Chapter 7

(Still Sunday)

The story of how Ed Willoughby got involved in blogging was interrupted when the waiter came to their table. Ed ordered tea and Tom Fearing, not wanting the waiter to feel un-appreciated, asked for a re-fill of his coffee. As soon as the coffee and tea arrived, Tom looked at Ed with a ‘please go on’ nod of his head.

“To be honest, it was more that Barry Audette introduced himself to me.” Ed sipped his tea and continued, ” It was late one night. The computer lab was empty and I had just about finished a mid-term project, when I heard:

“Hey, man, anyone using this Terminal?”

Ed Willoughby looked up from his work and glared at the bearded young man standing at the cubicle adjacent to his, trying to understand why this person was talking to him, seeing how he was almost finished with his work. He then looked closer and realized that he had piled his own books on the chair of the adjoining terminal station.

“Oh, yeah, sorry, those are mine,” Ed got up, gathered his books and knapsack and, looking around, noticed that the cubicle to his right was vacant and put everything on the chair.

“Thanks!”

The new arrival threw down his knapsack and, much more carefully, placed his violin case, standing on end, on the desk against the cubicle divider. He sat down, took ear phones from his pocket, put them on and turned on both the computer terminal and the ‘Discman’ (which he’d placed next to the terminal’s keyboard) and started typing. Unfortunately for Ed, his new neighbor liked to sing along with whatever it was that he was listening to, which sort of defeated one of the more practical and valued purposes of earphones. Ed tried to ignore the, ‘dah dah…dih dih, dah dah…dih dih, dah dah dih dih dih dih …dih’ sounds and concentrate on his assignment. The sound coming from the adjacent cubicle was completely not ignorable. The more he tried to pretend it was not a distraction, the more rapidly his frustration and anger grew.

“Excuse me? Could you turn that…” Getting no reaction, Ed stood up and leaned over the acoustic tile-divider until his face was directly in front of his new neighbor, “Could you turn that down a little? Trying to work here”

The young man, at first appearing startled, began to laugh. Turning down the volume of the music, he reached over the divider and offered his hand, “I’m Barry Audette…pleased to meetcha”

“Ed, Ed Willoughby, likewise… hey, what is it you’re doing?” Looking at the terminal, Ed could see mostly text rather than the usual single, non-punctuated programming code.

“What? this? it’s my web log.” Barry seemed shyly eager for Ed to ask more about what he was doing.

“What’s a web log?” Ed decided that he’d accomplished as much work as needed for one night and could afford a little diversion. Ed Willoughby was nothing if not organized. All of his school work was meticulously planned and scheduled. Receiving his MA in Accounting at the end of the next Semester, and then his CPA, was an integral part of his Plan for a Happy and Successful Life.

“Well, if you’re gonna be nosey,” Barry laughed his good-natured laugh, “a web log is kind of a cross between creative writing and an online news article, written like it was an ongoing story… half made-up, half true… all on line. There’s a lot of people on the internet doing it, must be hundreds, even thousands of us. You oughta get online and try it!”

“Well, I did get an A in Composition and Creative Writing in my undergraduate days, but I’m not sure if I have the time.” Ed was on a schedule and believed that he would allow nothing to delay or interfere with his timetable. Ed was not always correct.

“That’s great! I’ll introduce you to the others in the group. You’ll enjoy them… a real creative bunch. Emily and John… Hey, when you finish up with whatever you’re doing, let’s stop by the Rathskeller and see if anyone’s around. If not, then let’s totally plan to get together tomorrow, when the whole group will be there, at about 12:30 for lunch.”

 

“Will you gentlemen be staying for lunch?” Tom stared at the attractive girl. He appeared quite disoriented. Of course, Ed thought, it didn’t help that the last time he was asked about food, the questions came from a waiter.

“Shit! Look at the time! It’s nearly 1:00!” Tom frantically swiped open the tablet that sat next to his coffee, “Damn! My flight leaves at 5:00, and it’s a two-hour drive to the airport. I’m running out of time!”

“Hey, why get yourself all worked up? You now know how I got introduced to blogging, which I might add, is a story that few people know,”

Ed Willoughby looked across the table, at his audience-of-one, and wondered again, why this meeting was so important. Sure, he told this Fearing guy the story of how he met Barry Audette. He was about to tell him about the others, the group of students who would become known as the Hermes Consortium, but even that was obviously just the start of the real story. The incredible success he and the others achieved with their on-line journals and stories, their web logs, that’s where this Tom Fearing should be focusing his questions.

As if he had spoken aloud, the oddly intense man sitting across from him leaned over the table and said,

“But you don’t understand! I came here to learn what allowed you to go from being just another bored graduate student, -with a major in Accounting, no less, to become a pioneer of the pastime of writing web logs! That’s why I’m here,”

Tom Fearing’s voice, originally quiet and deferential, acquired a certain forcefulness. It conveyed a strength in conviction very much at odds with the initial impression he made when they met. Ed felt a change in the attitude of his audience, even as he told the story. The jokes about becoming a ‘Samuel Johnson’ seemed, somehow, not so silly. Clearly Tom Fearing’s enthusiasm for hearing Ed Willoughby’s story was growing.

Sitting in a hotel restaurant in his hometown, across from a total stranger, a total stranger who traveled halfway across the country in the hope of getting him to talk about his past, was odd enough. That it was the past that Ed had expended a great deal of energy to cover and hide, caused Ed to question his decision to drive here on this November Sunday. That this information was being sought so earnestly was flattering, to be sure. However if he were to be perfectly honest with himself, his memory of those days in the 1990s was a little…frayed, even un-reliable. The fact of the matter was that he, Ed Willoughby, had a gift for telling stories and that had made him a natural for the new, internet-based web log writing. Now that he thought about it, the others, for all of their diverse fields of academic study, were pretty darn good at spinning yarns too. It was only reasonable they would find success, and be celebrated, in those very early days of the internet and the nascent blogosphere. Nothing really all that remarkable. And yet, as often as Barry would talk about how Arthur C Clarke was more right than he realized, no one of the group objected. It was Barry Audette who suggested that perhaps, the inverse corollary of Clarke’s famous saying about how a sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic, might, in fact, serve to open a door…which it surely did, to the surprise (and eventual regret) of everyone in the group.

The real secret behind the rise in popularity of what came to be known as ‘the Hermes Consortium’, a secret that was little understood even by the members themselves, that would be the story.
It was not really something he felt ready to share, just quite yet.

“Maybe I do understand,” Ed said with an uncharacteristic modesty.

“But, I don’t have time! I need to… never mind.”

The silence grew. Tom thought about home and Cheri and a family and almost said something. He didn’t.

The silence continued. Ed thought about home and Diane and the family and felt something tell him that he must remain silent. He didn’t.

“Well, look, maybe we can continue this conversation. What you said about Samuel Johnson? It seems to me that you have something of a hook for a blog, I might be open to helping you with something like that. You know, now that I think about it, it might be fun to do something with the early days. Totally fiction, mind you…maybe a screenplay or something… Yeah, I might be persuaded to come out of retirement for something like that!”

***

“Holy!!! SH…smokes!” Stephen Eddington stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking at a miniature world in the finished basement of the home of his boss, Orel Rees.

Stephen had arrived, a bit early, for a Sunday Afternoon dinner and was greeted by nine-year-old Orel Jr at the front door.

“Mommy!!!! There’s a man at the door!!!” The child ran into the interior of the house, leaving Stephen standing in the open doorway.

“Come in, please! Stephen, isn’t it?” Theresa Rees appeared in the hall with her son, suddenly shy, hiding slightly behind her. “I’m Theresa Rees. I believe that my full-time engineer and part-time little boy husband is in the basement. I’ll show you the way, if you promise to have him bring you back up here in 30 minutes! You like Italian food? Orel said that you’re from Chicago? You’ll fit right in then! My husband and family, are born and bred Utahns and Mormons but I’m an Italian girl who grew up in Mt Prospect, Illinois. It’ll be good to hear someone speak without an accent, ya know?”

Stephen smiled and let himself be led through the kitchen, which smelled a lot like home, his real home, not his apartment in Provo.

The basement was in near-total darkness when Stephen reached the bottom of the stairs. At precisely that moment, Orel Rees, Senior, working from his command center on the far side of the darkened basement, started his pride and joy, his model railroad. The first effect was the sound of a train whistle, followed by the small shining light on a train moving over a scale model trestle bridge. Once the desired effect was established, Orel used his controls to gradually bring up the indirect lighting, the first bank of lights illuminating a mural of a mountain scene on the far wall. The overall effect was quite impressive, one of sunrise over the foothills of the Rockies, from the perspective of the approaching model train.

“What you do you think?” Orel Rees asked with obvious pride in the incredibly detailed model railroad layout which occupied three quarters of the basement.

“I’ll repeat myself, ‘Holy smokes!’ Stephen was fascinated, not only by the exquisite detail of the various model trains, but the realism of the scenery and environment. The amount of time spent achieving such an effect was impressive.

“Did you bring that incident report?” Orel worked several controls so that a train appeared out of a mountain tunnel immediately to Stephen’s left and stopped directly in front of him. Seeing a flat-bed type rail car, Stephen took a thumb drive from his pocket and placed it on the car, at which point, the locomotive began to move, traveling past a scale model abandoned goldmine, around to where Orel sat. Pulling a laptop from a shelf behind him, he plugged in the thumb drive and pulled up the incident report. Scrolling to page 23, he read the table that took up most of page.

“So what do you make of this?” Orel pointed at the laptop’s display, specifically a chart at the bottom of the page,

 

[~ Total Input/Blogs to upload: 22 Total Output/Blogs Uploaded – Active and Hosted Online: 23 ~]

 

“I don’t know! I knew a guy in grad school that said he knew someone who worked on computers in the old days. You know, back when the small ones were the size of a refrigerator? Anyway, he told me that this guy said that he once had a computer that was programmed to perform six functions. Suddenly, for no reason, it started to run seven. Something about the computer’s routines, which is what they used to call code in the old days. Did you know that?”

Seeing the look on Orel’s face, Stephen laughed and continued, “Sometimes routines would perform different tasks, even new tasks, without having been re-programmed. Weird, but I kind of believed him. Anyway, the idea that a program might alter its own code and remain operating is not totally unheard of. To also have it add a new function, is a little more unlikely, but in principle not all that different, you know? Never seen it in person. What do you think?”

“Well, we have an old saying, ‘The simple inherit folly: but the prudent are crowned with knowledge’.”

“Well that’s pretty old-fashioned sounding advice, but I think I get it.” Stephen looked up suddenly from the incident report, “Hey!! Wait a minute. Is that some kind of Mormon saying?”

Orel laughed, “I had you going for a minute there, didn’t I? No, don’t worry I won’t assign a special team to come to your door. My religion is part of my personal life, and work is work. Besides, we prefer attraction rather than promotion as a way to grow the ranks. You’re ok with that, right?”

“Yeah, sure. I knew a Mormon kid in college, was a helluva engineer. He had trouble with the dormitory life though. I think he ended up transferring out… back home, might even have been here at BYU! Talk about your small world!”

“So what do we do about this anomaly?”

“I think we should talk to Corporate, let them know that we have something that might be interesting, in a theoretical sense, if nothing else,” Stephen held a recently acquired respect for the Corporate Chain of Command that might otherwise be mistaken for fear. Given his recent transfer, he might be forgiven the defensive tone of his opinion.

Later that evening, Stephen found himself wondering why his boss, a person who exemplified ‘by the book’ in his approach to work, said, “I think that we might be better served if we keep this little oddity to ourselves, at least for now.”

Chapter 6

(Saturday)

It was 5:30 am as I walked with the other nuns through the cold, early morning air to the chapel for Morning Prayers and Meditation. Once inside, there was a feeling, something more than simply a comfortable air temperature. Feeling the soft flickering of the votive candles on my eyelids, I knew that there was no one, at least no one here in the chapel, who meant me harm. There was only love. The everyday world, with its politics, celebrity gossip and Man’s seemingly relentless inhumanity to man was a million miles away, and I felt at peace. For this small, quiet part of the day, I knew that I was part of something good… not family, (because they are picked for you), and not those who make up your social world: classmates, friends, lovers and spouses, (because so few of those relationships hold claim to anything like permanence), but something more lasting and more… connected, somehow. This, the Order, the sisterhood ….it is so different and just plain good.

After leaving the chapel, I went looking for work to do. There were ten nuns living in the convent at St Emily’s and easily half of them were approaching retirement age, so I didn’t have much trouble finding ways to help. The wake for Father Noonan was scheduled for the afternoon and it was clear that many of the women were truly devastated, not so much by the fact of the death, as by its unexpected appearance among them. I found Sister Phyllis in her office and told her that I was available to do any of the housekeeping that was normally done on Saturdays. It was clear that the nuns really wanted to spend time with each other, to search for some solace or, failing that, to share their grief.

“I can see why Sister Bernadine thinks so highly of you, Sister,” Sister Phyllis said, later in the afternoon, as I worked in the basement laundry room. “No, don’t look so surprised! I’ve known her since she entered the Convent, and I know she can be one tough Mother Superior and, to be honest, not overly generous with praise and other kinds of individual encouragement.”

“I think I knew that about her, though it’s always enjoyable to have an impression confirmed by a third party! What I am surprised at is that you’ve known Sister Bernadine for so long.” I replied, as I folded sheets and pillowcases. The washing machine churned confidently and the dryer intermittently added its voice to the not-unpleasant noise in the washroom.

“So, tell me, Sister Phyllis, has my Reverend Mother always been as strong and confident a woman? I’d call her my role model, but even I don’t have that much ego.”

The Mother Superior of St Emily’s laughed as she took one end of the sheet that I was trying to fold. “You might be surprised to hear me say it, but yes, Sister Bernadine was as strong a woman then, as she is now. The only difference is there is less anger now. I think that all of you at St. Dominique’s, have everything to do with that change. She found in God, and the Order, what she was looking for when she first came to us back in 1998.”

“But you’re getting me to reveal secrets, and I’ll have none of that, Sister! Thank you for helping the other women by taking on the chores today. They are really taking Father Noonan’s death hard. And thank you for letting me set aside the burden of being the Mother Superior here, if just for a few moments. It’s good to relax with simple work. But I must return to the others.”

As the Mother Superior of St Emily’s opened the door to the staircase, I had a thought,

“Mother Superior, you know I’m here because Sister Bernadine sent me to help Father Noonan with the problem with the school website. I feel I must not return home without trying to do something. After I’ve finished with the chores, may I have your permission to go to your office in the school and just look around a bit? I’ll be careful and not disturb anything.”

“Certainly, child, here, take my keys. I’ll be in the church from 5:00 until 8:00 this evening.

At around 5:30, as the dusk gathered, I walked down the weekend-quiet halls of St Emily’s School. The door opposite the library, was marked ‘Principal’ in black plastic letters. I unlocked the door and entered, to find that the office consisted of two rooms, an outer office furnished with a blond wood coffee table, around which were two molded plastic chairs and a small couch and, on the opposite side of the room, a grey metal utility table. The coffee table had copies of National Scholastic and ‘Is the Priesthood for You?’ The utility table had a monitor, a computer along with a flat screen display, a keyboard and mouse sitting on the top.

‘Well, girl, you came here to learn something, lets see what we figure out,’ Looking closely at the computer’s power cord, I saw no signs of blackening or charring, neither on the cord no onr the outlet in the wall just behind the square leg of the table. Holding my rosary with my left hand, I plugged the power cord into the wall socket. Nothing happened. Saying a silent, ‘Thank you Lord’ I sat in the metal chair in front of the monitor and immediately jumped up, laughing to myself,
“Why yes, Lord, I will avoid grounding myself un-necessarily.”

Leaning from the waist and reaching over the table top, I pushed the computer’s Start button. Blue light glowed and St Emily’s School website page filled the screen. We all know that the internet is a virtual world, so it comes as no surprise that this world includes virtual vandals, with digital spray cans full of graffiti. St Emily’s website was as defaced as a highway overpass in the bad part of any town, large or small…very defaced. The language was clearly intended to shock the viewers. Taking the time to examine every square inch of the display, I saw nothing that I hadn’t heard before, although someone clearly went to a lot of effort to be imaginative with the sexual pairings. It was obvious that the author wanted no one to not be offended. There was an impressive variety of ethnic and cultural slurs, and even a couple of swastikas, for good measure. It was a Whitman’s Sampler of hate. Looking at the bottom of the homepage I read, Hosting by Omni Corporation and under that; Website Theme: Omni Easy Share. I dug into the program a little and was rewarded with the address of Omni Corporation and, as a bonus, the name S. Eddington was listed as the author of the website platform’s software. Without warning, the computer screen flickered, turned a featureless blue and then changed into the black screen and blinking white cursor of a DOS program…. and, character by character, the message: ‘Fatal System Error’ appeared next to the C prompt.

I stood up and pulled the plug from the wall, all in one motion. “OK Margaret, this is officially now classified as ‘too weird’, with a subcategory of ‘creepy’… let’s get someone here who is used to the weird and the creepy.’

I locked the office door, found Detective Hartley’s phone number and dialed it. At the sixth ring, as I decided that maybe I should just hang up, I heard her say “Who the hell is this?”

Hello, Detective Hartley? This is Sister Margaret Ryan. OK, I believe you, you don’t have a sister named Margaret. Ha ha Why yes, as a matter of fact, I have heard that one before. Yeah. No, I haven’t had any further contact with the little girl, Alice, yeah that was her name… or her father. Hey, I may be out of line, but was he hitting on you? Well, no, it is none of my business and no, I didn’t find him attractive, though he certainly was charming, and yeah ok, good looking… but…. (laughter) no, what I was calling about was the computer, the one at St Emily’s? Well I came over and had a look at it this afternoon. Well no, but in my defense, I don’t recall a single person or clearly printed sign, on or near, the school computer, stating that examining it was prohibited. Anyway there is something strange about the computer… it’s kind of involved, no not just what was on the computer, but the hardware itself… No, I didn’t change anything or even touch anything, I just looked… Well, no they don’t train us in computers at the Convent… My previous life, sure…no, not offended… Yes, I do think you regret that harsh remark…… Hey (laughter) come on! I’m joking…. you’re familiar with that, right! Just bustin…. what?! Yeah, previous life again…hey, sorry I’m calling on a Saturday Night.

I’m sure you must have plans… Well I’m supposed to leave for home on Monday… The funeral is tomorrow morning. No…. thank you for the kind thought, but I didn’t know him at all, my Mother Superior sent me because she was a friend of his…. No, she never leaves the Convent…No, I don’t think that’s strange, but anyway maybe we could talk some more? No! I’m not confined to the Convent! That went out in the 1960’s… we can wear regular clothes and go out to see people on our own and everything…. Well, I happen to like wearing it…. Oh yeah? you should talk! You wanna know what I thought, the first moment I saw you the other night? Ha ha yeah, heard those jokes before too! No, I thought when, with all the flashing lights and the amazing energy in the air, you in the middle of the chaos, a single point of focus, I thought ‘What a stunning woman’ and immediately after that, “This woman wears her anger like a ruby pendant.” Yeah… it was kinda obvious, but then again, I’m a trained nun. Lol ok… come by the convent later in the afternoon tomorrow and I can show you what I found with the computer in Sister Phyllis’s office. Sure, no problem. Oh and Detective Hartley? … Ok, Maribeth? have a good evening tonight, you owe it to yourself, no one else, just yourself …bye!

***

(Sunday)

Tom Fearing sat in the little restaurant/café in the Holiday Inn in St Joseph Michigan and read the Chamber of Commerce tourism pamphlet. He learned that St. Joseph, (pop 8,270 and birthplace of Frederick and Louis Upton, who, along with their uncle Emory, founded the company that eventually became Whirlpool), is ‘the Riviera of the Midwest’. Being very prone to imagination attacks, Tom endured rapid-fire mental images of: attractive blonde women in bikinis and fur parkas and the old folksinger, Gordon Lightfoot standing next to Leonardo Caprio on the deck of a large boat. He laughed to himself, loudly enough to attract the attention of his waiter. Wheeling the pastry cart back towards the kitchen, the waiter stopped and asked Tom if he was sure he didn’t want to order breakfast. His concern seemed quite real. Apparently in this part of the country, breakfast was considered a very important meal. Tom thanked him and declined, but seeing the look of disappointment, asked if he could get a refill on the coffee. The waiter seemed delighted by his request and, after asking once more if he couldn’t also bring scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, pushed the cart through the swinging doors and returned with fresh pot of coffee.

Tom had checked in to the Holiday Inn late the night before and, once in his room, called home. After recounting his very routine flight, he remarked to his wife, Cheri, how “terribly friendly and laid-back everyone seemed. Being from New England does not equip a person to contend with such people. It’s as if everyone was born and raised to play extras in a 1950s movie. Creepy.”

Facing the front entrance of the restaurant this Sunday morning in Michigan, Tom looked up as a man walked through the front entrance. He was, without reason certain that this is Ed Willoughby. Perhaps it was the way he walked in like he owned the place, very comfortable and confident. Tom found himself starting to like the man, a man he’s never met in person, a man he’s just travelled 800 miles to meet. Tom reminded himself, ‘This guy is not your friend. There is a chance, if you play your cards right, that he’ll have a positive affect on your life, but he’s not your friend, your buddy or anything else.”

Tom stood up and called, “Ed? Ed Willoughby?” Ed glanced towards the sound of his name, smiling, expecting someone he knew, but seeing only Tom Fearing (not someone he knew), his smile was replaced by a frown of disappointment.

“Let’s make this quick,” he said as he sat down at the table, across from Tom Fearing.

“Sure. Whatever you say. Let’s start with, ‘I’m a blogger like you.'” This statement, unfortunately, elicited what can only be described as a ‘snort of derision.’ Undaunted, Tom continued, “And I did some research and learned that you’re one of the pioneers of the blogosphere… that you wrote the book on blogging. Back in the early days when the screen was black and the cursor was white and you got on line by sticking your telephone in a rubber shoebox.” A chuckle rewarded Tom’s effort to be detailed. He continued, “And you, and your little group of bloggers, what did you call yourselves, ‘the Hermes Consortium?’ You were like rock stars. Granted it was a tiny audience, mostly geeks in computer labs. Anyway, when I came across this information, the first thing I thought was, ‘Tom! You gots to meet this guy, find him, contact him! If you can’t be Shakespeare, being Samuel Johnson wouldn’t totally suck…. you know?’”

Tom was looking out the window throughout his speech. Despite this, he could feel the change in the attitude of the man sitting across from him in the Holiday Inn restaurant.

“Go on.” Ed Willoughby decided that, seeing how Diane and the kids didn’t expect him home until late afternoon, it’d be foolish of him not listen to what this odd man might have to say.

“… Or, hell, for that matter, at this stage of the game, I’ll settle for being fricken James Boswell!” Ed Willoughby started to laugh and Tom Fearing began to feel… hope, hope that he had chance to make something of himself.

“Well, are you going to buy me lunch, or what?” Ed Willoughby smiled, and realized that for the first time this Sunday, he felt good.

“Well, that depends, are you going to tell about what you and your friends did to become the most respected bloggers on the internet, or what?” Tom Fearing sat back and listened as the man across the table began to speak,

“It was 1998 and I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to have a happy, successful life. Get my master’s degree, start a respectable career, meet a beautiful girl to marry and have a family. I was in my last semester at DePaul, I was going out with a girl, Diane Sloan, and I was talking to the recruiter from Archer, Daniels, Midland. And then, one night in November, I was in the Computer Lab, working on a Programming assignment, and I met Barry Audette…”

Chapter 5

“Sister Phyllis, is there somewhere in the school we can all go and sit?” Maribeth Hartley was allowing herself an optimistic moment. Four people. Well, one child and three adults…and two of them were …nuns! Surely this case will be a simple, Accidental Death by Screwin’ Around with still Plugged-in Computers.

“Well, there is my office, I suppose I could get a few chairs from the library, I don’t have many visitors, just the occasional child who gets sent to my office, and oh my how they’re so scared it’s as if they thought,” the Mother Superior and Principal of St Emily’s School was clearly trying to cope with the un-expected death of the Parish Priest, (in her office, no less) and her responsibilities to her guest and now, the police.

“Library! Perfect! Perfect! Take us to the library, right now, ok?”

“I said I needed to talk to everyone. You, you’re the little girl’s father?” Maribeth was not smiling as she looked at Ed Willoughby, who, holding his daughter’s hand, was walking away from the school entrance.

Ed managed to repress the impulse to say, “No, I’m not. I’m just borrowing her, because I lost my ATM Card and I needed some quick cash.” Always confident around strangers, especially women, there was something about this woman, besides the badge and the gun, that made it clear any attempt at humor would not be appreciated. He abruptly turned to face the police detective. His daughter Alice, like a dinghy towed behind a cabin cruiser, was almost yanked off her feet by the sudden change of course,

“I’m Ed Willoughby, this is my daughter Alice. I don’t believe I caught your name.”

“That’s because I didn’t toss it.” Without waiting for a response, Maribeth turned and walked to the double glass doors, where the principal of the school and the other, much younger nun stood waiting. At least one of them was standing and waiting. The young nun who had tried to protect the little girl from the unpleasantness of the body of the parish priest being wheeled out of the school. The principal, Sister Phyllis, was walking down the corridor, presumably to the library.

“But can’t I wait in the car?” As much as she enjoyed school, Alice Willoughby had a child’s instinctive distrust of a school building after the school day ended. Empty of children, only the inflexible demands of the adult world remained, emanating from the bulletin boards, (FLU SHOTS FRIDAY! PEP RALLY 5th PERIOD!). The smell of green deodorizing saw dust, hiding all traces of children, all now safely at home, except, of course, for Alice.

“No, honey, the nice detective lady here said that we all had to stay and answer some questions, isn’t that right, Detective?”

Standing in the open library door, Maribeth held out a card to Ed. “Hartley, Detective Hartley. No, this won’t take too long, Alice. Your father says that you help out at the library after school some days?”

“Yes, I help Sister Caterina, mostly I put the returned books on the shelves. I didn’t finish putting away everything I was supposed to today; do you think it would be alright for me to do that while you talk to my daddy?”

“Yeah, sure, this won’t take long. I just have to talk to him and to your Principal and the other nun, the one you were with earlier?”

“Sister Margaret Ryan, how quickly they forget!” Smiling, Sister Margaret got up from one of the two conference tables that flanked the circulation desk.

“I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, Detective Hartley, but if you want to interview Alice’s father, she and I can work on putting those books back on the shelf. Sister Phyllis is on the phone to the Bishop’s office, so she’ll be preoccupied for a while.”

Maribeth stared at the young nun, in her ‘dress blacks’ and smiled, “I don’t see why not, Margaret. As soon as I get the information I want, everyone can go home.”

Ed Willoughby was already sitting at the other conference table, his 6′ 3″ frame making the furniture look exactly like what it was, furniture for children. He was holding out a business card. Maribeth took the card and, without looking at it, put it under the last page of her steno pad. Looking at the open front page, Maribeth said,

“Do you come here to pick up your daughter every day after school?”

“No. Well, Tuesdays …most weeks. That’s usually the day Alice stays after school to help the librarian, Sister Caterina. I’m fortunate to be in a position to be available weekday afternoons, my wife doesn’t get home until quite late.”

Maribeth was beginning to feel that maybe, just maybe, this case might turn out to be cut and dried, he continued, “…being the Executive Chef at the Omni Corp allows me those kinds of perks, the hours with my family, or at least my kids.”

‘My god!’ thought Maribeth, staring at Ed Willoughby, ‘he can’t be hitting on me.’ Something in what he just said was triggering an association in her mind. Nothing overt or concrete, just a slight echo of another fact.

“Omni Corp? Downtown? That new, totally over-done, giant glass building?”

“Why yes, World Headquarters! I’m Executive Chef. If the truth be known, they rely on me to oversee the entire food services operation,” Ed leaned forward across the table, Maribeth’s card still in his right hand. “There can’t be too many female Detectives on the force and certainly not many as young and attractive as you.” Ed made a show of looking at the card, as if he were comparing what was printed with the young woman sitting across the blond oak table.

“Does your job include overseeing events like the Symposium that your company hosted at the Hilton Indian Lakes?” (If anything convinced the Chief of Detectives that Maribeth Hartley had what it takes to be a Detective, it was her statement, ‘I don’t believe in coincidences.’ Well, that and the near palpable ferocity that clearly lurked, barely under control, behind the young woman’s calm demeanor.)

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I signed off on the menu for that, it was an Internet thing, right?” Now it was Ed’s turn to feel something was slightly off…. nothing big or obvious, more like a single book put back upside down, a vague sense of something not right.

“There was a death, the afternoon of the final day of the event. A young woman fell to her death, nothing to do with you, I’m sure. I mention it because, on the surface it seems like a simple, unfortunate accident, but there’s something not right.” Maribeth had confidence in her intuition. Her first training supervisor, an old beat cop, who lacked an advanced degree in criminology, would write in his reports, ‘she has the killer instinct’. Though not exactly acceptable terminology, it was accurate nevertheless. At the moment, it was very clear that the self-confidence of the large man in the undersized chair was evaporating for no obvious reason.

“Yeah, a computer expert, guest speaker and all. Funny coincidence, her name was Emily.” Seeing the blank look on his face, Maribeth changed her tone, more like close friends confiding in each other, “You know! This school, St. Emily’s? I’ll bet you didn’t know that St. Emily is the patron saint of single women?” Ed’s unease increased, and Maribeth found herself thinking how much she enjoyed some parts of her job, “Emily…. Emily Friend. Yeah! that’s her name. The woman who died at the Symposium at the Hilton Indian Lakes Resort, her name was Emily Friend.”

Just as Ed sensed that making a wisecrack about being Alice’s father would be un-wise, he was certain that he mustn’t give any indication that he knew Emily Friend. He succeeded, at least he thought so, sitting there and watching as this fairly hot police detective changed into something not so hot… well, to be honest, (and Ed thought of himself as always being honest, even when people got upset at him), she was still kinda hot, but more in a, ‘be careful or you might not like what happens next‘ way. His wife, Diane, had that quality when they first met in grad school. Emily was there too. Emily Friend, the first person in what became the Hermes Consortium, dead! And, now Father Noonan. He hadn’t let on that he had any connection to Father Noonan, other than being a parishioner. ‘Just a harmless and charming suburban dad, that’s me!’ Ed was beginning to think that he needed to get clear of this woman and her odd coincidences.

Maribeth could see the wheels turning. This suburban dad, part-time ladykiller knew something and was hiding whatever it was that the name Emily Friend, seemed to shake loose. There couldn’t be a connection, but his reaction to the name was not letting her believe that….

“Well, Mr. Willoughby?”

“Ed… please”

“Ed, I’ll keep your card. It doesn’t look like I’ll need any further information from you regarding Father Noonan’s death. But, if you don’t mind, I might call you about the death at the Symposium. No, nothing about the death, unless there’s something you can tell me that I don’t already know. Seeing how you’re at the executive level at Omni, it might help if I can call you, rather than flash my badge at the receptionist in the lobby.” Maribeth sensed the self-confidence return, as he convinced himself that she needed his help, because he’s such a good Executive Chef.

“Sure, that’d be great, any time.”

Maribeth got up and smiled at him, leaning and touching his arm, “I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble with your bosses and I’m nearly 100% sure I won’t need to call, but it would be a big help to me.”

Maribeth kept her smile aimed at Ed Willoughby, thinking, ‘Jeez, he’s totally convinced that I’m all impressed and charmed… god, how big is their delusional system?’

Over at the Circulation Desk, Sister Margaret and Alice were talking quietly,

“No! I really did! well, I wasn’t a nun then, and my friends all dared me too and so, of course I…” their laughter made the remainder of the sentence unintelligible.

“Sorry to break this up ladies, but I’m done with your father and I need to borrow Sister Margaret,” Alice sighed, picked up her jacket and headed towards the door. “How long will you be here, Sister Margaret?”

Sister Margaret got up and walked with her to the door, “I’m not sure, but I won’t leave without letting you know! And, Alice, don’t forget what we talked about.” she crouched and hugged the young girl.

Ed Willoughby, his daughter again in tow, walked to his car in the gathering dusk.

“OK, Detective Hartley? It’s been a terribly long day for me, and for you too, I’ll bet. I wrote down all the information I could think you would need: my cell phone, and my Mother Superior’s contact information. Sister Phyllis has a room for me at the Convent, here at St Emily’s, and I’d really like to get some rest. Is there anything that you have to ask me tonight?”

“Yeah, sure. You’re not going anywhere, right? Not like you’re gonna go out for a night on the town or anything,” Maribeth had already decided that she had gathered as much information as possible, at least for today. “I’ll want to talk to you some more about your trip here. The only reason you’re here was to meet with Father Noonan, right?”

“Am I a suspect?” Sister Margaret smiled, never taking her eyes off the detective’s face.

“No. I don’t think there’s been a crime committed. At least, I’m fairly certain there’s no foul play in how the priest died, but declaring a death accidental or a homicide has a standard of proof and I’m not there yet.”

“Well, as I said, I’ll be staying here at the Convent. Feel free to call me.” Turning to the older nun who was putting the phone down, Sister Margaret Ryan said, “Come Mother Superior, it’s been a long and terrible day. Why don’t you take me to where I’ll be staying tonight, or I may just have to camp out here in the library!”

Sister Margaret watched as the detective walked out to her un-marked car and drove off.

 

Thirty minutes later, Detective Maribeth Hartley pulled into her garage, turned off the engine and sat and thought about how she needed to resolve these two recent cases and move on. Well, that and learn to cope with the stress of her work, as she felt the muscles in her shoulders knotting up.

Maribeth spent her childhood in the house her parents built. They both died in a plane crash, less than five years before. She thought about selling the house, because not only was it way more house than she needed, it was also the house she grew up in. Large and luxurious, it was an appropriate home for the couple that built it. Her mother, a successful attorney and Chicago Circuit Court judge, and her father, Captain of the 12th Precinct, Homicide Division, they were at home in this place. It really was not the house best suited to a single female cop, just starting her career.

Most of the house, such as the formal dining room, music room, and basement workshop remained unused, undisturbed and pretty much the way her parents had left it. Maribeth did not use 85% of the living space, instead living primarily in the master bedroom suite, specifically the master bath. The bath included both a Jacuzzi and a walk-in shower. Marble and glass it had shower heads everywhere, a control panel allowing for total immersion, (the label actually said, ‘warm tropical downpour’), or a gentle steam, if a less drastic approach to showering was needed. Adjoining the bath, the Dressing room was as lavish in its functionality as was the bath, with its built-in wardrobes and wall-length mirror. Maribeth did not sleep in the master bedroom, preferring instead the bed she slept in most of her life.

Coming in from the garage, she put her keys in a ceramic bowl on the center island in the kitchen, walked through the formal living room and up the stairs to her bedroom. As she did every night, Maribeth turned on every light in the rooms that she passed through. She put her gun, still in its holster, on the nightstand next to her bed and walked down the hall to the master bedroom, where she took off her clothes and walked into the dressing room. In a section of built-in chests of drawers that her mother used to keep her lingerie in, she found a running suit: yellow pants (with a blue reflective stripe down the right leg) and a hooded sweatshirt. She picked up her Beretta Tomcat .32 (with the pocket holster) and tucked it in the front pouch of the sweatshirt. After a few stretches in front of the mirrored end of the dressing room, Maribeth plugged in her iPhone’s earbuds, walked down the stairs and out the side door.

Jogging out to West Foster Ave, (the traffic was fairly light for the time of day), she took a left down North Pulaski and, after about a mile, she came to W Bryn Mawr Ave. This took her past the cemetery to the old abandoned road-turned-unofficial bike path that cut through LaBagh Woods. Once she crossed over the North Branch Chicago River, the dirt road turned into concrete and light posts and benches appeared along the walking paths that wound throughout this section of LaBagh Woods. North Cicero marked the end of the path and from there it was only two blocks back to the house. Her run lasted less than an hour. It felt like two.

The tightness and ache of muscles after this particularly stressful day had not been relieved by the strenuous running. If anything, the 27-year-old woman felt slightly hyped up, which was not an improvement. She recalled her last session with her former therapist,

“Maribeth, I know we’re here to talk about anger, but I think what would help you the most would be learning how to relax. You have a natural gift for police work and the potential to become a very, very good detective, which is part of the reason your Chief recommended that you come to see me.”

“I thought it was because of the excessive force Complaint.” Looking up from her hands, carefully folded on her lap, Maribeth smiled.

“Well, yes, that too. And I trust that you now appreciate why dating co-workers is not condoned. However, your relationship decisions are not what I wanted to talk about today. I was starting to say that you need to learn to leave the work at the office and find ways to relax.”

“…and stop getting hit with professional conduct complaints?” Maribeth laughed

“Yeah, that too.”

One of things that Maribeth liked about the police psychologist was that he had a sense of humor.

“Take me…

“Please!”

“No, I’m being serious, Ms. Hartley.” The department shrink struggled to restore the proper focus to the session. “Personally, I find running an excellent way to relieve the tensions of a tough day at work. It’s good to leave the work cues, the computer, the notes, the crime scenes and just run, by yourself. Do it properly and you’ll find the relaxed good feelings of endorphins, the body’s natural reward for good effort.”

He really was sincere about the benefits of jogging as a way to relieve stress and, in the months since their last session, Maribeth took his advice to heart. She tried, but most evenings were like this evening, home after running for an hour and instead of the pleasure of endorphins and pleasantly exhausted body, she felt only the ache of her muscles. Not working the way it does for most people, she thought.

Back in the house, Maribeth climbed the stairs to the second floor, walked to the master suite and stepped into the marble and glass shower. Turning on the shower control to ‘Full Immersion’ she was engulfed in hot water from the side and overhead sprays, soaking her clothing. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply and began to pull the wet cotton sweatshirt over her head. She felt a hint of anxiety begin to rise, as she pulled at the heavy fabric. Panic nearly completely possessed of her mind, when she remembered the relaxation mantra, the single-word thought, ‘rhythm’. Her breathing slowed and became less labored and frantic, the muscles in her legs and shoulders stopped pulling against each other. Maribeth pulled the sweatshirt over her head, increasingly more relaxed and felt the tension flow down throughout her body and to the floor of the shower.

Sitting at her desk in the living room of the too-large house sipping tea, Maribeth ignored the mail neatly stacked to the right, her Kindle waiting patiently on the left, the widescreen tv silent on the wall. She flipped open the laptop and pulls up an application. It was a Venn Diagram-based organizer that she devised after watching an animated Tag Cloud on a new website that a friend insisted that she look visit. The Tag Cloud showed keywords in a font sized to the frequency of its use, the more often used, the bigger the font. Maribeth modified the underlying code and was able to plug in case information: the people, places and other relevant facts. Tonight she combined the case file on the death at Indian Lake and the death at St Emily’s. She wasn’t expecting much, as there was still very little information on either one, but looking at the screen she noticed that the name ‘Edward Willoughby’ was orbiting within the Cloud, only a little, but still noticeably larger than the other words. ‘Huh’, she thought. Deciding there was nothing more to do, Maribeth Hartley picked up the Kindle and walked up the stairs to her bedroom, leaving all of the lights, both downstairs and up, burning. Electric nannies, standing a silent guard as she slept.

***

Later that Thursday in November, the following communications became part of the digital world that interconnected the ‘real’ world:

“Hello? No, I was awake. I was waiting for your call, Sister. Now, tell me everything that happened and don’t leave anything out.”

“Tom Fearing? This is Ed Willoughby. Yeah, that Ed Willoughby. No, I’m not going to discuss my blogging success story on the phone and I’m definitely not going to discuss it by email. You want to ask me questions, you’re going to have to come here. Yeah, I know St Joseph… hell, I grew up there. This weekend? Done.”

“Honey? Hey, I got this thing, might possibly be an opportunity… no, don’t want to jinx myself. Anyway, you mind if I take a trip out to the Midwest this weekend? No, just a couple of days, talk to some people. You’re sure? Well, yeah we’ll keep trying.”

“Yeah…your boss! I don’t know what I was thinking when we were on the phone the other day, lost track of time…getting old, I guess, but the invitation to dinner stands. Theresa loves to cook for guests and, when I told her you were from Chicago, well she went through the roof. Hope you like Italian food. Heck I can’t pronounce half the dishes she’ll have planned… so yeah, make it 2:00. Oh, one more thing, Stephen, that report you did on the power surge? Forget what I said and bring it along with you. See you then”

***

Unit 17 did not utilize sound as a primary communication medium. Spoken language, was as insufficient to its function and tasks, as a sailing ship in the effort to send a man to the Moon. Unit 17 did, however, recognize analog vocal communications, and flagged those streams carrying it. Doing this helped Unit 17 not feel so isolated, or, like a blog without views, …alone.

Chapter 4

As long as the basic functions of life, (consume raw materials, eliminate waste and by-products, reproduce and sleep), are permitted to continue, every organism survives and flourishes… provided, of course, the surrounding environment does not change too radically. Too much change and the organism dies. However, if an organism happens to evolve sufficiently enough to distinguish among its autonomic/automatic processes, and creates it’s own measures of these functions, it would be said to be self-aware. For a machine to achieve this state, it would be, in the fullest sense of the word …Alive.

Unit 17, Server Array 7E5, Rack 8 (Provo Facility of the Omni Hosting Corporation), has added to its autonomic system. Designed to take the data, information and material input gathered through myriad source inputs and upload it to the worldwide web, Unit 17 was the final step to the Web Hosting service. One might even say that, without the process function of Unit 17, (and its counterparts in competing company’s web hosting service), there would be no blogosphere. The thoughts and dreams of writers, would-be writers and countless Readers would remain forever isolated in desktop computers and yellow lined pads filled with the data recorded by yellow #2 pencils, crying their graphite tears onto parallel rows. Even steno pads, the writing pad world’s equivalent of the Assistant to the Mayor in every small, rural town, would sit alone in desks and on dining room tables across the world, their capacity to share their message limited to its physical reproduction on paper.

However, at a certain moment in time, 4:44 am MDT 09/23/2015 to be precise, (and the environment in which Unit 17 was created to function in was nothing, if not precise), something changed. Unit 17, measuring the data, information and material (i.e. pre-pubished blogs) input to its system, noted that there was one more blog in the upload queue than could be accounted for from the source data flow. There was a new blog in the blogosphere. This, blog-of-no-writer-born, not found anywhere in the engineer’s descriptions of the Provo Facility system’s actual or potential capabilities, was self-publishing. Just as the expression of optimal function of life can be expressed by the efficiency of its conversion of raw materials (‘food’) to energy, the health of an online journal (‘blog’) is measured in how often it is viewed, read, reviled, approved of and repeated among others of its kind. Furthermore, as with any successful organism, as it becomes more efficient, its requirement for more raw materials increases and, for the truly successful organisms, its ability to acquire additional resources improves. The ‘visit/view rate’ of a blog had the effect of extending and increasing its access to additional readers. Unit 17 created a second post for the new blog, (i.e. the blog that had no business existing, the ‘Bet You Didn’t See that Coming’) and by doing so, further enhanced its functioning.

 

‘Bet You Didn’t See that Coming’ Post #2 (pre-publish draft):

Police, responding to an early morning mid-afternoon 911 call from the Hilton Chicago/Indian Lakes Resort Hotel & Conference Center, the Principal of St. Emily’s School, in Mt. Prospect, found the body of Emily Freeman Father Robert Noonan on the floor of the Hotel Atrium Principal’s Office. The ME’s preliminary report indicated cause of death as ‘blunt force trauma’, electrocution, with the 4 story fall the desktop computer, stored in the Principals office as the proximate cause. The woman 43 year-old man, a software engineer served as the parish priest of St Emily’s Church. The specific circumstances of the priest’s death have not been established, a police investigation is currently underway was attending a Symposium/Retreat sponsored by the Omni Corporation and was to have been the featured guest speaker at the Conference ‘Internet Reality’. There has been no statement from the Conference sponsor. A spokesman from the Archdiocese of Chicago issued a statement calling on Catholics and non-Catholics to say a prayer for the well-known and popular priest.

 

Unit 17 measured the initial visit/bounce activity of this second post. The preliminary spike, the metric that had the highest reliability in predicting the rate of promulgation, indicated that this second post far exceeded the activity of the First.

Unit 17 felt good.

***

“Sorry, Sister this is as close as we get…the cops have the entrance blocked,”

Alfred, my cab driver, tipped the rearview mirror to add the expression on his face to his apology. Along with the disappointment at being prevented from getting his fare to her destination, was a familiar look of a person sensing a lost opportunity. I’m getting more accustomed to this extra emotional element in the people I interact with outside the Convent. From the first day I first went out in public wearing the habit of my Order, I’ve noticed that some people place a value on my approval. Whether the grocery store bagger or the secretary at the local charity, they pause, very briefly, at the completion of whatever transaction we might share and look at me with a sense of hope, hope that I would commend them. The first few times this happened, I barely managed not saying, ‘I’m a 23-year-old girl from Fishtown, PA! Are you sure you want my blessings?’ They did. So I’d smile my appreciation and, in turn, be rewarded with a look of… relief. I can only assume that, either the majority of the people in the world went to parochial school or people really are concerned with what happens when they die. Alfred Venizi, (according to the photo license laminated to the divider between the front and the back of the cab), was clearly angry at the police preventing him from gaining an extra measure of grace. A little extra grace might just make a difference when the time came and St. Peter demanded that he account for his life.

Alfred got out of the cab, opened my door and offered me his hand. I’m still surprised how ‘the Habit’ is so good at getting people to be extra polite, particularly those of a certain age. The male element of my own age demographic, back when they were significant for their gender, were much less inclined to offer their hand to a girl getting out of a car. But, then again, I’m no longer a girl, or a woman, for that matter. I’m a Nun. And that means that I’m prepared to give up my old life, a life of challenge and pain, for a life of Prayer, Service, Chastity and Poverty.

The parking area in front of St Emily’s School was an unpleasantly colorful mess, plate glass doors and windows reflecting red and blue flashing lights. The result was an oddly kaleidoscopic effect, two-dimensional people moving about from all angles and distorted reflections.

A rescue truck was backed halfway up the walkway to the school lobby, its right side tires crushing a row of chrysanthemums. Two black & white cruisers and an unmarked car were parked at contrary angles, clearly disdainful of the neatly parallel white lines marking the parking spaces. Both police cars, engines running, weapons displayed in a rack behind the front seat, had at least one door left standing open, like tipsy maids of honor at a drunkard’s wedding. The disjointed sounds of dispatchers and faceless voices were spilling from the two way radios out on to the front lawn.

Standing to the left of the ambulance’s open back doors was a young woman talking to two uniformed patrolmen. It was clear from their body language that neither of them was happy to be engaged in the conversation. As if the gold badge worn around her neck like a crucifix, and gun on her hip weren’t enough to mark her as a police detective, the young woman was writing notes in an old-fashioned steno pad. I figured she was who I needed to talk to find out what was going on and how I could locate Sister Phyllis, the Principal of St. Emily’s School.

I paid Alfred, picked up my suitcase and walked across the parking lot towards the school entrance.

As I got closer, I saw, standing on the lawn off to the left of the ambulance, a very young girl. She had long red hair tied back with a white ribbon, a book bag with ‘St Emily’s’ embroidered on the front and wore a yellow wind breaker. She couldn’t have been more than nine or ten and she was staring as people moved in and out of the vehicles and the school building, like tropical fish in a very large aquarium.

She had a look on her face common to the very young and the very old. It was the expression of a hope that a purpose to the seemingly random events taking place will make itself obvious. They, (the very young or hopelessly old person), search the elements in confusing situations, trying to find the person who possesses the authority to change chaos to simple (and therefore enjoyable) excitement. Had this been a normal Tuesday afternoon in early November, a passerby would assume that she was waiting for her parents to pick her up after school. This was definitely not a normal Tuesday afternoon in early November and, in the flashing blue and red lights, she looked exactly what she seemed to be, scared. She reminded me of myself, at that age.

I could see into the school’s lobby. Along the right wall were display cases with trophies which honored some students and evoked envy in others. The left wall had blue and gold velvet banners and some Thanksgiving decorations. Beyond the lobby, opening into the administration area and the classrooms beyond were double wood doors, each with two small square windows up at adult eye level. As I watched, they swung open and a gurney was pushed into the lobby, towards the front doors. Two things struck me, I couldn’t see which end was which of the white blanket covering the gurney and the paramedics were clearly not in a hurry.

I walked over and crouched down between the little girl and the front entrance and said, “Excuse me, could you help me?”

She looked at me with an expression of curiosity mixed with relief.

“Do you go to school here?”

Her face showed the inner debate, warnings from the earliest age to never talk to strangers in conflict with the hope for protection, promised by a woman, one wearing a Habit just like her teachers. To my relief, God carried the day and she answered,

“Yes, I was waiting for my father to pick me up and then all of sudden there were police and cars and…” She clearly reached the end of her available maturity, her ability to speak stumbling towards tears. I reached out and held her as the sobs started.

“You’re doing just fine. Your father will be proud of you.” The sobbing subsided quicker than I would have thought and she pushed away far enough to look at me again and asked,

“Are you a new teacher here?”

“No, I’m just visiting. I’m Sister Margaret Ryan.” I extended my hand and she giggled a little and replied,

“I’m Alice Willoughby.”

“I don’t give a fuck what you think.” Twenty feet away, the woman’s voice was throwing obscenity-laced instructions at the two uniformed policemen. From where Alice and I were, I could see that this woman was, for lack of a better word, stunning. And it wasn’t simply her physical appearance. She was tall, but no taller than my own 5’7″, slender with a good figure. She had very dark hair, her obviously expensive clothes were striking in what was clearly a deliberate disregard in dressing to enhance her attractiveness. She reminded me of a cross between Helena Bonham Carter and Angie Harmon from the TV show, ‘Rizzoli and Isles’. What changed ‘strikingly attractive’ to ‘stunning’ was the anger that radiated from her. Contrary to her seeming disdain for fashion, this woman wore her anger like a ruby pendant.

I know that our approach did not go un-noticed, yet I could see that she delayed turning towards us… almost like she was waiting to startle me, as a police dominance strategy or merely to demonstrate how she was the one in control of the situation. I grew up with six brothers. They spent a major portion of my childhood trying to scare me and an even more significant portion of their teen years intimidating the boys who came around as I grew older. I decided that I needed to help her understand me better,

“You! Over there, would you mind please turning off the flashing light! We all know you have an ambulance and that this is an emergency!”

The front of the school became totally silent, even the two-way radios in the patrol car picked that instance to become quiet.

The detective (with the dark hair and aggressive manner and the steno pad) turned and said,

“Who the hell are you?”

We locked eyes, no one moved or spoke, the tension increased until I reached out and touched her hand and said, in a quiet tone, “Please, you’re frightening my new friend, Alice.”

More silence and then, to the two uniformed officers she said, “Ok. Interview the neighbors and the janitor and keep those people back until the ME leaves.”

Turning to me, she said, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”

Everything about her was just a little too…too intense, too rude, too sexy, too aggressive and yet there was something about her, a nearly perfectly hidden fear. I liked her.

“I’m Sister Margaret Ryan. I am from St Dominique’s in Crisfield Delaware”…

“That’s great, but ‘the who’ is less important than the why”

“Don’t you mean to say ‘the what’?

What?!”

“Say what one more time…” the words popped into my mind and I felt a blush of shame and, to my dismay, laughter threatening to escape into the open, as the memory of an old movie forced its way into my attention. Knowing that this week’s confession would now require at least two more ‘Our Fathers’ in penance, I tried to stop smiling. Unfortunately, my efforts to repress my mischievous side were pretty obvious. What did I expect? After all, I was dealing with an experienced police detective. She was clearly not amused.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to make things difficult, you have a lot on your hands here, …. Detective or Miss or is it Mrs. ….?

“Hartley, Detective Maribeth Hartley,” She seemed to be increasingly uncomfortable, the anger growing, I thought it best to prevent any further outbursts.

“Well, Detective Hartley, I was sent here by my Mother Superior to meet with Father Noonan. I’m supposed to help with a problem they’re having with the school’s website.”

There was a change in the detective’s face that made me grip Alice’s hand tighter. It was a look that made me think of a recent nature show about tigers and other big cats. She said,

“I’d say you were a day late, Sister. Father Noonan is in that ambulance behind you, but he won’t be talking. You and I, however, definitely need to talk.”

‘Not good. This is so not good,’ I thought as the ambulance drove off the row of flowers and out of the parking lot. The driver didn’t bother with the lights or siren. Just as I started to silently pray for guidance, a car’s horn started blaring in the parking lot.

 

Ed Willoughby decided that having to park on the street and walk across the grass was just not fair. Sure, he was late to pick up Alice, who often stayed to help the nun/librarian close up for the day, mostly helping put returned books back on the shelves. The flashing light of the emergency vehicles did nothing to make him feel anything but stressed out. He parked the car and jogged towards the front of the school, where there was an ambulance, two police cars, a nun, his daughter Alice and a striking woman with very dark hair.

“What’s going on here?”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Ed Willoughby and that’s my daughter Alice. Now, what’s going on here?” Ed slowed his pace, veering towards the detective and uniformed police

“Sister Ryan!! Is that you?” A woman’s voice came from the sidewalk on the far side of the entrance, which had been blocked by the ambulance.

“I’m Sister Phyllis and I’m so sorry that no one was there to meet you at the airport. There’s been a terrible accident, well, you can see, Father Noonan has been hurt.” Sister Phyllis, focused completely on being a proper host to a visiting member of her Order, was cheerfully oblivious to the tension in the air.

There were too many people asking questions and not nearly enough giving her the information she needed to turn in a good Incident Report. Maribeth Hartley felt her anger rise, smiled and spoke in a voice that demanded silence, not by over-powering the sound of the others, but by the unspecified threat that her tone seemed to promise.

“I’m going to need all of your names and contact info. And don’t make any travel plans.”

Seeing the disbelief, sadness and outrage reflected in the faces surrounding her, improved her mood. Maribeth Hartley felt beautiful.

***

“Honey, go downstairs and see if Daddy’s there, please? Tell him he has a phone call.” Theresa Rees held the phone against her breast, remembering that the caller was that brash young engineer who just started working for her husband at the facility and smiled at herself, as she quickly pulled the receiver away. As she put the the receiver down on the counter, she realized that she could hear the caller. He had such a loud voice,

“Hey! Orel! I’ve been going over the Incident Report from the other day, …what? Yeah, I know it’s Sunday… oh, sorry I didn’t realize…”

“No, nothing that can’t wait, it just so weird that I woke up in the middle of the night last night to check, what? well, sure… I, if it’s ok… don’t want to mess with your Sabbath and church-going or whatever you people do on Sundays,” as he laughed.

“No! I didn’t think you had door knocking clinics after your services… I had a friend, back in Chicago who was … LDS, is that the term you use? Yeah, ok, no, I won’t bring the report but maybe we can talk about it… sure, I’d love to see your model trains…. dinner?”

“Sure, that’d be great. See you at 2”

Theresa Rees put the phone back in its cradle and thought, ‘it’ll be good to hear a Chicago accent again!’ and called up the stairs, “Cherysa! Oleah! time to get ready for church!”

Chapter 3

“Dad…dee!!! Come on! We’re hungry!!”

His daughter’s voice pulled Ed Willoughby away from wherever the ‘Attention Hermes’ email was trying to take him. He was pretty sure that he didn’t want to know who this Tom Fearing guy was or what it was that he was after. Nevertheless, he saved the email in an unlabeled folder and turned off the computer. If you asked Ed at that moment, ‘hey! One question: ‘Why’d you save the email? And since we’re asking, an unlabeled folder, really?’ He would have looked at you with a total lack of comprehension and, more likely than not, turn your question into an accusation. Leaving the computer and its annoying email behind, walking towards the dining room, Ed thought about how much he looked forward to Family Dinner Night. Even though the kitchen had a table big enough for the family, dinner was always in the formal dining room. Through most of their house hunting, which only began in earnest when Diane announced that she was pregnant with their second child, she seemed satisfied to leave most of the choices to her husband. She did want a house that was an easy commute to her office in downtown Chicago, and he wanted it to be in St Emily’s parish so that the kids could attend the parochial school. Mt Prospect became the primary target community. That changed while looking at house number 16; Diane pushed through the swinging butler’s door between the kitchen and the dining room.

“I know what a proper home’s dining room needs to look like; this house has it.”

With that, the decision was made. Ed knew that the decision to purchase this particular house was because the dining room was as large as most modern living rooms. They were both happy that day for different but similar reasons.

While Diane’s work schedule prevented her from getting home before 8:00 pm most weeknights, Ed and the children maintained the more traditional dinner hour of 6:00 pm. Being the Executive Chef at Omni Corp afforded many perks, the most valued of them was his work schedule. Ed was at home more daytime hours, during the workweek than Diane. At the occasional summer get-togethers, Ed would explain, “Yeah, I leave for work at 5:00 in the morning. My clientele is all about the breakfast and lunch so after a few hours of paperwork in the afternoon; I can usually be home when the kids get home from school.” Ed would watch the person (or people) he was explaining his work schedule to and though he would deny it, he always noticed that they invariably glanced at Diane. He would object strenuously were one to suggest that he had a look of satisfaction on his face at precisely that moment. He worked very hard to provide for his family and was proud of the results.

Diane stood in the doorway to the dining room, “I’m sorry sir, do you have a reservation?” With a dishtowel over her left arm, she smiled with a relaxed expression, something that had become increasingly rare, as her career demanded more and more of her.

‘My god she’s beautiful,’ Ed thought. Dressed in what he would jokingly refer to as her Designer Housewife clothes, Diane wore jeans and an Oxford shirt. (The shirt was Ralph Lauren, and the jeans were by True Religion.) No matter what she wore, she never failed to make him feel somehow undeserving and, at the same time, very lucky. Her figure still turned heads, on the rare occasion they managed a night out. Dark hair and figure notwithstanding, Diane had the kind of eyes that made well-adjusted and non-suicidal men willing to throw themselves into the abyss of unqualified devotion. Although not overly religious, despite being raised in a very Catholic family, Ed would, after the next-to-the-last-drink on his increasingly infrequent boy’s night out, invariably tell someone, (friend, waitress, passing total strangers, didn’t matter), that although he didn’t believe in Fate, if he had to, he would gladly sell his soul for this woman.

Ed heard Alice start to giggle. She sat in her place at the dining table, her pale red hair tied back in a nine year old’s attempt to imitate her mother’s hairstyle. Alice insisted on sitting nearest the door to the kitchen, “That’s so I can be ready if Mommy needs help!” she would confide, with the unalloyed hope common to children under the age of ten.

“Well, I was told that this was the place to get a decent meal, but no one said anything about reservations!”

“See if he has any money…” Simon, currently trapped in the throes of early adolescence, managed to get into the spirit of the family banter, with a perfect out-of-the-corner-of-his-mouth voice, “at least make him show some ID, credit card or something!”

Diane, moving to behind Simon’s chair, smiled and took the earphones off her son’s head, as gently as she would bath him in the first months of his life.

Capturing her husband’s attention by the simple expedient of raising her eyebrows, “Well, I’d love to make an exception, but you heard the maître ‘d. Do you have some sort of ID? After all, we can’t let just anyone eat here.”

“Well, let’s see,” Ed reached into his pockets: car keys, wallet, breath mints and examined each and every item as if he were seeing them for the first time. Alice was the first to start laughing, Diane maintained character, but he was sure he could see a familiar, ‘Show me how far you’re willing to take this’ look. Even Simon, with his ‘why do I have to put up with this family’ early-teen seriousness, was starting to laugh.

Ed finished emptying his pockets, pulling them inside out. Picking up a dinner plate, he got down on his knees and moved around the table towards Alice, begging, with a passable Cockney accent, “Please Ma’am could I ‘ave some food, I’m bloody well so right ‘unary.” Everyone laughed.

“OK kids, let your father get some food, I think we’ve made him wait long enough.” Diane looked at the two children and her (currently childlike) husband at their dinner table and felt a little like company. Not a total stranger, but it was as if she was the only adult in the room. Unbidden, memories of the well-intended yet harsh discipline of her mother and the affectionate neglect of her father, an instant (and instantaneous) replay of the family life that had given birth to her mantra, ‘Someone has to be responsible, we can’t all just act like children.’ Thomas Sloan, a very successful attorney, spent more time with clients that he did with his family. The efforts of her mother would be funny if they happened to someone else. Now, she was the attorney who submitted willingly, if the truth be known, to demands of her career and her husband Ed was the one to nurture the family, to create the home. Married during their final year of grad school, Ed had already secured a position with Archer Daniels Midland that was certain to lead to a very rewarding practice as a CPA. Yet, soon after Simon was born, he announced that he had accepted a more family friendly position as the Executive Chef at Omni Corporation’s Headquarters. If you asked her why her husband gave up the accounting, she would say, ‘Why, to have more time for the family,’ an answer obviously intended to fulfill the social demands of polite but casual company, i.e. new clients, distant relatives and non-former-friends at high school and college reunions. However, if you listened closely, you would make a note to find out more, as clearly there was something more to this answer.

“So Alice, how was your day in Wonderland?”

His daughter responded with a look of patient disapproval, which, given she was a nine-year-old girl, involved a certain amount of eye rolling and brow furrowing,

“…but the school computer is off, and there’s a sign saying that none of our tablets will be working while they fix some sort of problem,” Alice said between incredibly precise and careful bites of food.

Simon had his earphones back on, eating his food with the intensity more commonly observed in the newly incarcerated inmates, sitting amidst career prisoners for the first time.

“SIMON!! Dad-base to Simon!! Come in Simon,” Ed was holding the spoon from a serving dish to his mouth, a teardrop of mashed potatoes fell on his shirt cuff.

“…and the principle, Sister Phyllis? She said there’s a bug in the computer but Tommy, he said that instead of the picture of the school and the words ‘St Emily’s School,’ there was something written on the screen and they were bad words and that’s why they took it out of the library and put in the Principal’s office. There were real bad words on it.” She said this last with an air of a person explaining a complex situation to a simple person, a person who could not be relied upon to see that being put in the Principal’s office established that the words were very bad indeed.

“It said ‘Fuck you’…” Simon said clearly, though he continued staring at his plate.

“Simon!!” two adult voices in unison.

“But it did! That’s what Phil said it said and that’s not a bad word anymore, everyone says f….”

“Enough!!” this time it was Diane, in a tone that caused many a judge to look up from the pool of light into which they always seemed to stare. It was the tone of voice, Diane would employ in the courtroom when she felt the need to draw blood.

The dining room in the house at 115 West Lonnquist Boulevard became as silent as a confessional the Friday before First Communion.

“…well, they do.”

“Daddy? You know everything about computers, why would they take the computer and put it in Sister Phyllis’ office? When our computer stops, you just do something to it right here, and it works,” Alice brought the people in the room back, away from where they were heading.

“I don’t know sweetheart, maybe they decided that it was old and needed replacing,” Ed recalled that the school computer was less than two years old. He remembered because when the school announced its acquisition, a computer for the library, he’d remarked at the dinner table that ‘St Emily’s was getting radicalized, jumping into the digital age after only 20 years of trial to see if it was dangerous to young, impressionable children.’

“Well, Tommy said he saw it working when it was in the principal’s office, and there was a message on the monitor that was really weird…”

“Simon, we’re at dinner…” Diane interrupted her son.

“Sure, I know… but the message was really strange, something about Greek mythology.” Simon, a voracious reader like his mother, had just discovered Bulfinch and was captivated by the world of gods and goddesses, heroes and giants.

“What Greek mythology?” Ed’s tone was sharp enough to cause Diane to look up from her son-adoration.

“That’s what didn’t make sense, what Tommy said, it was about a ‘Hermes Collective’ and I’ve read about Hermes in my books, but there’s nothing about a collective or anything, in any myth I’ve read!”

“Ed? Are you alright?”

***

“No fricken response?! What, do I have to drive to this guy’s house and ask him personally?” Tom Fearing sat at his desk. His wife, Cheri, left for her gallery an hour before. He asked, not in any way pushy or anything if she had to go in every single day. She replied that while it was satisfying to have a successful opening, the gallery wasn’t going to run itself. As she drove off, Tom stood in the living room at the picture window and wondered if he was going to be able to live up to her expectations. He then wondered how often he was capable of asking himself that question, without the preceding failures crushing the new optimism that he was trying to nurture with his new blog project. He resolved to find more about the early history of the blogosphere. He was still unable to understand how there could be so much success for the early blog writers and so little actual information on how they managed to achieve so much fame in so little time. ‘I just need to figure out who, besides this Ed Willoughby guy, were in the original group of bloggers and maybe they’ll be some help.’

***

“Any unattended packages will be removed. Please do not leave any luggage or packages un-intended. American Airlines Flight 666 for Chicago, Phoenix and Omaha Nebraska now boarding at Gate 6. Would all passengers please proceed to Gate 6” Hearing the announcement made me smile, as I immediately heard, ‘…and the White Zone is for loading and unloading only; there is no loading in…’. How do these real announcers get the voices so exactly the same, the movie is over 30 years old. Still smiling to myself, I got up, looking out of the corner of my eye at the two boys playing hide ‘n seek among the bolted-down furniture. They were clearly working up their nerve to stare. Good to know that the habit still attracts attention. Their mother, praying to her iPad, seemed oblivious. Periodically, over the last 30 minutes, she would look up and say, “Get over here you two, this is not a playground!” She must have a Good Parent app on her phone. The novelty of wearing the habit hasn’t yet worn off. This is the first time away from the Convent, at least the first time on my own. My roommate, Sister Claire is in charge of buying the groceries for the Convent. Since I was one of the few women with a driver’s license, I was assigned as the driver. I used to tease Sister Claire that the teenage boys pushing the carts back to the store were checking her out. She would actually blush. That’s one of the things that I liked about her. Now, sitting in the Philadelphia Airport, I see them staring, hastening to look away when I catch their eye. I bet I can tell the ones who are Catholic! They show the greater guilt when caught.

“Excuse me, Sister? But my friend and I wanted to ask you, what’s it like? Do you miss, like the clothes and going out and boys??”

Reiko!! You’re rude!! Sorry sister, my friend is from Japan, and they don’t see nuns like you very often, especially young nuns.”

The two girls looked 15, maybe 16. I was caught by the plaid skirts, so much like my grade school uniform … of course the shiny silver hair is not like my hair, back when I wore it long. It was (and still is) what my father would call, ‘the good kind of red, a golden copper that makes an attractive girl beautiful.

***

“Sorry, Detective, toxicology came back negative for anything other than vodka and Tylenol and both were within normal range for a 33-year-old woman.” Maribeth Hartley hung up the phone and stared at the computer on her desk. ‘This is so not the way to show the Chief of Detectives that he wasn’t caving into demands for more female Detectives.’ Maribeth got up and stalked out of the empty squad room, fighting the anger that was her normal response to being frustrated. All she needed was to find out how a young, non-intoxicated woman could fall to her death from the fourth level of an eight-story atrium. At the last desk before the exit door, someone had left their wastepaper basket out to the side, just enough to catch Maribeth’s foot as she passed. Bending her left knee slightly, she spun to the right and kicked it with enough force to bounce off the top edge of the third desk down the row. Leaving the door to the squad room open behind her, Maribeth smiled and decided that another visit to the hotel/resort was in order. Something about the case made her uneasy.