(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.
“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.