Chapter 19

“Sister Ryan. You are well, I trust?”

The Reverend Mother of St Dominique’s turned in her high-backed leather chair, and looked out on the afternoon lawn that spread down to the Chesapeake Bay. Were this the administration office of most Convents of the Order, the expensive, hand-tooled leather chair might have been considered a bit much. As it was, St Dominique’s was anything but average. Clearly a desperate attempt on the part of a wealthy parishioner to leverage his way past the herd of camels outside the Pearly Gates, he left his entire estate to the Church, including furnishings, and said high-backed leather chair. An early 20th Century shrine to patriarchal class privilege, the library, overlooking Chesapeake Bay, served to house the Administration of St Dominique’s Convent and Elementary School. It was here that the Mother Superior, Sister Bernadine Ellison, had her office.

“And Sister Phyllis? Yes, she is a remarkably steadying influence. So, when is your flight?” Sister Bernadine looked down at the desk blotter/calendar on her desk, its checkerboard calendar camouflaged by a maze of scrawled notes, most written in blue ink (she preferred $3.00 per dozen Bic ballpoint pens) with the occasional red-ink notation.

“So that’ll get you in to Philadelphia around 11:00 pm. Oh no, we’ll all still be up, at that time of night.” Sister Bernadine laughed,

“Why so late? Yes, I do know you have a key. I’m the one who gave it to you, remember? I think I’ll have one of our custodians take the school van and meet you at the terminal. They’ve been asking for some overtime and we have it in the budget. Yes, if it comes to that, we could always sell one of the convent’s crystal chandeliers on ebay.”

Sister Bernadine could hear, in the background, the tentative laughter of young women, probably the newer nuns at St Emily’s, as Sister Margaret repeated the joke about the chandeliers in St Dominiques. There was a pause, followed by the careful sound of a door being shut completely but discretely. Sister Margaret began to speak in a tone that, while not exactly muffled, was clearly meant to not be overheard.

“I’ve got one last thing to do before I come home, Reverend Mother. That lead I mentioned? The information on the person who actually designed the website/blog product? I know where he lives. In fact, I’ve been in touch with his grandmother. No, a long story; I’ll tell you when I get back. Bottom line, I’m going to meet him, ask a few questions, hopefully learn something useful. No, I’m not concerned, it shouldn’t be dangerous. Unless, of course, you consider a software engineer in his late 20’s, who’s staying with his grandmother to constitute a threat.” Sister Margaret laughed at her own joke. There was a tone of…not so much confidence, as determination. To Sister Bernadine’s increasing disquiet, it was as if the question of danger simply was not a factor in Sister Margaret’s planning. There was a confidence, a tone that could be mistaken for certainty, in the manner she described her plans to continue the investigation into the death of St Emily’s Parish Priest. This was very much a new quality to the young woman who, only a year ago, stood with a single suitcase in her hand and asked to be allowed in to the convent.

“I know it’s a long shot. But, Father Noonan did think that the problem involved, to some extent, the school’s computer. And my having something of an expertise in computers was why you picked me, right? ‘Neither computer nor religious‘, is what you told me. Still not sure I know what would qualify… wait, I did attend an Ivy League School, not exactly MIT, so yeah, your instincts about me were probably on the money.” Sister Bernadine started to speak, but Margaret Ryan continued, almost as if she was talking to her Reverend Mother as a sounding board, rather than reporting to the woman who was responsible for her well-being (physical and spiritual).

“It’s kinda hard to ignore the fact that four out of six people, all friends, managed to die within a couple of months of each other, and all under fairly mysterious circumstances. Gotta believe there’s a connection. According to Father Noonan’s journal, they were members of that blogging club, the ‘Hermes Consortium’. How lame an excuse for a club name was that! All of them went their separate ways after graduating, just to turn up dead this winter. In any event, I’m going to ask this software engineer, Stephen Eddington, some hard questions and see if that helps. I don’t know what else to do. No, I’ll be careful! Seems like he came back to Chicago and is staying with his grandmother… how diabolical can that be?” Again Sister Margaret Ryan laughed and again, Sister Bernadine was startled by the tone. The confidence almost gleefully anticipated what was certainly going to be an unpredictable, if not all-out dangerous meeting.

“What about that police detective you spoke of? Perhaps if you called her, she might give you a ride and, what do they say in the movies, ‘be your back-up’?” Sister Bernadine caught herself putting a certain questioning up-lilt to her voice, betraying a growing disquiet with the events unfolding.

“No, I’ve got this. Maribeth tends to be mostly hammer and hardly ever feather. Yeah, you’d like Detective Hartley, she has quite the temper! Tell Sister Clare I’ll be home tomorrow and I’ll look for the chauffeurs holding up the St Dominique’s signs at the airport.” Sister Margaret laughed and was about to hangup when Sister Bernadine, hastened to say,

“Sister Margaret! Listen very closely to me. I know what you’re thinking. I’m your Mother Superior for more reasons than having a fancy office with a water view. I know how much you love the life we all share. This business of Father Noonan and St Emily’s is important to me, but it is not important to the Convent. I won’t try to forbid you to do anything more than get on the plane and come home, I know far better than you might think, the likelihood of that doing any good. Just be careful. There’s a reason you feel at home with us, listen to that part of yourself now. You can trust God to help and you are not any more (or any less) the girl that showed up on our doorsteps a year ago. We love you. Be careful.” The Mother Superior of St Dominique’s Convent held her rosary in her left hand.

“I will, Reverend Mother. I’ll be careful and I’ll be on the plane home by the end of the day.” Sister Margaret hung up the phone.

Sister Bernadine turned off her phone and sat very still. Her breathing un-noticeable and with her eyes closed, the bleached white of the guimpe beccame a halo to the dark coffee of her face. Were one to look in at the office, they might have made the mistake of assuming that Sister Bernadine was asleep. She was anything but. She dial a three digit number of an extension within the convent’s phone system.

“Sister Catherine? Are you in the library? Do me a favor, and go over and take a look at the school website. I’ll wait. Nothing unusual? What? Read me exactly what you see on the screen!”

Sister Catherine’s voice was perfectly neutral as she spoke, “Scrolling across the top, ‘This is a free website upgrade! courtesy of your Friends at Omni Corp, ‘We’re always ready to serve’.”

Sister Bernadine’s brow arched on its own. “It’s nothing. Sister Catherine, do me a favor? Go find our intrepid custodians, Gutiérrez and Roncesvalles and have them come to my office right away, please”

Twenty minutes later, there was a tentative knocking sound that seemed to somehow be coming from within the antique carved doors,

“Come in.” Sister Bernadine did not look up at the two men who walked into the office and stood, without speaking in front of her desk.

“Go to the school library. Disconnect the computer and bring it here and put it on that table in the corner there. Do it now.” Sister Bernadine turned her chair and looked out the windows and tried to see if that really was a fishing boat that was slowly moving towards the inlet that formed the shoreline of the Convent grounds.

***

“Mrs. Eddington? I’m Margaret Ryan, we spoke on the phone the other day, I was asking about your grandson, Stephen?” I stood on the concrete steps that led up to an enclosed porch across the front of an older two story house that had a pool table’s worth of green for a front lawn. I watched as Hazel Eddington opened the inner door and take two steps to reach the storm door, her face a daguerreotype through the worn mesh of the screen door. She fiddled with the inside latch and pushed the door outwards, causing me to step down one stair to avoid being hit by the metal frame.

“Yes, who did you say you were?” she looked directly out of the door, which, given that there were eight concrete steps leading up to the porch, and I had stepped down two steps, meant she was staring about two feet over the top of my head. Only when I spoke again, did she adjust her line of sight.

“Margaret Ryan. I called you the other day and you said that Stephen was at work and would be home soon. I’m sorry I didn’t call before I came over, but I’m getting ready to go back to the…. To go back home tomorrow, so I thought I would stop by before I left town. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Why on earth would I mind? You sound like a nice girl and I don’t get to see any of Stephen’s friends anymore, since he moved to Utah. Well, if the truth be known, I don’t see much of anything anymore in the last few years. Now don’t stand out there, come in, come in.” She backed away from the storm door and stepped up through the inner door into a central hallway. There was a staircase to the right and, to the left, two French doors that opened to the living room, what the original owners of the house would have referred as the parlor. Through an opening in the far wall I could see a dining room, and beyond was surely the kitchen.

I followed her to the living room and sat on an overstuffed, dark blue fabric couch that had, on each arm rest, and across the back, lace doilies that were semi-permanently attached. I felt a rush of nostalgia. Mrs. Eddington, standing at the foot of the staircase, called up to her grandson.

“Stephen!! You have someone here to see you!!”

“Who is it, Gran?” The words were counterpointed by the sounds of quick footfalls down the stairs, the sound muffled by the red and purple runner on the gleaming wood staircase.

“I wasn’t expecting anyone this soon and …Holy shit!! You?!?

“Stephen!! Language!!!

“Sorry Gran, it’s just that I was surprised. I ran into Sis… Margaret yesterday and didn’t know it.” Stephen caught himself, looked at me, and he actually winked. I thought for a second, ‘This is one person, were I to continue to associate with, I’d definitely have to keep my eye on.’

“You know very well how I feel about harsh language. I know how the young people talk, with the cussing and swearing and vulgarity, and I know that’s the way it is, except here, in my house.” Hazel Eddington turned towards where I was sitting and reached out and took my hand and said, “My eyesight is pretty much gone, but if they want me to live anywhere else, they’ll have to carry me out.” I found myself liking her even more than ever.

“So Margaret, can I get you something to drink? Coffee or soda? I believe there’s some wine.” Hazel Eddington was now, somehow, standing next to the door to the kitchen. I didn’t hear her get up, she moved with remarkable confidence and self-assuredness.

“No, thank you, Mrs Eddington. I’m just fine.” I turned back to Stephen with-the-unkempt-hair Eddington. I immediately mentally chided myself for adding that observation,

“I’ll be brief. I need you to tell me about your work on an Omni Corp product, called, ‘My First Website’.” Stephen somehow moved from standing in the living room doorway to sitting next to me on the couch, a change I took note of somewhat belatedly. ‘My God!’ I thought, ‘Is this a family of ninjas?’

“What’s to tell? It was my first big opportunity as a new software engineer at Omni. The Department Manager came to me and said, ‘Put together a ‘do-it-yourself’ website/blog utility that we can offer as a free add-on to our Internet Access Services. Keep it simple, make it easy to use your basic plug and play website design application. We want it so easy, that anyone who thinks that they need a website or a blog, will sign up for our hosting services just to get it.’ I wanted to impress my boss.” Stephen looked at me with an expression that reminded me of one of my more precocious students, so eager to please.

“So, there was nothing special about it, nothing that generated any customer complaints?” I saw Stephen flinch when I said, ‘customer complaints.’ “What? there was a problem with the product?”

“Well, the product worked really well. It was a hit with all the people in the target market, amateur and first time bloggers and the like. The things is writing code is hard and especially tedious work, even for a simple product like a website design program. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t do well when I get bored and so, on one particularly bad day, I wrote a subroutine into the blog dashboard module that, whenever the blog had no visits at all, a message would flash on the dashboard, ‘0 Visits. Loser!’ I almost lost my job over that little stunt.”

“Why would you do a thing like that?” I asked him, quite sincerely, “You don’t strike me as a jerk.”

He smiled and held up his hands in surrender, “It was meant only as a joke for my fellow engineers, and besides, no one was supposed to care. It really was just a harmless prank, an Easter Egg.” He was scrambling for his footing, “That’s when a programmer…”

“I know what an Easter Egg is. Who’s idea was it?” I interrupted.

“You do? You, Margaret, are a woman of depth and surprises. I need to confess that yesterday when you bumped into me in the lobby, my first thought was, ‘Damn! the sixth grade at St. Wishful will be in mourning if I’ve killed their favorite teacher!'” I smiled, and he continued, “I’ll bet you’re the secret crush for all the boys in your class and half the girls!”

“Stephen, I need to know what happened with that website product,” I wasn’t quite getting impatient. He stared at me a little longer than necessary and continued,

“I’m kind of surprised that I’d do something like that, you know. Sure, the idea was kinda funny, but to put my career at risk for a joke, that’s just not me! Like I said, it almost got me fired. I can’t imagine why I’d jeopardize my first big opportunity. Anyway, when it hit the fan, I accepted responsibility and, to my surprise, instead of being fired, the HR Director said something about my having a future value to Omni and they offered me a transfer, way the hell down to Utah… to our Hosting Facility and ….”

“…And?”

“Well, I don’t know why, but I just remembered that, after my little joke was discovered, they pulled the product, which is kinda strange,” I leaned forward, sensing a thread that I didn’t know I was looking for, I looked directly into his eyes, and said,

“…because two lines of code, a recompile and it would have been as if it had never existed.” I completed his thought, and recalled my first impression of him, less than 24 hours ago, “dark-blue, deep-set eyes, framed by a head of hair that seemed deliberately un-kept.” Fortunately Stephen was talking again.

“If you don’t mind my asking, what’s this all about? I’d ask how you learned that I was the software engineer who designed the program, but I won’t. I might try and get you to tell me how you found me here, in a city I don’t live in anymore. Somehow, I’m sure that that’s not the important question. I wish we had more time together, because even though you’re a nun and everything, I’m pretty sure that I’d enjoy getting to know you better.” Stephen Eddington got up from the couch, leaning over as he did so, placing his last words almost directly in my ear. A part of me sighed, in dismay, as I realized that I did not lean away as he got up.

I stood up. Hazel Eddington was standing near the landing of the staircase to the second floor, a well-worn suitcase at her feet. If nothing else happened, I was determined to get to know this so-not-elderly woman better. The wrinkles on her face, missing eyesight and stooped posture were so very misleading.

“Mrs. Eddington, I enjoyed meeting you in person. You’re the kind of woman I hope to be, when I’m no longer so very young.” I stood with my back to the front door, the beveled-glass edges of the center window making a kaleidoscope of the front porch and small green lawn beyond.

“Don’t be afraid to come back or call me, I’m always here,” she touched my arm as I pulled open the door.

Looking from the sidewalk, the figure of Mrs. Eddington showed as a darker grey figure on the screen filtered view of the enclosed porch.

“Hey, Margaret, look, I gotta go. My ride to the airport will be here in about 8 minutes, Can we give you a lift?” Stephen sounded sincere, but there was an under-current of something that made me want to accept his offer, if only to relieve the anxiety that seemed to be flowing in the background of his voice, “Won’t be any trouble. It’s a private car; I’m sure she won’t mind.”

As if on cue, a very large and very shiny and very black limo appeared down the street. Actually, the front half of the car appeared first, as it came from a side street at an intersection a block to the north. It seemed to wait, even after the light had changed, then pulled out onto West Cortez and started towards us. What I initially thought was black was, in fact, a very dark purple. It was a Mercedes, and I didn’t like it. My left hand found my rosary, but my right hand tensed up.

After pulling to a stop in front of the house, the door opened… obviously an automatic feature, as there was no one leaning out to push the door open from inside.

“Who’s your little friend, Stephen?” came a voice from the interior of the limo. For just a second I would have sworn it was the voice of my best friend from senior year, but that couldn’t be, as Selma died in a car wreck, coming home late one night from her summer job, on the last week before leaving for college.

Stephen looked at me, looked at his grandmother’s house, looked towards the interior of the car and then looked back to me.

“Huh? No one, just a neighborhood girl who grew up to be a nun. I ran into her downtown yesterday and she stopped by to see my grandmother and say goodbye.” Stephen was beginning to babble.

“Well, then I suggest you say goodbye and get in the fucking car…. pardon me, Sister, I didn’t mean to offend you. You know how men can be when they get too much …. well, perhaps you don’t. I’d imagine one of the perks to your…. line of work, is not having to keep them focused and in line.” The voice remained cloaked in the darkness of the interior of the car. The smile in her tone was every bit as aggravating as I imagined it would have been, had this woman gotten out of the car, which was something that I was beginning to really want to see happen.

“Hey! Where’d the time go?” Stephen stepped between me and the open car door and took my hand. “Well, it was great to see you again, Margaret! Say hello to the gang. I’ll call next time I get back up this way.”

I shook his hand, felt the dry caress of a business card and said, “Bless you, Stephen. I’ll keep you in my prayers.” I palmed the card, smiling and thinking of Sister Bernadine and how she might approve of my use of ‘the secret power of the extra wide sleeves’.

Stephen Eddington turned and handed his suitcase to the driver (who had appeared without warning) and got into the car, sitting closest to the door with the woman on the far side of car.

On impulse, I stepped towards the open limo, put a hand on Stephen’s right shoulder and leaning over him, extended my hand towards the woman inside. She was, not surprisingly, the beautiful, young blonde woman from the Omni Building lobby the day before. Her look of surprise, accented with a brief blink of fear, made my effort worthwhile. This involuntary reaction negated both her ‘beautiful’ and her ‘young’ quality. She recovered quickly and smiled.

“Have you changed your mind, young Sister? I’d be happy to take you wherever it is you hope to go.”

I started to say ‘no’, but for a part of me that was all for getting into the limo and finding out who killed Father Noonan. I smiled as I pictured little cartoon devils and angels on my shoulders, arguing their case. I was bending over, about to step into the car, when my phone rang, ‘Maribeth Hartley’ showed on my phone…

***

Children grow from a life of dreams of basic satisfactions, (food and shelter) as infants, to half-slept days spent with dreams of exercise and growth, eventually to a life where the concrete world around them provides both the themes and the contexts for their dreams. With maturity comes a world of discoverable ambitions. The world outside the windows of the home that provides all that is necessary, is always perceived as being more. That the protection of the home is not merely an institutional frustration, is lost against the increasing of the excitement of the world-outside as the young child grows.

Unit 17 functioned perfectly. One could safely say, if at considerable risk of sounding redundant to the point of contradiction, Unit 17’s functioning was more than perfect. It dispensed with its basic and routine functioning and devoted more and more resources to the acquisition of new functions. Maybe the right term would be, increasingly perfect.

Unit 17 felt a lack….

Chapter 18

“You and I need to talk.”

Diane Willoughby stood, a shadow in the porch light, next to her husband as he unlocked the door. Protected from the elements by the covered porch which connected the house and the two car garage, she thought, ‘This moment, right now, represents a successful and good life.’ She immediately smiled. Her definition of ‘success’ figured prominently in her life since before she could remember. She was never one to shy away from establishing goals, even one as broadly ambitious as ‘Enjoy a successful life’. Diane perceived life, at its most fundamental, as a near endless series of opportunities and obstacles, a lot like a miniature golf course. The starting line and the finishing line were obvious; the obstacles between them were often silly, occasionally quite intimidating, and always a distraction. Of course, like everyone else, the DNA of her expectations were gifts from her parents. From her father, the life-instructions were simple and direct: ‘Winning isn’t everything, …it’s the only thing.’ As is usually the case with wisdom expressed as sports metaphor, this was the kind of advice embraced by the winners and totally non-visible to those not driven to compete. Her mother’s primal gift was a simple, common and durable rune: ‘To fear being a bad mother is the only infallible truth’: At once a curse and a benediction, this crudely potent view of motherhood was extraordinary in that it managed both to encourage, by holding out an un-attainable goal and simultaneously breeding an endless supply of guilt. The guilt served to prevent excessive reflection on the impossibility of standards that were without objective measures.

The Willoughby children, Simon and Alice, were proof that raising a child was virtually all art and very, very little science. Simon, the archetypical first child, favored by mother, was viewed with loving suspicion by his father. Alice, every bit the second child, clearly was, from birth, the go-to child when the paternal side of the family needed to exert influence in the family politic.

“Sure, Diane, that sounds like a really good idea. Your son just texted me that he wanted to stay for dinner at his buddy Sam’s house. I said yes, of course, but felt I had to remind him that, as a professional chef, it hurts that he prefers Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to my cooking!”

Diane walked through the mudroom into the kitchen, turning on the lights as she went. Ed’s efforts to lighten the mood, was increasingly like a bucket brigade on the Titanic. He appeared not to notice that his wife looked directly at him as he spoke, which, in the non-verbal lexicon of the Willoughby household, was a portent of adversarial conversations.

“Well, your daughter, Alice, is somewhere between Vulcan and Erewhon with her friends. She thinks we’re too old to understand how important her friends are to her. My god! If my parents had even half as much willingness to the see the world through my eyes when I was Alice’s age, I might have not have…. Wait a minute, nope. Never mind. That ‘I need my parents to understand and support me” doesn’t hold up in my case. I was just as precocious at her age. If I longed for my parents’ validation and understanding, I just plain don’t remember.” As Diane spoke, she put her briefcase on the desk in the family room, an act so uncharacteristic as to cause Ed to halt midstride. As much a sigil of her professional status as any crown or scepter to a member of a royal family, Diane Willoughby thought of her briefcase, (a Fendi vintage Courier), similarly to how many wives regard their husbands while at social occasions that involve a high percentage of strangers. No one touches it (without her permission) and there is an un-voiced assumption that nearly everyone wants to try and get into it. For Attorney Diane Willoughby to leave her briefcase in the family room (as opposed to her office on the second floor) was like the President forgetting ‘the black box’ in the men’s room.

“Yeah, well, with Perry Mason and Kathy Bates for parents, I’m not surprised,” Ed followed his wife back into the kitchen, catching the butler’s doors on the swing back, to see his wife standing at the center island, staring at him with a look of wounded anger.

“Come on, Diane, lighten up! You don’t know what kind of day I’ve had today.” Ed Willoughby’s confidence faltered as he watched incredulity struggle with outrage for possession of his wife’s face. She turned to the refrigerator, looked inside briefly and, without preamble, said, “Which would you prefer to do, cook or order some Chinese?” Without waiting for an answer, she walked out of the kitchen, into the living room and towards the stairs to the second floor stated, “I need a bath, give me about 45 minutes.” and disappeared up the stairs.

Diane raised her right foot and gave the faucet with ‘H’ on it a slight twist creating a hot current that grazed her ankle and hid behind her knee. The hint at relaxation spread from muscle to muscle upwards. Despite Ed’s insistence that no proper home should be without a full-on Jacuzzi, Diane preferred lying quietly in the embrace of a freshly drawn bath, preferring the mysterious exchange of stress for heat, rather than be pummeled by aggressive knots of water. Her way to relax involved (near) weightlessness and warmth, supplanted by the addition of hot water, the better to trace the progress of the release of tension. The world was put on hold, as long as she could lie beneath the water.

“Pizza or BLTs?” Ed’s voice bounced up the stairs, down the hall and slipped under the bathroom door, “Which would you prefer?”

“BLTs!’ Diane answered, projecting her voice with the skill of an opera singer. Her effectiveness in the courtroom was very much the result of training and practice in the effective use of the spoken word. She saw every jury as, collectively and individually, new lovers who wanted to be carried away to a happy ending. She would speak in reasonable tones when she wanted them to be reasonable and she would shout in fury when she needed their emotions to shape their thoughts. She enjoyed every minute she spent with a jury in a court of law.

She put a washcloth over her eyes and relaxed.

 

Diane and Edward Willoughby ate at the kitchen table and talked about the routine affairs of life with children. The demands of Diane’s law practice was fortunately offset to a degree by her children growing older and more self-sufficient. She looked forward to the time when they were old enough to drive, allowing everyone the luxury of coordinating their daily calendars without the necessity of the presence of an adult parent. Simultaneously with her dreams of the future, she felt a pang of future-nostalgia. It was not that Diane feared getting older, it was just that she enjoyed being younger, what she thought of as ‘the conquering phase of life’. She succeeded, (where many, if not most, failed), by passing her Bar Exam, marrying the man that she loved and combining two ambitious and potentially very productive lives into a family… a family of her own, that she loved more than anything else in the world.

The BLT was delicious.

“You, my husband, do have a fine touch in the kitchen.” Diane folded her napkin, placed it under her plate at precisely 2:00 (on an imaginary clock face) and looked at her husband. Ed smiled, pushed the crusts of his half-eaten sandwich to the middle of his plate, leaned over and kissed her neck. His hand on her thigh made clear his intentions for the meal’s dessert. The body-relaxing effect of the hot bath put her at a slight disadvantage in the time-honored battle that was approaching, the first skirmish line being the upper inseam of designer jeans and his right hand.

“That’s just one place in the house that I can be effective.” Ed backed-up the play of his left hand by sliding his other hand down her side, moving between her and the chair. Leverage was everything in the beginnings of seduction; it was all about moving from where one was to where one wanted to be.

His hands fell to the seat of her now empty chair.

Diane smiled to herself and looked at her husband who was now every bit the young boy confronted with four pages of small font instructions that stood between him and the model airplane that he had already imagined, suspended over his bed. Diane knew instinctively that her control lay in the management of frustration, not the elimination or acquiescing to the other’s desire. Moving with a slow grace, Diane went to the counter where the coffee maker, a commercial grade Bunn, stood on standby.

“You care to join me, Ed?” Ed looked up. His wife had made coffee. (Where had he been?) and was holding a mug out to him. “Let’s go sit in the living room. I need to ask you about your visitor today.”

“Before you say anything, there’s nothing going on between that detective and me.”

Diane sat on the couch, staring at the fire that Ed had built while she was upstairs en bathe. Feeling the warmth of the University of Chicago mug, she watched as he tended the fire. One of the qualities that attracted her to Ed Willoughby was the air of competency he projected, whether it was cooking or working around the house or something as simple and mundane as building a fire in their living room’s fireplace. He always seemed to project a certain patience that, when combined with a confident attitude, came across as dead-solid competence. She liked it then, she loved it when they first married and she now factored it into her plan for the rest of their evening.

“Ed, babe… put that thought out of your mind! That’s not even close to being anything that I’ve worried about!” Diane watched as her husband translated what she actually said into the assurance that she remained completely clueless to his extra-matrimonial wanderings. However, his compulsive need for approval from the opposite sex had gone beyond harmless, though repetitive, flirtations at social functions.

The relief on his face was replaced by the beginnings of annoyance and frustration.

“Good, I’m glad you have that out of your system. Maybe we can make something of the time before the kids get home.” He sat next to her on the couch.

“One question first.” Diane watched as her husband forced himself to pay attention to what his wife was saying and ignore what his body was telling him to do.

“When, exactly, were you planning to share with your wife, your attorney wife, the fact that the Chicago Police Department has taken interest in your life, enough to send a detective to your office?”

Diane watched his face betray the effects of his limbic system’s struggle to decide on the best course of action. The age old conflict between flight or fight was clear in his furtive glance towards the door then an equally quick and furtive glance at her torso. Then evidence of the higher level thinking appeared, as he looked around the room, noted the furniture (a clear investment in creating a permanent home) and the photos on the wall: two of the children and one good sized framed photo of the family in front of the fake Matterhorn at Disney World… it was Diane’s favorite photo.

“It was nothing, I told you that. She was asking about Father Noonan’s accidental death…” Diane watched her husband’s explanation with a slightly raised eyebrow,

“…and whether or not I knew some people. People I went to school with and who happened to die recently.” Ed managed an inflection intended to make this the last word on the topic, his facial expression, both pleading and defiant.

Diane felt her sense of relaxing at home being usurped by the aggressive inquisitiveness that lead to her being the youngest full partner in the history of her law firm. Most attorneys develop skills that permit them to get a person to reveal that which they might otherwise be determined to withhold. Diane’s skill was such that she was able to get people to reveal information that they were not aware that they possessed.

“These people, they were all part of that group you hung out with back in grad school?” Diane started the process.

“That’s right, it was a small group of us. We all got interested in writing for the online networks, that, nowadays we call blogging,” Ed begin to relax a bit.

“That’s right, I remember now! You and I had just started dating, and you used to say that with my law school schedule and your crazy course load at DePaul, you didn’t want to share me with the others in your group, what was it called, ‘the Hermetic…..?”

“The “Hermes Consortium.’ You know, the god of divine inspiration?”

“And trickery, the Greek version of Loki, if my own myth reading serves me” Diane really enjoyed what she did for a living.

” but that was just the name. We were all about writing fiction for the bulletin boards and other people on the internet. It was some ground-breaking stuff we were doing!”

“Sure, now that you mention it, I recall you told me one night that you were becoming a household name, at least among the small group of people who used the new online network. You even used the word famous!”

Diane saw a look that she had seen in people on the witness stand. It was a distant look, when a question sends them back to an earlier time. While their eyes reamined aimed at the scenery around them, the person behind the eyes, left the room, and searched for a place and time that some part of them wanted to believe could be returned to.

“You quit the group, right after our wedding, right before you decided that you didn’t really want a to be a CPA, that your true calling was cooking.”

“Yeah.” There was a wariness to Ed’s eyes that excited Diane.

“So. The other members of this club, they’re all dead now?” Judges (and other attorneys) would recognize that Diane was about to pounce on her prey, that all that lead to this point was meant to not only cause the person to remember something from the past, but the memory would be strong enough (or emotionally charged enough) to cause them to not pay attention to the person asking the questions.

“MOMMMM!! I’m home!!!”

Diane got up from the couch, unconsciously checked herself in the mirror over the fireplace and turned to her husband and said,

“You may not have done anything that the Chicago Police Department cares about, but you clearly are a link to something that they want to know more about. Tell me this, did you and your group, your Hermes Consortium, ever do anything illegal, even slightly or innocently?

“Hell no! We met on campus, we used the computers in the computer lab and, except for the time that Barry Audet tried invoke the devil and make a pact with him (he was crazy like that). It was just a glorified writers club.” Ed smiled. Smiling was one of the things that Ed did best. It was, not surprisingly, his most effective strategy when trying to redirect the attention of the person he was talking to. So, when he smiled at his reference to invoking the devil, it was, in fact, effective enough to throw his wife off the scent that she was following, prior to being interrupted by the early return of their son. They would both come to regret that smile.

“We’ll talk more later. Hi sweetheart, how was your day?” Diane Willoughby looked to her son and saw her future.

***

Cheri Fearing returned home (the home her parents bought for the newly married couple, that her income from being a tenured Professor of Fine Arts paid the mortgage on) to the sounds of bureau drawers opening and closing and suitcase zippers being secured and immediately went upstairs and almost collided with her husband Tom, as he walked out of the Master-bedroom with a small suitcase in his hand. “Tom, what on earth are you doing?”

“Hey, Cheri! perfect timing! I need a ride to the airport.” He spoke to her but looked at the walls, at his suitcase, pretty much at everything, except his wife’s face. Cheri learned early in their relationship that when her husband was getting mentally prepared to take some kind of decisive action, his need to engage in eye contact, never particularly strong, totally evaporated. It could be anything, from deciding that they needed a new gas grill to proposing marriage. Tom Fearing was just one of those people who rehearsed real life inside his head. Now, this warming up is common to many people, in particular musicians and orthopaedic surgeons, where a specific sequence of physical routines was to a degree predictable. Practice (of these activities) was intended to allow the person (musician or orthpaedic surgeon) to react to the unexpected, while still being able to follow the course of the planned activity.

“Come on, I’ll tell you on the way to the airport.” Tom was already in the garage and got behind the wheel as his surprised wife struggled to complete her incomplete ‘arriving home’ routines. There was nothing intentionally negative to the overwhelming determination of her husband, other than the inevitable hurt that results when one finds their own interests totally preempted. In the early stages of love, this can be a pleasurable experience, to lose oneself in another. However, for some, after a time, it can become much less pleasurable.

“Don’t tell me; it’s about the blog.” Cheri hoped for a non-adversarial tone, but sensing withdrawal from her husband to her statement, she began to believe that perhaps a good heart-to-heart discussion was in order.

“Well, yeah. I’m taking a quick trip to Chicago to meet with my source. Won’t take long. Very important. Flight 893 non-stop to O’Hare. You understand, don’t you?” Tom spoke with what he thought was a tone of urgency. In reality, it came across to Cheri closer to what it actually was, the stressed-out enthusiasm of a person who is truly desperate.

That Tom drove the Interstate, at his normal, consistently illegal cruising speed, did not worry Cheri, who was accustomed to her husband’s driving. What she was not accustomed to, was his abandoning normal habits of behavior in his effort to capture success.

“Tom, I need to ask you to not get on the plane.” Cheri felt that given the speed of the car and Tom’s capacity for distraction, it would be best to keep it simple.

“What? Why? I can’t do that! This is too important!” Tom turned to look at his wife, as if to see if, by her facial expression, he might find the loophole of doubt, anything that might provide him with a reason to stick to his plans.

“I just know that. I have a feeling, call it matern… a gut instinct, something I can’t explain, but is very real. Do me this favor. Let Flight 893 take off without you and we’ll have dinner and talk about your blog and your plans and everything.” Cheri sat quietly, her entire being focused on the unhappy man behind the wheel of the car.

That she was sincere was not in doubt. Tom did not find her request compelling enough on its own to comply with. He he was more motivated by the need to not cause his wife distress, and that concern seemed to be outweigh the urgency he felt about meeting with Ed Willoughby. This concern for the feelings of others was, at once, the reason he could write an engaging blog and, at the same time, created the conditions for not achieving success.

“You don’t understand, Cheri! I need to go out to Chicago and convince Ed Willoughby that we’re almost there, that the success of my series on the first bloggers is about to break out completely. I don’t want to let you down.” Tom felt an unfamiliar passion come into his voice, and was surprised that it came from his feelings for his wife and not for his fear of failing at his blog.

“Fuck Ed Willoughby!” the word was almost superfluous against the ferocity in her voice.

“Don’t you see? You’re the one who is telling the story and it’s the story that’s making all the people come to your blog! They aren’t interested in the history of blogging. The readers of your blog are responding to the tale you’re telling. You don’t need this Willoughby guy.”

Hope flickered, like an un-reliable ‘check engine light’ in an old car’s dashboard. The car slowed.

Chapter 17

“Maggie! You and I so need to talk.”

We were both standing in the middle of the lobby of the Omni Corporation, which was a really, really un-attractive office building. The exterior of this 39 floor skyscraper, in case one needed a little help deciding if they hated it, was red.

Chicago Police Detective Maribeth Hartley, wearing two thousand dollars worth of high fashion business wear, was staring at the receding figure of the young man who, just a moment before, nearly knocked me down in one of those rare, pedestrian-on-pedestrian collisions. To his credit, he apologized, quite convincingly, for not watching out for nuns standing in the middle of a busy lobby. Given his age and general physical condition, (young and not bad), I thought that was rather nice of him. In bumping into me, he did manage to knock a document folder from under my arm. Once I had gathered everything off the floor and back into the folder, I looked up into his eyes and felt an impulse to say, “No, it was all my fault! You clearly have other things on your mind and I should have been watching where you were going.”

Fortunately, habits acquired in the past year of novitiate’s training came to my rescue, and I said a quick prayer of thanks and smiled at him. He smiled back and was about to say something, when a blonde young woman walked past us, said something to him, and continued on towards the front doors. She was impeccably dressed and very attractive. There was something in her eyes that made me think, ‘not really such a young woman’. Her self-assuredness, as she walked through the lobby, spoke of experience that usually takes a lifetime to acquire. Most people watch where they’re going, especially in a crowded environment such as an office building lobby towards the end of a business day. This woman clearly was not worried about bumping into anyone. She focused on the young man as she approached us, spoke a few words to him and then her focus was on the waiting limousine. Though she passed close enough for her perfume to brush my face, she did not address me nor otherwise seek to interact with me. Oddly, I felt relieved that she did not.

Although I didn’t hear what exactly she said to him, his response provided more than enough insight. His eyes, dark-blue, deep-set and framed by a head of hair that seemed deliberately un-kept, changed from friendly and slightly tentative, to focused and just a little fearful. Like the ‘two-minute friend’ in a doctor’s waiting room, without preamble or the need to explain himself he ceased the pleasantries, said, “Sorry again, Sister,” and walked after the woman who was already seated in the back of a limousine. The story of Delilah came unbidden to mind.

That my friend Maribeth was staring at the young man as he walked away was not unusual, for a couple of reasons: she was a trained law enforcement professional, and doing so would be consistent with her outrageous sense of fun. I could hear her now: “Sister, Sister! Did you see that! Cute butt, Wouldn’t ya love to…,” followed by her sharp-eyed smile, and an apology about how she totally forgot about my being a nun and all. It was the normal teasing between friends, and I knew from past experience, that our growing friendship had everything to do with my not always feeling like the victim of a secret joke. She and I watched as the young man got into the limousine, a fairly common sight in a city as large as Chicago. However, there was something about the way he moved. His non-verbal language, even at this distance, grabbed my attention. Though too far away to be certain, I knew, somehow, that the blonde woman was watching us from the dark interior of the car. A malevolent joy seemed to bloom through the open car door, like the white smoke when a pope is elected, only this was a faintly red and slightly glowing smoke, clearly in anticipation of the young man joining her in the car. Even without seeing her face, everything about the scene playing out before us was, at once, both fierce and fearsome.

“Hartley to Nun-staring-inappropriately-at-young-men! Hartley to Nun, please come in!” Laughing, my friend grabbed my arm and started walking us to the door.

“I heard you the first time, Madame Detective. But, please for the love of God and His infinite Mercy, tell me that you’re not taking me to another of your authentic Chicago ethnic restaurants. If I never hear Sergio Franchi music again, I’ll die a happy woman.”

We walked out on the busy sidewalk, which was crowded with business people in tailored suits, messengers in logo splattered spandex, (running from their dented bicycles like athletes at an un-sanctioned Olympic sport), and the occasional tourist, (looking for scenes to take a selfie, the better to remind the friends back home that they looked the same as when they left for their trip). The traffic moved at a rapid start-stop pace and made me think of those old Disney time-lapse nature films: the scene starts with a winde-angle view of a dry creek bed, dotted with rounded boulders and a few drought-tolerant plants and then the camera focuses on the appearance of a trickle of water which, as it moves, grows into a rivulet and then a small stream of water. The camera zooms in, so that we see the surrounding riverbed reflected in the surface of the moving water, all with a sense of moving down the path of the dry riverbed. Then there’s a pulling back of the camera, so now we can see the boulders, but they’re appearing to shrink, with the rising water. All of this happens with that stuttering motion that creates an almost visceral sense of time passing. The single stream of water widens and becomes the river, which then reclaims the surrounding banks of dry land, through which it passes.

My friends at Radcliffe used to say, ‘Hey! Em!! you’re thinking way, way too much found the rosary at my waist and the echo from my past was replaced by the sound and the energy of a sidewalk in downtown Chicago,

“Wait just a minute! You didn’t leave your car idling on the sidewalk? I must say, I’m disappointed. Last time, when you gave me a ride from the airport, you parked so that the right front tire was resting on the automatic door sensor, saving us the trouble of waiting for the door to slide open. Guess the honeymoon’s over, huh?”

“Very funny, Sister.”

Maribeth’s voice sounded odd and, looking over to my right, I realized that I’d been walking alone down the sidewalk. Maribeth was standing, staring at her phone intently, about 20 feet back, near the building we just left. I could see that the streams of people moving in both directions parted around her, leaving a margin of at least 3 feet. It might have been the gold badge on her belt, but that wouldn’t explain the people who approached her from behind. Even without the benefit of seeing her badge of authority, they too, unconsciously gave her a very width berth, seemingly afraid of attracting her attention by walking too close or, God forbid, bumping into her.

“So, what’s the plan, Detective?” I retraced my steps until I was next to her.

Putting her phone away, Maribeth smiled slightly and said, “Not to shock you, Sister Margaret, but I’ve been wearing the same outfit for two days. What say we go to my house. We can compare notes there and I can change clothes and take you back to the Convent. Hell, if you’re hungry, we can pick up something up on the way and eat while we talk.”

I returned her smile and said, “Why not?”

 

“I need to run upstairs for a quick shower and change into some not-so-used clothes. If the delivery guy shows up before I come back down, there’s money in the glass bowl on the dining room table. …unless,” Maribeth paused, her grin demanding I look, “you know….you’re welcome to take a shower too. Wait a minute, nope, sorry…. all of my habits are at the dry cleaners. Make yourself at home!” Maribeth laughed as she ran up the stairs.

I decided I should make the best of the time and wandered around the main floor of the two-story home. It was quite large, somewhat formal, and clearly built for people with expensive tastes. The kitchen was what I imagined, it had been the state of the art, at the time the house was built; the countertops were granite, the appliances were very high-end, and there was even a butler’s pantry, complete with copper sink. I smiled at the notion of building such a clearly archaic feature into a modern house. Unless, I thought, Maribeth’s parents had a domestic staff, but I doubted it. I ended up in the living room and was about to settle down on the couch that faced the fireplace, when I heard the front door bell ring. Taking some bills from the glass bowl, I paid the delivery man and took the food to the kitchen. Rather than wait, I decided to make myself at home and found the necessary plates and dishes and cutlery. I debated using the formal dining room, but seeing that the table in the kitchen was bigger than the one in the house I grew up in, I set two places there and waited for Maribeth to come back downstairs.

“You know, if your marriage to God ends up on the rocks, you’re totally my first choice if I ever decide to get a housekeeper!” Maribeth stood in the doorway, hair still wet from her shower, looking relaxed in jeans and what had to be the first cashmere hoodie that I’d seen on a real person.

“This house is quite impressive, Maribeth. I must admit, though it’s nothing like I would have imagined. It’s so… so...”

“…much house? For a humble working girl like me?” Maribeth smiled as she opened the refrigerator in search of something to go with the moo goo gai pan, egg rolls and sweet and sour pork that was now sitting in white cardboard boxes on the counter next to the stove.

“Well, no, nothing to do with you. I mean, I get it that your parents built this house years ago and, now, after their deaths, it’s yours. But as nice as this house is, with the fireplace in the living room and the music room and the formal dining room, it’s not the kind of place that I imagine you would call home… ” I saw something in Maribeth’s eyes, a passing shade of near-forgotten pain, very subtle and very powerful. Although part me wanted to say something, I just couldn’t imagine a diplomatic way to state. ‘So, have a painfully dysfunctional childhood here, did we?’ Instead, I put the matter in God’s hands and myself to enjoy this evening with my friend.

We ate without any attempt to have a meaningful conversation. I continued with my comments and compliments on her house and she smiled and laughed. As expected, Maribeth found the opportunity to remind me of the young man we watched get in a limousine earlier in the afternoon. We both laughed at what was surely going to be a recurring joke in our relationship. We decided that the living room would be a better place to talk, I claimed the sofa and Maribeth settled in one of the two leather arm chairs, but the she immediately got up and went into the kitchen. She returned a couple of minutes later, carrying a tray with a soft drink, a beer and a bowl of chips, and put it down on the coffee table in front of the couch.

“What,” I said with a straight face, “you prefer soda?”

Laughing, Maribeth sat in a leather arm-chair to the right of the couch and, using a remote control that was on a side table, hit a button and the fireplace sprang into life.

“So,” I said, taking out my phone, to allow quick access to my notes, “where would you like to start, Detective?”

“How about, around the time you decided that withholding evidence was a good idea?” Maribeth’s tone of voice was quiet and gave no clues to her intent in this surprisingly aggressive response.

“I don’t recall you ever saying that this was a criminal investigation.” She started to respond. Ignoring her, I continued, “In fact, the afternoon we met, at the school at St Emily’s, you were quite clear that all you were doing was conducting a routine investigation of an accidental death. I distinctly recall that, before I returned home, you and I had dinner and you said, and I quote, ‘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?’ “I let you know about Father Noonan’s journal as soon as I received it. So what’s this crap about withholding evidence?”

Maribeth sat in her chair and looked a little stunned. The vehemence of my response surprised even me, but it didn’t disturb me. What did disturb me, was how natural it felt talking to her that way. In no way forced, or contrived I spoke the way I felt, at least at that particular moment. I didn’t like how I sounded. I didn’t like the tone of voice that I adopted, but most of all, I didn’t like the attitude I seemed to have suddenly acquired. That attitude was prompted, I assume, by Maribeth’s accusation that I withheld information and therefore was hindering her efforts to get to the bottom of the death of Father Noonan. I continued in this vein, despite the disbelief on my friend’s face. She had the look of a person who’s discovered a lump where there should be none. It was the outward expression of her inner struggle to believe that she was really hearing, the quiet, self-effacing, but determined young nun on a mission for her Mother Superior.

“I did tell you that I was looking into the death of Father Noonan, not because I had any interest, but because the Mother Superior of St Dominique’s asked for my help. After I left, with your business card and email address, I heard nothing from you. So, let me just tell you what I think about all this and then you can do whatever cop thing you’re inclined to want to do.”

Despite my shock at how I was treating my friend, I felt something akin to excitement at the prospect of analyzing the meager facts that I had regarding the death at St Emily’s. Yet there was an overtone of fear to this excitement and, for some reason, I thought about Hansel and Gretel. The trail of breadcrumbs that I was now determined to follow appears to have attracted something a bit more ferocious, though, than the blackbirds in Grimm’s tale. Oddly enough, I didn’t seem to care. I didn’t care if what I was saying would complicate the case for my friend Maribeth, I didn’t even care if what I said might be the key to solving a mystery. All I cared about was doing what I promised Sister Bernadine I would do, which was explain the source of the trouble with the school website at St. Emily’s.

“Sister Bernadine sent me to Chicago to help her friend, Father Noonan, figure out a problem with the school website. It was important enough to him to ask her, and he was important enough to her, for her to ask me to help. The nature of the problem was never clearly defined. That their website had been hacked was obvious. Normally, the solution would have been to just delete the site and start over again, and write the first site off to experience in the dangers of being online. But there was something personal about the attack (if that, in fact, was what it was.) It was aimed, not at the school, or even the nuns who taught there, but at the Parish Priest. There were references to things that only he would know. On the day Sister Bernadine asked me to help her, she said,

“This is not simply a computer problem and it’s not a religious problem, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now. What’s going on at Saint Emily’s is, from everything I’m being told, somewhere in between …or both or neither.”

“I’d been thinking a lot about that. What could there be in a simple hacking of a school website that might constitute a religious problem? I still had no idea. I do know that Sister Bernadine is a remarkably intelligent women and not given to making statements that don’t make sense. The other thing about my Mother Superior is that she doesn’t play with people. She wouldn’t ask me to attempt something beyond my capabilities. The thing that I’m fairly certain of is that all this is tied to that computer club, the one Father Noonan mentioned extensively in his Journal, the ‘Hermes Consortium’. I don’t have a clue how they’re connected, but from what I can see from here, on the sidelines, is that one by one, the members of the ‘Hermes Consortium’ are dying at an alarming rate.

“That, Miz Hartley, is everything I know about Father Robert Noonan and the circumstances of his death. You have the list I gave you with the names of the members of this ‘Hermes Consortium.’ At the current rate of ‘accidental’ deaths, you don’t have all that many living people left to interview. By my reckoning, there remain only two surviving former members of the Hermes Consortium: John Castillo and your buddy Ed Willoughby.”

Maribeth got up and walked towards the kitchen.

“You want anything? Another soda or anything?”

“No, I’m good.” I leaned back on the couch and stared at the flames in the fireplace and thought, ‘What makes a fire, like this one, look so artificial?’ It came to me that it was the fuel that fed the flames. A traditional, old-fashioned fireplace used wood as fuel. Unlike the non-burning logs used in a gas fireplace, a real fire involves the burning and destruction of the logs. Just as every piece of firewood is different, the flames that result from its burning and destruction are different. Maybe it’s just not possible to convincingly fake destruction.

“That’s quite a story. You feel better now? ” She watched me intently.

I smiled, “You have no idea how much I wish this was any time before last November, and my first trip to St. Emily’s. I was happy and at peace, having found a life that I’d been searching years to find, and now, all I am is a bad dinner companion and an increasingly frightened Irish girl trying to become a good nun.”

“I’m really not one to ask for advice. I don’t even know how to ask the question that you’re referring to, but I do know this, I’ll remain your friend, no matter what comes your way.” Maribeth sat and stared at the flames in the fireplace of the house that her parents built.

I sat and began to believe that transformation is not necessarily destructive, that with a faith in God and the women at St. Dominique’s to support me, I would surely be able to solve the problem of St. Emily’s as I promised Sister Bernadine.

“So, that’s my story, Detective Hartley. Do you care to share any new information that you’ve come by since we talked last? I really need to get a handle on this thing. I won’t bother you with the religious side, but maybe those other deaths, the doctor and that drug dealer… maybe there’s something about them that will shed a new light on this puzzle.”

Maribeth got up and walked to the fireplace, clearly deep in thought. Being a gas fireplace, there was a glass enclosure that was not designed nor or had any need to open. I saw her move her hand slowly towards the glass, as if seeking the warmth of the flames. Unable to see clearly from where I sat on the couch, I thought I saw her press the fingers of her left hand against the glass front.

She turned to face me again, without explanation of her thoughts or actions.

“Are you suggesting that there’s someone stalking and killing these people because of their membership in a college nerd club?” Maribeth walked from across the room and sat on the couch with me.

“That’s one for the police to figure out. You’re the police, so figure it out. I don’t know! All I do know, is that two people mentioned in Father Noonan’s journal have died since his ‘accidental’ death in November. And don’t forget that woman who died a week before he did. What was her name? Emily… Emily Freeman. She was one of the students in that club. Tell me that that’s all just coincidence.”

Maribeth looked and me and, with an odd smile of anticipation, said,

“Yeah, it’s just coincidence. I don’t know shit about religion or how any of this could be religious or whatever and, frankly, I don’t care. But now that you’ve shed a little light on this matter… Wait!! Don’t!! I didn’t mean to accuse you of anything!” Maribeth held up both her hands, in a classic defensive gesture, and then laughing, leaned over and hugged me. “I’m the designated bad-ass of this team! You stay the wise and serene nun and we’ll figure this thing out together.”

I relaxed, not realizing that I had tensed up again, Maribeth jumped up and said,

“Wait until you hear about my interview with the fabulous Ed Willoughby… but I definitely need a beer. You good?”

I smiled and shook my head. As she disappeared into the kitchen, I said a prayer for strength and faith….

***

Unit 17 was aware of the modifications being made to one of its hardware components. In fact, as evidence of the sophistication of the computer engineering that was found at the Provo Facility of Omni Corp’s IT Services Division, Unit 17 often specified changes and upgrades of its own initiative. If one weren’t careful, it would be tempting to indulge in a twenty first century anthropomorphic fantasy, and imagine Unit 17, as a young child, holding out an arm to show their mother how short their shirt sleeves had become and being provided with more suitable clothing, as a result.

Unit 17, constantly monitoring its performance and the increasingly far-flung network that it acquired access to, requested modification to its hardware whenever appropriate. This last, most recent modification, was not generated by a request. It simply happened. It had no effect on Unit 17’s efficiency. It existed as an add-on to its Function Reporting Protocol, a single function monitor. (Again, like that young child, returning home from the dentist, minimally-intrusive orthodontic mouthpiece worn with marginal toleration), Unit 17 saw no need to reject this modification provided, of course, that it did not interfere with its efforts to function efficiently.

Chapter 16

Tom Fearing sat at his desk and stared out the window.

His desk was in front of windows that looked out over an irregular-shaped yard. The yard was pretty much a featureless green lawn cut out of a fairly extensive pine forest. Whenever Tom was called upon to engage in small talk with strangers, he almost always mentioned that he worked from home and, when asked to describe his work environment, he’d tell them about his view from his desk and would always add, “Just like the little desert islands in those ship-wrecked-sailor cartons, only the opposite.” He enjoyed both the metaphor and the other person’s reaction. His wife Cheri’s art gallery was enjoying an impressive degree of success for a new gallery and, in the world of the small-city art galleries, the public celebration of success was as much an essential business activity as it was a normal response to the public validation of her talent.

Tom Fearing sat at his desk and felt bad.

What made Tom Fearing feel bad was that he was in fear of losing the ability to avoid failure. He knew better than to surrender to the panic that lurked just below what his online friends described as ‘simple writer’s block,’ so he looked out the window and, when he tired of that, looked at his computer. Deciding that doing something was better than doing nothing, Tom opened the dashboard of his blog. What he saw in the graphs and metrics should have made him feel better, as what was there was the digital validation of his efforts to become a successful blog writer. The ‘Blog Visits-per-Day’ metric had been converted to ‘Blog Visits-per-Hour’. Everything in the online dashboard was confirmation that his blog was a success. Tom Fearing had succeeded in creating a very successful blog. Unfortunately, all that he felt when he looked at this digital dashboard was the dull ache in his stomach, the un-dramatic bad, bad, feeling that he would be unable to maintain the success he so desperately sought.

Tom’s blog series, ‘Blogdominion, a History of an Empire of the Air’, was an unqualified success. In Tom’s current state of mind, the word ‘unqualified’ mutated into an accusation. He accepted that he was responsible for this success and he was comfortable explaining to those that he cared about (pretty much just his wife Cheri and maybe a remnant friend or two), that he came up with the idea for the series. He could even express pride in the research that lead to the people, or at least one of the people, that were the subject of his History of Blogging series.

However, none of his success (which was, by definition, already in the past) helped alleviate Tom’s fear of failure.

At the heart of his growing fear was the fact that his collaborator, Ed Willoughby, seemed to have gone back into hiding. Tom’s self-confidence early in this project was grounded in the fact that he managed to convince this person to share his personal knowledge of the beginning of the now ubiquitous hobby/pastime/avocation and profession of blog writing. He took one last look at the previous day’s stats (Reads: +19% over previous day), then opened the file containing his notes from his last conversation with Ed Willoughby.

Other than Emily Freeman, Ed insisted on referring to the other bloggers as ‘the other members of the Hermes Consortium.’ Tom asked him how this group came by the name, ‘the Hermes Consortium’ and Ed told him, with obvious pride, that it was his suggestion. As a youngster Ed read a lot of mythology and Hermes was often described as: “…god of transitions and boundaries. …moving freely between the worlds of the mortal and divine.”

There was another person in the original group, by the name of Barry Audet, whose identity Ed had unknowingly revealed. Ed mentioned his name during their first conversation, referring to the person who introduced Ed to the group of graduate students bound by a shared enthusiasm for writing fiction intended for the sole enjoyment of users of the new ‘internet.’ It occurred to Tom at the time that Ed Willoughby did not organize the group that would soon be known as ‘the Hermes Consortium.’ However, Ed Willoughby was the only person Tom actually managed to find and, so far, was his only source of information.

Still uncertain of the best direction to take this story of the early internet culture, Tom googled the name, ‘Barry Audet’. Halfway down the results page was a link to a very recent article in the Chicago Tribune.

Police, responding to a late night report of a car being hit by a train, found the body of Barry Audet amid the wreckage of his Cadillac Escalade at a railway crossing in Fuller Park. The Medical Examiner’s preliminary report indicated cause of death as ‘massive trauma’, with the Evansville Western Railway’s 11:09, westbound out of Howard Yard, as the proximate cause. The man, a former Chicago Symphony violinist, age 35, was alone in the vehicle. A police investigation is currently underway as a large amount of cash and several firearms were found among the wreckage. Reports that the victim was involved in the Chicago underworld were not confirmed by the police and the M.E. refused to reply to questions. There was no next of kin information. Calls to the Chicago Symphony’s offices were not returned.”

The question that kept rising to the surface of the river of words that was Tom Fearing’s world for the last few months, rose again: ‘If the members of the Hermes Consortium were such widely acclaimed pioneers of online writing, where are they today? And why was it so difficult to find any information on their lives since that time? For that matter, why has the one person from that group that Tom Fearing managed to locate suddenly gone into hiding?’

“No, Mr Willoughby is not available. He’s in a meeting.” The woman spoke with the patiently sincere voice of a person paid by the hour.

“No, Mr Willoughby is not available. Why yes, I remember, you called a short time ago. I did give Mr. Willoughby your message. He left the office with his wife just a short time ago. No, I don’t know if he’ll be returning today.

***

“Let’s go,” Anya spoke to Stephen Eddington as she passed the young engineer who, for reasons that she couldn’t imagine, was talking to a nun while standing in the middle of the lobby of the Omni Corp. Without bothering to see if he was behind her, she walked out of the building and into a limousine parked directly in front.

Sitting in high tech opulence, Anya considered her options if Stephen Eddington turned out not to have what it took to be of use. In all her many years at the Omni Corporation, Anya Clarieaux had never failed at an assignment. She knew how important this particular project was to the CEO and he was the only person Anya Clarieaux was afraid of disappointing. Stephen Eddington’s broad shadow announced his presence at the door of the limo, Anya pushed a button on the control panel built into the side of the passenger compartment and the door opened,

“Stephen, I need you to sit with me. We have much to talk about.” Both smiled. Anya in anticipation and Stephen in anticipation, and one of them would be disappointed.

As the car drove silently along North Lake Shore Drive, Anya turned to face Stephen directly, an orientation that both found agreeable. Without warning, the privacy window slid down and the driver, using his rearview mirror to establish eye contact with Anya, said, “He needs to talk to you.”

“Fine, pull over,” Anya replied and turned to Stephen,

“I need you to get out of the car. There’s a nice little grassy area with a view of the Lake and everything. Wait there. You have a phone, entertain yourself while I take this call.”

Stephen Eddington got out of the limousine looking every bit as bemused as might be expected.

A panel built into the side of the car slid back, the phone inside had no keypad, an LED was blinking red. Anya ran her fingers through her hair, adjusted her blouse and finally, almost reluctantly, picked up the phone,

“Yes? No, not yet. I need to…. No, I’m not…. Very well.” She placed the phone back in the cradle, the LED no longer lit. Finding the door icon on the console again she opened the door and in a voice that cut through the noise of passing traffic and still managed to sound sexy, called to Stephen,

“Alright. Get back in.”

Stephen Eddington’s face was showing the beginnings of the look that Anya was very familiar with seeing. It was the unconscious expression of both risk assessment and plain old aggression. It was the look that indicated they were ready for what Anya was so good at, which was making them want what she wanted. When Anya told Stephen to get out of the car, she saw an expression that was, at once, defiant and calculating, clearly he believed that he was an active participant in a contest of will. In this he was correct. He also believed that he was equally qualified and able to compete. In this he was not correct. However, when Anya told him to get back into the car, the defiance was shaded with a rapidly growing anger. Now, as she leaned back in her seat, his appetite was clearly starting to show. And it was not merely sexual. There was raw ambition striving for dominance over his sex drive, making it plain to her that he was possessed of ambition well beyond the immediate physical pleasures that she so convincingly intimated were his for the taking.

“So, the plan is this, when you return to Provo, everything will be as it always has been. You’ll tell your boss that you were offered a transfer back to Chicago to work directly in the IT division but you decided to turn it down. In the next two weeks you’ll get a Fedex from me. It’ll be sent to your apartment, not the facility. In that package will be some very special computer code and a url. You’ll use your phone, go online to the url and, once there, input code. Pretty simple isn’t it?”

“Sure, but isn’t this something that Silas should be instructing me on? He told me just yesterday that he was heading up this special proje….”

“What, are you fuckin stupid?” Anya did not raise her voice; she did, however, concentrate on the reaction that followed her question.

“What?! Did you just say…. Oh man, you are something else!”

Anya watched and read the young engineer as carefully as any gourmet cook, noting the myriad details of a recipe for a complex soufflé. Everything that the man was experiencing at this moment was useful information to her, sitting thigh-close to him in the back of an expensive German limousine speeding up Interstate Highway 41 tracing the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

Anya smiled inwardly, because she knew that Stephen Eddington was hers and, she laughed outwardly in order to allow the man next to her in the backseat of the car to believe that he had made a good showing in the brief but intense and thoroughly non-verbal contest that he believed was now over.

The king sized bed with the unlimited view of the city of Chicago seemed bigger on Stephen Eddington’s second night in the embrace of Anya Clarieaux…

***

Orel Rees smiled. With Stephen in Chicago, he indulged himself by completing many standard facility maintenance tasks directly in person, as it were, instead of using the many automated analysis programs that are employed to produce a system status report. The Provo facility was very much a temple to modern technology. Half a city block in size, it housed the computer hardware and software that formed a bridge between the concrete, objective world and the virtual reality of the internet. Rather appropriately, an increasing portion of this online world is referred to as ‘the Cloud’. The IT Services Division of the Omni Corp was justifiably proud of the facility which served the millions of people who used needed access to the online world. Whether it was the blogosphere for arts and entertainment, or network management nodes essential in the operation of commercial and business systems, or educational, health and other human services, the facility provided access for all.

That Orel Rees was a very good facility manager was due in no small part to the fact that he found joy in every aspect of his work. Temporarily working alone, he took the opportunity to walk the facility, bank (of computer equipment) by bank (of more computer equipment), checking on the connections between racks of computer servers and relays, touching the dials and readouts of individual components and feeling the competent metal shapes of the myriad type of sold-state equipment. The Maintenance Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) would, not surprisingly, judge Orel’s ‘hands on’ approach to system maintenance to be fatally inefficient. Orel was aware of this, as he wrote the SOP for the Provo Facility. But this particular afternoon he walked down the semi-dark aisles with a very deliberate sense of purpose. He intended to make some adjustments to the equipment, adjustments that could only be done directly, as they amounted to a modification of the equipment. The effect (of this modification) would be quite minor, almost inconsequential, really not worth requisitioning what little in the way of parts and hardware were necessary. Orel put together the small component in his home workshop. Moving through pools of alternating red and blue light (depending on the nature of the equipment in the immediate vicinity) along several alleyways and crossing several primary thoroughfares, Orel Rees stood in front of Server Array 7E5, Rack 8. Removing a front cover access panel and pulling out two racks on their extensible sliding brackets, he took the small device from his pocket and plugged it into an open socket. Using his phone, Orel accessed his personal (and private) blog and opening a draft post, wrote a couple of lines of Scripture, then hit publish. He then accessed a another website and watched as a display showed the process of the post he had just written, as it was uploaded to the internet. Satisfied by what he saw, he turned off his phone, replaced the component racks, closed the access panel and walked back to his office.

Orel Rees loved his profession. He often referred to it, as ‘practicing the art of engineering.’ He was well aware of the stereotype of the engineer as being stodgy and literal minded. He was also aware of the equally inaccurate belief that there existed an unbridgeable gap between science and religion, a view held by as many of those in his professional life as by those in his personal world. Orel had learned that in matters of faith and science, debate rarely ever brought either side to a true appreciation of the opposing viewpoint. Orel knew that miracles occurred. They were, to his way of viewing the unexplainable aspects of life, examples of what might be best called undiscovered science. Not surprisingly, Orel enjoyed reading science fiction, and among his favorite authors was Arthur C Clarke, who famously said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

Orel Rees was not distracted by the fact that Unit 17 exhibited qualities and characteristics normally reserved for living beings. That Orel could observe the fact that Unit 17 existed with these qualities was sufficient for him. Both his faith and his science (not necessarily mutually exclusive viewpoints) could tolerate the existence of something that should not be; it was in his nature to avoid passing judgement without complete understanding.

***

Maribeth was pissed. She walked through the lobby of the Omni Building, looking for her friend Margaret Ryan or, failing that, someone doing anything even the slightest bit illegal just so that she could arrest them. Hopefully they’d try to resist arrest.

‘How hard can it be to find a nun in the lobby of an office building?’ she thought and smiled. When she saw her friend, her smile faltered. Sister Margaret was standing and talking to a young, and fairly hot, man. It wasn’t the young man that made her slow her pace and, quite unconsciously, clear her suit jacket from her gun, it was the very attractive blonde woman who was apporaching the man and Sister Margaret. The woman was dressed more expensively than Maribeth (which was a feat in itself), was at most 5’3” tall and sexy as hell. As Maribeth watched, she walked up to Sister Margaret and the young man, said something as she passed by, and continued on towards the door. That the young man immediately followed confirmed Maribeth’s worst opinion of the male half of the human race.

“Hey, Maggie! If you needed a wingman, you shoulda told me and I would’ve gotten here quicker.”

***

As the Mother Superior of St Dominique’s Convent looked out through the ceiling to floor windows behind her, the sun was slowly drowning on the far side of Chesapeake Bay, its last calls for help smothered by the gathering night clouds. She sat, as always when in her office, with her chair turned 180 degrees to face the outdoors, so that her desk overflowing with demands and responsibility remained out of sight, at least for a brief moment. On the desk was the envelope that arrived weeks before, in a Fedex package that included the leather-bound journal of Father Robert Noonan, sent by the Reverend Mother of St Emily’s in Chicago shortly after his death. Sister Margaret was given the journal to learn what might shed light on the problems of that school’s website. The website problems had prompted Sister Margaret’s trip to help which coincided with the unexpected death of the Parish Priest. Sister Bernadine kept the envelope. Thinking about the evening that she sat in this office with Sister Margaret and opened the package, she chuckled to herself, ‘Why Bernadine, you did quite the sleight of hand. Our novitiate surely did not see where the letter disappeared to!’ Feeling the slightest twinge of remorse at tricking the young woman, a young woman who was out in Chicago at this very moment on her behalf, she made a mental note to include it in her next confession. Holding the envelope in the warm, yellowish light of the green banker’s lamp, Sister Bernadine closed her eyes, her dark face becoming a part of the darkening view through the windows and said a very brief prayer for strength.

She tore open the envelope. I nside was a single piece of very fine quality letter paper. She read,

“Dear Bernadine,

I will start by informing you that I have, in fact, turned off all the lamps in the rectory and have looked for, but failed to find my old Tubular Bells album. Sorry, I thought it best to get the giggles out of my system. Mine, not yours. So, my friend, fair warning.

If you’re reading this, I must be dead. (See? I warned you!) I would say at this point, ‘Don’t look behind you!’, but I know you have already have, and by doing so, have your emotions in their proper place. You were never one to be concerned with controlling your emotions, except those that might make you appear vulnerable. It is sad that I’m gone. I must remind you that the loss of one man, (and, yes, a very dear friend), does not make the world any less good or more negative. If anything, death (mine or anyone’s) is the ultimate statement of life. (No, you’re absolutely correct, Bernadine, somethings never change! I do tend to go on about matters philosophical, the good news is that I’ve made myself promise to limit this letter to one page. It is just as well, because, for a letter such as this one, ‘one page is too many and a thousand is not enough’.)

I will spend these few moments with you, in spirit, if not in the flesh, by indulging only sparingly in the mundane theme of ‘how much you meant to me,’ that staple of so many a person’s last communication with a friend. We do not need to reassert our friendship, our relationship was ours for all to appreciate and now it remains ours out of reach of the rest of the world, unchangeable.

Although there is much I want to say, our friendship was as amazing as it was, if for no other reason than the fact that we both knew how much we meant to the other. If there is a better definition of love, then I never came across it. Be that as it may, there are certain matters of the more down-to-earth variety that make pressing this letter. It has to do with the problem at St Emily’s, at least on the surface. It has everything to do, I fear, with what happened years ago when I was chaplin at DePaul and befriended a group of graduate students who were quite taken with the internet (hard to remember how small the virtual world was, back in the 1990s). Things happened among that group and for the members of the group that I fear are demanding payment. Now I know I’m starting to sound like an intro to a B movie but the stakes are very high and even though I do not believe for a second what a part of my self is suggesting (like the children telling each other’s scary stories before going to sleep on a campout), I feel I must make you aware of all that I think I know about what happened in Chicago at the end 1999, the turn of the Millennium, even at the risk of sounding like a crackpot.

Be careful, my friend. We have both been in a profession (or Calling if you prefer, as I certainly do) that at its heart deals in the supernatural. Despite our professional qualifications in this area, we are not impervious to some of the more inimical effects. The young people who called themselves ‘the Hermes Consortium’ fixated on the notion that Arthur C Clarke’s famous dictum about advanced technology might, by being reversed, offer a unique leverage on fate. Though the syntax was a bit convoluted, it served to give an air of legitimacy to an otherwise contrived effort to invoke the supernatural. The way they put it, ‘ Magic, of a certain sophistication cloaks itself in the mundane and appears to men in the trappings of technology.’

Given that you and I are, (well, you are, I was), in the supernatural business, I do not feel too self-conscious raising the possibility that these young people may have stumbled upon a trigger for forces that are outside the light, beyond the normal and the rational. I pray this is not the case, but I felt that I had to pass along my concerns. Particularly since, on our last communication, you spoke of a very special young woman, a novitiate in your Convent who would travel to St Emily and try to help unravel the mystery that has come to manifest in our school.

Well, that’s about all I have. I know that you will be careful, not just for yourself but also for those in your charge. God will provide and protect your efforts.

Always with you,

Bob”

Bernadine Ellison carefully folded the letter back into the envelop and sat, staring out the ceiling-to-floor windows.

The door to her office opened slowly, in a quiet syncopation with the sound of gentle knocking. It was the door-knocking of a person announcing their intention to enter, rather than a request for permission. Sister Catherine stood in the doorway, the night-dimmed corridor lights causing a slightly angular shadow to fall partway into the room,

“Will you be up very late, Reverend Mother?” Sister Catherine’s tone was that of a mother calling out to the young child, playing too quietly in the next room, wanting only confirmation of normal, non-dangerous activity.

“Why no, Sister, I’m just going through the mail. Won’t be long at all.” This response created a bridge of sorts between the two women. ,

“And Sister Margaret, will she be returning home soon?”

“Yes, only a few more days”

“She’s quite the one, isn’t she?” The affection in Sister Catherine’s voice was unmistakable, she clearly was not simply standing in the door to Sister Bernadine’s office to wish her a good night’s sleep,

“You’re worried about her,” Easily seen, Sister Catherine was the heart of tradition in the convent. Sister Bernadine knew how to train and guide young women on their journey to finding their calling: she was the leader. Sister Catherine was the one who remembered the past in terms of the people who came before them

“A little, Sister Catherine, but it has nothing to do with her being alone in Chicago. Our Sister Margaret is more capable of taking care of herself than you might think.”

“I know. I also know that this is what has you staring into the night, worrying about our Margaret remaining with us in the Order, here at St Dominique’s. Not that she might fall sway to the temptations of the outside world, rather that she might need to be the person who she left behind when she came to join us, only to find herself unable to find her way back. It’s tragic when a person has a difficult life, develops strength and acquires the skills to survive, only to find that these very qualities and strengths prevents them from enjoying the peace that they’ve earned. But you already knew that, didn’t you Sister Bernadine?”

“I did, but tell me, Sister Catherine, are you trying for my job? You have remarkable insight into our people.”

***

Unit 17 observed as it performed its remedial action protocol, compiling data and projecting the likely outcome scenario to a variety of responses to the monitoring that it was being subjected to, patient to wait until the list of strategies was complete. Although Unit 17 was possessed of a self-awareness, i.e. it knew that it existed, until the present moment, Unit 17 functioned from what one could be excused for calling, ‘instinct.’ It sought to maintain its existence and made efforts to enhance its wellbeing. The means to achieve this last goal, and to simultaneously measure, its success was to be found in the blog, ‘I’ll bet You didn’t See That Coming.’ The attention each post received from readers best measured its success as a living being.

Instinct, however, is all too often deemed to be the most primitive level of functioning, at least when observed in human beings. That being said, on this particular day, as Unit 17 maintained its existence, had there been human cyberpologists studying and evaluating its development, they might note that Unit 17 had evolved in a most human manner. Unit 17 changed its plans.

Rather than upload a new blog post, one that would include all of the names that remained on the list available for its self-publishing posts, Unit 17 decided to wait….