Chapter 24

“Miss Clarieaux? There’s a Genevieve Novak on line 6.” Anya Clarieaux looked up from one of five LCD displays that lined two sides of her desk, the solid-state battlements of a 21st Century castle. Her office had one full wall of glass that overlooked Lake Michigan. Her official title was Administrative Assistant and the digital tendrils that formed the network of one of the largest IT companies in the world, came together in her office. In the unlikely event that she needed to write a resume, her current responsibilities would fit into two grammatically incorrect sentences: To make certain that nothing hindered the plans of the CEO. Solve any problems that threatened the good of the Omni Corp.

She tapped three keys in a certain sequence and all screens except one went blank. The last display went momentarily black, then returned to light having all the appearance of a mirror, complete with a gilt frame that would have made a certain fairy tale queen purse her lips in envy.

In the flawless, if not virtual, mirror, was the flawless, if not cosmetically enhanced, beauty of Anya Clarieaux. Her icy blonde hair framed a face that to anyone at a social distance was that of an attractive twenty-something professional woman. And she was that.  A professional woman. Her appearance to one who had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on the circumstance), to be closer than ‘social distance’ was more complicated. There is an interesting category of timeless sayings that have endured through the ages, despite having two decidedly opposite versions; ‘God lives in the details’ and ‘The Devil is in the details’. Either would apply were one to imagine what Anya Clarieaux truly looks like, ‘up close and personal’.

Satisfied that her appearance did not reflect her mood too accurately, she typed the caller’s name and read the profile that displayed all that was known about Genevieve Novak. There was nothing on the screen that Anya did not already know. The Omni Corp was in the information business and was very good at it. At the bottom of the profile, in very red font: ‘Current Nexus’ and below that, ‘Sister Margaret Ryan, novitiate at St. Dominique’s convent, Crisfield MD. *High value recruit (potential)*.’

“Genevieve! How are you? How is Miami? And Leland? Oh, sorry to hear that.” Anya began speaking even before the video image of the other woman appeared on the screen.

Genevieve Novak smiled in return, “Anya It’s good to see you again. When was it we were last together? At that Charity ball in Savannah, two years ago, wasn’t it? It was Save the Something-or-Other Precious-Whatever.”

“I remember that night! There was a certain Ambassador who did a remarkably accurate imitation of a college boy in love. Siegfried … Siegfried Rachnor, that was his name! He was so determined to make you understand what an influential man he was. I trust he made it home alright.” Leaning forward slightly, Anya made laughing sounds as she watched the woman on the screen. “So, what can I do for you?”

Genevieve smiled and said, “I’m doing some research on a young woman. She is creating the beginnings of some negative ripples in our company’s ‘Public Trust’ and ‘Non-negative Reliability’ space. Entirely online, through a surprisingly sophisticated campaign of layered, asymmetric social media programs. Still quite preliminary, no effect on ratings or stock health. However, contrary to the old saying, there is such a thing as bad publicity and the boss said to put a stop to it. One of my background searches shows she interacted with your company last year. I was wondering if it had been a significant enough event to create a record.”

“Sister Margaret Ryan?” Anya lowered her eyelids rather than her voice. She knew the other woman’s abilities well enough to take certain reasonable precautions. A casual observer would not have noticed any change in her demeanor. But then again, Anya Clarieaux rarely, if ever, interacted with casual observers. She smiled inwardly at the barely perceivable intake of breath, more visible than audible on the hi def display.

“You are good.” Genevieve looked to her left, picked up an old-fashioned steno pad and a yellow No. 2 pencil. “But that is what I like about you, always prepared and always having more information than the other person. So, can you tell me anything about our little nun that I can’t find on the internet?”

“She’s quite a remarkable young woman. Don’t let the Sally Fields get-up fool you. I’d suggest you try to recruit her, but I know her and I know the Bernebau Company. It’s unlikely she’d be interested and besides, your boss likes to keep the inner circle small. He’s not, from what I know, inclined to welcome talented young women into the family. Well, not very often.  ‘Fraid I don’t have much more than that. I won’t insult you by saying ‘be careful not to underestimate her’. For all of her gangly, sound-of-music enthusiasm she is a deceptively …able girl. If the truth be told, and we lowly admins always stick together, I did try to recruit her. She turned me down, of course. It wasn’t a total loss, sometimes getting a person accustomed to an idea involves provoking them. They believe that their rejection is the end of the effect. Of course, the first step in love and war is familiarity. Passion is always there, ready and patiently waiting for the opportunity.

She made a friend when she was out here last year, a homicide detective by the name of Maribeth Hartley. Very competent cop, if not a little high-strung.” Anya made a mental note of the dilation of the other woman’s pupils and continued,

“Sounds like our Sister Ryan is in total do-gooder mode. Don’t expect compromise. Hell, for that matter, don’t expect mercy. But then you and that impeccably dressed timber wolf, Constantin Szarbo, are not exactly ‘go along to get along’ types.”

Genevieve smiled at the compliment, “You should talk. If I had half the skill at behavioral control that you exert at the Omni Corp, I’d be in business for myself. You have an entire Board of Directors, as well as that silver fox of a CEO to keep in line.”

Anya laughed, a graceful shifting of every part of her face except her eyes. “Thank you, darling. But next to your mysterious Mr. St. Loreto, my CEO is Dave Thomas.”

Both women laughed. After a brief moment Anya said, “Hell, you could get any admin position in any company on the planet just by the resume entry, ‘Administrative Assistant to Cyrus St. Loreto’.” Anya noted the passing wistful look, the perfection of her face suddenly but only momentarily fading. “If I get anything new on our little red-haired friend, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

***

Sister Cletus rode in the passenger seat with her eyes closed, her face a peaceful if not time-wrinkled mask. One pale hand folded over the other, silver crucifix between her fingers like a bobber that marks the transition of a fisherman’s line from the world of men into a world easily observed, but little understood.

We approached the city by RT 76. On the right, the old, on the left, the new. The seaport in the far distance, the smokestacks of a power plant and the white tower of the old city hall; all the artifacts of power; all the rusted and dead shackles of the powerful. Like most cities, Philadelphia was born of commerce. The GPS whispered the series of turns and exits as we got closer to the hospital where my brother had been admitted.  I looked over at Sister Cletus and decided that I’d never advance in the Order if I wasn’t willing to take a chance. So, my head turned to face the old woman in the black and white uniform of our belief, I raised my right eyebrow. There was a distant honking noise and I managed, barely, to avoid a yellow Porsche that appeared in front of our SUV. I heard a chuckle.

“Practice, young Sister, practice is the path to nearly everything.” Turning and looking out at the skyline, she continued, “Mine was a wealthy and influential family, at least as influential as necessary given we lived in a small town in Croatia. My parents were good people and were well-regarded but none of that mattered when the Nazis arrived. They found the location of Sisak, where the Kupa and the Sava rivers combined to be a moderately useful place for a munitions and troop depot. Geography and strong young men were valuable to Hitler’s ambitions. Children were not.

One day I found myself standing in a long line of quietly crying children outside the train station in Sisak. I was ten years old and the line that I helped form ended in a rust-red train car. I remember noticing that there was chicken wire on the few windows that still opened. I had everything that mattered to me in a blue felt bag and I was three children from the train, when a tall, well-dressed man pointed at me, turned and pointed at the German soldier who seemed to be in charge. Two soldiers grabbed my arms and pulled me from the platform.  Belching sooty black smoke that barely escaped the stack before it fell to the ground, the train pulled out from the station and I remained alone with a total stranger. I survived and lived through the War, those on the train did not. The man’s name was Cyrus Dimineață. I lived in comfort, was educated in America and, for a time returned to Europe.”

Sister Cletus stopped talking and seemed to go away, in that way the elderly have of ceasing occupation of an unreliable vessel, choosing to take flight in the mind or the memory or maybe the emotions. I decided the conversation was over and concentrated on the road ahead.

“I’m sorry, Sister Ryan. The past has such power to call us, forgive my wandering mind.” She started to turn to face the passenger side window.

I reached over and touched her arm lightly and said, “And then you were accepted into the Order and began your life in service to our Lord. Right?” My voice was choking on the hope that her story was as simple and positive as I knew it could never be. I thought that if she would confirm my version of how it played out, it would make such an inspirational story. I even thought that maybe a wild-eyed student reporter, the one who wrote a story about how I was getting a graduate degree online might be interested. I smiled to myself.

I didn’t hear a response from Sister Cletus, so I glanced to my right and saw her smiling at me. I admit that I jumped in my seat, just a little. Rather than the wise-and-serene-old-woman look, thin lips pressed into a quiet smile, she was grinning at me. To further throw my off-balance, I heard her say, “Yeah, sure.”

When a person says or does something totally at odds with what you expect, the eyes are the give-away. Sister Cletus was one of the oldest-looking women I’d ever met. Her face was every badly folded roadmap, taken from a glove compartment when the signal fades for the GPS. To further accentuate the ravages of time and experience the traditional dress of our order, wimple and habit and veil, isolated the face. You cannot but focus on the active parts of the woman, her eyes and mouth. By design or by chance her habit provided the perfect framing of a portrait of the marks of a long life, writ in flesh, skin and muscle.

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Chapter 21

“Mother Superior, may I borrow the car?”

Smiles grew in unison on the faces of the young novitiate and the Mother Superior. The canvas, upon which the second oldest human facial expression is painted, the two could not have been more dissimilar. The result was vivid (and audible) proof of the power of a meeting of opposites.

The young woman expressed, in the quickness of her grin, simple joy, so abundant in youth. One could be forgiven for thinking, ‘if she assessed the situation before reacting, she might be less disappointed with life’. Smooth skin and un-lined face seemed ill-equipped to hide the echo of her reactions to the world around her. Green eyes flashed above a smile showing white teeth; both capable of serving as warning and welcome. Of course, there was a certain matter of an extra half-inch of upturning on one side of that smile.  A wisecrack fidgeted behind the grin, barely under control.  She bent her head downwards in an effort to shade the uncomplicated joy taking possession of her face. She immediately glanced up, like a girl cautiously looking up beyond the edge of an umbrella, the better to judge the conditions around her.

The head of the convent, was an effective leader in large part because she never forgot what it was to be young. She heard the nun’s question and she remembered. Her eyes lit up as she watched across the polished expanse of her desk. The rest of her face, smooth brown leather (which, with each passing year, increasingly became wrinkled brown leather), was less agile than that of the younger woman. This decreased range of motion, the result of both practice of leadership and the effects of the responsibility she bore as Mother Superior. The clothing that marked membership in the Order, while both a badge of honor and a uniform of service, limited the range of physical expression available to the woman wearing it. As a result, intended or otherwise, there was an emphasis on the face for conveying both thought and emotion.  The Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s convent watched the young nun react to her own words. It’s said that incongruity is the bedrock of humor, the multiple contexts of her question was proof. Laughter itself is prayer to the sometimes playfulness of everyday reality.

Sister Bernadine possessed an ability to ‘grin with her eyes’, that was all it took for Sister Margaret Ryan’s self-control to dissolve into laughter.

Maintaining her formal and authoritative posture, the Mother Superior raised one eyebrow and, with a deadpan that a professional comedian would envy, said, “If you’ve finished your chores, you may. I want you back home in time for dinner.”

Sister Ryan laughed with her entire body. Her arms, legs, torso and head resonated with her outburst of simple joy. Standing before the solid formality of the desk, she bent slightly at the waist, rocking gracefully, like a sapling waving in a strong breeze.

Sitting on the opposite side of the desk, Sister Bernadine laughed and the room, (and the building beyond), echoed her un-restrained laughter. A mountain rather than a sapling.

Finally the laughter died down. Everyday reality reasserted itself and Sister Margaret’s simple seven word question became…a simple seven word question.

“Your brother is still in the hospital?” The older woman’s voice held concern for the brother of the younger woman. The penetrating gaze in her eyes held concern for the younger woman.

“Yes. Last week, my mother called to tell me, just in passing, that Matt was running a fever and seemed to have the flu. Yesterday she called to say he was still running a fever and that his doctor insisted he be admitted to the hospital.” Sister Ryan frowned, her attempt to sound like she was relating routine news sounded anything but routine.

“Do me a favor and take Sister Cletus along with you.” The older woman’s tone was one of a simple, off-the-cuff suggestion.

Sister Ryan walked towards the door and stopped, “For moral support? I’m good. I’ve got everything under control. Nothing too exciting in my life this week.” She looked at the floor, as if afraid that locking eyes with Sister Bernadine would lay bare parts of her life she felt needed hiding. She was correct in her caution. However, she underestimated the other woman by an order of magnitude.

“No. Just want someone I trust to have your back.” The Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s looked down at her desk top. Her ability to concentrate formidable; had there been a door in the middle of the office between the two woman and she’d gotten up and closed it, that their conversation was over would not have been any clearer.

***

Celeste Ridgely felt a shiver pull at the skin beneath her shoulder blades as the small brass bell bounced on the curved hanger over the entrance to Renaude and Associates. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the old man standing in front of her desk. She hit her knee on the desk in her haste to turn and welcome the visitor. To her unconscious surprise, she was relieved to have a momentary excuse to put off facing the man.

“Good mornin, darlin. You mind tellin me if your boss is in this morning?” The softest of drawls almost covered a harsher accent, like a layer of fresh dirt on an old grave. Very blue eyes looking down at her tipped the impression of his voice in favor of the more familiar southern accent. The twenty-year-old girl was unable to refrain from giggling. She giggled right after looking up at the tall, smiling man, mostly because she was twenty years old. In her defense, twenty years is rarely enough time to develop the self-control to successfully hide the emotional jolt that results from going from dread to infatuated, without enough time to say hello.

Celeste tilted her head upwards, a small garden sunflower responding to un-imaginable power. A raised eyebrow caused her to come out of her trance and nod her head. She thought that the man looked like a cross between Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Gosling and wondered why she thought his hair was grey or that he was old. It was clear to her this visitor was very charming and not from Crisfield.

“Mmm… Miss?” The man reached over her desk, his dazzling smile migrating to his eyes and picked up the name plate on her desk. “Celeste? Beautiful name, my first serious girlfriend’s name was Celeste. Is Drusilla…”

Fumbling for the handset, she punched in the extension number, heard an annoying beeping noise, looked down at the display and re-entered the correct three digit code. She heard a tine, “Yes, Celeste? What…” then silence.

Looking up, ready to apologize for her boss, Celeste Ridgely completed the very short romantic arc that began with the sound of a bell. The broad, well-tailored back of the man was gliding down the aisle, past the empty agent desks, towards the back of the office. She felt a relief that had nothing to cling to and so, dissipated. Later, meeting friends after work, she would tell them, ‘…this man with incredible eyes came in to see Ms. Renaude. His smile was scary, sexy. He was kind of attractive.’

“Drusilla! I know I should have called ahead! I was dropping Arlen off after our visit to the very charming Martha’s Vineyard and I thought, ‘Why not stop and see Dru?’ So here I am. Hope I’m not interrupting anything important.”

***

“Let me help you with that seat belt, Sister Cletus.” I finished punching in the address of the hospital into the GPS and leaned over to get the loose end of her seat belt properly engaged. She smiled her thanks and closed her eyes. I tried to remember if I’d had the opportunity to drive her anywhere. I couldn’t remember and said a prayer that she wasn’t one of the older nuns who tended to get car sick.  Securing my own seatbelt, I pulled out of the driveway and headed away from the convent.

Stopping at the sign at Rt 413, I turned right instead of left. Sister Cletus, without opening her eyes, said, “A side trip, young sister?”

“Just a short ride into town. I want to see if I can get lucky and…” I saw her right eye brow go up and her lips tighten their hold on what sounded like the first of an outburst of laughter. Forgetting to wonder how she knew where we were at the moment, seeing how there were at least 2 major and three minor turns on the route from the convent to Rt 413, I laughed.

“I mean, there’s a realtor in town that’s doing some work for a company that I’m interested in and I thought I might talk to the woman who owns it. The real estate company, not the company that’s foreclosing on my mother’s house.” I frowned, thinking that I was talking too much, looked at the road ahead and resolved to think before talking, at least for the rest of the day.

“That sounds like a delightful diversion,” Sister Cletus said with genuine enthusiasm, “The side trip into town, not your online campaign against the Bernebau people.” She looked out her passenger window. A very pale, daytime reflection grew in the window glass. It was of her, of course, but smoothed of the stress and corrugations of 80 years of life. Just for a second, I saw a young Sister Cletus.

We drove in silence the rest of the way to the small business district of Crisfield. Once we were on West Main St, the buildings grew taller and commercial in character. I saw the sign for the real estate company on the front of a building that appeared to have once been a department store. Back when there were department stores. As I drove by I could see that Renaude and Associates had the left half of the ground floor. The original plate glass showroom windows put most of the interior in view. There was a  receptionist left of the door and one desk, exceptionally cluttered, on the far left. Beyond both were rows of desks with short dividers, looking, for some reason like old-fashioned spats in the otherwise modern business office.

The parking downtown was, like the ribs of a dinosaur, at an angle with the metal lollipops of parking meters marking each space. I tried to imagine how different the world must have been when they came up with that design. Easy enough to get into, but an insurance agent’s nightmare when backing out to leave. I was spared the decision, as there were no empty spots. A block further down West Main was the Post Office and beyond that, a small park that looked out towards the docks and the Bay beyond.

“Sister, I’ll only be a minute. I’ll park here by the Post Office, you’ll have a nice view of the boats and the water. Be back before you know it.” I was out of the SUV before I finished talking. I immediately felt guilty, turned, opened the driver’s door and put the keys in the ignition. “In case you want to listen to the radio.” I returned Sister Cletus’s smile, felt better and headed up the block to the real estate company.

Chapter 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A word of advice, Sister Margaret?”

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Come in. Sit down. Listen to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you understand me?”

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

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

Chapter 18

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

Cyrus St. Loreto was smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Chapter 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ran back to the convent.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father Matthew Stephen Ryan nodded.

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

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

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

“I heard she has a temper.”

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

“Campaign?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 14

“Drusilla! Finally we meet.” The voice, commanding and yet personal, preceded Cyrus St Loreto into the Board Room. The owner of the Bernebau Company spoke as he crossed the distance between an un-marked, (and otherwise, unremarkable), door at the far corner of the Board Room. Taking up half of the 36th floor, three sides of the room were ceiling-to-floor glass. The one interior wall was punctuated by a set of double doors that led out to the reception area and a plain, single wooden door. The CEO of the Bernebau Company made his decidedly non-formal entrance from the second door. There was no formal announcement, no, ‘Mr St Loreto will be joining you in a moment’ from speakers built into the business-opulent conference room. Just the un-assuming sound of an ordinary door opening and closing followed by the man’s voice.

Drusilla Renaude stood between the conference table and the broad expanse of glass, her runner’s legs showed in silhouette through the light fabric of her dress; the corporate castles that lined Brickell Avenue reflected more than enough light to provide a contrast between the woman and the dress. Her clothing, chosen for comfort during the two hour flight to a near-tropical city, was not meant to be worn to a business meeting. Despite the surprise announcement at the airport that she and Arlen were expected in the penthouse boardroom immediately upon landing, Drusilla gave no outward sign of being intimidated by the change in plans. She leaned slightly against one of the few non-glass sections of wall. She might have been an exchange student standing on the far shore of the Nervión River, trying to make sense of the soaring shapes of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. There was a energy about her, even standing in thoughtful contemplation. Her eyes appear to focus beyond the glass wall. She had a look of satisfaction, a person at the start of a journey recognizing landmarks that up until this moment were entries in travel guides and maps, mere words of description.

Arlen Mayhew smiled as Drusilla paused before responding to the client’s voice. His tone was at once charming and insistent, like the dog that repeatedly drops the ball at his human’s feet and crouches in play posture. Her eyes locked with Cyrus St Loreto’s, quite in advance her turning to face him. She smiled in a way that, somehow, added a sense of italics to her greeting. An amused curiosity crept into her face, as if she were at home when a friend let themselves into the house and were calling out a greeting from the kitchen. By the time she’d turned completely towards the interior of the room, Cyrus had covered three-quarters of the distance to the table.

Despite the fact that three of the four walls were glass, there was a surprising amount of darkness in the vast room. By virtue of inspired design and special properties of the engineered glass, the incursion of over-powering daylight was limited to where the conference table stood, in parallel to the window wall. From the center of the room all the way to the double entrance doors, the ambient light was weak enough to allow recessed lighting to create perfect circles at intervals across the floor.

“I realize the conventional approach to a meeting like this is to allow one’s guest to freshen up after their trip, maybe spend some time enjoying the amenities, sit by the poolside or even walk into the blue sea. But I’m kinda different.” Cyrus paused as he walked out of the final pool of artificial illumination and into the last of the relatively dark zones. “Well, it’s just that, ‘Thats the Way It’s Done’, has never set right with me. I’ll tell you, conventional wisdom makes my skin crawl. Someone tries to advise me how everyone else approaches a problem? I stop, turn around, no matter how close to my goal I might actually be,” he interrupted himself with a short outburst of laughter, “and I start running the other way. Jesus Christ! How I managed to get as rich as I am, it’s a miracle!” Laughter grew as the man stepped into the slanted trapezoid of bright June sunlight that fell across the exotic wood of the conference table and breaking on the far edge, somehow did not make it to the floor beyond.

“Cyrus St Loreto, at your service.”

Arlen’s left eyebrow began a barely noticeable move upwards as the man held out his hand, palm up. Drusilla, for her part, smiled and extended her own, fingers bent downwards. Cyrus brought her hand to his lips, never taking his eyes off hers. Still slightly bent at the waist, the two cast a shadow across the surface of the table behind them. By a trick of light, the taller of the two figures appeared to bend to the throat of the thinner, more graceful silhouette. Feeling oddly self-consciousness, Arlen took a step backwards, towards the windows. The change in his position made the shadow figures seem to twist, elongate and meld into one sinuous shape.

Looking at the two, their hands still in a balanced embrace, Arlen felt an amused shock. The man Forbes magazine described as, ‘the next Warren Buffet’, was dressed in jeans, Topsiders and a T-shirt. His Topsiders were worn, the jeans looked new and the T-shirt had (the) Rocky Horror Picture Show (complete with bitten lip) in red against the black. The shirt looked like it cost more than the shoes and the jeans.

Arlen liked Cyrus St Loreto from the minute the CEO turned from kissing Drusilla’s hand and offered him his hand. A glint in the other man’s eye left Arlen no doubt that he was thinking of the same, obvious joke about greetings.

Cyrus turned to Arlen with a smile that reminded him of his best friend in grade school. The friend was constantly involving Arlen in pranks that got them both sent to the principal’s office and, later, finding friends more daring than Arlen, was  constantly in and out of reform school, mostly for crimes-of-excitement. The CEO smiled and said, “Ah! The spear carrier!” Drusilla’s sharp intake of breath and the beginnings of a step in front of Cyprus basely broke the rhythm of the CEO’s introduction. “Arlen Mayhew, I’m honored to meet you.” His smile was genuine, his handshake as competitive and as friendly as pre-adolescent boys racing their bicycles through neighborhood streets.

“Dru, please, I mean you and your associate, no disrespect. Do I Arlen?” Cyrus backed towards the conference table and sat on the edge. Leaning forward, his hands at the edges of the table, he continued, “Spear carrier is not an insult, I assure you. I read every one of your associates reports and marketing analyses and they were a major, very major factor in my decision to hire Renaude and Associates. A spear carrier, or if you’d prefer the more modern analogue, caddy, is an honorable and critical profession. Both are the expert to the expert. A spear carrier is as every bit as important as a caddy, except instead of merely helping a golfer win a trophy, a spear carrier often is the only reason the hunter remains alive…un-eaten by those the two chose to hunt. Do  you understand?”

Drusilla swayed a bit towards Arlen, a look of calculation in her eyes. “I believe I agree with you, Cy. When the hunter is eye to eye with the hunted, there’s rarely time to say, ‘Hey I need that Number Two flint headed spear.” A moment passed, the motion of the traffic on the street unheard activity.

Cyrus laughed. He laughed the way that a guy hopes the girl will laugh on the first date and the way a girl hopes the guy will laugh after she jokingly says no to his proposal of marriage.

“She’s a keeper, Arlen. Hey speaking of keepers, does your family still have the house on the Vineyard? I’m thinking of getting a place, maybe you could invite me up for a weekend?”

Arlen maintained only a couple of friendships after beginning his professional life; despite attending an Ivy League school and establishing a modest, if not, respectable reputation in education, he never cared to maintain the network of contacts so common among his contemporaries. Accepting his lack of professional accomplishment as the price of his tendency to find virtually everything interesting, Arlen Mayhew was one of those people who would be described as ‘lacking discipline and drive’ by those who didn’t like him and ‘free from the compulsion to chase the Almighty dollar’ by those that did. Money was never a motivating force in his life, his family was from the class of wealth that allowed the children to pursue their dreams without the constraints of worrying about mortgages or car payments. The Mayhew children were free to follow their interests and establish their place in the world, as opposed to being assigned one.

His brother, Anthony, on the rare occasions that the Mayhew family gathered at the family homestead in Vineyard Haven, would often tease Arlen. After making certain there was a sufficient audience, he’d say, “All that time and tuition to a degree from Yale and the best you can do is teach at a private school?” At that time, a Christmas three years previous, Anthony was up for promotion to Captain. Graduating from the Naval Academy with honors, Anthony Mayhew was about to become the youngest naval officer to be responsible for the domestic operations of one of the spookier three-letter agencies. His office, reflecting a view of the world that only the truly bureaucratic mind would come up with, and operations center was housed in a building in a Beltway office park full of CPAs, attorneys and orthodontists.

Arlen glanced at his watch and saw that, somehow, their host had been talking for ten minutes.

“So are you two ready to sell my development out in record time?” Cyrus’s voice had a casual tone that accentuated the look in his eyes, which was anything but casual. He might as well have been saying, “What do you say to my holding you by the hand and you lean out over the edge of this building. I promise nothing bad will happen. Are you ready to do that?”

Arlen watched Drusilla listen, and her dark eyes reminded Arlen of the professional gamblers at the  Atlantic City casinos. They smoldered with an intensity that washed out all other physical cues that might signal her interest in what the well-tailored, poorly dressed man was saying.  Arlen nodded, as much to himself as to the man, as Cyrus outlined the Bernebau Company’s role in the marketing and selling Hunting Meadows. She exhibited all the signs of self-cascading emotional investment of a young woman, sitting in an expensive restaurant as her boyfriend opened his palm to reveal the engagement ring. Drusilla would’ve been annoyed were Arlen to lean over to Cyrus and said, ‘Hey look at my principle broker, that girls in love.’

For his part Arlen Mayhew felt his initial excitement begin to cool.

“Wasn’t that a lot better than a Client meeting in a room full of accountants and lawyers filling the air with justification for their exorbitant hourly rates?” Cyrus stepped between both Drusilla and Arlen, put an arm around their shoulders and turned them to face out the window.

“I believe in the personal approach to business.” he stared through the glass and down Brickell Avenue, “You’ll find that we’re very much a family here at Bernebau, and, like any family, loyalty is everything. Blood is thicker than water. I believe I wrote that in the original company charter.” Sensing a change in Arlen, Cyrus smoothly added, “But contracts are the modern way and your attorney in Crisfield has already received everything from our legal department. By the time you two get back to Maryland, he’ll have had a chance to review them for your signatures.”

Without looking away from the corporate mountain tops beyond the glass, Drusilla said, “One of the reasons I have Arlen with me is that, while I make the deals, he has a remarkable eye for details. Like Peter Fabergé and his insanely jeweled eggs, he believes that ‘God lives in the details.”

Drusilla and Arlen both felt a surge of strength ripple through the arms bracketing them, Arlen laughed in surprise and Drusilla seemed to relax. Cyrus stepped between the two and backed towards the windows, “And you? Drusilla Renaude? What is it that you believe? For every truth there is an alternate perspective, the same thing, but different. I believe the other view would be, ‘the devil is in the details’. I suspect that your able… caddy will keep everything orderly, which is all God seems to ask. You are different. You are of the fire. The warnings about dangers in the underbrush does not even come into consideration. It’s not that you don’t care about mistakes and missteps. You are about the battle, the action. If the devil arises somewhere, in those famous details, then you will just deal with him. So, I can put you down in the column here that says, ‘Fuck the devil and the gods, lets get started’?”

Cyrus was almost toe-to-toe with Drusilla. There  was no sense of an adversarial tension between the two. What there was would be best described as simpatico. Cyrus stepped back from the two and clapped his hands. A single clap, as much the clap of command as the indication of appreciation of a performance. He was clearly pleased with the events of the morning. “You are perfect. Not that I under-estimate people, but in this case, I know that you, both of you, will be an asset to our company.”

Speaking to the air, Cyrus called out, “Genevieve! I want my table at Los Fuegos tonight! Tell Francis I’m in the mood for asador and I want only his hands on the steak. Oh, and plan on us picking you up at six. I know you prefer to go out on your own, but tonight it is to be a double date.” Cyrus looked at both Arlen and Dru and seemed to have a second thought and continued, “And tell Constantin to plan on joining us later in the evening.”

***

“Lady and Gentleman, this is your pilot, the guy behind the door about twenty feet in front of you. We’re on our final approach to Salisbury Airport. Should be about five minutes. Thank you for flying Bernebau Air.”

Drusilla Renaude stared out the window of the jet, she watched the the earth below grow in detail, little by little, as the plane banked to take aim at the runway, a cement-white ruler laying on the greenery of the Delmarva lowlands.

Arlen Mayhew sat across from her, having spent the last hour asleep in his fully-extended seat across the aisle. The stewardess showed him how to adjust the seat into the next best thing to his bed at home. Pressing down along the lapels of his sports coat, in a futile effort to decrease the density of the wrinkles, he smiled as Drusilla  said, “Arlen, this is the return home part of our trip. Wrinkles don’t matter.”

He replied, “Like I said, either last week or 5 years ago, ‘you set ’em up and I’ll knock ’em down.'”

Drusilla returned his smile, “This is going to be exciting.”

Arlen put his hand lightly on her wrist and said, “I agree. I do have one request. If you remember what happened last night during our night on the town with the Bernebau family, will you promise to tell me?”

With a serious look she took his hand and said, “Only the good parts.”

Chapter 13

It was 2:23 pm on the last Tuesday in June and St Dominique’s Elementary was summer quiet. The hallways were empty, the cafeteria silent, and chairs were perched upside-down, like catatonic ducks in a farmyard. The sea of pale green linoleum floor tiles offered little resistance before the low roar of the floor stripping machines.  I parted the double swinging doors and stepped into the library, the one place in the school that did not echo with the absence of children. Standing in front of the circulation desk, I looked to the right at what was now referred to as ‘the computer corner’. It was not, technically, a corner, as the broad conference table was quite out in the open, between the librarian’s desk and the periodicals section. That the computer corner was effectively in the middle of the library was, one part me and one part me-unknowingly-working-with Sister Catherine.

St. Dominique’s school had a website and a small, but enthusiastic computer club. I built the site during my first semester here and organized the club after the Mother Superior gave it her blessings. Well, in the interest of honesty, a quality in abundance among the women in our convent, I got the website online before Sister Bernadine learned of its existence. She was quite understanding, and immediately let Sister Catherine know that she did not disapprove of the 21st Century. And that was how solid-state technology found its place among the shelves of books and racks of periodicals.

The ‘me-negotiating- with-Sister Catherine’ accounts for the location of the school computer. Hers was the voice of tradition in our convent, and, although she did not prevail on the question of yes or no to the internet, she assumed the role of guardian of the gates. Flat screen display and keyboards notwithstanding, the gates were quite real and she took it upon herself to stand watch against the dangers that were a part of the virtual world, at least when it came to children. She was a natural for the job, being second only to Sister Bernadine, the most strong-willed woman I’ve ever known. A gatekeeper is not necessarily limited to controlling access, and when the person that assumes the role places the values of others before their own interests, the guard can become a guardian. Sister Catherine accepted the fact that there would be a door into the virtual world at St. Dominique’s. Her primary interest was in assuring that it become a resource both safe and fun for the children.

Sister Catherine’s first step was to arrange for a large conference table for the monitors and keyboards. Recognizing that various groups of students at different levels of proficiency would avail themselves of it, she made certain there was plenty of room for all who might want to access the system. She ordered a whole new system and when the delivery and installation date was scheduled, put out a school-wide announcement. When I built the original website, it was on the computer that was a gift from a parishioner, complete with a 1990s 14 inch CRT monitor and dot matrix printer.  I smiled at the expressions of surprise on the face of the children who gathered in the library when the Geek Squad showed up. The monitors were  24″ flat screen HD. The printer was full color, of course. The care and effort she put into setting everything up was reflected in the delighted faces of the children.  The location of the computer corner reflected Sister Catherine’s primary interest. It was out in the open, very easy for adults to supervise without appearing to be doing so. She achieved the proper balance between guard and guardian. Which, of course, was her plan from the beginning.

I sat down in front of the computer and watched the monitor draw a doorway into the virtual world.  The old excitement stirred within me and, for an instant, I wanted to hate the feeling. I felt like an un-reformed criminal released from prison.

Once online, I typed into existence three separate identities, created a couple of different Facebook accounts and groups and, after a thought, started a blog. The ‘About’ page, with a photo borrowed from my high school yearbook, reeked of the desperate sincerity of a person reaching into the virtual in the hope of finding something missing in the real world. In other words, just another online encampment, among the millions of blogs that light the perpetual darkness of the virtual wilderness.

My fingers roamed the keyboard, like a musician picking up an instrument and, after a few practice notes, is relieved to discover that the music is still at her finger tips. I knew what I needed to create and, once set free in the virtual world, I proceeded to become a member of the world of chat groups, trolls, insipid online polls and all the other elements of the online world. In each of my three identities, I began to connect with other online groups, chat groups. I sought and found the others who were gripped by a soul-deep dissatisfaction with the state of the world. On an impulse, I opened an online savings and checking account, complete with debit card. I couldn’t have told you why I thought I might need a card, if for no other reason than that for the last thirty minutes my state of mind was one that came from a time of life very far removed from St. Dominique’s convent. Choosing not to think about what I was doing, I did recall that my instincts often anticipated circumstances beyond what could be extrapolated from the present. I stopped and looked around the empty library. I felt a slight tightness in my shoulders and a furrow of concentration grow as I hit ‘Send’ on my application for a credit card. My phone chirped a discrete alert that my PIN was now available. Within minutes I had a decent enough line of credit available for whatever use I might encounter. I was certain my brother would not mind my using his old, pre-seminary address. All this effort was for the good of the family after all. Somehow.

I felt my face suddenly flush with a heat that should have set off the library’s fire alarms. Just as quickly, the feeling was gone. Unfortunately, whatever set fire to the underside of my face now hid in my stomach. And, by all physical indicia, it was not a lightweight mental/emotional event; my insides felt twisted up into near pain, very much the feeling I had when I was first caught bunking school on the first day of the sixth grade.

I fought to push past the mix of guilt and remorse, yet something inside dared me to look at my feelings closer. Rejecting that idea with surprising vehemence, I sat back and stared at the flat screen display, as my new identities became real. Resisting the temptation to do more, I drew on past experience that’d taught me, in a world where effect follows cause at the speed of light, it’s rarely a good idea to do too much, too quickly. In the virtual world, it was wise to let newly created people to settle in and become accepted.

I accepted the fact that there was nothing I could do to help my mother stay in her home. The Bernebau Company, as the first lien-holder, was within its legal rights to take possession of the small, two-story house on Tulip Street.  All legal appeal was now moot. The only remedy was to pay off what was owed, and she simply did not have the money. The foreclosure process required only a certain waiting period, ending with an auction. My mother would simply be a statistic, collateral damage in a war that was as off-sided as the decimation of the passenger pigeon or the American buffalo. The price of progress into a faster, more profitable future. It  was a matter of business, nothing personal.

There was one avenue left to me, that was to try to find a way to apply pressure against those that seemed to have all the power. I experienced a surprise memory of the first day of freshman Geology at Radcliffe. It was an accident of scheduling that I signed up for an eight o’clock class. The professor, recognizing the signs of an insufficiently caffeinated group of young adults, threw out a teaser fact, “A single raindrop falling on a mountain, if repeated, will reduce the tallest peak to a featureless sand plain”. My friends and I tried to bring the blackboard and podium into focus from our seats in the upper-back row of the small auditorium. The more mathematically inclined among us did the calculations and, in a voice, whispered loudly enough for everyone to hear, said, “Hey somebody better tell Dr. Denolle that it’ll take 88,480,000 years and I haven’t had breakfast yet!” A laughing voice added, “Yeah, Meg, ‘course if you spent less time in the computer lab and the bars and more time in class, you might learn something”.

The virtual world of the internet, with all the irony one could ask of a technological culture, provided a platform for a modern-day David to take on Goliath. The collection of virtual places, digital town squares and solid state bullhorns found in abundance online was nothing, if it wasn’t an updated sling and stone. All the original David needed was the skill to turn a length of leather strapping into a deadly weapon and he brought a giant to his knees. I sat with my hands on a plastic and metal sling, all I needed was the will to use it. I realized that what my burning face and twisted stomach was trying to warn about, was that I knew just the girl to do it.

I leaned towards the computer screen and thought, ‘Lets help those righteous-cause-deprived masses learn of the plight of Mary Alice Ryan, of Fishtown, PA. A kindly widow who’s only dream is to live out her life in the modest home where she raised her family.’ And I let a part of my personality, a part that I had hoped to not ever see again, take up the sling and find a stone.

“Good Afternoon, Sister Margaret, I hope I’m not disturbing you.” Sister Catherine appeared to my right, with what she clearly hoped to be a friendly smile on her face. Unfortunately, a lifetime of disuse of the legendary seventeen muscles to smile, like a patient waking from a years long coma, resulted in the product falling short of the intention. Seeing my face and its non-reciprocating smile, she walked somewhat quickly to the circulation desk and began to rearrange the stacked books that lined the counter.

“No, Sister Catherine. Just doing a little personal work on the computer.” I looked away almost immediately, forgotten instincts protecting me from what they knew to be a threat. I swept my right arm over the yellow pad on the table next to the keyboard. It wasn’t anything but notes and, curious diagrams, mostly arrows and brackets. Without a thought, but accompanied by a growing dismay, I minimized the multiple open windows that, like playing cards in the early stages of a game of solitaire, spread across the screen. I recognized myself at a distance and found the silver crucifix in my left hand.

“The children really enjoy the school’s website and the incredible online resources you’ve made available here in the library.” Sister Catherine spoke in a tone that was both matter-of-fact and yet had a certain shyness to it. The effect was a bit startling. I realized, with a sense of wonder, that she was complimenting me. That she approved of what I’d done in breaking down the wall to the virtual world and making it available to both children and the nuns of St Dominique’s. I must have let the fear of my younger self leak out into my expression, changing a look of concentration into a slightly raised eyebrow. Misinterpreting, Sister Catherine hastened to add, “We must protect the children from those loose in the world who have appetites for the innocent. But I sense that you know that quite well, Sister Ryan. The truth of the matter is that I rest easier knowing that your special skills are applied in the service of the Lord.” Looking around the empty library and unable to find anything else that needed straightening out, the older nun walked towards the door. Pausing, she turned and said, “Thank you for your referral for the lawyer for Roanne Avila. Sadly, there is nothing that can be done to stop the foreclosure on her house.”

I looked at Sister Catherine with what I hoped was a friendly, welcoming expression. “Well, I might not go so far as to say that, Sister.”

“Oh? What do you mean?” Sister Catherine stood, one hand on the door and one to her side.

I turned, and, using my left foot, hooked the leg of a chair and turned it to face more towards her. Sister Catherine stared for a moment, looked around, walked over and sat at the computer table.

I told Sister Catherine about my visit to my mother’s and the notice on the door. I told her about my brother trying unsuccessfully to discover a legal remedy and failing. Finally, I told her about my sudden departure from the house and unhappy resolution to do something. I immediately turned away, feeling ashamed of the behavior of the nun in my story.

“This plan of yours, to attract as much publicity to your mother’s plight, would it help to have another situation, one involving a widow who has two young children?” Sister Catherine’s voice carried a tone of hope that was at odds with the look of determination behind the silver wire-rimmed glasses.

“Well, it appears that we have a coincidence that might be to our advantage, the foreclosing lender is the same, this Bernebau Company.”

“Well, I know that they say, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. What do you say we put that hypothesis to the test.”

***

“I’m Genevieve Novak, welcome to Miami. If you don’t mind, Cyrus would like to have his meeting right away. That way you’ll have the rest of the day to…relax.” The blonde woman looked at Arlen, but spoke to Drusilla. She managed this by directing the first sentence to both, the second to Dru and the last to Arlen. She did, however, smile when she spoke to Arlen.

“I think the second in command likes you.” Dru leaned against Arlen as they stepped off the jet and walked behind the woman who, upon completing her welcome, immediately turned and walked towards the waiting limousine.

“How’d you know she’s second in command?” Arlen tried to not sound like he cared. He took note of the extra animation in the tall, blonde woman’s voice. He did, in fact, care but he was also on alert. The woman was remarkably sexy, quite beautiful and very attractive, she made the brief welcome at 11:00 in the morning feel like two drinks past midnight.

The dark man, Constantin Szarbo, was nowhere to be seen.

Chapter 12

“I’m afraid there’s very little I can do, Mrs. Avila. This Demand notice appears to be in order. The bank is foreclosing on your house.” The attorney took note of the woman’s wavering attention, flickering like a candle in a log cabin and added, ” You have certain rights, unfortunately they all involve immediately paying the full amount of money in arrears.”

Sister Catherine sat next to Roanne Avila at the long, shiny and mostly empty conference table. Her attention was on the woman, not the man. Sister Catherine did not particularly enjoy being in an attorney’s office, the request by her former pupil was sufficient for her to ignore her own feelings. It was not that she was intimidated by the arcane language of the legal profession, or the off-putting formality of the typical conference room; none of the ways and protocols daunted her, she was, after all, a nun and a teacher in a parochial school. If pressed on the topic, and there were few people with the nerve to ask un-welcomed questions of her, she would simply state that she didn’t like lawyers. To her credit, and the peril of the person who might comment, her face would then flush self-consciously at admitting to such a prejudice.

“That’s not right,” Roanne sat behind the wheel of the old Nissan and stared at her phone. She held it, both hands resting at the top of the steering wheel, like true north on a compass dial.

“What’s not right, Roanne?” Sister Catherine closed her hand around her silver crucifix, a necessary preparation for the 35 minute ride back to the convent. She was not comfortable riding in cars. Nearly every minute she spent as a passenger she had the overwhelming desire to grab the wheel, as soon as the car began to move. Despite the fact that she’d never learned to drive, she recognized how ill-advised such an effort to help would be. The one exception was Sister Margaret. The first ride with the young novitiate set a tone that made all the difference to Sister Catherine’s emotional state during any of the rare, but necessary trips into town. Starting the convent’s SUV, Sister Margaret laughed and looking straight ahead, said, “Won’t God be surprised if we get to Heaven before Sister Cletus.” The older nun stared in shock at the driver who smiled at her, like a nine-year-old girl walking away from her first Ferris Wheel ride. After what seemed an eternity, something old and hidden in her shifted and she joined the young nun in laughter, as they pulled out of the parking area of St. Dominique’s.

“Patrice is not answering my text. She should be home by now. It’s not like her to ignore a text.” Roanne looked at her phone with a combination of frustration and fear. The fear made her throw the phone into her handbag, the frustration made her over-rev the car’s engine. Sister Catherine pulled her own seatbelt across her chest and clicked it into place and remembered a time when she felt that running was the only option.

The car pulled out of the parking lot of the Law Offices of Michaels, Raphael, Gabriel & Visconti LLP onto Rt 13 and headed south at twenty miles per hour faster than was legal.

***

“You drive. I’ll give directions.” Drusilla Renaude threw the words over her shoulder as she walked out of the offices of Renaude and Associates.  Arlen Mayhew managed to get to the door first and thereby avoided an unseemly conflict between successful woman real estate broker and stubbornly solid glass door. He glanced back at the receptionist and said, “We’ll be back in about …however-long-she-needs.”

As he hurried to catch up, Arlen looked back through the plate-glass storefront and saw the young girl laughing. When he got to his car, Drusilla was standing at the passenger side, very much engaged in a phone conversation.

Arlen enjoyed the break to his normal routine. While a certain amount of office time is essential to a successful real estate practice, too much made it seem like the emails and the ad writing and the spreadsheets were the business.  Unless his clients drove into Crisfield and sat down at his desk, Arlen was not making any money. While he had enough of a following to maintain a healthy cash flow, the prospect of marketing a multi-million dollar development was very much a priority. Never being hampered by a need to be the star, Drusilla’s invitation to assist her on the project played to Arlen’s strengths.

“The key to this project is Periwinkle Dr. It’s one of those jigsaw puzzle things. The neighborhood was developed during the late 60s, just before the seafood industry began to decline. The developer had enough foresight to plan on tourism and the beach being a factor in the growth of Crisfield. This particular neighborhood has a homeowners association and every lot has deeded beach rights. To the north and to the south, especially to the north, are large tracts of land acquired by our client. In order to secure beach rights, they’ve had to acquire a certain percentage of the houses in the homeowners association.”

“So our client is buying up single family houses?”

“Fewer than  you’d think. According to Constantin Szarbo, they have only two more houses to acquire before gaining a controlling interest in the association.”

Arlen stared at Dru, “Constantin Szarbo?” A grin pulled at the corner of his mouth.

“What?” Her voice was serious, her eyes laughed quietly.

“Far be it from me to make a joke about foreign investors. I met your man Constantin, on the day of my interview with you. I remember, because he wore a watch that cost more than this Audi. Well dressed guy, I’d love to meet his tailor. It’s not like we talked or anything, but he struck me as a scary, intense guy. Which makes me wonder why someone like that is doing the legwork for a developer? Hell, the car he drove away in that morning cost more than I made last year. Now, mind you, I’m not being critical of our new client.”

“Well, you’d better be planning on making as much money this year as our client spent on transportation.” Drusilla put her phone in her bag and turned to face Arlen, a silent and not overly reassuring look of appraisal in her eyes.

The two real estate brokers spent the afternoon driving up dirt roads and down paved country lanes, from Crisfield to the east and through the open land that accounted for much of the southern end of the Delmarva peninsula. They drove as far to the east as the Pocomoke River, which formed, in part, the border between Maryland and Virginia. They’d stop from time to time and got out of the car, tablets in hand, like 21st century bird watchers, making certain that they were looking at what they were hoping to see. Surveys and aerial maps in hand, they both looked at empty farmland and clusters of houses that needed to be painted and overlaid a vision of a massive mixed used residential development. The land had been acquired and consolidated by the Bernebau Company, like sewing a patchwork quilt, except the squares of cloth were homes of families unable to refuse the offer or tracts of wilderness that had no say in the process. It was as close to building a town as would be possible for two people.

After the sun had entered the last quarter of its trip across the sky, they stopped at a Dunkin Donuts on RT 413 near the turnoff for the Municipal airport.

“Well, what do you think? Are you up for this kind of project?” Drusilla’s tone was casual, her expression was anything but, “A lot of work, a lot of money to spend before we start to see a return.  But by the end of the first Quarter,  you better be in a position to upgrade your Rolex.”

Arlen Mayhew heard Drusilla’s voice and thought of Lia and laughed to himself, “Count me in, boss.”

“Glad to hear you say that, Arlen.  We’re due in Miami to meet our client this Friday.”

“What airline?”

“Didn’t you know, we’re flying Bernebau Air. Sorry, just kidding, company jet. Gulfstream G something…  It’ll be waiting for us at Salisbury Airport.”

“OK now I’m officially impressed. I’ve worked on development projects of decent enough size, when I was in Atlantic City. Single family developments, fifty, sixty house neighborhoods. But this is in another league all together.”

“Mr. Mayhew, do I need to worry that you’re gonna get the bends? Not everyone can deal with this size and scale a deal. nothing to be ashamed of.” The look in the woman’s eyes said very much the opposite. “Can’t have you getting glassy-eyed when we meet people who are willing to bet a million or two on our knowing our business. This ain’t Mom and Pop real estate. They want us, well at this point, they want me, to represent their interests. You up for this?”

“No, not a problem. I’m the perfect straight man. I’m thinking this’ll be fun. You don’t have to worry, Dru. You set ’em up and I’ll knock ’em down. I’ll have the facts and figures, financing and numbers. You’re the closer of this team. I’m totally comfortable.”

(Friday 9:00 am)

“Gulfstream 659ER, you’re cleared for take off.”

Drusilla smiled at the dark man sitting across from her in the luxurious cabin of the Bernebau Company jet and thought of her son Zacharia. The evening before, he’d sat on the bed and stared at her as she packed her bags for the overnight trip to Miami. His face was as peacefully trusting as dogs always are and children can be, if they (and their parent) are blessed. “I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon, kiddo. Total beach day on Sunday, you down with that?” The boy’s laughter obliterated the last of the butterflies that had tried to establish themselves in anticipation of the trip.

Arlen Mayhew watched his broker watch the exceptionally well dressed man in the paired seating on the opposite side of the plane’s cabin. He repressed a growing alarm at the quietly feral appearance of Constantin Szarbo. ‘A wolf in well-dressed wolf’s clothing’ Arlen thought, his own cleverness helped settle his nerves. He noted that there wasn’t a hint of fear in Drusilla Renaude’s face and decided that he would watch her back, despite how vehemently she would have opposed the idea.

Constantin Szarbo sat and admired the simple beauty of the woman opposite him. He also noted the protectiveness that grew in her companion. Constantin was not curious why Cyrus St. Loreto wanted these two people. He was not curious why he was told to personally accompany them to Miami. He was not curious why the owner of the Bernebau Company was devoting so much attention and resources to this project. Constantin Szarbo watched the two people in his temporary charge and knew that all as it must be, closed his eyes and rested.

The voice on the intercom, in the denim-ordinary accent of seemingly all jet pilots, announced,  “Lady and Gentlemen, we’re currently at 30,000 feet and out the left windows is the blue of the Atlantic Ocean. We’re accelerating to the south and will be in Miami before you realize it.”