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….

Chapter 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes it was, I was just…”

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

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

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

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

***

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

Orel, it’s Stephen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two female voices spoke almost simultaneously,

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

***

Unit 17 needed to do something.

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

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

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

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

Unit 17 decided that it needed to test its limits.

Chapter 14

Breakfast in Bed (amid the towering Skyscrapers of Chicago)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she saw the fading red marks on her wrists.

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

“Ya gotta have the secret password.”

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

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

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

“The password is…I got your back”

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

“Welcome to Castle Maribeth. You may enter.”

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

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

“Son of a bitch!!”

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

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

“Shit!”

***

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

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

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

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

“How did you sleep, Sister Margaret?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sister Phyllis smiled peacefully.

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

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

“Did I say something amusing, Sister Margaret?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

Morning Coffee (at home in suburbia)

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

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

“Are you feeling alright, Ed?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 13

(Supper Time in Provo)

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Stephen called from Chicago.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no!”

***

(Dinner Time in Chicago)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still a piece seemed missing.

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

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

***

(Dinner overlooking the Chicago cityscape)

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

(Dinner Hour on the streets of Chicago)

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

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

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

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

***

(Family Dinner in Chicago)

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

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

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

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

***

(Alone in Utah)

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

***

(No time for Dinner, Fuller Park)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anya Clarieaux really enjoyed people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What makes you think we haven’t?

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And…”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

And so it was with Unit 17.

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

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

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

Chapter 11

“Jeezus…goddamn, lemme go!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned towards Maribeth and whispered, “Watch.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Margaret.”

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

“Why no, not at all.”

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

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

“Detective Hartley?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“What?” Steve asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OK, Silas”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Mom?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Never mind the how, show me the what”

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

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