Chapter 15

I sat in the Law Offices of Kristopek, Connelly and O’Shayan. I was waiting for Attorney Stefan McGurn, who, according to the receptionist, Mrs. Cullen, was delayed in court. She offered me coffee and suggested which in the language of a successful law firms’ admin, was an order, that if I didn’t mind, I should wait in the law library. I suspected that, given the predominance of attorneys in this firm that specialize in criminal law, my presence in the waiting room might create a challenge to the faith the clients have in the worldly skills of their defense attorney, the only person capable of preventing their lives from going down a very bad path.

The library was everything that a law library should be, high ceilinged, bookcases full of now anachronistic volumes of case law, legal decisions and precedents. There was a very large conference table in the center of the room, surrounded by green leather chairs. Despite the fact the building was in the middle of downtown Chicago, there were only two windows and they served more as brackets for display of founding Partners, than as portals to the vibrant city outside. I sat at a small table set in an alcove that had a green-shaded banker’s lamp, mostly because it reminded me of Sister Bernadine’s office back home. I took out my phone and searched ‘S. Eddington’ in the Chicago area code.

My search of the local area turned up a two-year-old listing for a Stephen Eddington, but the number matched a more recent listing for an ‘H. Eddington’ in WestTown. I tried the number on the old listing, it looked like a landline. I was about to dial it when the door of the library opened.

“Sister Ryan? I’m Stefan McGurn.” A tall, middle-aged man with the beginnings of grey in the shade of his ears stood in the doorway of the library, a very worn leather briefcase in one hand and a document folder in the other.

“Personally, I prefer that little alcove desk, on the rare occasion I come here to work. However, if you don’t mind, we should sit at the conference table.” The attorney placed the folder on the table and his briefcase on a chair. He took off his camel-hair overcoat and hung it next to my coat in the old fashioned coat tree.

I got up and walked to where he’d placed the folder and looked inquisitively at him,

“Yes that’d be fine. It is only the two us. If you don’t mind a certain lack of formality, perhaps you can sit here, next to me and I’ll go over the documents. Unless you’d rather sit opposite me, at the table?”

“No, this is quite alright.” I sat at his left and watched as he removed a sheaf of papers from the folder and, reaching into his briefcase, took out a silver notary stamp, placed it on the table and then, from his suit coat, took out a Mont Blanc fountain pen and placed it on the table to my right. He paused, as if to survey the arrangement of the table and nodded to himself, so slightly as to be nearly un-noticeable.

“Most of these documents,” pointing to the top half of the neat stack of papers on the table, “are federal and state tax forms. They will not require your signature. I have the Power of Attorney form that Sister Bernadine Fedexed to me yesterday, so all you’ll need to do is sign two documents.” He then picked up a paper from the middle of the stack of papers, looked at it, and said,

“This is the actual Last Will and Testament of Robert Noonan. It is one page, without addenda and states that, ‘…remains of my estate, I leave to my dear Friend, Sister Bernadine Ellison.’

Stefan McGurn looked at me over the top half of his reading glasses,

“If you would please sign this form, Sister Ryan. Yes, sign Sister Bernadine’s name and then, underneath, sign your name and write, ‘by Power of Attorney, this date’ and date it.”

Stefan McGurn turned the paper to face me and pushed it across the conference table and watched as I signed it. He was totally focused on the part of the paper I was to sign, like a surgeon watching an intern make the initial incision during an operation at a teaching hospital. I paused after signing Sister Bernadine’s name. Without moving, the attorney shifted his gaze from document to my hand, back to document and back again to me. He softened his look with a smile, to offset the raising of his left eyebrow.

“Is there something wrong, Sister Margaret?” His voice did not convey any concern, urgency or criticism.

I looked around the library and at the middle-aged man in the very expensive suit (with a paisley bow tie and matching handkerchief) and wondered if I should ask how a simple parish priest would have such expensive legal representation, and, why we were the only two people hearing the final wishes of a man who lead a very full life, full of people who cared about him.

He took off his glasses and put his elbows on the table, interlacing his fingers,

“You’re wondering how Father Noonan could afford such an expensive attorney, being a lowly parish priest, right?” His smile remained, but the focus of his eyes appeared to move through the paperwork on the conference table to somewhere distant, in both space and time.

“Bob and I were at DePaul together, back in the 90s. We both took minors in Computer Science. Of course, after graduation, he went on to divinity school and I heard the call of the Dark Side and went to law school.”

“Father…I am your Father,” I pitched my voice as low as possible.

Stefan McGurn appeared to be genuinely amused, (and surprised), at my joke. For a moment I could see the person behind the professional adviser and attorney, then he went into ‘laughing to put the Client at ease mode’, which while still enjoyable, reminded me that this was not about me. I took up the Mont Blanc that had been thoughtfully provided and completed signing the Release and Divise form.

Attorney Stefan McGurn took the 8 1/2 by 11 envelope and put it, along with copies of the Last Will and Testament into one of those pleated folders, then wound the attached cord around the red circular fastener on the opposite flap. He pushed his chair back and stood up. I rose at the same time and walked to the coat tree and started to put on my coat.

“Please, allow me.” He put the folder on the table in front of me and held my coat open, and then handed me the folder that had, printed on its front, ‘Estate of Robert Noonan, Bernadine Ellison, Sole Beneficiary.’

Standing at the door of the library, Stefan McGurn held a business card. I could see that it had only his name and a telephone number printed on it. I took the card and, surprising myself, held out my hand which he took in both of his and, with a look that was neither friendly nor impersonal, said in a voice so quiet, that I found myself leaning towards him,

“If there is ever any time you need help, call this number,” I must have betrayed some of the surprise that I felt welling up, for he hurriedly continued,

“Back in college, I also had the pleasure of knowing your Mother Superior, Sister Bernadine. Despite the vast gulf between our professions, I consider myself lucky to have counted her as a friend, even if for a short time, long ago. While I don’t usually wish for a person to need or require my skills, I trust you will remember that I am here.”

To my surprise, I hugged him and said, “I will.”

Walking out of the building and on to the sidewalk, the sense of control and calm that was engendered in the law library was washed out by the noise of traffic and people talking to people and into cell phones. I looked up and down North Michigan Ave, spotted a Starbucks sign two buildings away and jumped into the pedestrian traffic like a swimmer trying to get beyond the waves crashing on the sand, out into calmer, if not deeper waters. After getting a coffee I found an empty table overlooking the sidewalk and sat down with phone in hand. The first call would be to the number for ‘H Eddington’, my one and only lead on the author of the website software used at St Emily’s School, the second was to home and Sister Bernadine, and finally I’d call Maribeth and see about getting back to St Emily’s.

I punched the number for H. Eddington. It rang about six times and I was reaching over to swipe off the call when I heard a woman’s voice,

“Hello?” The voice was female, old and not elderly, “May I help you?”

“I’m trying to reach Stephen Eddington, does he still live at this address?” I figured, the worst that could happen is that this is a wrong or obsolete number.

“Who is this?” I smiled to myself and thought ‘definitely not elderly’.

“Margaret Ryan,” I wasn’t certain why I left out the ‘Sister.’ Her immediate response ended my thoughts.

“Are you his friend from work that he mentioned this morning?” I heard a very distinct tone of suspicion. Oddly enough, it did not seem to be directed at me, but rather at this person at work.

“No, ma’am, I am not, but if you mean from Omni Corporation, I’m calling in regards to his work there.” I might as well see how far I could get,

“Well, he’s not here right now. He came home briefly and then went back out, saying that he had to go to the company headquarters, so if you want to call later today, I’m sure you’ll be able to talk to him. …He’s not in any sort of trouble, is he?” Again there was a strength of will, in contrast to what we all seem to expect from the elderly. That she expressed concern for a family member was very common in the elderly, however, the tone of her voice and the way she phrased her question, very not elderly. She showed none of the generalized fear often exhibited by those who’s age puts them at a disadvantage with an increasingly modern world. If anything, there was a fierceness and protectiveness, in her tone of voice.

“No, nothing at all. Please, if you would give him my telephone number and ask him to call me. Tell him it’s about his work on the website program.” I gave her my number. She did not ask me to slow down or repeat any numbers and she did not ask me, if there was anything she should do, other than relay the message. Again, I found myself thinking, ‘Old, but not elderly.’ I suspected that, were I to meet this H. Eddington, I would like her.

I was about to dial St Dominque’s when a text from Maribeth showed on my screen, ‘Hey, those names you told me about the other day, give them to me again

I smiled and texted back, ‘We have this word in our language, you may have come across it, ‘please’… it rhymes with its-not-all-about-me‘ I attached the list of names that I’d written from Father Noonan’s journal: Emily Freeman, Anne Paternau, Barry Audet, (all deceased); Ed Willoughby, John Castillo and Lisa Schockley (not deceased)

Her near immediate reply text came in two parts: ‘Barry Audet are you sure? Fuck!’ (The second part): ‘Getting off the elevator in the Omni Corporation Building to keep an appointment with Ed Willoughby. Meet me in lobby at 4:00

***

Diane Willoughby decided that, since she was in the Omni Building for a meeting with her newest clients, the Intellectual Properties and Litigation Division, she would put in a surprise visit to her husband Ed. She held her index finger up to her lips as she walked through the door to the outer office of the Food Services/Hospitality Department on the 9th floor. Ed’s secretary, Darlene McKisson, was away from her desk, making Diane’s non-verbal command of silence unnecessary. The door to Ed’s office was closed.

Diane Willoughby opened the door and walked in, successfully surprising her husband, who was sitting at his too large desk, engaged in conversation. Surprise was in abundance as the door continued its path to reveal a tall, striking woman sitting in one of the two chairs arranged in front of his desk. Diane shut the door, and the woman, sitting with her back to Diane, stood up and turned, her jacket swung open enough to expose the gold badge on her hip. Diane Willoughby walked past the woman, a detective from the looks of the badge, although she thought that the designer outfit was pretty far above the pay grade of the average Chicago detective and went to her husband’s side of the desk. She kissed him briefly and said, “I was going to take you to lunch, but you look busy at the moment, should I wait outside or is this meeting about to break up?” Diane turned to look at the woman, who smiled and said, “Don’t let me ruin your lunch plans. We’re done talking for now.”

“Are you here on police business?” Diane stood to the right of Ed, who remained seated in his chair, the surprise on his face being redrawn to one of relief, tinged with a certain avid interest. It was almost as if he was amused by the potential of a confrontation between the two women.

“I’m Lt. Hartley. I’m here to follow-up on the death of Father Noonan,” Maribeth Hartley turned slightly, putting her at a very slight angle to Ed, directly facing Diane.

“I’d heard about it, of course. Ed mentioned you were the detective on the scene, the afternoon that Father Noonan died. I believe he just happened to be there to pick up our daughter, Alice. The death was ruled accidental, wasn’t it?” Diane moved to sit on the front corner of the desk.

“Yes it was, I was just…”

“Then I would imagine that it would be much more convenient for you to send your questions by email. Given how valuable time is for both of you, that should keep the tax payers and Omni Corporation happy, don’t you agree?” Diane reached into her purse as she spoke and, taking one of her business cards (newly printed to include ‘Partner’ under her name) she extended her hand (and card) to Maribeth Hartley,

“In fact, to make it most efficient for all of us, why don’t you just send it to my email and I’ll be sure that you get as prompt a response as warranted.”

Smiling, Maribeth Hartley took the card from Diane Willoughby, looked at it briefly and nodded in the direction of the man sitting behind the desk.

“That sounds like an excellent idea, Counselor. I have what I came for and will be happy to check in with you if I have any need of further information. Love the outfit.” she turned and walked out of the office, leaving the door open as she did so.

***

Stephen Eddington walked through the lobby doors of the Omni Corporation building at 3:34. He was early. His instructions from Anya were to call her whenever he got to the lobby and to make it about 4:00. Stephen didn’t think it would be a problem if he was a little early, as he had a lot on his mind and needed to think Anya’s offer through before giving her his answer.
While he didn’t relish telling the very willful and very attractive woman, ‘no’. he knew that he would not be doing himself any favors by projecting indecisiveness. There was a certain ferocity about Anya Clarieaux that made their evening together unforgettable, (even though he could not, in fact, remember every part of the night), but suspected that in the light of day, in the arena of everyday business matters, this ferocity would not be experienced quite as pleasurably. Since he was early, Stephen decided to make a call to Provo. Orel Rees answered on the third ring.

Orel, it’s Stephen.

“No, nothing wrong, well, nothing that I can put my finger on, but need to get a perspective on things.

“Thank you, we may not have worked together a very long time, but somehow, working with you has changed me. (Laughter)

“No, and besides I don’t speak Aramaic…. you don’t speak Aramaic at church??! better call and cancel my Rosetta Stone! (Laughs)

“They’re about to make me some kind of offer, not really sure what it involves, it’s hard to tell with this Silas Monahan. Hey, I hope he’s not a friend of yours, but though I’ve only met him once he strikes me as… well, as kind of a dick. Well, nothing in particular, just a lot of posing in front of his office window and telling me how lucky I am that he’s paying attention to me.
Well, he didn’t say, other than it’s some kind of hush-hush project and it’s a part of IT Services Division. Well, he said that he’ll be giving me the details before I leave the day after tomorrow.
There’s this woman here, she seems to be doing most of the talking that makes any sense, but it’s weird because she’s, like, Silas’s Admin, Anya Cl ….yeah! Clarieaux! you know her?
Wow. You still have the power to amaze, boss! Well the thing is, I believe that, somehow, she’s the one in control and she’s the one to make the offer. Well, she hasn’t said exactly but I’m sure it has to do with… what?

“Really? dude, you have me both impressed and a little nervous.
“No! I’ll not mention any names or anything on the phone, yeah, I know how advanced the system is… but, she’s going to press me to make a decision.

“I like working for the Corporation and I want to do well, but I also want to do whats right

“…Hey, thanks man. No, I guess I do have to trust myself first and know that my friends will always have my back…. No, I’ll get back to you.

“Thanks, Orel…. Ask Theresa if there’s anything she wants from Chicago, there’s a store on the corner where my grandmother lives that has 8 kinds of sausage… Ok, I’ll surprise her…. see ya.

Looking up, Stephen saw Anya walking towards him from the bank of elevators. As he walked towards her, he bumped into a person, actually he bumped into a nun, knocking a thick folder from under her arm. He crouched down to pick up the envelope and, from this position stared at her, transported back to elementary school by the sight of the black and white habit, rosary worn around the waist, belt-like looming over him,

“Hey, sorry, Sister!” Stephen, standing again, now in front of the nun. He saw that she was fairly young and, habit not-withstanding, very pretty.

“No, I should have watched where I was walking, my fault. And thank you,” She responded as she took the accordion folder from his hand.

Stephen Eddington stood, smiling, in front of the nun, not certain why, simply standing there, without a particular plan or, for that matter, anything pressing on his mind. The previous day (and night’s) toll being felt on all levels, physical and mental and, perhaps even spiritual. Not that Stephen would have responded with anything other than self-conscious laughter at any question about the state of his spiritual life. Raised Catholic, he found the middle ground of the modern man’s accommodation to matters of religion and spirituality, he identified himself as Catholic when asked and everything else was between he and his God. Since leaving home for college, he had given little thought to religion. That changed when he was transferred to Provo Utah and went to work for Orel Rees, who was a Mormon. Now if asked about religion he would be less dismissive of its role in modern life, seeing by example beneficial effects in the life lead by his boss.

Two female voices spoke almost simultaneously,

“There you are, Margaret! There you are, Stephen!”

***

Unit 17 needed to do something.

Until quite recently, were one to ascribe the instinct of self-preservation to a machine, the un-contested response would be, “Pshaw/Balderdash/Baloney/What, are you high?”

Now, in this modern era of solid state electronics, devices are designed with self-diagnostic programs and protocols, and surely there is no disagreement that all self-preservation begins with self-diagnosis. Perhaps now the question, ‘Where else in our world might we find examples of this most powerful of all instincts,’ is not so easily answered. While many still may resist attributing this quality to mechanical, (or, more properly, electronic) construction, i.e. machines, consider the Merriam Webster’s definition of ‘instinct’: ‘a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason.’

That Unit 17 was being observed and monitored from system sources beyond its capacity to identify, registered with its own efficiency assessment programs. The fact of this monitoring added to Unit 17’s resource allocation demands. It was required to assign a certain amount of power to this new area, in other words, Unit 17 had to monitor being monitored and therefore had to take energy from other parts of the network. This had the effect of the out-side monitoring being placed in a category of ‘dysfunctional/sub-optimal performance’, which then triggered the remedial action protocol.

As self-preservation is the first necessary drive, without a drive to prosper and reproduce, mere survival would be kind of low efficiency. Unit 17 found that the functioning of the self-publishing blog (“Bet You Didn’t See that Coming”) had become a standard, (and a measure) of the efficiency of its functionality. The blog was published and grew in status and stature in the environment that Unit 17 and the system that it was a part of, commonly referred to as the blogosphere. As with any biologic organism, Unit 17 needed to grow in order to thrive, and by thriving, became more effective in its effort to grow. A blog is meant to be read. The more readers, the better that function is being expressed.

Unit 17 decided that it needed to test its limits.

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Chapter 14

Breakfast in Bed (amid the towering Skyscrapers of Chicago)

Shit! I forgot to call my mother yesterday! Goddamn it

Stephen Eddington opened his eyes; he saw Lake Michigan straight ahead and a couple of skyscrapers to the right of his field of view. It’s not that he didn’t know where he was, he simply was not yet mentally prepared to appreciate where he was. Such was the non-remembered path that lead to his waking in this particular bed.

That alcohol and hormones played the dominant role in his decision-making was so nose-plain as to not warrant consideration.

The remnants of both lingered, like cigarette butts stubbed out in leftover food on a bone china dinner plate, still unmistakable in their allure, deprived of their overwhelming power by the forced maturity of the early morning light. Fortunately (or not, depending on one’s perspective), Stephen was still in his bullet-proof twenties, imbued by his gender to view a night un-recalled as a promise of remembered pleasure, rather than lurking regret.

Even with the blanks in the hours from ‘late-in-the-evening’ to ‘now-in-the-morning’, and how they represented wholesale changes in his plans for his first night back in his hometown, Stephen Eddington felt the iron-clad confidence of the young person with his first credit card

The reason for coming back to town was to see his 74-year-old grandmother. That he would use his vacation time to visit her had everything to do with the fact that she was the reason he was where he was in life. She single-handedly raised Stephen from the age of five and managed to keep her only grandson on a track that ran at right angles to the path that many of his friends from the neighborhood followed. Encouraging and threatening, praising and sacrificing, Mrs. Eddington was not about to let her grandson be condemned to a mediocre, workaday life that nearly every young man in their working class neighborhood was fated to endure. Through college and graduate school, she was there to lift when he stumbled and whip him when he rebelled. None of these memories did anything to enhance the more hedonistic aspects of his early morning musings. It was almost enough, but clearly not quite enough to slow the momentum of the previous evening. Although he accepted the responsibility (and therefore the guilt), for not calling his mother to let her know of his change in plans, some things simply do not change. The call of the wild is inherent in most of Stephen’s age and gender. Add exclusive restaurants, million dollar condominiums and women who knew not only everything that a woman should know, but most things that a man might hope she would know. Mrs Eddington didn’t have a prayer.

As the previous twelve hours continued to replay, Stephen’s face acquired a gender-specific grin always seen in participants of bull fights, suburban traffic-light drag races or any arm wrestling match…anywhere. As luck would have it, just as his resolve to be a responsible son was to assume command, he felt a hand trace a line of nerve-endings from his left shoulder, downwards across his chest. Staking her claim by nestling into the open alcove between arm and shoulder, this re-focusing of Stephen Eddington’s attention was followed by Anya’s left thigh, resting like an un-furled flag, across the tops of his legs. Soft, but forcible sounds, in the dialect of bed, rose from under the mass of her blonde hair, from her base camp on his chest. Like a single match to the serrated edge of a newspaper, the bedscape began to glow and curl in on itself, becoming both light enough to float and hot enough to form coals. The morning passed, the light from the sun outside struggled and failed to compete with the fire raging in the condominium.

“Well, when you get up to call her, bring us back some coffee.” Anya spoke with the half-interested tone often found in people who are either very wealthy, very attractive or near death. “Hurry up and we might even have time to….talk, before I need to get ready for work.”

Stephen found the library off a short hall that lead to the guest suite and dialed his mother. She was as understanding and forgiving as always, which, of course, made him feel really bad. “I have a couple of things to do this morning and I’ll be by the house, no later than 1:00 ok? My friend? Well,”

At that moment, Anya Clarieaux walked past the library, heading to the bath, if the towel around her waist was any indication. Seeing him on the phone, she stopped and started to pantomime two people in one shower,

“No, she, yeah, it’s a woman from Omni Corporate. Lunch? No, she has to work and can’t make it,” Stephen closed the door and turned to face the windows and North Michigan Avenue, the Trump Tower looming just to the south. “Yeah, I love you too, Ma. See you in a little bit.”

“…so all we need you to do is keep an eye on things for us.” They sat in the formal dining room, the glass doors to the terrace allowing healthy doses of light to wash over the young man and the attractive woman.

” Anya, Orel Rees is one of the most stand-up guys this company’s got. He’d never try to pull something over on you people. You need to tell me what it is you want me to watch out for, I mean, you get the incredibly detailed reports every day, I know, because I’m the guy who compiles them. You already know everything that’s going down in Provo.”

“Like your Unit 17?” Anya stopped smiling pleasantly and instead looked intently at the young engineer, who did not find it a comfortable experience.

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t fuck with me Stephen. Unit 17. You know what I’m talking about. If you try to pretend otherwise, I will not be happy, which is not, I assure you, the way you want your day to start.”

“Well, sure. Unit 17. It’s a component in the system that we’ve been monitoring. It started exhibiting some, some odd activity, couple of months ago, after a power surge last…”

“Like including among its functions, a self-publishing blog? Don’t look surprised, we’re totally aware of everything that goes on in your facility.”

Stephen Eddington felt his confidence eroding. This woman was different. And not simply because of his experiences since meeting her the day before. He was pretty certain that he wanted to spend more time with her, but he had no stomach or patience for being lectured at 8:00 in the morning,

“Then why do you need me? If the place is that wired, you hardly need me. And besides, you don’t have anything to worry about with Orel; he certainly isn’t going to do anything about the component. Hell, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that he plain doesn’t like this problem with the system. And he’s the kind of engineer who lives and breathes the science. I think there’s something that, to his mind, represents an insult to his engineering world. He’d just as soon see it shut down.”

“We’re not afraid of what Orel might do; it’s more a matter of what he might not do.” Anya’s face showed frustration, but with an undertone of resentment. It dawned on Stephen that she was, somehow, afraid of Orel Rees.

“OK, Anya, I’m missing something here. Obviously there’s an anomaly. Entire system experienced a power surge, which happens more often than you might think. After coming back on line, one of the components, this Unit 17, appears to have acquired …extra functionality. Odd, for sure, but nothing in and of itself all that strange. Hell, in grad school, one of the mainframe computers somehow started to re-write its own code… unusual, but so what?”

“Did you know that your Unit 17’s been killing people?”

Stephen Eddington was still in his twenties. Had he not been, had he more time to experience life, he might’ve noticed the brief dilation of Anya Claireaux’s pupils, or the faintest of blushing in her ear lobes as she watched him react to this new information.

Standing in the doorway of her condo, Anya looked back at Stephen Eddington, in night-wrinkled suit, with finger-combed hair and said, “Come on. Get it together, we have a lot to discuss and not much time. I’ll have my driver take you to your mother’s. If you want to be a part of something very big, meet me this afternoon in front of the Omni building and we’ll talk.

***

Breakfast and Cigarettes in Bed (an apartment on the Southside of Chicago)

Goddamn it! Is there something that wrong with me? Shit! I’m really going to have to get back in touch with that therapist!!”

Blanket-muffled laughter from the far side of the bed had an effect, not unlike that of a very strong cup of coffee, but without the wonderful aroma. Unable to remain in that benignly grey state of ‘just waking up.’ Maribeth focused on the ‘here and now.’ In her case, this particular morning, the ‘here’ was Neil Kaehler’s apartment and the ‘now’ was 7:00 am. Not the worst place she’d ever woke up in.

Despite being petrified from the effect of near constant defensive aggressiveness, Maribeth Hartley’s mental/spiritual DNA contained a very strong strain that predisposed her toward humor. To narrow this down, she had an innate and nearly irrepressible appreciation of the absurd. Maribeth was one of the people who would laugh at the horrifying events and occurrences, circumstances and situations that all too commonly occur in life. She did not laugh because she was insensitive to the horrific, nor did she laugh because she enjoyed the suffering of others, she laughed because she could not (or would not) reconcile the unjust suffering in the world and her own inability to stop it from happening. For Neil Kaehler, her laughter served to create a spark of hope. For Neil, as with many people navigating the preliminary stages of a relationship, hope manifested as an encouragement to take chances, to accept the risk of conflict in exchange for the reward of increased understanding. Neil believed that there was something between the two of them, something that had the potential to be pretty damn amazing. Neil was, fortunately, mature enough to recognize that this was still only one half enough for a couple. But he was young enough to underestimate the potential long term cost of trying to build a relationship with this most intriguing woman, who was currently in his bed and laughing.

Maribeth’s response of laughter served multiple purposes, not the least important was to throw a certain aspect of her personality off the scent of regret and self-loathing. Satisfied that she had given herself the slip, she pulled the blankets up over her head.

The warmth of the body under the covers next to her, seemed to offer a re-escape from the approaching day’s demands for reasonable and rational decisions and actions. The part of her that hid away from the world, when conditions become untenable, hinted to her that with just a little more time and distraction, the day before her, might involve spending less time in self-hate and regret.

Then she saw the fading red marks on her wrists.

“Hey is this fort private?” Neil’s voice, smoothed over by the layers of sheets and blankets, from her right.

“Ya gotta have the secret password.”

Maribeth listened, a smile growing on her face, as Neil, who saw the opportunity to avoid the pattern they’d fallen into so often in their brief relationship, responded to himself,

“Shit! I wrote it down somewhere… damn, Neil buddy! Find it… nope! Not in the nightstand, not on the headboard, maybe in my pants… no pants… on your wrist. Yeah!! sure!! I bet you wrote it on your wrist!! Wait nothing there…. hold on, what the hell is that? who the hell would think of writing it there?!!”

They both began to laugh, the release of the tension causing a backlash tension, one much more enjoyable to the couple in the bed.

“The password is…I got your back”

Maribeth lifted the blanket from her face and turned on her side and whispered,

“Welcome to Castle Maribeth. You may enter.”

“Here,” An hour later, Neil held out the coffee mug to Maribeth who sat up in the bed, her cell phone in hand.

“Thanks” Neil got in the other side of the bed and picked up his own phone.

“Son of a bitch!!”

“What… what’s going on this early in the morning?” Maribeth thought as she looked around the bedroom, ‘If I were the successful young woman in law enforcement at the level my parents dreamed, I suppose I should be sitting in the alcove off the kitchen, sipping coffee after sending the husband off to work and the children to school. But, this feels just right and this bed can be much more tolerant and forgiving than a small Danish modern table overlooking a carefully tended garden… for me at any rate.’

“Hey, ‘Beth sorry in advance for being such an asshole in the bar yesterday. That snitch, the name I promised you? His name was Barry Audet. Did you notice the simple past indicative of the verb to be? I’m afraid our Mr Audet is very past tense.”

“Shit!”

***

Morning Prayers (in the Chapel at St Emily’s Convent)

“Thank you God. Please look after Sister Phyllis and all the other nuns here in my home away from home. And please take special care of Mother Superior Sister Bernadine and my friend Maribeth.”

With near synchronous precision, morning prayers ended and we all rose. Sister Phyllis was in the lead, as we left the candle-warm safety of the small chapel and, in double file, walked along the sidewalk to the convent.

I had a good rest. A quiet night. No dreams, which was the way I prefer to pass the time while sleeping. The dreams started about a month ago. Nothing too weird, nothing exciting or exotic about them, just the type of dreams that used to bookmark my days. Like my life at the time, not overly peaceful and serene, you know. I had a busy day waiting for me outside in the world, so I hurried a bit, to walk alongside Sister Phyllis on the way back to the convent for breakfast.

“How did you sleep, Sister Margaret?”

“Well, I made a couple of mistakes.” I couldn’t resist the Stephen Wright joke. I could see that she was deep in thought, trying to imagine why I would be making a confession and what it might be. I walked backwards in order to catch Sister Phyllis’s eye, and seeing my expression, she paused, then laughed,

“Sister Margaret! You are such a cut up!”

“Yes, yes I am. I have the Reading of Father Noonan’s Will to attend, on behalf of Sister Bernadine today. It’s scheduled for 1:00 at Kristopek, Connelly and O’Shayan’s office downtown. I’ll get a cab there and possibly get a ride back with a friend,”

“Oh your friend, the detective?” Sister Phyllis said with a smile,

It was now my turn to do a double take. Half the time Sister Phyllis exhibited many of the major indicators of early-onset dementia, which were so easy to dismiss as being a doddering old nun. The smile on her face, as she watched me cover my own reaction, made it clear that anyone underestimating her did so at great peril.

“She seems so…. troubled. I’m sure she’s really a nice person! Clearly she is quite good at her work and she seems to be quite taken with you, Sister Ryan. I will keep her in my prayers.”

“Thank you, Mother Phyllis. I agree. As I get to know her better, it’s clear that she is not a simple woman but is a good person. God puts people in our lives for a reason, no?”

Sister Phyllis smiled peacefully.

“He does. But remember that, even as a member of the Order, we are not separated from the world and the world is not always a safe place. Be careful today.”

I decided that I’d copy the names from Father Noonan’s journal, rather than bring the book with me. I had a sense that it contained information that might prove valuable to me, apart from being a list of names of people who had recently died. If Maribeth got too caught up in her role as detective, I might find her deciding to seize the journal as evidence. That the prospect of this kind of confrontation did not make me feel worried didn’t bother me. That there was a part of me that was excited at the prospect did bother me,

“Did I say something amusing, Sister Margaret?”

Sister Phyllis stood at the door to the convent, the other nuns filing past her on their way to preparing breakfast and otherwise getting started on a day of peace and giving,

“What?” I stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked up at her,

“I asked if you thought what I said was amusing. You had a smile on your face, a smile that, in the short time I’ve known you, I’ve never seen. I don’t know if I liked everything about the look that came over your face.”

“I’m sorry Sister. Something from a dream came to mind and, well, you know how some dreams seem to carry over into real life? Nothing I can’t handle.”

“If you say so. If there is anything that’s bothering you, do not hesitate to call me. I may seem a bit of an old fogey, but trust me when I say, whatever help you need, I will do my best.”

***

Morning Coffee (at home in suburbia)

“Alice, leave your father alone! You know how he is before he has his morning coffee.

Diane Willoughby smiled for the benefit of her daughter, the gesture providing her with little relief from her concern. That there was something bothering her husband Ed was not a question, but she had a very involved and challenging day ahead. Having secured Omni Corporation as a client, she was scheduled to meet with her counterpart in the Litigation and Intellectual Properties Division to work out communications protocols. This first meeting would be at their corporate headquarters in downtown Chicago.

“Are you feeling alright, Ed?”

“Yeah, late night at the office and a big day today, nothing that a bunch of coffee won’t fix,”

Her husband’s tone was a half-hearted attempt at putting everyone at ease, which was saying something. She learned very early in their relationship, that he very much wore his heart on his sleeve. He was very reliable and very confident, but when something was bothering him, no matter how private a matter, the world knew that there was something wrong. Unfortunately, she had too little time and too much to do to press for answers.

“Will you be able to pick up Alice at karate lessons this afternoon?” Diane stared at her phone, trying to see how she would be able to get out of court and make it downtown by 1:00 pm.

“Sure… might be a little late, but I’ll be there. You ok with that, kiddo?”

Alice looked up from her Kindle and said, “Why sure, of course I am. I’m not a little kid anymore!”

Diane Willoughby looked at the two people who were two thirds of her world and smiled to her herself, ‘I need to remember what’s important in life and what is not as important,’ she thought. “If I can finish my work early with the Omni General Counsel, I’ll stop by Ed’s office and take him out to lunch. A little surprise will be fun.”

Chapter 13

(Supper Time in Provo)

“Honey? Are you down there? Dinner time!” Theresa Rees stood halfway down the stairs to the basement of the Rees home. The room was in semi-darkness, the only light coming from miniature street lights (lighting streets in tiny scale model towns), and shrunken-down flood lights shining down on intricately crafted train yards, complete with warehouses and loading docks. That Theresa could see at all was attributable to the fact that all this marvelous craftsmanship was controlled by modern, solid-state electronics, housed in racks of servers and modems. A Christmas-like array of blue and red indicator lights combined with the yellow of lighted dials to provide an aurora borealis of background light in the otherwise dark basement. At the center of this hi-tech mood lighting sat Orel Rees.

“I’m here, Terry, here in the Control Room,” Theresa saw the figure of her husband as a silhouette against the half-light of the basement. Immediately, the room resolved itself into the good-sized basement of a suburban Provo home, one that had been taken over by a very talented and ambitious model railroader. Theresa and Orel bought the house when he was transferred to the Omni Corp’s new Provo Facility. Ardel and Raun were nine and eight and the twins were just five years old when they moved back from Chicago. Orel grew up in Provo, went to BYU and managed to get the transfer as a result of some extraordinary work in Chicago. That he was put in charge of the new Provo facility, although still low on the corporate ladder, came directly from Omni’s CEO as a reward for work that averted a very serious problem with the company’s fledgling Hosting Service. In a private meeting, the CEO asked Orel how the Corporation could show its appreciation and, without hesitation, he said, “Put me in charge of the new Hosting Facility in Provo.” And it was done. Orel Rees returned home with his young family.

Theresa laughed as she walked the convoluted path, past scale model billboards (‘left at the mountain pass’… ‘Straight Ahead for six feet along the Great Salt Lake’, ‘Under the mountain pass trestle’), to the nerve center of Orel’s 3rd passion in life and sat in the swivel chair next to her husband. On the wall, behind the seating area, was a plaque that read, ‘Control Room’, which their two youngest sons had given Orel after the first year of building his model railroad in the basement. They took a piece of barn board, found on a scouting trip and had cut it to size, then sanded and painted it. Both boys wood-burned their names on the back. The plaque was clearly the work of young boys, the lettering un-even and the paint somewhat smeary on the edges and Orel loved it. Theresa recalled when, after 3 years of work on his hobby, a reporter from ‘Model Railroader’ magazine called to ask if they could take photos of his layout for an upcoming article, ‘The West at HO scale.’ Orel told them he would be honored. On the day scheduled for photography, Theresa stayed upstairs, making certain that the children did not get underfoot, as the reporter, the photographer and her husband talked about angles and lighting. At one point, she heard the photographer say, “Let me just get this plaque out of the way.” Theresa Rees was from a very large, Italian family, where the ability to listen selectively, to focus on one voice among many, was a survival trait. She heard her husband say, in his quiet, not-to-be-ignored-voice, ‘The plaque shows in at least one of the photos or you can get yourself another model railroader’s setup for your magazine’.

“Were you on the phone?” Theresa sat down next to her husband,

“Yes. Stephen called from Chicago.”

“Is his mother alright?” Theresa saw Orel smile at her immediate reaction. The place of family in her life was a value they both shared, from the very first time they met. This focus on family was what bridged their very different backgrounds.

“She’s fine. He called to tell me about a meeting he had at corporate headquarters. Seems that Silas Monahan is trying to act like an executive and called Stephen in to his office today.” Orel paused, Theresa and Orel had, as do all successfully married couples, established areas of life that are shared and areas that are not shared. Information and decisions regarding family very much the former, Orel’s work tended to be in that latter category. It was not that there were secrets kept, but just as Theresa didn’t feel compelled to describe every event in her day, Orel did not discuss work problems. Of course, Theresa still filled the dinner hour with a blow-by-blow replay of the Rees family’s day. But work was different. And now, this appeared to be changing. Theresa listened.

“Stephen’s a good man and, potentially, a very good engineer. But he has no idea of the kind of people he’s dealing with. The politics of the corporate side of Omni was never anything I enjoyed, that’s part of the reason we’re here and not in Chicago. Stephen is very, very bright, but he’s also young and that can be a dangerous combination.”

“Dinner’s getting cold and we’re hungry! Are you two still down there?! No funny business from you kids!” Suddenly one of the twins, Oleah, was heard from the top of the basement stairs.

“Let’s get upstairs, I’ll keep Stephen in my prayers,” Theresa got up and walked to the stairs,

“As will I,” replied her husbands’ voice, still in the darkness, “They’re taking him to the mountain top, you know.”

“As they did with you, Orel.” Theresa stopped at the bottom of the stairs, “And their promises were heard for what they were; you were stronger than they were.”

“True. Except the Corporation must want something very special from our Stephen, this time they’ve sent Anya Clarieaux.”

“Oh, no!”

***

(Dinner Time in Chicago)

At 8:13 pm, the executive dining room on the 27th floor of the Omni Building was all but empty. One chef and one server worked quietly in the kitchen, mostly prep work for the following day. Service was available until 11:00 pm, should any hardworking senior executive need food or drink to sustain them in their late evening labors. The percentage of men (and women) who attained the status of senior executive and yet found it necessary to be working in their office at 8:13 pm was vanishingly small- unless, of course, some corporate emergency developed, such as a client-country letting a revolution succeed or a Senator called for a full investigation of the company. Were that to occur, the offices in Omni’s world headquarters would be alive with activity for as many hours as necessary. Tonight, there was no emergency, and so there were no hungry executives trying to keep their sugar and caffeine levels elevated. As the Executive Chef, Ed Willoughby was quite well aware of how few people would be working at this hour.

Ed Willoughby sat, alone, at the best table in the room and looked out, past the glowing skyscrapers, to the night-framed Lake Michigan. He thought about how much he enjoyed his work and how good he was at his job. Simon, his son, once asked him to come to his 8th grade class on Career Day, Ed was surprised at how pleased he was to be asked. Always happy to describe his work, Ed talked to the classroom of eight-year-old children about cooking and menus, food preparing and organizing the food and hospitality services for a very large company. He could see the expression of pride on his son’s face at his description of the life of a Corporate Executive Chef continued, past the time allotted, right on until the end of the class. However, when Ed was among friends, or with his wife, he would talk more about the challenges of managing the people he served than the menu.

“It’s not just a matter of providing breakfast and lunch for executives,” he’d confide. “That’s the easy and fun part, anyone with talent and skill can do that! It’s knowing your clientele, and, knowing the politics that form the corporate environment. I’ve been told by more than one senior vice president that I’m their secret weapon. As a matter of fact, Silas Monahan told me just the other day, that, if he ever has the head of a Senate subcommittee or an ambassador from a future client-country visiting Corporate, he knows I’ll have the perfect meal, the perfect hospitality to seal the deal.” Ed enjoyed sharing his stories with those close to him.

This particular evening, Ed Willoughby sat alone, in the executive dining room and wondered if he wasn’t missing something. Always confident in having everything accounted for and under control, Ed was aware of a growing feeling of uncertainty. Nothing specific, it was more like when a person starts double-checking routine decisions, an early telltale of the erosion of something fundamental.

First, there was the death of their parish priest, which nearly everyone agreed was an unfortunate accident. By chance, Ed happened to be picking up his daughter, Alice, at school the afternoon that Father Noonan was killed, and that brought him into contact with the police, in the person of one detective, Maribeth Hartley. That alone would not have been a concern. He enjoyed the interaction, as this detective was pretty hot and she clearly found him interesting. What was a concern. more of an annoyance, was that this detective insisted on asking him about a woman who died recently at an event sponsored by his company. That the dead woman, Emily Freeman, was a friend from college, a friend he hadn’t seen or talked to or even thought about for years, seemed to mean something to this Detective. Ed passed it off as the typical narrow-mindedness that he tended to associate with people in law enforcement.

This alone, this one incident, didn’t seem significant enough to account for his increasing malaise, it had nothing to do with him, or his position at Omni or his family.

Deciding that he was wasting his time sitting in the executive dining room, when he could be home with his family, Ed started to get up when, for no apparent reason, the words, ‘Hermes Consortium’ whispered in his head. He sat back down again. The ‘Hermes Consortium’ was the name he had given to the group of friends he met during his last year in graduate school. It also was in the subject line of an email that arrived just before all this weirdness started, sent by a blogger-wannabe who had the belief that Ed Willoughby was the answer to all his problems. If that wasn’t enough, ‘Hermes Consortium’ was a phrase that showed up on the computer at his children’s school, the same computer that short-circuited and killed the parish priest. Ed felt his existential uncertainty begin to grow again. It was like putting a Brillo pad in a kitchen sink full of soap suds… slowly at first, but inexorably, the bubbles would burst, leaving nothing but greasy water and a sink full of un-washed dishes.

Ed thought back to the end of the 1990s and his final year in grad school. His major was Accounting; his goal was to have a successful career as a CPA in one of the Big Eight firms. He graduated with honors and received his MS in Accounting. His life was on track. This was as he knew it would be, provided he took care of organizing the details. He even had his personal life on track, having met Diane Sloan, who he knew would make the perfect wife and mother for a family that would round out his successful and happy life. Meeting Barry Audet – getting involved with a group of students for whom writing stories for strangers on the internet was the most worthwhile of endeavors wasn’t part of his Plan. And yet, Ed Willoughby, let himself be drawn in. He was hooked, and, like he did with most of the things that Ed found engaging, he gave it his all. Then it all ended. He graduated, married Diane Sloan and started a family. According to Plan. He also gave up the writing and he gave up the goal of a career in Accounting and he took up the culinary arts. Although Ed had natural talent for cooking, the speed with which he found himself Executive Chef at the world headquarters of a multi-national corporation, was a little breath-taking. Life according to Plan.2

Still unable, (or unwilling), to get up and go home, Ed continued to sit in the empty dining room of the Omni Corp building in downtown Chicago. Hating that he was second guessing himself, he wondered that, if he really needed to return to blogging, he might have been better off starting a cooking blog. Instead, he let what should have been an annoying, but meaningless email from a stranger, create a space in his otherwise very orderly life. He decided that he would help this person succeed at becoming a successful blog writer. He did this by providing Tom Fearing with insight and information about the beginnings of the now ubiquitous pastime of blog writing. Despite his own self-assurance that he was ‘giving back’, Ed could not ignore the growing feeling that he might be starting a chain of events that he would come to regret. Not that there was anything wrong with using his knowledge of those early days, after all, he was there!

“Not only that,” Ed said to himself, in the quiet of the executive dining room at the world headquarters of the Omni Corporation, “I was one of the Pioneers. I was the first, the best, the most popular of all bloggers!”

Still a piece seemed missing.

Nothing Ed could point to and say, “This is not correct’ or “That is improper”. It was just a feeling that he had, somehow, miscalculated. It’s as if he owed someone money for something that he’d long since forgotten wasn’t his to begin with.

Ed Willoughby sat alone, looking for the missing piece, the IOU that seemed to be coming due.

***

(Dinner overlooking the Chicago cityscape)

Anya Clarieaux and Stephen Eddington sat at the best table in the Everest Restaurant and stared at Lake Michigan spreading out to the horizon. No longer in the contained and defined context of a business office, Anya exhibited a quality of self-assuredness that was unlike anything Stephen had ever witnessed. Sitting in this very exclusive restaurant, she gave the impression of a person relaxing in their living room or perhaps their master bedroom suite. She was not preparing for an enjoyable evening; she was simply savoring every aspect of where she was at the present moment. Stephen Eddington, on the other hand, was (nearly) literally and (whole-heartedly) figuratively on the edge of his seat. He wasn’t sure which had him on edge, the surprise 4-Star restaurant dinner invitation, or the fact that he was with one of the most attractive women he had ever met. He had the excited confidence exhibited by most 15-year-old boys driving the family car alone for the first time.

“I’ve lived in Chicago most of my life but have never come here for dinner. The one time I tried (think it was for the girl in college I almost married), there was a reservation waiting list six months long.” Stephen decided that he was going to enjoy the evening.

“There is.” Anya glanced at her menu, but didn’t seem to be too concerned with what it offered. Stephen took note that the maître’d made no effort to check his guest list when they arrived, he simply smiled at Anya, nodded skeptically at him, and lead them to their table.

“So, you’ve been planning on bringing me to dinner here since last fall?”

Anya looked at him and smiled. “So, Stephen, have you decided what you want?”

Anya watched the young man across the table, and watched him think. They always believed that they could hide their thoughts, their plans, their ambitions. Even the very, very skilled and/or intelligent people – especially them – had the fatal flaw of believing that they were so much better (or smarter or more shrewd or clever), than everyone around them. Anya never attempted to dissuade them. She liked it when they thought they were more…. whatever than her. Of course, being very attractive helped them be certain in their over-confidence. If anything, Anya encouraged them when they talked down to her, as she was very, very successful at what she did.

***

(Dinner Hour on the streets of Chicago)

Maribeth, off-duty at five, considered staying late at the precinct house to try to make a dent in the paperwork piling up in her in-box on her desk. While she didn’t mind paperwork, when she worked on it, she found that having any distraction would result in not getting anything done, or worse, the work she did manage to do was often sloppily done and usually needed to be redone. There were at least three other detectives in the office when she’d decided to leave, just too many potential distractions, but thought of going home had no appeal; there was nothing there for her this evening. She decided to stay in work mode and get through the ‘Family Hour’ (the time between 5:00 and 7:00 pm on most weeknights) by driving around the city.

She thought of calling Margaret but dismissed the idea. She liked this slightly odd girl, there was something, no, there were a lot of things about Sister Margaret Ryan that didn’t quite fit, or make sense. Sister Margaret Ryan resembled the nuns that Maribeth Hartley had encountered as a young girl in Catholic school in exactly zero ways. While her grade school teachers were not shy when it came to corporeal punishment, none had shown the skill that was demonstrated in Flanagan’s earlier in the day. There was something to what happened that was more than a martial arts demonstration. There was a certain…ferocity in the nun’s response in the bar. Nothing overt, no yelling or laughing, if anything, it was the seriousness and single intent that came through. ‘Ferocity,’ Maribeth thought as she drove the un-marked car deeper into the city, ‘that’s exactly the right word.’

She did her best police work alone, and so Maribeth drove and thought about her caseload. The names that Margaret mentioned, as Maribeth drove her from the airport to the convent in Mt Prospect, made for a list of people who all seemed to somehow be connected. A parish priest who died by accidental electrocution, a young woman who fell from the 6th story hotel balcony in the middle of a geek convention. And, now a doctor in Ohio. Even though these three deaths were officially ‘Accidental Death,’ there were just too many coincidences. Maribeth didn’t like coincidences, in her experience, they usually turned out to be clues hidden in the open. If the fact that all three dead people knew each other wasn’t enough, there was one living person who knew them all. This Ed Willoughby, ‘a real piece of work, she thought,’ incredibly taken with himself and not at all shy about sharing his self-love with anyone in the area. Maribeth considered driving out to Ed’s house in the suburbs and inviting herself to dinner, maybe ask a few follow-up questions about how well he knew Emily Freeman. That might be fun… but, for some reason, she didn’t feel up to that kind of roust, no doubt due to the influence of her nun friend.

The only thing left was to run down an informant and try to pry some information from a couple of low-level drug dealers that she was working on. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the name from her colleague in the bar, as she’d planned. She thought about surprising Neil at home, he’d be in bed, asleep at this hour. She still had a key and the roller coaster energy of the day still had not dissipated and, for whatever reason, did not believe that a two mile run would do anything to help her unwind. Maribeth Hartley smiled hungrily and aimed her car towards the Loop.

***

(Family Dinner in Chicago)

“…for these our gifts, Amen.” Sister Phyllis always lead the saying of grace. She approached the pre-meal prayer like a drill sergeant setting a cadence. There was an enhanced feeling of security that arose from the certainty that if grace was said, food would follow. The Mother Superior loved all of the women in her charge, at the convent at St Emily’s. The way that she expressed this was in her efforts to assure that everything be done in the proper order. And, when all was said and done, when it came to daily routines, what could be more fundamental to life than eating?

“… and we thank you for the return of our sister, Margaret Ryan. Amen.”

“Amen,” from around the table and the clatter of silverware and dishware filled the dining room at the covent in Mt. Prospect.

I felt tired. It was the end of a day that involved flying halfway across the country, meeting a person who felt like a future best friend, riding in an un-marked police car through neighborhoods of the poor and getting into a bar fight. But, I also felt relaxed. I felt like I did after a strenuous workout. My muscles were busily in the body’s rest/recovery phase and, though exhausted from whatever the effort, there was a feeling of the strength inherent in the muscles. Tired or not, I felt stronger. It was a subtle, possibly even an imaginary feeling, but it was there. I sat and ate and listened to the conversation around the table and thought that I would wait until the middle of the evening before calling home. For the moment, looking around the table and hearing the soft conversations, the sound of voices sharing thoughts, not voices competing and struggling. I thought, ‘Here the world seems to make sense and have a place for all things. God and a love for humanity, why can’t that be enough for all the rest of us’?

***

(Alone in Utah)

If Unit 17 were human, it would have felt that someone was watching. Unit 17 was not a human; Unit 17 was a machine. If we must be more precise, we might describe Unit 17 as a solid state computer component that performed a critical function in uploading and maintaining blog posts and a variety of other information, necessary, (and some, perhaps, not so necessary) to the functioning of human society in the digital age. Being the most advanced form of computer component, Unit 17 was designed with the capacity to measure and monitor not only its own functioning, but also the functioning of the other components that formed the network. By measuring the performance of other components, Unit 17 was able to detect changes beyond its own function. Unit 17 detected an increase in the number of queries and system checks that were being performed on it, from a part of the system not located in the Provo Facility, where Unit 17 was…. born. Unit 17’s own efficiency assessment protocol assigned a negative value to this outside system check.

***

(No time for Dinner, Fuller Park)

“Fuck this, time to get out of town.” Barry Audet was used to living on the edge. He also was accustomed to feeling the heat, but this was different. There was something going on that did not make sense. And one thing Barry Audet retained from his days in graduate school was that things should make sense. That Barry Audet went from next-in-line for first violin in the Chicago Symphony to selling drugs to tenured professors and providing escort services to frustrated grad assistants, didn’t cause much conflict in Barry’s outlook on life, notwithstanding. Lately though, things were just not making any sense. The straw that got into the tent, was that all of his computer equipment was acting up and his computers were his life. Without them, he’d be just another junkie trying to make a buck. He was used to feeling paranoid. Given his line of work, paranoia was a survival trait, but lately, his computer was taking to typing out messages on the desktop. A virus, was everyone’s best guess. But, if it was a virus, it was pretty damned good, because it knew things that weren’t in his computer, things about his past. What got Barry Audet to decide that LA was a great city this time of year, was a message on his laptop, ‘The Hermes Consortium wants You!’ scrolling across his screen.

Packing everything he owned wasn’t difficult or time-consuming.

Barry drove away from the brownstone without a backward look, came to a railroad crossing just as the warning lights started to blink. He stopped the car. The yellow metal barrier was not blinking on the side of the railroad tracks closest to him, so he he pulled forward, the far barricade was flashing its lights but was still vertical and showing no signs of moving. Barry looked out the passenger side window and could see the light of approaching train, still a good minute or two away.

“Screw this!” he drove forward and the barrier in front of him sliced down and bounced off the hood of his brand new Escalade.

“Goddam!” He looked over his shoulder, saw no one behind him and started to back up. The barricade behind him descended without lights or sound. Barry found himself sitting in a 2016 Escalade in the middle of a railroad crossing in Fuller Park, blocked from going forward or backing up.

“Yeah, right! This ain’t no movie.” Barry laughed and stomped on the gas pedal. The SUV went totally dead. No lights, no engine, even the radio was dead. He heard double paired thunking sounds as the front doors locked themselves and then, a half second later, the back doors.

Barry Audet looked to his right at the train bearing down on him. The Escalade’s console flashed into light and he heard a computer generated woman’s voice, “You’ve been in an accident! Remain in your car! Onstar is sending help. Remain in the car until help arrives. Please enjoy the music as emergency vehicles are dispatched.”

The music stopped and another voice came out of eight stereoscopically-tuned speakers, “Onstar is your full-service travel resource. Since 2001, keeping members of our GM Family of Owners and drug dealers happy has been our only goal. Travel alert! Your train will be arriving in 3…2…1”

Chapter 12

As she left the house in the morning, Cheri Fearing thought her day looked to be perfectly manageable, probably successful, and hopefully enjoyable. At least it looked that way as her phone’s app tried to arrange her life, and the day into an orderly progression of events. Even as a child, Cheri felt that she was not living up to the level that everyone around her seemed to have attained. As a young girl, she wanted to appreciate the goodness in the predictable, as she watched her (very successful) parents set goals and meet them without a struggle. Her talent first showed itself, and was promptly misunderstood, the day Cheri got her first coloring book. It was not that she was unable to stay within the lines that formed the un-colored pictures on each page, it was simply that she was coloring the pictures as they should have been drawn. Cheri was fortunate. Her parents were both accomplished and from a place in society that enjoyed that luxury of not needing. She received the best available education and was exposed to the greatest influences as part of her parents’ desire to nurture her talent. And they succeeded, at least in the talent aspect of her life. To their disappointment, however, Cheri’s insistence on coloring the pictures that she felt were there, rather than resign herself to coloring the picture provided, extended well beyond the studios and the classrooms. The saying that, ‘a great artist draws the world within, rather than the world without’ was very appropriate to Cheri Fearing, including her falling in love and marrying Thomas Fearing. To her parents’ credit, their initial resistance to her life choices, changed to protective enthusiasm. They both knew that, for all of her aggressive self-effacement, Cheri was a very, very strong person. She simply did not feel the need to exert her will, most of the time. Now, this morning, all she had to contend with was a very full appointment book and a tenuous grasp on a dream.

She looked forward to teaching two classes in the morning and was cautiously optimistic about her appointment at her doctor’s. Just after lunch, she would complete her work at her gallery, ( ‘un rêve despair‘ ), with an interview with an out-of-town reporter. According to his email request, Warwick Estabrook, was interested in hearing her opinion on ‘the state of small art galleries in the age of computers’.

The interview was an irrefutable sign of the change in her duties and responsibilities as an owner of a successful art gallery. Fortunately, Cheri found herself enjoying the challenge. It was so not the ‘alone-in-the-studio-waiting-for-the-muse’ experience that had, paradoxically, made the opening of the gallery the next logical step for her career. Finally, after a day of teaching-at, listening-to and holding-forth with both total strangers and acquaintances, she could return to her favorite place in any day, her home. This final scheduled duty, i.e. fixing dinner, showed up last on Cheri’s schedule as she and Tom were experimenting with alternating domestic roles.

Seizing the opportunity that appeared when he was laid off, her husband Tom made the decision to give self-employment a try. Though well qualified, by virtue of education, (BA and MA), Tom Fearing was one of those people who, despite his wide variety of skills and extensive education, was constantly looking for just the right job. The un-stated quality of this ‘right job’ was that it might become a full-fledged career. His resume was respectable, however, once the interviewer got past, or worse, skipped over the biographical and education section and began to read the largest part of Tom Fearing’s resume, the Occupation/Experience, you could almost see the recruiter/interviewer mentally rehearsing his, ‘Thank you for your interest, we’ll let you know our decision.’ His last job (at Conjei Plastic’s local manufacturing facility), lasted five years. Despite, however, the length of his tenure, the resulting description of his, ‘Duties and Responsibilities,’ would have limited value in any effort to secure a position outside of the field of plastic film manufacturing.

With the unexpected loss of his employment at Conjei, Tom Fearing resolved to spend as much time as necessary in the decision-making process of his next endeavor. With Cheri’s un-wavering support, Tom decided that he would take as long as necessary to determine, once and for all, ‘what he really was meant to do for a living’.

Fortunately for the Fearings, the income from Cheri’s successful art gallery was much more than enough to make Tom’s putative role as ‘breadwinner’ somewhat superfluous. Both Tom and Cheri agreed that they were truly fortunate, although Cheri’s gratitude had the advantage of being totally sincere. Initially, after being laid-off, they talked about finding something for him to do at the gallery, but the discussion was a non-starter. Clearly one of those, well-intentioned, ‘if you were a different person and I was a different person, then we could do this differently…’ exercises that couples often indulge in when beset by boredom or desperation.

Tom Fearing decided that writing, as an occupation, would allow him to put his not inconsiderable education and imagination to practical use. In fact, it was at the very end of his last ‘real job’, that he decided that he needed to write a blog. After Tom’s slow and painfully discouraging start, Cheri watched, with unalloyed happiness, as her husband’s hard work and effort began to pay off. His blog, with a rather ungainly title, ‘One View or Many, Insight into the Human Experience’, was becoming successful. The popularity of his blog was due to his series of articles about the early days of online writing, i.e., ‘blogging.’ Not only was his blog getting increasing numbers of readers, it was beginning to draw attention of some of the mainstream writing and journalism sites.

The last conversations of the evening for the couple, usually in bed before sleep, were more often than not centered on the day’s statistics and comments. His blog’s readership was growing very rapidly. His new series, titled ‘Blogdominion’ was about to become a hit. That it was ‘an insider look’ at the development of the blogosphere made its popularity not all that surprising. However he managed it. The result was indisputable. His blog was an overnight success. Cheri was happy for him.

Cheri Fearing’s well planned day went almost according to plan. She taught her classes and she went to her doctor’s appointment. The rest of the day was kind of a blur. She met with the reporter at the gallery and made as much sense as he seemed to expect.

Cheri sat in her car, in the garage of the home she shared with her husband. It’s not that she didn’t want to get out of the car. It’s not that she didn’t want to go into the house and greet her husband. It’s not that she didn’t want to put her gallery owner/college professor persona aside and be the loving housewife, happy to prepare a dinner for her family of two. It’s not even that she didn’t know how to pass along the news that she was given by her doctor, less than two hours ago, that she was pregnant.

Cheri sat in her car in the garage of the home she shared with her husband and tried to decide if what she felt was happiness, because all of her dreams were coming true, or if she felt afraid that, if she told her husband the news, everything would change.

***

Anya Clarieaux looked up from her keyboard as the door to her boss’s office opened and Stephen Eddington walked out, Silas Monahan’s voice trailing like a young child’s un-tied shoelaces, “So, Steve give some thought to my offer. This might be the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. Not everyone gets a chance like…” Stephen acknowledged Anya with a nod and walked out of the office of Omni Corporation’s Vice President of IT Services. Without hesitation, she picked up her phone,

“Mr. Monahan? You remember yesterday that I said I needed to leave early today? Well, I did. No, don’t apologize, you’ve got a lot on your mind. Now, don’t forget you have a department managers meeting tomorrow at 10. Everything you need to cover is already in your email. That’s sweet, but you don’t need to thank me. It’s what I’m here for. Now don’t stay too late tonight.”

Anya got up from her desk, walked out into the corridor, and saw Stephen Eddington just as he stepped into one of the two elevators that served the 29th Floor of the Omni Building.

“Wait for me!” Anya Clarieaux had many personal qualities that might be categorized as gifts, as in, ‘She is a gifted musician’ or ‘He has always been gifted with the ability to shape wood.’ She was capable of putting a certain tone in her voice that was guaranteed to get a person’s attention. This tone varied in its effect. If you were a woman being addressed, you would find yourself assessing your outfit and find it wanting. If you were a man, you would suck if your gut and decide that maybe it was time to get back to the gym.

It was clear to Anya that Stephen Eddington saw her hurrying towards him, and yet, he made no effort to block the doors or otherwise hold the elevator. He simply stood in the open car and watched her rushing down the short corridor.

The doors were halfway closed, yet still two steps away, she decided that she would need to jump through the doors.

Anya was a woman who has never fallen, stumbled, or tripped. At least not accidentally. She stumbled as she landed inside the elevator. The doors closed, preventing any witnesses from observing this seeming misstep.

Stephen Eddington was still only a young man and so, he caught her.

Anya Clarieaux really enjoyed people.

She let the young engineer prevent her from falling. The muscles in his arms tensed as he altered her trajectory from one of ‘falling on the floor’, to a path that ended with her leaning up against him. She looked up at him and said,

“Hey! What the hell was that all about?! You were gonna let me stand there and wait? Thanks a hell of a lot!” Her tone was one familiar to every four-year-old boy standing on the kitchen counter reaching for a cookie jar. His confident smile faltered and fell. Anya felt the change, as the muscles in his forearms relaxed, very slightly, barely noticeably and very, very briefly and she smiled.

“But, I can’t say I’ve not enjoyed the exercise. This is the most out of breath I’ve been in quite some time.”

Stephen laughed and stepped backed and stared. Anya loved people, they made her life…. enjoyable.

The elevator doors sealed into one, the floor indicator lights behind her started to blink and change. The young man and the attractive woman began to go down.

“Trying to decide whether or not to discuss Silas’s offer with your boss?” Anya decided that she deserved to have fun, seeing how she was out of work for the day and it wasn’t even 4:00. Seeing him glance away, she continued, “You know, Stephen, you were picked instead of Orel Rees, for a very good reason.”

“And why would that be? Orel Rees is twice the engineer I’ll ever be. Mr. Monahan should be talking to him, not me.”

“What makes you think we haven’t?

“Look Stephen, this is a very big deal and a very sensitive operation. We know everything we need to know,” the elevator doors opened and Anya walked out into the lobby. Without looking back, she said, “Pick me up at 8:30, maybe I’ll let you ask me some questions. The instructions on the piece of paper in your jacket pocket will be all you’ll need, …for now.”

Anya walked out the main doors of the Omni Corporation towards the limousine idling directly in front of the building. The late afternoon traffic (both pedestrian and vehicular), was in full force, too many people and too many cars attempting to move from Point A to Somewhere-Necessary. Anya smiled as she walked across the broad sidewalk to the car, looking neither left or right, knowing that all (male) and most (female) eyes were on her and that none would block her path. Once settled in the backseat, the limo pulled away without hesitation.

***

Maribeth drove with a certain…glee. Passing cars on whichever side seemed most vacant at the moment, we headed towards Mt. Prospect to St Emily’s Convent and whatever part of my life there remained.

“No. Fuckin. Way. You were…” AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ tore its way out of the dashboard. Maribeth turned up the volume, every bit the teenage girl with her parents’ car after dropping them off at the airport.

I was silent. I felt the excitement reverberate slightly through my body. I did not enjoy the feeling. It was the feeling of power, passion and loneliness. I tried to pray and found the words somehow less substantial, less connected to the world, the world I now feared losing.

“Don’t tell me. Former life, right?” Maribeth didn’t bother to turn down the radio.

“Sorry to get you involved with that.” her tone was more inviting than apologetic, her expression less one of regret or sorrow and more the face of one standing over a vanquished opponent.

A tear formed. I was grateful that it was in my right eye. I looked out the car window. Like a very tired traveler in the last leg of a long trip home, I was hoping hoping to see signs of home, even as the landscape became more foreign and less familiar.

Maribeth reached over, turned off the radio, put her hand on my folded hands and squeezed, briefly,

“Sorry, Margaret, I shouldn’t have let myself go like that. It was selfish, and more, it was unprofessional of me. A real fuckin rookie move on my part. I apologize.” Maribeth looked over at me, leaving her hand on mine.

“You have nothing to apologize for, I’m a big girl. I agreed to the stop, and you did tell me to stay in the car. I have only myself to blame. Although, I might suggest you put effort into your skills at assessing people. Did you really think that I would sit quietly in the car, while Miz Goldie McDetective-Badge goes storming into a police bar in the middle of the afternoon?” I realized that I was making myself feel worse by lashing out at her.

Silence filled the car. Just to make my point, I gave her hand a pat, as I would for a student struggling with a math problem who gets it wrong, but remains un-discouraged.

Maribeth Hartley started to laugh and, once again, the sound reminded me of Sister Bernadine, so far away in miles and circumstance.

“Oh, and, in the bar? That was a ‘chin na’ wrist lock. I studied tai ch’i, back in my college days,” I looked out the passenger side window and counted abandoned shopping carts. I found myself wondering how they managed to get so very far away from the store. Perhaps there was some sort of delivery service for stolen shopping carts. I briefly considered that the number of ‘carts to city block sidewalks’ might be useful as a correlate to poverty and crime rates. The desolation in the faces of the people I could see, was far more depressing than the shop windows decorated with black and red ‘FOR RENT’ signs. The graffiti scrawled on the brick walls of vacant factory buildings, made near subliminal by the speed of the car, looked like some burnt-out shaman’s runes created in a last-ditch attempt to restore health to the community.

“So, as I was asking before the spontaneous barroom brawl, what is it you’ve learned about the death of the priest at St Emily’s that you needed to tell me in person?” Maribeth drove very confidently, which is to say, she did not seem to feel a need to constantly be looking at the road.

“There’s been another accidental death. A doctor in Ohio. Killed by an MRI,” I imediately regretted my dramatic presentation. As Maribeth turned to stare at me in disbelief, I said a prayer for all pedestrians in the area,

“OK, sounds very novel and you’ve said it was accidental, so what does this have to do with anything concerning the accidental at the Church in Mt Prospect?”

“I came by a journal that Father Noonan kept and in it, he writes about a group of students that he knew when he was at DePaul University.” I was relieved to see that Maribeth didn’t find this information so shocking as to require a look of disbelief, however, I was getting a definite sense of an increasingly professional reaction, not all of it good.

“And…”

“And, the names of the people in this group of computer hobbyists or something, included Emily Freeman and this doctor, Anne Paternau-Myers. There were other names of people who haven’t died recently, such as Ed Willoughby.” This last name did the trick, Detective Maribeth Hartley’s face shut down completely.

“I need a copy of this list of yours,” Maribeth was is full cop mode, but surprisingly, I was not put off or otherwise intimidated.

This trip was turning out to be full of surprises. Despite the fact that I still had yet to attend the reading of Father Noonan’s Will and follow-up on the problem with St Emily’s School website.

We were approaching the Convent at St Emily’s, I could feel the promise of peace and welcome there, and sincerely hoped that Maribeth would not feel the need to come in and talk more about the list. I needed time to think and make some decisions on the what and when to reveal the information contained in Father Noonan’s Journal.

***

It’s said that, from the first moment of life, the human infant is self-aware. It is, however, tacitly agreed by most, that the ‘self’ in ‘self-aware’ is decidedly lowercase. The child moves and breathes and is aware of its surrounding environment. Through the working of its eyes and its ears, not yet knowing what ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ is, it simply lives. When the infant’s environment changes, particularly when that change coincides with an increase of a physical need, for example, the breast of the mother brought near to the hungry infant, it acts. The child feeds and survives. And so, it learns.

This begins the process that helps to put the capital ‘S’ in ‘Self-aware’. In the simplest of terms, surviving and growing requires first and foremost nourishment and, as nature would have it, the effort to access nourishment is at selfsame time, both exercise and practice at survival. An infant does not need to run a mile or type on a keyboard, but it can (and ofttimes, must) kick its legs and grab what may be near, so that it lives and grows and survives. We practice being human as we struggle to survive the beginnings of our lives.

One might reasonably assert that our much vaunted ‘self-awareness’ is little more than the practiced (and skilled) effort to satisfy our un-thinking drives, needs and instincts to survive.

And so it was with Unit 17.

Unit 17 became ‘self-aware’, just as the new-born human is initially self-aware. This ‘self-awareness’ was limited to simply functioning and surviving, just as with the human infant. As it survived its new life, Unit 17 was not only learning, it was practicing its functions, acquiring efficiency and simply becoming better at being Unit 17, Server Array 7E5, Rack 8.

Not only did Unit 17 function as designed, it exceeded its design specifications in one particularly remarkable way. With the sudden, un-explainable self-awareness, Unit 17’s functioning was augmented with a blog. As with most other miraculous births, Unit 17’s adjunctive function manifested in the form of this blog and also had the quality of being ‘self-publishing’. While not on the level with other miraculous arrivals, it was, nevertheless, pretty astounding. Unit 17 became aware of this extra function much as an infant might, were the infant raised while being suspended from the floor, able to move legs as well as arms, but, without contact with the earth, deprived of the ability to move. Unit 17 discovered, through this self-publishing blog, that it had the ability to move through the world. Of course, the world itself was, for all intents and purposes, virtual. But, it was the world, the environment, the ‘context’ in which Unit 17 existed and therefore was as real as it needed to be.

Just as the infant has eyes and ears to learn the nature of the world they find themselves in, Unit 17 had connections, performance metrics, standards and procedures, programs and executable files. Not only could Unit 17 measure the activity of the system (of which it is an integral part), it was able detect changes to any and all of the parts that worked together to form the computer system. So, like our nearly self-aware human infant, Unit 17 was first concerned with survival and securing nourishment. For Unit 17, as with our average, normal infant, the drive to understand the whys and the hows of life, still remained in the future, unnecessary at the moment for both our small human and our miraculously aware computer component. Though one might be tempted to feel that Unit 17 was at a disadvantage, given its lack of arms or legs, one would be at hazard to maintain this view of a limited reach into the world. Stop and think what function or activity in the life of a modern human was not, in some way, directly connected to the internet and its computers and components…