“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.