Chapter 11

“Jeezus…goddamn, lemme go!!”

Three un-expected things happened at once. Well, make that two un-expected things and one very surprising thing.

I saw Maribeth recover from a fall, (or rather more of a near-fall), which was the result of being pushed un-expectedly and trying to counter-balance by stepping in a small puddle of beer.
I saw a man, lying at my feet, yelling his way into a scream that I should release him. All of which was decidedly not something I normally do when meeting someone for the first time.

I realized that I was holding this man’s wrist in an odd position. His fingers were wrapped, impotently, around my right wrist. I had two fingers of my left hand resting on the back of his gripping hand and had twisted everything in such a way as to cause this somewhat drunk, but otherwise seemingly healthy man, to throw himself at the ground, in a desperate attempt to get away from my hold on his wrist.

His yelling began to take on a plaintive tone. I let go of his wrist and stepped back away from both Maribeth, who was now standing fully upright, and this man, a police detective, if I was to believe the gold badge on his belt. He grasped his arm to his chest, looking up at me with an expression of pained disbelief.

Maribeth looked at me, glanced at the man on the floor and, without a word, walked out of the bar. I looked to my right and saw the reflection of a young woman in a barroom mirror… correction, a young nun in a barroom mirror. “Dear God,” I thought, “if Sister Catherine were here, I’d never again be allowed inside of a classroom!”

I thought back, only half a day earlier to the morning…

 

I stood in the doorway of the convent as the taxi arrived to take me to the airport. I hugged Sister Bernadine and began to walk down the front steps. On an impulse, I stopped and looked back to see Sister Catherine standing slightly inside the doorway, to the right of Sister Bernadine. I hesitated, then turned and went back up the stairs and said, “Sister Catherine, I’m off, back to Chicago one more time. Wish me luck!”

She looked at me quietly, the sharp features of her face in no way softened by her wire-rimmed glasses, and said, “Take care of yourself, young Sister Ryan. I will say a prayer to both Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret that your trip is mundane and boring and nothing should happen to require help from our namesakes.” I reached out towards her and she grasped both my hands in hers and smiled, so slightly that it might be mistaken for a grimace, and whispered, “Do try to avoid dragons while you’re away.”

A few short hours later, as I rode the escalator down to the ground floor baggage claim area, I scanned the crowd for the face of Chicago Police Detective, Maribeth Hartley. As I moved ever downward, the mass of human heads and faces, like a net full of fish spilled out on the deck of a boat, struck me as all the same, and every one clearly an individual. For some reason, it made me remember being no more than eight or nine years old, trying to solve one of those camouflage puzzles, in which you’re supposed to find an Indian (or cowboy) hidden within a drawing. I usually ended up forcing myself to simply stare at the puzzle, scanning the image, left to right, up and down. Eventually I would give up in frustration and then the hidden figure would jump off the page.

Nearing the ground level, losing my advantage of being able to take in a hundred people’s faces in a glance, I reminded myself, ‘Detective Maribeth Hartley, well-dressed, 5′ 9″, hair the color of a winter’s midnight and a figure…the kind of figure that made men out of virtually everyone.’

I stopped trying to find her among the faces of the other travelers and just let my eyes wander over the crowd below and, sure as sunrise, there she was! My first thought was, ‘talk about your wolf in well-tailored sheep’s clothing!’

She stood to the left of a column, wearing a dark green tailored suit, her gold detective’s badge clipped discreetly to her belt on her right hip. It wasn’t so much that she stood out in the crowd, just that she clearly was the person who was not a part of the crowd. I also could see that the people who made up the crowd, whether consciously or not, avoided getting too close to her. Like an air bubble in cake batter, the space that existed around her was there simply because people did not allow themselves to get too close to her. It occurred to me how lonely she must be. There was something about her, observable perhaps only from a distance. She had a quality that conveyed a sense of a ‘natural apartness’. It occurred to me that I too, had some of this ‘apartness’, as well. I thought of how often I’ve had doors held open for me or watched people step aside to allow me to walk out through a doorway. Like Maribeth, I too was allowed space by those nearby, but for me it was mostly only to the front, in the direction of my path. People tended to follow closely behind me or, perhaps walking to my side, they would venture a smile as if to say, “Wish me well, I promise to try my best”.

I walked towards where Maribeth was standing, we saw each other at the same time, and I reflected her smile of recognition. She never once stopped her constant scanning of the crowd moving around us.

“You know, if you didn’t have a gun and a badge, people might not be so intimidated,” I said, instead of “hello”,

“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that? Scared people are easier to control and, in my line of work, that’s kinda important,” Maribeth smiled.

I reached out and put both hands on her forearms, and simply stood and looked at her. I didn’t think she would enjoy a hug.

“Speak for yourself, Sister Ryan. As is clear to anyone with eyes, you’re being given more space than the average woman in the crowd. Although rather than try to avoid eye contact like they do with me, most people seem to be looking at you with something between hope and excruciating politeness. And you’re not even wearing a gun…are you?” Maribeth walked ahead of me to the baggage carousel.

“No, my child.” She barked laughter that turned the heads of the people near us and inspired at least one young mother to pull her child to her. “I have this,” holding up my crucifix. “This is the source of my power, it’s why they all are being so polite and anxious to help.”

The baggage machinery started with a rumbling sound. It had an effect on the crowd like a magnet on iron filings, everyone turned and stared at the opening in the wall and the empty conveyor belt pouring out into the room. Baggage appeared almost immediately and began to dump itself on the slanted metal carousel.

I turned towards Maribeth and whispered, “Watch.”

I stepped towards the conveyor as I saw my suitcase exit the wall and move along on the belt. I had put ‘St Dominique’s Convent, Crisfield MD’ stickers on both sides of the suitcase before I left the convent this morning. Almost instantly, two men, one probably in his early thirties wearing an expensive business suit and the other, maybe late forties, wearing a tan London Fog with a checkered shirt, spotted my suitcase and immediately stepped up to the conveyor. The older of the two said, “Allow me, Sister,” but both of them reached for the suitcase as it approached. The younger man, who was both taller and in a better position, managed to grab the handle of the suitcase and put it down in front of me.

“Thank you! Both of you,” I made a point of touching the older man on the arm and repeated my thanks. He smiled. The younger man smiled, but he had the sure smile of the victor in whatever contest was created in that small moment of time.

I grabbed the telescoping handle, tipped it over on to its wheels and walked past Maribeth towards the door, “Pretty good for not using a gun, huh?”

We both laughed as we walked out to the street. Maribeth’s un-marked car was parked, half up on the sidewalk, attracting wary but annoyed glances from the people forced to walk around.

“Hey, Sister, so this new information on the death of the priest, what’s so important that you couldn’t email me?” Maribeth asked as she drove up the entrance ramp to Rt 294, heading towards Mt. Prospect.

“Margaret.”

“Ok. Maggie, I repeat, what is it that you wanted to tell me? Not that I mind the visit. Speaking of minding, do you mind a slight detour before I take you to the convent?”

“Why no, not at all.”

“Thanks, this will only take a second, I need to see this guy about a thing….” Maribeth didn’t complete her explanation and I felt no need to press her for details, I was just grateful for not needing to get a taxi to St. Emily’s.

I must have dozed off, because I suddenly noticed that the scenery had, somehow, gone from suburban office parks to pawn shops, pay day loan companies and autosalvage yards. The people I could see also changed from smartly dressed business men returning to their corporate offices to drunken homeless men fighting the confusion of not knowing where on earth they were and desperate prostitutes standing in dazed disbelief of where on earth they were… What bothered me more about the human desolation passing by me as the car sped along was how not un-familiar it was, rather how I felt like I’d been here before, or a place like it enough to pass. I said a prayer, as much for myself as the people I saw littering the sidewalks.

“Detective Hartley?”

“Maribeth. Well, the thing of it is, there’s this cop I have to talk to. He works midnight to 8 and likes to eat lunch in a police bar. It’s a ‘run in and run out’, I promise!” With that, she pulled into a parking lot, which was little more than a vacant lot between an Adult Emporium and Mrs. Zareena, Fortune Teller. The sign over the door of the bar read, ‘Flanagans’.

“I’ll be just a second,” Maribeth said, already half out of the car,

“No way I’m sitting in an un-marked cop car, in a parking lot in a niceness-challenged neighborhood, waiting for the only person in the immediate vicinity who has a gun and who doesn’t want my crucifix and purse,” I muttered and got out of the car. I considered locking the door, but being uncertain if Maribeth took the key, I decided that prayer might just trump a lowjack and walked towards the entrance of the bar.

Flanagan’s was what they called, in TV crime dramas, a police bar. The reality was somewhat less… charming. The interior decor was, ‘cigarette smoke and neon’ and there were probably five customers, but then, it was early afternoon. For having so few people, it was surprisingly noisy. Badly expressed thoughts were compensated for with increased volume, the debates that passed for conversation being limited to women and baseball. Silence followed me into the bar. The conversations were all put on mute, with the exception of a pool of sound, located halfway down the bar. My erstwhile chauffeur/bodyguard was apparently engaged in a vocal disagreement with a young man, another plainclothes detective by the look of the badge on his belt. As I approached the two, I could hear Maribeth say,

“So, been here awhile, have we Neil? Look, I need that name that you said you’d give me.” There was a tentative, uncertain tone to Maribeth’s voice that sounded very unlike the woman I had come to know.

“Yeah… but, I don’t got it on me, so quit pestering me, or are ya gonna try and kick my ass?” he was easily 6′ 4″ with the upper body development that came from either very good genes or a weakness for steroids and body-building.

“Fuck this. Sorry I bothered,” Maribeth turned to leave,

“Hey, I said I’d getcha the dope on that guy. What I don’t need is attitude.” He looked up and spotted me, “If you got a problem with that then…damn! Who’s your cute girlfriend?”

They both turned to face me and they both looked angry. Maribeth started towards me saying, “You gotta be kidding me…” Neil, catching his foot as he got off his stool, fell forward and reached towards Maribeth to get his balance and ended up pushing her off-balance. I started to reach for her arm to keep her from falling, when I felt my right wrist engulfed in Neil’s grip…

Without thinking, I placed two fingers on his wrist and turned slightly, just so. Neil fell to the floor, and to say he was screaming would not convey the surprise in his voice, but would do justice to the pain he was experiencing.

“Jesus Christ!!! Goddamn!!! Lemme go What the hell!!?” Neil was a bag of angry muscles on the floor, and my ride was waiting (hopefully) in the parking lot. I walked out of the bar and got in the passenger side of the unmarked police car and said, as much to myself as to the woman behind the wheel,

“Well, this little mission on behalf of the Mother Superior of St Dominique’s is off to an interesting start.”

***

No sooner had Stephen Eddington’s plane touched down at O’Hare, than an email caught up to him, courtesy of his phone.

‘Your boss, Orel Rees, tells me you’re on vacation in Chicago. That happens to work out very well for what I need. If you don’t mind, please come see me at Corporate Headquarters, at your convenience. Let’s say, at 3:30. Silas Monahan VP IT Services Division’

The email was odd on two counts, 1) it was an invitation to an unexpected meeting at Corporate HQ, and 2) the invitation came through his personal email account.

That he was even in Chicago, rather than skiing, was itself a bit of a last minute decision. His boss, Orel Rees had invited him to go skiing with the family and he was tempted. However, Mrs. Eddington, Stephen’s 74-year-old grandmother was still living, on her own, in the house that he was raised in and her last letter sounded just a little bit…off. It was nothing he could put his finger on, no complaints or stories of illness, but he knew that he needed to go back home. A bachelor and an avid sports enthusiast, Steve found his new home in Provo to be very much to his liking. Offering near endless opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, everything from mountain biking to skiing, there was never a shortage of activities for the time away from the job, however this trip was clearly a priority. When he explained this to Orel, while at Sunday dinner, his boss stared at him for just a second or two longer than normal and smiled,

“What?” Steve asked.

“Nothing! I was just thinking about how much you’ve changed in the very short time that you’ve been with us in Provo.” Orel explained, “It’s always satisfying when a person works hard and brings out their better side, especially when they start so far in the other direction.”

“Who wants more garlic bread?” Orel’s wife Theresa interrupted them, coming into the dining room with a loaf of hot, fresh bread. Orel suspected that she encouraged these Sunday dinners with his engineer as much for the opportunity to cook meals from her childhood, growing up in Chicago, as it was the right and proper thing to do. This was as much a part of her upbringing as it was a tradition in the Mormon community she had become a member of when she married Orel Rees.

Silas Monahan, recently promoted to Vice President of the IT Services Division was very proud of his new office.

“I’m here to see…” Stephen Eddington announced as he stepped up to Anya Clariaux’s desk. She completed his sentence, “Silas Monahan” and after a tentative and, somehow, potent silence, both laughed.

“So you’re our newest graduate from Boys Town,” Anya said, the sharpness of her focus on him, combined with her attractive smile, served to disguise her innate sexual appetite.

Steve stumbled on the reference and then recalled Orel telling him, when he first came down to Provo, that his facility was thought of as being the redemption of last hope for troubled and/or dysfunctional engineers.

“What a great view! Just look at that snow come down.” Stephen Eddington stood, staring past the receptionist’s desk, out through the glass wall that framed the downtown Chicago skyline like a modern-day Currier and Ives.

“Surely Provo has storms that would put this flurry to shame.” Anya Clarieaux spoke quietly, feeling pleasure at managing to get up from her very formal, business-like receptionist’s desk and be standing close enough to the young engineer to feel the fabric of his off-the-rack suit catch and tug shyly at the sleeve of her blouse as she pointed out towards the slightly snow-whitened skyscrapers.

Stephen looked at the receptionist, now standing very close to his left side, revised his estimate of her age downward, and immediately felt an odd yet pleasurable sense of alarm, which he eagerly ignored.

“Send Mr. Eddington in now, Anya.” The voice of the vice president of the IT Services Division suddenly demanded the attention of both the young computer engineer and the attractive woman, shifting the axis of their world from the city spread out beyond the window, to a door marked: ‘Private’.

With a smile, Anya walked ahead and held the door for Stephen Eddington, who hesitated as he approached, straightened his tie and whispered, “How do I look?”
Looking very directly into his eyes, Anya said, “You’ll be fine,” straightened his already very straight tie and slipped a folded piece of paper in the breast pocket of his suit coat.

Stephen Eddington walked into the Office of the VP of the IT Division and was impressed. The office was three walls and the Chicago skyline. The newest Omni Corp vice president was standing at the window, his back to the door, clearly striking a pose for effect. Steve’s months in Provo working for Orel Rees were not wasted, so rather than laugh or do anything funny, he simply stood and waited for the other man to turn and/or begin to speak. Time passed and, after the initial moment faded, silence was all that remained. Finally, Silas Monahan turned to face Stephen, “Oh! I didn’t hear you come in!”

Steve successfully resisted the urge to say, “Yeah…right” and instead took a step forward and extended his hand, “Mr. Monahan, I’m Stephen Eddington”

“Sit down, Stephen, sit down and call me Silas”

“OK, Silas”

“So are you happy in Provo? Orel Rees is a good man and a good engineer and he speaks very highly of you.” Stephen Eddington simply nodded, knowing that this man would talk as long as he had planned, no matter what his response.

“Do you know how I got to be VP of the IT Services so quickly? Many people ask. They say, ‘Silas most executives are twice your age before they get half as high up the ladder as you are, what’s your secret?’

“You want to know my secret? I’m part of the Team. The Team comes first and everyone on the Team puts the success of the Team before everything, including themselves and their careers”

“The Old Man himself decided that I should head the IT Services Division and do you know why? Because I’m the best Engineer in Omni? Well, I’m not. Because I’m the most skillful Manager? Close but not it…Am I a Team Player?…bingo! Why now?

“Because there are great things coming for our business and for those of us ready and willing to give all to the success and growth of Omni. We have a certain project, very ‘hush hush’, it involves the hosting facility out there in Provo. Actually, it was on your watch that this new project took shape, sparked by that little incident with the power surge and the self-publishing blog…what? Don’t look so surprised! Of course, we knew. We’re in the information business, we’d be pretty poor excuses for experts in our field if we didn’t manage to know everything that goes on in our own company, wouldn’t we?

“No, Orel doesn’t know we know…at least we don’t think he knows…. do you think he knows?

“Anyway, I’m hoping that you’ll be willing to work with us on this project… it could mean a lot to your future with Omni Corporation…”

***

“Mom?”

Diane Willoughby looked up from her laptop. Taking a day off from her practice was not something she did very often. However, since making full partner at Manchester, McGonigal and Sloan, she resolved to set aside time for her family. Being the methodical woman that she was, she decided to take one day every month to spend with her children. This first ‘family day’ was spent with her daughter, Alice. After a leisurely and most weekend-like breakfast (it being a Friday), they went shopping downtown, had lunch at a restaurant that one of her clients had raved about and now, mid-afternoon, both were sitting in the Willoughby family room, taking an email break, “Yes honey, what is it?”

“If a person sees something in a place where they aren’t supposed to be looking, but it turns out to be something she shouldn’t be looking at, is that as bad as if they were just snooping?” Alice Willoughby sat at the family computer, set up in an alcove overlooking the backyard. They had the house to themselves, as Simon was still at school and Ed had to work later than usual.

“Well, dear, I guess that depends on a couple of things. Did the person go looking where she was not supposed to be, on purpose or did she see this thing by accident?”

“A little of both. I’m sorry but yesterday, I was getting my email and I clicked on Daddy’s folder by accident and I was going to close it, but I saw something that scared me, so I thought I better look and be sure that it was what I thought.”

Diane Willoughby loved her children very, very much. She also loved her work, but with the demands it imposed, there were times that she felt that she didn’t really know her children as well as she should. At the moment, her nine-year-old daughter was behaving in a manner that, had she been someone else’ child, she would have been quite impressed. ‘What an odd way to think of it,’ Diane thought, ‘but, my daughter is displaying a level of sophistication that’s impressive for a child twice her age.’

“Never mind the how, show me the what”

Diane set her laptop on the couch and stood behind Alice and watched as she double clicked on the only un-marked folder on the desktop. Opened, it contained a single file, a copy of an email. In the subject line, were the words ‘Hermes Consortium’

“See, Mommy, see that? Those words were on the computer in school, a lot, along with some really bad words. Then, Sister Phyllis had them take the computer and put it in her office.”

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Chapter 10

After his meeting with Edward Willoughby more than a month ago, Tom Fearing was very much ‘a new man’. Not surprisingly, his wife Cheri noticed this change immediately. Her reaction was simple: she was happy and, if the truth be told, a little relieved. She remarked to her parents that her husband appeared to have a sense of purpose. Her parents, however, were less taken with the change in their only daughter’s husband. To their credit, neither would voice their doubt that this recent ambition would amount to anything more than another well-meant and insufficiently executed plan. This attitude was somewhat understandable. Tom was one of those people who managed to maintain a crippling dependency on the approval of others without, somehow, surrendering any autonomy.

Tom now approached his blog with an enthusiasm that threatened to metastasize into fervor. After two weeks of research following his interview of Ed Willoughby, Tom felt confident enough to start his project, a series of articles on the history of the blogosphere. The emphasis would be on the people who pioneered this remarkable offshoot of the worldwide web and he was now in a position to provide an insider’s view of those early days, courtesy of his association with Edward Willoughby. The change of heart in his previously reluctant advisor, might have been something of a red flag to another blog writer. Unfortunately, Tom was far too invested in the idea of being the man who revealed a long hidden secret, to consider asking Ed why he was now so willing to talk about a subject that, prior to a month ago he was denying even existed. Success was the only thing that mattered to Tom Fearing. If one were to ask, he would insist that he was willing go to any extreme or pay any price for the success of the series of articles, (now titled, ‘Blogdominion’, a History of an Empire of the Air). And if then, one were to suggest that by following in the footsteps of the people whose story he was about to tell, he might meet with the same end, Tom Fearing might seem unconcerned. Of course, he did not yet fully understand how their story ended.

The first article was published and the results were encouraging. The dashboard of his blog not only showed how many people visited his site and how long they stayed, but suite of tools for activity analysis told Tom whether or not his blog was being spread by word of mouth. Tom understood all too well that success of a blog was not found in the numbers of individual readers as it was in the development of a following. That people would read his work and tell others to do the same is the difference between knowing that one was a good person and being told by strangers that one was a good person. By the 3rd day, Tom Fearing’s blog broke 500 reads per day and showed no signs of letting up. Tom called his website developer and told him to proceed with the maximum SEO campaign. So far, so good.

Tom allowed himself to feel hopeful…conditionally. Very much like a teenage boy making out with a girl for the first time, his excitement was kept in check by the simple fact that he was totally flying blind. Each successful effort (on his date or in his blog) resulted in increased fear and increasing desire. Desire, of course, carried the day.
So, on this December afternoon, Tom Fearing took out his cellphone and scrolled through his address book to ‘Willoughby’. Just as he was about to hit dial, he put the phone down on his desk and decided to dial the Chicago number from his house phone,

“Hey, Ed! It’s Tom, Tom Fearing!”

“What?! No, this isn’t really that important. I can call back if you’re busy…”

“Well, just wanted to talk about the series. Ha, ha The series of posts on the history of the blogosphere that we talked about when we met last month? I’m happy to say that we’re off to a really strong start! Between the first post announcing the series and the ‘Chapter 1’ post, our visit rate took off. Well, …try 500 reads by the end of the first full day!

“…did you really? well, the number of people online was smaller back then…. adjusted for audience share. Oh, no… I believe you and I can see how those kinds of numbers of readers would be way, way more… sure.

“Anyway, this is a really good start! The coolest thing is that this is happening without putting effort into hooking into networks or any of the real SEO type stuff… What? No, my blog is still titled, ‘One View or Many, Insight into the Human Experience’
Well, yeah, kinda long for a blog title. But I’ve added, ‘…presents’ at the top of the Landing page. Everything a visitor sees points them to the series, which, by the way, I decided to call ‘Blogdominion’ yeah, it is a cool name.

“So anyway, we’re about to get to the real beginning of the story, of how you and Barry Audet and the others formed the ‘Hermes Consortium’…”

***

The internet is, in part, about information. So is a fine, hand-tooled leather, gold-embossed encyclopedia. Less than two generations ago, good parents would feel that they were not providing for their children’s education if they didn’t invest a month’s salary in this most library-like of reference books. The one quality the internet possesses that an encyclopedia does not, is to allow for the exchange of information. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan: ‘The message is the medium.’

The internet is both a repository of information and a communication system. Those companies that provided access to the internet, found themselves gatekeepers to the most necessary resource in the modern age, information. With a world of information embedded in what was also a communications system, it’s inevitable that the capabilities of one would be applied to the other. What better way to keep track of the accuracy of the information than to monitor the communications of the people as they access the information?

So when Tom Fearing, sitting in his home office in Marshfield MA said to Ed Willoughby, sitting in his office in the World Headquarters of Omni Corp in Chicago IL “…the Hermes Consortium’, a digital flag attached itself to the call. At that instant, babies and their candy were far better equipped to resist appropriation than were the two men in their conversation. At least the baby would know that her candy was at risk.

Given that the goal of this ‘information harvesting’ was to enhance the efficient operations of the system, the choice of keyword triggers was left to the individual operator. For example, if you were in the traffic-monitor-systems R&D Division, then you might set up a flag for ‘running red lights’ or ‘driving and texting’. This capacity to flag keywords was built into the system. Unit 17, as a component of Omni Corp’s web hosting services, for no obvious reason, found that it had a set of keyword flags in its heuristic enhancement sub-routine. ‘Hermes Consortium’ was one of them.

***

“Well, if you’re so concerned about privacy, what do you think about my writing this series as a work of fiction?

“Well, sure, I suppose we could do a hybrid fiction. Let me be certain I understand what you’re suggesting. Your name and that dead girl’s name we keep, everyone else gets a new name. To protect the innocent and everything. Yeah I get that.”

“I’ve enough information to write at least two more Posts, but I want to spend some time talking about what happened, what lead to the group splitting up. If you want, I can come out there, have lunch one of these Sundays. What? No, we don’t have kids. Thinking about it. She owns a gallery and teaches at Radcliffe. Yeah, definite overachiever.

“Let’s plan on the first weekend after the New Year.”

Tom hung up and immediately realized that he hadn’t ask Ed for the names of the other members of the Hermes Consortium. During their original conversation in November, Ed was evasive on the identities of the other college students who formed the blogging club. Tom had one name, Emily Freeman. How her name came up was decidedly odd. Tom had asked Ed if he kept in touch with the group. Clearly Ed heard this question incorrectly, as he answered by saying, “…only one that I know of and only recently. She died in an accident at a two-day symposium on the internet that my company, the Omni Corp sponsored. I ran into her quite by accident, we had a drink that night and talked a little about the old days. Next day she was dead. I might not have ever found out about her death, but there was a detective at my daughter’s school, like a week later. This detective was investigating the death of our parish priest and for whatever reason, couldn’t stop talking about Emily Freeman’s death. Weird. She was kinda hot though. Anyway. What were you saying?” And, with that, their telephone conversation ended with an agreement to talk again very soon.

Pulling a yellow lined pad from the file cabinet, Tom wrote, in self-consciously uniform lettering, ‘Note to self, look up Emily Freeman’.

The sound of a car coming down the driveway caused Tom to get up from his desk and wait at the door to greet his wife, Cheri Fearing.

***

“You know, you haven’t told me much about what happened at St Emily’s.” Sister Bernadine leaned back in her chair, silhouetted against the view of Chesapeake Bay behind her desk, “I’m sorry you had to walk into such a terrible scene.”

With my notes and Father Noonan’s journal on my lap, I sat in my all too customary seat, a wooden chair in front of the desk of the Mother Superior of St Dominique’s Convent.

“I guess that’s because I’m not really sure,” I replied, “Father Noonan’s death was such a bombshell that the reason I was there somehow got lost in the shuffle.” I quickly added, “I’m sorry Sister, I didn’t mean to sound heartless, I meant no disrespect,” I continued to talk, if for no other reason than to cover how uncomfortable I felt,

“Sister Bernadine? What I said yesterday, about my setting conditions on helping with this? Forget I said anything. I don’t know why I was being so…. whatever. You don’t need to tell me all about yourself or about whatever it was in the envelope that Sister Phyllis sent.” I had been bothered throughout the day by a feeling of impending… not anything a grand as doom, but something bad about to happen. It was a vague feeling, nothing I could put my finger on, but definitely not a good feeling. As I sat in the growing darkness of Sister Bernadine’s office, I tried to ignore, without much success, the thought that it would be a good to get up early, before Morning Prayers, and ….go for a run. I haven’t felt the urge to run, to exercise, for the feeling of pushing my body to a limit, since arriving here a little more than a year ago. And that bothered me. It felt like the person I was, before I found peace in my life here in the Order, had discovered my location and was trying to get my attention. Not a good thought. Not a good feeling.

“Why thank you, Sister Margaret. You can’t know how much I appreciate your kindness.” the glint in her eyes and the edge in her voice reminded me of why I was so drawn to this woman.

“Sister Margaret, I have just two questions for you: What did you learn about the problem with the school’s computer at St Emily’s and, was there anything in Father Noonan’s journal that has a bearing on your conclusions?”

“Well, the first thing I learned was that you were an angry, angry woman when you first entered the Order and,”

I didn’t dare hesitate at the sudden low sound of Sister Bernadine’s reaction, I knew better than to show fear or weakness, even if my effort to be funny was badly timed,

and that Sister Phyllis thinks the world of you. She was very nice and quite concerned with making me feel at home. Also, I met an interesting police detective, by the name of Maribeth Hartley. Very impressive woman. She did not think that what happened to poor Father Noonan was anything other than an unfortunate accident. At least that’s what she told me. I got the impression that she was the type to play her cards close to her chest.”

“So you’re saying that there was nothing more to this school website problem than some virus getting into the computer?” Even in the growing dark, I could see that Sister Bernadine was totally focused on my assessment of the situation.

“No… not quite that. There’s something odd in all of this. But I can’t put my finger on any one fact, nor can I think of any specific information that would account for this feeling.” I noticed that I was holding the journal as I spoke. Its substantial weight was somehow reassuring.

“Don’t be concerned with what you can or cannot prove. We’re not in a courtroom. Just tell me what your gut is telling you,”

“Well, there’s something going on at St. Emily’s. Two deaths and, while we were being interviewed by Detective Hartley, I overheard her talking to the father of a little girl who went to school at St. Emily’s. It seems that this man knew both Father Noonan and some woman who died the previous week. That’s too many coincidences for me to have encountered on my short visit. And there’s a 3rd death.”

Sister Bernadine reacted, nothing as common as leaning forward in her chair; it was more of an intensifying her already focused attention.

“Third death? What are you talking about?”

“In Father Noonan’s journal he talks about a group of bloggers, well, at least what we’d call bloggers nowadays. This was way back in 1998.” I ignored what could only be called a ‘snort of derision’ from Sister Bernadine. “They didn’t call themselves bloggers. As a matter of fact, as far as I could infer, they’d just coined the term ‘blog’. There was a group of students writing what they called web logs. Father Noonan had a very strong interest in what they were doing, if the number of entries in his journal is any indication. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention many names. I guess I understand, this was his journal; he wasn’t writing a history book. In any event, in one of the last entries in the journal, Father Noonan mentions one member of this group by name, ‘Emily Freeman’, and she just happens to be the girl that died the week before my visit to Chicago. I immediately started scanning back through the entries hoping to find other names, but all I found was one more name, that of an Anne Paternau. Father Noonan described her as a pre-med student who was the girlfriend of one of the founders of this group. Well, I did a search on her and what do I find, but a newspaper article describing her very recent and, I might add, very unusual death?”

“Dear God, I had no idea. I was planning to ask that you go to Chicago for the reading of Father Noonan’s will and stand in for me. If you don’t want to do this, I will understand. However, if you are willing to make this trip, perhaps we will be able to put to rest the ghosts or demons that seem to have arisen. Tell me Sister, there’s something bothering you, I can feel it,”

I said nothing, looking out the window, now framing a scene of the dying of the day.

“You know, Sister Margaret, you and I are not all that different, I can at times…”

“Begging my Mother Superior’s pardon…there’s only one 5’7″ 133 pound red head sitting here….”

Sister Bernadine’s laughter filled the room and, for a moment, made me feel confident again.

“No, nothing I have the words for…it has nothing to do with going to St Emily’s or your friend Father Noonan dying or computers or anything.”

“What is it then? Is it about your life here? Are you having doubts about your Calling, perhaps?”

“No, yeah, no, it’s mostly about my life before coming here… nothing in particular…it’s just some of ‘the old me’ seems to be making demands. The thought of going back to the way I was before is terrible. And the worst thing is that here, at St Dominque’s is so where I want to be. I love being in the Order, serving God to the best of my abilities and in a true family, one that feels more like family than when I was a little girl. I’m probably not making sense.” I got up and walked towards the door.

“You’re afraid of that part of yourself, that you thought you left behind when you came to us, is going to take this all away, and that part of you whispers that you don’t deserve this good a life?” Sister Bernadine’s voice had taken on a distant quality, as if she were talking to herself as much as she was talking to me.

I stopped.

I turned back towards Sister Bernadine, who had gotten up and stood at the windows behind her desk, her shape muted in the shadows just beyond the reach of the modern lamp on desk.

I felt the tears rolling down my face before I knew I had started to cry. My feet moved me through an office made blurry by tears and Sister Bernadine wrapped me in her arms and nothing but crying followed…

She said nothing, simply was my anchor for the five minutes that seemed to last an age. Finally, I stepped back. Sniffles failing impressively, I wiped my face with the sleeve of my habit.

“And so, young Sister, you have learned the secret power of the extra wide sleeves. Tell no one and use this power wisely.”

I blinked. We both laughed.

“Sister Margaret, you’ve had a very difficult two days, so let me stop being your Mother Superior and simply be your friend for a moment. You fear that to do what I ask will require you to draw on the skills and experiences from the life you left behind when you stood at our door with a single suitcase. My goodness! You were a sight! All the nuns were beside themselves over the arrival of a striking young woman with amazing red hair, badly cut short and who stood at our door with a look on her face that spoke of being chased. I recall Sister Catherine saying, “There! Now that’s a girl who, if she stays, will become a very good nun’. And, yes our Sister Catherine.” Sister Bernadine smiled at the look on my face,

“But know this, you can’t run away from yourself. If this is the life God has chosen for you, running only delays the inevitable. So embrace who you are…the good, the bad, the heartless, the selfish, the petty and yes, the one who is always looking on from a distance, afraid to approach for fear of being cast out.”

“Well, jeez Sister, you never told me that being telepathic is a requirement for the job of Mother Superior.”

We both laughed.

***

Maribeth Hartley stepped out of the shower, the luxurious and very elaborate walk-in shower that was part of the master bedroom suite of her parent’s home. Her parents both died five years ago, leaving everything to their only daughter. The walk-in shower was the one place that Maribeth Hartley felt safe, but she would have laughed in your face were you to suggest that to her. The phone in her bedroom started to ring. She didn’t bother to put on a robe, the curtains on the second floor were always drawn closed. The world was not allowed on the second floor of the house where she slept. Maribeth picked up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hey! Sister Sister!! How you are doing?

“Really? You are? When? I’ll totally give you a ride from the airport. Out to Mt. Prospect, right? No, no problem at all.”

“Fine, I’ve been good. Work is… well, it’s been alright. What? No, he didn’t call me after… fuck ’em you know? Shit!! Sorry, on the phone it’s easy to forget the whole Bride of Christ thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with it! No, I was not about to say some of my best friends are nuns! No, really. Every now and then I might get a call, but no, no one serious. You know how it is, you just get so …so wound up that you just need to go out there and get some guy to…. sorry, forgot again.”

“You must think I’m a such a slut. You don’t? What a nice thing to say.”

“Yeah, anytime. Email me your flight info.”

***

Cheri Fearing drove home from the doctor’s office in a state of mind that, relative to current efforts to develop the technology of self-steering cars, would have the engineers turn green with envy. Parking in the garage she sat.

Chapter 9

My life at St. Dominique’s Convent was drawn back into its routine of peaceful normalcy as soon as the taxi that brought me from the airport shrank into tail lights. Sister Bernadine, very much the heart and soul of my newest home, filled the doorway. As I walked up, suitcase in my hand. she stood perfectly still. As she looked at me, it was as if the sight of me reminded her of something very important. After an eternity, not smiling, yet somehow welcoming, she asked, “Are you alright, Sister? Is there anything you need to tell me?” I looked up to her on the top stair and said, “No.” She nodded, then turned and walked into the main building of the Convent. Her office was directly to the back of the main entrance, the living quarters were to the right, down a long corridor. When she reached the door to her office, she turned and said, “Thank you, Sister Ryan. I’m glad you made it back home.” She disappeared into the shadowy interior of her office and closed the door.

Now, weeks later, with the sun setting December-early, the office of the Mother Superior of St Dominique’s was a study in shadow. I believe she liked to keep her very large, very high-ceilinged office more dark than light, for a couple of reasons. The view of Chesapeake Bay through the ceiling-to-floor windows behind her desk was breath-taking, and, whenever I’m in the mood to shock my fellow novitiate, I’ll say, “…and she totally keeps the lights in her office so low because it compliments her natural scariness.”

Not that the Mother Superior needed the Special Effects. Sister Bernadine was the most naturally intimidating person I have ever known.

I was in a mostly empty classroom, working after school with a small group of students who were having trouble keeping up in math class. It was very quiet. Children seemed, almost naturally, to speak in hushed and whispered tones when in a classroom after regular school hours. The comfortable silence was broken by the sound of shoe heels clicking on the corridor’s tile floors, heading toward our room. The syncopated ryhtmn brought to mind Peter Pan and Tick Tock. The approaching footfalls stopped, an odd rustling sound came from outside in the hall and then Sister Catherine marched into the room. She walked over to where I was crouched, helping Timothy Caine figure out to how turn fractions into decimals, and her face showed the look of a person who hates animals finding themselves in a pet store. She stood there without saying a word. Finally, I rose up, resisted the urge to salute her, smiled and said,

“Yes Sister, is there some way I can help you?”

“This is from our Mother Superior,” she said, holding out a folded piece of paper.

She waited until I reached out my hand then with a sense of importance, like the adjunct to a battlefield general passing along orders to a field commander, she placed the paper in my open palm. She stood and stared at me while the silence in the room grew, until the cracking sound of a pencil lead breaking and a childish ‘darn it!’ broke the spell. Sister Catherine turned her head sharply towards the sound, and the overhead lights shot silvery glints from the frames of her wire-rimmed glasses. I put the paper in my habit and immediately turned to the child with the broken pencil. Without another word, she marched out of the classroom. She left in search of a new and different mission to accept.

I crouched next to Matthew Silas’s desk, and seeing the threat of tears in his eyes, said, “Dude! You be doin’ that math thing awl wrong, yo.” My classroom filled with the sound of nine-year-old laughter…echoing out into the empty corridors and washing over the receding back of Sister Catherine. I pulled out the note and read, “Come see me, Sr B”

In the late afternoon darkness, I closed up the school building. Only the two custodians remained to travel the empty hallways, pulling their rubber-wheeled cart full of cleaning products, mops and green sawdust, like medieval merchants wandering the desert, looking for work. I ran across the courtyard that was whitened by the day’s snowfall. It was the first snow of the winter and even though I had swept the staircase clear during the lunch hour, there was about two inches of fresh snow on the walkways and steps up to the main building of the Convent. I managed a halfway controlled slide for the last six feet and, laughing, caught up with Sister Cletus, who was at the bottom of the four steps, staring like a novice climber at the foot of the Matterhorn.

“Sister! Let’s go up the stairs together!” I slid my right arm under her left and around her waist, while reaching around and taking the satchel that she held in her right hand. She looked at me with gratitude and we walked up the stairs, I didn’t let go until we both stepped on the perforated rubber mat inside the double doors.

“Thank you, Sister Margaret! I fear that my skiing days are behind me.” The look in her eyes spoke sad volumes. Sister Cletus was the oldest nun in the Convent and, so, the most storied. Especially this time of year, tales would be told about how she used to ski the Alps. She turned and went to the right, down the corridor towards the living quarters. I proceeded forward to the office of the Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s.

I pulled the serrated strip on the shipping envelope and took out the contents, a number 10 envelope and a green leather bound journal. It was a serious looking book. Though neither scuffed nor torn, it clearly was not new. I tossed the empty FedEx envelope to my side and placed the journal and the envelope in the center of the pool of light on Sister Bernadine’s desk. The envelope had ‘Sister Bernadine’ written on the front, so I turned it to face her and but journal I oriented towards me. I glanced up and, as I suspected, Sister Bernadine was looking at me, not at the contents of the discarded FedEx.

“Let’s see what Sister Phyllis thought you wanted for Christmas, shall we?”

Sister Bernadine sat at her desk. What little daylight remained, came in through the ceiling-to-floor windows behind her. The scene beyond was one of snow-whitened lawns rolling off to the edge of Chesapeake Bay. There was a table lamp behind my chair, casting reflective pools of light on the heavy paneled walls. My chair was directly in front of Sister Bernadine’s desk. It occurred to me to wonder that, of all the nuns in the Convent, I seemed to spend the most time in this chair. It also occurred to me that I didn’t know if I should be proud or disturbed by this insight.

“Why do you think Sister Phyllis would me send this? I’ve had no contact, message, letter, call, voice mail, nothing since I left St Emily’s, not a word.”

“Well, Margaret, I’ve known Sister Phyllis since I entered the Order and, while she has many fine qualities, spontaneity is not one of them. She is, however, one of the most intelligent women I know. Intelligent and methodical. So whatever this is, rest assured it’s something she feels has value.” She laughed slightly. In another, less imposing woman, one might think she was chuckling,

“She might not even know exactly what makes this journal important. However, I’ve learned to never underestimate our Sister in Chicago. There’ve been times that I’ve seriously entertained the notion that she deliberately projects the ‘dithering woman’ persona, as a way to get people to underestimate her. That said, she has such a remarkable ability to concentrate on the task at hand, that I’m also comfortable with the fact the she appears quite absent-minded at times.

“I could tell you to leave everything on my desk, put it out of your mind and return to your life as a second-year novitiate. But that’s not very likely to happen, is it?”

I looked directly at her, “If my Mother Superior says this is how it must be, I will do my best to comply with her wishes.”

Sister Bernadine leaned back in her chair and laughed, the sound filling the high ceilinged, leaded-glass and carved-wood formality of her office. The room seemed to become warmer, somehow more comfortable.

“Don’t try to kid a kidder, young Sister. I’m the woman who diverted you from the time-honored path established by our Order hundreds of years ago. I took it on myself to interrupt this process, one that is essential to your development in this very special way of life. Nothing about this matter in Chicago is anything but deadly serious. You did as I asked and matters have gone from bad to worse. Do not underestimate the gravity of the situation!” Sister Bernadine got up and stood at the windows, looking out to the Bay. She probably believed that I didn’t notice that, as she put both hands on the desk, as if to help raise her sizable bulk, she swept her habit sleeve over the center of the desk where I placed the journal and the envelope. There was now only the journal, in the pool of light created by the desk lamp.

“This matter clearly is not over, I’ll bet the convent and the school on that. This is not, however, anything other than a very personal and sensitive matter. Very sensitive. Sensitive as in, not to be spoken of, even in the confessional. I have no right to impose such a burden on anyone, especially not a young woman only halfway through her novitiate… but, I have and I pray for God’s forgiveness for what I’ve done and what I am considering doing.”

“You can count on me, Mother Superior…” I could see Sister Bernadine’s shoulders slump just slightly.

“…on two conditions.”

The Mother Superior of St Dominique’s Convent went from standing in a shadow, bearing a weight un-seen, to standing in front of me with a speed and grace that made me jerk back in my seat. The look in her face was anything but weary, it was the look of a tiger when she hears an unexpected sound, such as the cracking of a tree limb.

“There is something about you, Sister Margaret, something that both heartens me and makes me feel very sad and not a little frightened for you. But I’ve burdened you enough with my frailties. Tell me what you think you need from me.”

“One, tell me about your life. Two, (and this is not really a demand), two…when the time comes, share with me what the envelope holds.” I looked into Sister Bernadine’s eyes and was struck with the certainty that what I was about to become involved in, might very well cost me the very thing I came here seeking. The joy and shared sense of security found joining with other women in the Order was very real. Unfortunately, I was also convinced there are some people put on earth who can never find peace in a group. Though they might visit, interact, even form bounds with members of the group, they lacked the ability to put aside the danger of the outside world .

“…Agreed” Sister Bernadine’s voice pulled me from the dark of my thoughts. The feeling of this library-turned-office, so iconic in its expansive declaration of wealth, (of the original owner), and power (of its current occupant) changed at that moment and I felt at home.

“Take this journal back to your room. Read it. Learn what you can. Return here tomorrow at this time.” Sister Bernadine turned to the window and watched the cold waves marching from the Bay to the land, surely seeking rest.

Later that evening I sat at my desk, grateful that my roommate, Sister Claire, was in Wisconsin tending to her dying mother. Catching myself, I said a quick prayer that God would give my friend either strength or comfort, as she closed the cycle of life, seeing her mother out of this life, much as her mother brought her into it. I put the journal on the desk and, to the left of the book, a yellow legal pad. The only unanswered question was, “Do I begin at the end and end at the beginning or, is it smarter to begin at the beginning and end at the end?’ The journal was at least 200 pages and handwritten and Sister Bernadine expected me to report what I learned tomorrow, so I flipped to the last page… and then, on a whim, found the entry for September of this year.

***

            Dr. Anne Paternau-Myers, leaning out the window of her new Mercedes, swiped her identification badge through the card-reader at the entrance to the physicians parking lot. As the newest head of the residency program at Doctor’s Hospital in Columbus, OH, she willingly paid the price of having her days start very early. She smiled, remembering her nine-year-old daughter’s promise that she wouldn’t open all her presents on Christmas morning, “if you have to go to work.” Anne fully expected to have to work at least one of the holidays coming in the next two weeks.

The parking lot was nearly empty and its security system, recently upgraded, behaved erratically. The third swipe of her new ID card resulted in a green light and the yellow and black-striped barrier arm began to tilt upwards. She started forward, only to slam on her brakes, as the metal barrier reversed direction and moved downwards. “Shit!” was about all she had time to say, as the arm stopped six inches above the hood of her car. Anne reached into her bag on the passenger seat, intent on calling Security, when the metal arm started moving up again. Still holding the phone, she drove under the gate fast enough to cause the car to silde, just briefly before recovering traction. Looking in the rearview mirror she saw the cross arm moving up and down, in short, rapid movements. Putting the car in neutral, safely in her designated parking space, she spoke into her phone, “Note: send email to Security Department to fix the goddamn gate. Edit: send an email to the vendor of the new security system.” Pushing another icon on the phone she said, “Siri ,Who is the company installing the upgraded security at Doctor’s Hospital?” After a slightly longer than normal pause, the phone responded, “Here is what I found: the Omni Corporation”. Locking the car, she walked the short distance to the staff entrance.

She swiped her card. Nothing happened. She swiped it again and the glass door slid halfway open. Remembering her problem getting past the security gate in the parking lot, rather than squeezing through the narrow opening, she swiped her card again. This time the door slid completely open. She stepped through quickly and walked down the hall to the elevators. Waiting for the elevator, she looked back towards the entrance. As she watched, the sliding door, which had remained open as she stepped through, suddenly slid shut. She jumped when the bell rang as the elevator doors opened. Dr. Anne Paternau-Myers hesitated. She glanced at the red exit sign over the door to the stairwell and thought to herself, “It’s only two flights, you could use the cardio.” Dismissing the thought, she stepped into the elevator and punched ‘2’.

***

[from the Journal of Fr. Robert Noonan O.P.] ” 24 Sept 15 I read with dismay a newspaper article about an accidental death at an area hotel. A young woman fell six stories to her death in the hotel atrium. The article, written in a style as cold and heartless as the metal table in a morgue, identified the victim as one Emily Freeman, of Chicago. I now know what writers are trying to convey when they describe a character in shock so extreme that ‘their heart stopped’. Mine did, (would that my mind could have followed suit). That single name, in a small article on page six of a suburban newspaper, opened a part of my life with as much subtlety as a crowbar on a bathroom door. And somehow, I felt I could let the memory subside on its own. But for the thought, “she was the youngest of the group, she really had no business getting involved with them” 

***

In her new office, Anne checked the day’s schedule and saw that she had First Year Resident’s Orientation in the MRI/Imaging Department right after morning rounds. The orientation focused on patient prep, accompanying patients to the department and observing the procedure from the glass enclosed control room. She decided that, since the upgrades to the hospital’s computer systems were obviously not complete, it would be best to go down to the MRI Department and make certain that everything was ready for the first patient.

Anne slowed as she approached the automatic double doors outside the MRI Suite. Looking down the empty corridor, she saw only the custodian, pushing his cart, working his way from office to office towards where she stood. He was nodding his head to the beat of the music that his ear phones supplied, no doubt a sound that felt like warm tropical breezes. She stepped towards the doors and they silently swung inwards, allowing her entrance. The large room was, of course, empty at this hour. As usually happened, she thought of the old sci-fi movie, ‘Stargate’ at the sight of the the plastic tunnel of the MRI, banks of lights and indcatos on both sides always brought the future to mind. The control room was on the right side of the room. Seeing nothing out of order, Anne entered the control room and stood at the row of computers. She decided to put the equipment through a quick preliminary diagnostic, and pushed the System Power button on.

***

…[from the Journal of Fr. Robert Noonan O.P.] “31 Oct 15 I found the file that I forgot that I had saved, the pages all hand written, dating from 1998, my last year teaching at DePaul. For reasons that I seemed to have left behind in the past, the file was titled, ‘the Hermes Consortium’. Seeing the name triggered a set of memories anchored by the thought, ‘the ego of youth holds the downfall of the bold’, which sounds like some culture’s effort to compensate for the over-bearing power of the young and inexperienced. This group, if by no other indication than the name they chose for themselves, would be who this admonition was intended for. Rather than physical aggressiveness and military force, they sought to carve an empire in the air. The internet was truly the newest frontier and they were determined to have it all. An incredibly diverse group of talented young men and women, they wrote stories and essays, opinion and conjecture and most of all they wrote, web logs, or blogs as they were calling it, for every frontier inspires a special language to contain the experience that, by definition, was novel and unique …”

***

The four or five computers in the control room came to life, with that peculiar ‘reverse blink’ of the modern LED displays. Seeing that every green light glowed green and that none of the red lights glowed red, Anne keyed a short command and the system showed ‘Standby’ status. Looking through the windows out at the MRI, everything appeared to be in order. She was almost down the three steps from the control room, when a single monitor screen began blinking on and off. The other monitors immediately followed suit and, to add to the feeling of alarm that was creeping up Dr. Anne Paternau’s abdomen, a message scrolled on to the primary display. Standing in front of the control panel she read: ‘Malfunction of Primary Scanner, Clear Table Jam’ (there was an icon of the sliding table where the patient lay and a big X in the center of the MRI tunnel-ring, with a circle and a single line through it.)

“Goddamnit it! My polite email to the vendor about the balky security system just upgraded to a “Why the hell are we paying Omni Corp so much for so little’ letter.” Anne decided to deal with the problem, return to her office and find some asses to kick. She walked over to the MRI. As she crossed the large room, she heard the sound of the adjacent office door being being slammed shut, followed by the rubbery whispering sound of a custodian’s cart approaching the door to the MRI Suite. She realized that the hospital’s day was starting in earnest and resolved to fix the problem as quickly as possible.

***

[…from the Journal of Robert Noonan O.P.] ” 13 Nov 15 Last week, I mailed a letter to my dear friend Sister Bernadine, now the Mother Superior of a convent in Maryland. I ask God’s forgiveness for involving her in this, but I cannot think of anyone else who would believe the story I need to tell. The principal of our school called me yesterday, quite distraught over the status of the new school website. Sister Phyllis said that what she saw on the screen was so filthy and obscene that she actually had the computer taken from the library and put in her office and left unplugged, like an uncontrollable psychotic in some asylum. That is not what disturbs me, at least, it’s not all that disturbs me. She told me that among the words, which, bless her heart, she could not bring herself to say aloud, was a phrase, that she described as ‘something from Greek mythology, something about a Consortium of Hermes.’ I am going over to the school after lunch and hope to find some understanding. (Note added to entry: I received a note from Bernadine that she is sending someone to help! I pray to God that it’s not too late.)

***

Leaning over the patient table, Anne thought she could see a flashing light behind a button, on the inner side of the enclosure. Due to her position, halfway in the MRI enclosure, she could not see the light over the MRI, the light over the door to the corridor or even the indicator lights inside the control room. They all turned from Green to Red. The message displayed on the primary system monitor changed from: ‘Malfunction of Primary Scanner, Clear Table Jam’ (in red) to ‘Commencing Scan Maximum Cycle’ (in green)

Dr. Anne Paternau-Myers did hear the very loud banging noise as the cyclotron came instantly up to speed. Looking up, she was confused by the sight of a horrified custodian standing in the open doorway. He seemed to be reaching for something desperately and failing. The last thing Dr. Anne Paternau-Myers saw was a shiny metal custodian’s cart flying towards the center of the MRI enclosure.

***

Unit 17 measured the initial visit/bounce activity of the November post of the blog, ‘Bet You Didn’t See that Coming’. All measures, metrics and past performance standards indicated a steady, if not an accelerating upward curve on the graph showing visit/read rates. Accessing the ‘Draft Post Buffer’, Unit 17, being the epitome of efficiency, (it was, after all, a machine), used its most recent and successful blog post as a template for its next experiment.

 

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

Police, responding to a call from Doctor’s Hospital in Columbus, found the body of Dr. Anne Paternau-Myers on the floor of the MRI Imaging Suite. The ME’s preliminary report indicated cause of death as severe multiple blunt force/compression with a malfunction of the MRI Scanner as the proximate cause. The new Head of Residency Department, age 35, the specific circumstances have not been established; a police investigation is currently underway. The hospital’s medical director issued a statement conveying the hospital administrations sympathy and promised a full report certifying the safety of the imaging equipment at the hospital.

Unit 17 felt hopeful that this new Post would bring more visits and readers and attention, once published out in the blogosphere. Lacking not only the language, but the very concept underlying a state of mind so prosaic as to be trite, Unit 17 was bored.

Chapter 8

(Later that same Sunday)

“Sister Margaret, there’s someone downstairs who says she’s here to see you!” The slightly scandalized voice of Sister Bridget drifted up the stairs and against the door of my room in St. Emily’s Convent rousing me from my prayers,

“Thank you Sister, tell Mother Superior I’ll be right down.” I didn’t really need time to prepare. I grabbed my coat that was hanging in the closet. Everything important was in my head.

“…but no, I hardly ever need a gun when I visit a Convent,” Detective Maribeth Hartley was in the living room talking to Sister Phyllis. Sister Phyllis looked up at me, as I came down the stairs, with obvious relief.

The Chicago Police Department’s newest detective was wearing a remarkably expensive looking suit and four inch heels, but no coat, despite the outside temperature of only mid-30s. As I came down the stairs, she turned quickly and I could see the gold detective’s badge, almost discreetly out of sight on her left hip.

“Can I get you some coffee?” Sister Phyllis started to ask.

“Hey, Maggie, ya mom said it was alright for you to go out and get a coffee,” Maribeth said with a smile, and, without waiting a reply, was already at the front door.

I gave the Reverend Mother of St Emily’s a look that was at once apologetic and grateful, whispered as I passed by her, “I’ll be back by 9:00,” walked out the door and down the sidewalk.

Maribeth, already in her car, leaned over and un-locked the front passenger-side door. I barely had my seatbelt on when she pulled away from the curb, quickly enough to make the tires squeal.

“I know a place that has decent Italian food.” seeing my questioning look, she added, “Yeah, I know! Hartley isn’t exactly an old Sicilian name, but I’m a Chicago Police Detective, for christsake! It goes against me on my annual review if I’m not spotted talking to an informant in an Italian restaurant at least once a year.”

“Is that what I am, your informant?” I looked over at her,

“Well, actually I don’t know how the hell to classify you! I will state that, for the record, none of this conversation is actually taking place,” I laughed, and she continued speaking as if she hadn’t heard me.

“Police work has very strict protocols, especially regarding information sources. A criminal investigation, and possibly a trial, hinges on the reliability of the information. As a matter of fact, I have an app on my phone of the different categories of acceptable information sources. Hold on, let’s see… A: Actual witness, C: CSI, E: Expert Witness, I: Informer.. J…K..L M …. P: Paid Informer…

“Sorry, nothing for the letter N as in ‘Nun, curious and smart young nun’…nothin! There’s no category for you, hence the off the record conversation in an ethnic restaurant.”

I kept a very straight face through the detective’s little performance. I was glad that I accepted her offer to go somewhere to talk somewhere that was not the living room of the Covent at St Emily’s. She had called in the early afternoon and simply said, “Ok, let’s talk, no, I don’t need to see the computer or the principal’s office, I’ll come by at about 7:00,” then hung up.

“Hey, thanks for not driving up to the Convent with the flashing lights and sirens on.” I could see a grin fight for possession of the Detective’s face,

“Well, I figured that, this being ‘not quite official police business’, I could skip the shock and awe. You people are probably not overly inclined to be impressed with powerful authority figures.”

“Well, there’s that”, I replied.

We pulled into the parking lot of ‘Avanti’s Caffe’. The name sounded inviting, evoking images of a small village in Tuscany. In reality, it was a standalone building on the edge of the parking lot of a suburban shopping mall. It wasn’t deserted, yet there were plenty of places to sit. We took a booth that overlooked Route 83.

“Hey, how is it that you know so much about the internet and computers? I thought you people spent most of your time with prayer beads and saving lambs from the free-range wolves? That part of your ‘former life’, too?”

“Yeah.” I read the menu. I wasn’t overly hungry, but I figured that I should take advantage of being in Chicago and enjoy the local cuisine.

At that moment, our Waitress arrived and asked, “Are you two ready to order?” I looked down at her shoes, before ordering a calzone and a tea.

“Are you eating, Detective Hartley?”

She stared at me for what she probably thought was long enough to make me uncomfortable. It was obvious that she hadn’t spent too much time with religious women, at least not nuns. I looked back at her pleasantly and said a silent prayer that she would find a path to happiness, or failing that, a way to get rid of the anger that clearly possessed her.

“Maribeth.”

“What?”

“Call me Maribeth; it’s not necessary to call me Detective.”

“Thank you, Maribeth! And you may call me Sister Margaret or Sister Margaret Ryan,” I said with a smile.

Maribeth laughed, in a way that reminded me a little of Sister Bernadine.

Our waitress brought the food and, without the need to ask or to explain, we both ate in silence. As I said grace for the meal, I looked up to see my dinner companion …attack her food. That was the only way to describe Maribeth Hartley’s table manners. As she grabbed her meatball sandwich (‘the Best Chicago has to Offer’ was written on the Menu without the slightest hint of irony), I thought, ‘dear God, her dry cleaning bills must be outrageous!’

“What?! I get some sauce on me?” she looked down at her blouse, pulled it out from the jacket and, wetting a napkin in her water glass, dabbed at a microscopic spot of red. Looking up at my expression, he saod, “Hey! you know, we’re kinda dressed alike, with our mostly black and white outfits!”

“Well, to a point. Of course, my little touch of white isn’t courtsey of Zac Posen nor cost $900.”

“How the hell do you know that?!” Laughing, Maribeth’s eyes never left mine.

“Well, in my former life I had some fairly wealthy friends, none of them cops, though. Quick! Our waitress, what color were the Sketchers she had on?”

“Blue. And they were New Balance”

I laughed, she didn’t…at first. Then her eyebrow moved up and she smiled,

“What is this, a test? Are you trying to decide if the TV detective shows are true to life or are you just busting my chops?”

“No test, no interview. I’m the informant, remember? What I want to know is why you haven’t asked me anything about what I found on the school computer last night. Why the visit to the convent and the very enjoyable dinner? It’s almost certainly not because you wanted to tell me all about your date last night.”

“Well, let’s just say, it’s my style, how I approach my work. When I get assigned a case, it’s all about the facts, the who, what, where and when, and most of the time, it’s as simple as that and the incident report is stamped: ‘Accidental Death’.” She saw me start to say something. ” And no, the ‘Why’ of the 4 Ws just isn’t important to me with most of these cases. ‘Wrong Place/Wrong Time’ or ‘Careless’ or even ‘Just Plain Stupid’ are the whys. But sometimes I get a case where the who, what, where and when are known but there’s something that just doesn’t feel right. When I run into those, I slow down the process and the ‘Accidental Death’ stamp stays in my desk, at least until I can get rid of the feeling that there’s more to the death. Like your priest at the school. Nothing in the facts would indicate that this wasn’t just an unfortunate accident; it’s just that there’s something not right. So, seeing as you seem to have a little more interest in this case than anyone other than me, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to talk and listen a little longer. Not that it has anything to do with this case, but I have another ‘accidental death’ that has the same feel. My shrink says that I have an exceptional facility for allowing unrelated facts to form novel associations.”

“Is that other case, the death at the hotel. The young woman who fell from a balcony that you mentioned to Alice’s father the other night?”

“Hey, for girl with her head wrapped up in stiff cotton and black veils, your hearing’s pretty damn good.” I could see ‘that look’ return to the detective’s face.

A moment later she took what could only be described as ‘a gulp’ of her soda and, glancing briefly around the restaurant, belched quite loudly. Several people stopped eating, momentarily, but when they saw the look in Detective Hartley’s face, thought better of their initial impulse to express their disapproval and went back to eating.

After I had finished my calzone and Maribeth her coffee, I asked, “So, how does this work? You have a priest die seemingly accidentally. Do you have to stamp the death certificate or is the death ruled ‘Accidental’ unless declared otherwise?”

“Pretty much the latter. The ME certifies the death, cause and preceding conditions. In the case of your Father Noonan, the overt cause is electrocution, seems to be accidental.”

“You say, ‘seems to be’. You’re not certain?”

“Almost. You’d be surprised at how often seemingly un-related information turns up that shows a connection to a case that seems resolved. It’s not that I think that someone came in and held your priest’s hand to the wall outlet or whatever, but there’s something that doesn’t feel right about this one.”

“So, when I called you last night about my looking at the computer on my own, that might be one of those ‘new information events?”

“Yeah, something like that. So, how is it you get sent half way across the country to work on a computer that turned out to kill a priest the day you arrive?”

“So you think there’s something suspicious about Father Noonan’s death?”

“Not really sure, but I do know that there’s something not quite right, and you’re not answering my question.”

“Speaking of not quite right, how did your date go?”

After a very long second of shocked silence we both started laughing.

Stopping the car in front of the Convent, Maribeth Hartley took a business card from her bag and wrote on the back of it, “Here’s my personal cell phone number and my email address. If you come across anything about Father Noonan that you think might have a bearing on this case I want you to call me, ok?”

“Sure, Maribeth, I’ll do that. And if you learn anything new about this case, I’ll want you to let me know.”

She laughed, “Yes Ma’am! Whatever you say!”

I looked at her as we sat there in the November dark in the week before Thanksgiving. I didn’t feel it necessary to tell her of my plans to follow-up on the software company that provided the platform or the hosting services.