track all cases of rabies and establish their vector.” She held her tablet like a missionary might hold his bible when advising backwards, hapless natives on the path to redemption. “The emergency room report indicates he was bitten, by a bat?”

“Yeah, from what I gather the old lady who cleans and otherwise takes care of the church wanted him to do a catch and release and I guess it nipped his thumb.”

“Did they save the bat?”

I looked at her and started to say, ‘Do you mean did he capture it, nurse it back to health with the intent of raising it as a pet?’ and caught myself. “No, I don’t believe anyone knows what happened to the animal. I’m sorry, did you think he was the parish priest at St Francis of the Rabid or maybe you were thinking it was Saint Doolittle’s church.” I stared at the young woman. She looked back at me, nothing showing in her face other than patience. A small part of me cringed.

“Its just that the CDC requires a determination of the vector for the transmission of the virus.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember you need the animal to test for rabies to establish if it’s been vaccinated. Pretty sure it wasn’t vaccinated and from what your boss doctor was saying a short time ago, I guess that means that my brother does, in fact, have rabies.”

***

I rolled over and spit sand and seaweed out of my mouth. I looked to my side and the yellow lab was sitting in the sand next to me.

“Ragnarök! What have you done!”

Morris Richmond walked towards us. The yellow lab remained in place, laying on his stomach, forelegs parallel, the classic sphinx position. His tail alternated between packing the sand down and sweeping it from side-to-side. The man with the grey-ponytail reached us, let his legs fold at the ankles, knees and hips, like an old-fashioned wooden carpenter’s rule and sat in the sand. He oriented himself so he could look both at me and the ocean beyond.

“Forgive me for prying, but you seem to have fallen down in the sand.”

Satisfied that he managed to complete a satisfactory introduction, he leaned back and looked at the ocean, his thin arms angled-lean-to supports, fingers buried in the dry sand.

My breathing finally slowed, oxygen finding its way through my lungs and out through my blood to the starved muscles and organs. I felt oddly relaxed, which I suspected was  the hypoxia talking.

Staring out towards the horizon, the man began to speak, “There’ a Czech word, lítost, It’s one of those words that remind us that perspective is everything. It’s commonly translated,  ‘..a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.'”

He laughed briefly, very much to himself and continued,

“I am not presuming to suggest that you are not happy lying there in the sand, however, just an educated guess, you might not be totally pleased with your current situation. I believe I have been rude these past months, my name is Morris Richmond, our four-legged friend here is Ragnarök. May we join you?”

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.

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.