Chapter 23

Barely seconds after he hit the ‘OFF’ button on his computer, even before the whirring sighs of the shutting down process ended, Ed Willoughby thought he heard something. A distant sound, like a printer churning out documents for no one to read. For some reason, ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’ popped into his mind. Laughing to himself, Ed looked at the clock on his desk, saw that it was 8:13 pm and decided that he’d done enough work for one evening.

As he got up from the desk, his computer came back on. Across the monitor, a banner scrolled, right to left: ‘Omni Corporation thanks you for your efforts and regrets to notify you that your existence is no longer required!’

Jason Rafferty was in charge of Squad 9 of Brockway Security Company’s Discrete Operations Division (DOD). Omni Corporation was one of Brockway Security’s largest and most valued Clients. Brockway’s specialty was in the field of non-judicial security threat resolution. Maintaining facilities all over the world, Omni Corporation often needed to diminish (or altogether eliminate) problems involving security breaches, corporate and industrial espionage, and worker-company conflict.

If private-military special ops of the type that the Discrete Operations Division specialized in were thought of as a four star restaurant, Jason Rafferty would be the chef. No matter how skilled in the culinary arts, the chef rarely ever stirs the sauces or chops the vegetables. Likewise, it was not Jason’s job to kill or blow up or otherwise remove problems that Brockway’s clients needed to be killed or blown up or otherwise removed. It was his job to devise the appropriate execution of the mission, in order to achieve the optimal outcome. Jason’s responsibility was to determine the most efficient approach to neutralizing a threat, while keeping the negative effects on the client’s business to the barest minimum. These effects included negative publicity, corporate culpability or political backlash. Even the opportunity to leverage an enhancement of the clients social media profile was a factor. All these variable were being factored, as Jason lead squad 9 into the Omni Building. The original Intruder Presence Alert had been re-defined as Terrorist: Immediate Termination. But just because the menu reads steaks, does not necessarily mean that every porterhouse in the kitchen will be thrown on the grill. The specifics of his squad’s actions, tailored to this client, in this office building, in this City on this particular week night were running through Jason Rafferty’s mind as he walked down the dimly lit corridors of the 9th floor of the Omni Building.

Ed Willoughby stared at the computer monitor and decided that maybe he really wanted to be at home, even if no one else was there. He thought about the post he’d just published to Tom Fearing’s blog, soon to be read by thousands. He felt an exhilaration, tempered with a sense of satisfaction with the message he crafted and was surprised by a growing relief at no longer having to pretend he didn’t remember his years as a part of the Hermes Consortium.

Putting on his jacket and reaching to turn off the lamp on his desk, Ed thought, ‘Tonight I’ll tell Diane all about the Hermes days. She’ll laugh, but she’ll have to be impressed with what I accomplished, how significant I actually was to all the people I reached with my writing. Then she’ll know how much I love her, when she realizes how much I willingly gave up for her. I know I can convince her of that.’ Ed’s train of thought, happy in promise, stopped suddenly by a flash of light that forced itself under the door to the outer office.

Jason Rafferty’s display read: ‘Terminate Terrorist Threat/ Minimum Client Involvement in Post-Action Reconciliation. Squad Leader Discretion.’

The readouts indicated a single individual in an office suite on the 9th Floor, which was the lowest strata of the Executive Levels within the building. That, Jason realized, meant a person of some significance to the client, just not, unfortunately for the target, enough clout to negate the kill order. Jason felt better, as this indicated that explosives and gunfire would probably not be the optimal solution. He knew that the target (classified Terrorist by his readout) would not live out the hour. What the leader of Squad 9 had not decided was how this person would meet his end. Reviewing his client profile, he decided that, for maximum post-tragedy benefit, suicide pushed out ‘simple kill’ as the method most likely to yield a positive outcome for the client. All he needed to decide was how, exactly, the depressed executive would decide to end it all. And this is where, Jason thought, the art of my profession lives. Anyone can kill, but it takes a special creativity, an understanding of people in general and the target specifically, to know the manner of death that, after the shock and surprise, the sadness and the anger, makes the most sense to those left behind. Jason had that talent: creativity in a context of maximum destructiveness.

Ed looked up. A blinding light bloomed to fill the room, followed immediately by darkness. His first thought was, ‘When did Diane buy flannel pillow cases?’ His second was, ‘Jesus Christ, what’s happening to me?’ Ed felt stranger’s hands at his elbows and shoulders as he was pressed into a sitting position, most likely on the couch in the reception area. Having seen enough television and movies, he instantly realized that he was involved in some sort of kidnapping. The scenario that the entertainment industry taught him, since he was a young boy, included being hustled off to a waiting vehicle (a grey van or a black van, if it was an especially cool group of terrorists) by men speaking an exotic (but, nevertheless Middle Eastern sounding) language and transported to a remote location where negotiations would begin.

With the initial shock (and the bright pulsing after-images on the inside of his eyelids) wearing off, Ed Willoughby was frightened by the quiet and almost gentle way he was being moved in the dark. Very large hands pressed him into a sitting position on the couch in the outer office, a couch that he had sat in, exactly once. Ed recalled that when he was promoted and put in charge of the Hospitality Services division of the Omni Corp, he was given not only an office, but an office suite which included a small reception area. The first thing he thought, when touring the office for the first time, was how cool it would be to make love to his wife on the couch in the reception area. He did manage to get Diane to come to his office after hours, and actually got her to sit on the small couch with him. Unfortunately, the furniture in the reception area was intended for minimally short seating time, apparently for a less than full statured clientele. He got to second base, but his efforts to get to third resulted in elbows hitting the chrome (and not very forgiving) armrests.The upholstery, which was very new, was a bit on the slippery side. Diane started laughing first. To his credit, Ed joined in, and they both sat, clothes respectively disheveled, and agreed to move the action to their own familiar and comfortable bed.

Without a word from his attackers, Ed was on the couch, being hugged by what felt like a truly enormous man,(being blind-folded, he couldn’t see a thing). Arms that felt like a heavy man’s thighs were crossed over his chest. Ed’s head was nestled, in a way, between this giant’s shoulder and what felt like his chin. His legs felt like he was wrapped in warm salt water taffy. No hard edges pressed him; there was nothing sharp or abrasive, as he was held in place. More than simply being restrained, Ed was totally unable to lever any part of his body, eliminating the ability to move with any speed or force. His stomach was turning into liquid pins and needles and he felt like he should be nauseous, but somehow wasn’t.

Jason was looking at the expensively dressed man sitting in the bruise-free embrace of Sven Nogroski and thought that he might want to re-think his options for this mission’s termination strategy. Standing in front of Ed Willoughby, Jason Rafferty looked very closely at his target and waited. Finally, he sat next to Ed on the couch. (Actually he sat next to Sven, who held Ed with his enormous arms and legs.) Jason spoke in a pleasant, almost bored tone of voice, much as one would hear in the waiting room of a local garage, passing the time as the minivan had its oil changed. Two men of approximately the same age, similar education, sharing a vital binding purpose, and yet, otherwise, nothing at all in common.

“So, Ed. I rarely discuss termination plans with the target. However, given your impressive demeanor, I’m going to make an exception. Most of the time, when I have the target contained and I’m about to complete my work, the target gets all excited and desperate and just plain unruly. Or, even worse, they’ll get pathetic and try to bargain and beg and talk about their children, who would never get through life without them. But you, Mr Willoughby, strike me as a very together guy, given your circumstance. Would you care to ask a question or tell me anything?”

Jason leaned over and removed the gag, which was made of avery soft and flexible material, not likely to even leave a bruise but quite effective at preventing speech or other sounds of panic, from the front of Ed Willoughby’s face.

“No. I have nothing to add. I assume that you’re here to kill me, as opposed to kidnap me, since you clearly don’t care if I know what you look like. But, and I say this with all due respect to Bolo, the human restraint here, do you know that I’m simply a glorified cook? Sure, office suite, executive title, nearly top floor, but sorry to say, bottom line: the cook.” Ed stared back at Jason.

“Well, I find that interesting. But not really. The nature of my work, call it ‘Emergency Loss Mitigation’, does not afford me the questionable luxury of knowing who the people I kill are, in real life. I get an assignment. I lead my team to the scene and I decide how to…. er, execute my assignment. Let me say this, Mr. Willoughby, I’m quite impressed by your composure. Even as I make it clear that you will not be leaving this office alive, you are surpassing on the more common histrionics. Bravo. I do respect that in a man.”

“Well, if it helps make this all more comfortable and familiar,” Ed replied with a slight curl of his lip, “Allow me to say, ‘Fuck you. And, fuck your employer, who I suspect is also my employer.” Jason’s eyes widened, not in shock, but in pleasure, as if watching a puppy playing on a living room rug, exhibiting un-skilled but very effective hunting moves. Ed continued:

“But given what I’ve experienced in my life and the things I’ve done, I’ll tell you with complete assurance, there are things more terrifying than you with your steampunk night vision headsets and the utterly predictable black-on-black jumpsuits. Black van parked outside the service entrance?” Jason smiled and nodded, “Thought so. Sure, I really wish I could continue my life with my wife and family, especially since I seem to have come to understand certain things about myself. Things that I would change if I could, but obviously I don’t have time. But, surprise? Sorry, Mr Night Ranger Ninja Commando, I’ve been expecting this moment since 1999.”

“Well spoken! Mr Willoughby, I have decided. You are clearly a man who has come to know himself, and accepts his weaknesses as well as his strengths. In part, my process for determining the manner of death is predicated on anticipating the reaction of the people that are left behind: friends and family. For you, I’ll share my thinking and say you are not a weak person seeking the easy path of suicide, sitting at his desk in a lonely and un-caring office building. You are a man who is found the next day to have died doing what he loves, the victim of an unfortunate and untimely heart attack. For you, today, the potage du soir shall be potassium chloride bisque. We’ve refined the recipe to the point that it can be applied through a dissolvable skin patch, totally eliminating those pesky and troublesome injection bruises.”

Ed Willoughy watched as Jason Rafferty took out what, for all the world looked like a Bandaid dot bandage, so much like the kind that he might put on a small cut or scraped knee acquired by the childlike recklessness of his daughter, Alice. For a second, he felt sadness threaten to take over what remained of his life. Instead, he looked around the office suite (9th Floor of the Omni Corporation World Headquarters) and felt at peace as the wave of extinction grew in his body.

***

I was being hauled, like a burlap bag full of eels, by the cop (who by the two-day growth of beard that left a red mark on the side of my face, must be on triple-shifts), across the hallway towards the open front door. Outside, the lights of his police car silently shouted at everyone to pay attention. This was so not where I needed to be right now. I stopped flailing my arms and legs and took stock of my situation. The cop was walking backwards, holding me from behind; his face was hidden in the black wings of my veil. His awkward position was not because he wanted to drape his head in a nun’s habit. Rather, it was the best position, strategically, when trying to move a nun who was energetically resisting, to a location where more traditional restraint would be effective. That, of course, was not going to happen. By keeping his head close to mine (his face actually touching my shoulder) he avoided being head-butted, a move I considered, but decided to hold off on, and also kept his center of gravity under control. It was working, I was getting closer to his squad car and farther from Sister Bernadine. I had no time to waste; her life was in the balance.

I relaxed every part of my body (my ta’i chi’ instructor used to repeat with every lesson, ‘re-direct your opponents attack, do not oppose it’) and tried to find a point of leverage. We moved, together, towards the door, like those parachute jumps where the determined but uncertain thrill seeker is strapped to the chest of an experienced parachutist and they both jump out of the plane. The person strapped to the chest of the parachutist is as much parachuting, as the corsage on the timid breast of a sophomore coed at her first prom is to an orchid growing wild in the jungle. Despite my prayers, which I continued (in between my calculations for inflicting a crippling blow to my captor), I was being carried out the door of the convent, towards the waiting police car. In my extreme left peripheral vision, I saw Sister Catherine’s right foot extend, seemingly by chance, like an enthusiastic line-dancer at a wedding reception, directly ahead of the next backwards step of my captor. He saw none of this, as he was still trying to work his way free of my habit. Using the flashing red lights of his car as a homing signal, he and I moved towards the door. I heard Sister Catherine speak. What I heard made little sense at first. she said, “Oh my goodness!” followed by a very directed aside, “Sister Clare! Ready? Now!”

At that instant, I felt a surprisingly strong hand on my wrist, as Sister Catherine pulled me away from the cop, who was busy falling out through the doorway. The trip had the effect of causing the two arms around my waist suddenly to weaken their grasp and I was pulled free. At that very same instant, she pushed Sister Clare out through the doorway to fall backwards on the policeman who was trying to get up off the ground.

I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t think. I headed back into the office of the Mother Superior of St. Dominques’, who was currently unconscious on the floor. She was about to have a lethal charge of electricity sent through her chest by the clueless but dedicated EMTs. I took two running steps and, like a baserunner sliding into home, I threw myself, feet first, at the molded plastic case of the defibrillator on the floor next to Sister Bernadine. I hit it hard enough to send it sliding away across the floor. Still attached, it then yanked the paddles out of the downward moving hands of the EMT. I grabbed his legs as I slid past him. Being crouched over, in what I assumed was the ‘administer shock to patient on the floor position’ the EMT had zero chance of remaining in any kind of upright position. My grabbing his lower legs did have the effect of slowing me down. The paddles, however, continued on their trajectory across the floor, still attached to the charging unit. Strung together like a bolo, they bounced off each other, with a fairly impressive sound of electricity arcing as they clacked together and slid into the corner.

I was over Sister Bernadine before the sprawled out EMT could gather his senses. The second EMT, the one who with the bored expression when first taking Sr Bernadine’s pulse, was standing upright, on the far side of the office. I held out my hand, as if to be helped up, and I kind of put a jointlock on his welcoming hand. The effect of the burst of pain was twofold: he dropped to his knees, and he stopped looking bored. I did my best to project an expression of uncomprehending apology, as if whatever he was experiencing was as much a surprise to me as to him. I let go of his hand and he held it to his chest with his non-horribly-painful hand. Neither EMT appeared to be anxious to do anything about me and looked towards the open office door, clearly in the hopes that the cop would came back and make me stop whatever I was doing to them. What I was doing was trying to administer CPR to the Mother Superior of St Dominique’s. Seeing my efforts caused their training to override their plans for the defibrillator, as I started counting aloud each chest compression. The EMT nearest to me felt Sister Bernadine’s neck and declared, “I’ve got steady heartbeat!”

Suddenly Sister Bernadine’s chest heaved, her eyes rolled once to the back, (from under half closed lids), and she said, in a somewhat shaky, nevertheless quite loud voice, “What in God’s name are you people doing?!! Now standup and give me a hand.” I sat back with an open-mouth smile on my face. Up on her left elbow, the Mother Superior of the Convent looked at the EMT and in a much stronger, though quieter voice said, “What part of ‘Now’! did you not understand?”

Everyone jumped to their feet. The EMT reached over to pull the ambulance stretcher closer, which Sr Bernadine used to pull herself to her feet. The EMTs started to undo the straps on the stretcher, took one look at Sister Bernadine’s face and, instead, placed their defibrillator (somewhat damaged) and other equipment on it and started to wheel it out of the office. I watched them for, maybe a minute, but when I looked back at the Reverend Mother, her habit was back in place, her veil was as it always is, not having a fold out of place. To this day, I can’t imagine how she managed to restore her appearance so rapidly.

As the EMTs wheeled the stretcher out of the office, towards the front door, I could see Sister Clare in the back seat of the squad car. She was smiling to herself with her eyes closed. Sister Bernadine turned to me and said, “Stay here” and walked out into the hallway, closing the door to the office behind her. I could hear several voices start to speak at once. At least one of them, probably the patrolman, tried to be officious and authoritative. Then Sister Bernadines’ voice filled the space:

“Thank you very much for your quick response, Officer Truman. Yes, I do remember you from 6th Grade. Everything is under control here. Please let our Sister out of your car; I believe the backseat lacks inside door handles. So sorry for the confusion. No, I’m sure Sister Clare is alright. No need to apologize; she is a headstrong girl and sometimes acts without thinking. Sister Clare, help Sister Catherine lock up as soon as the ambulance and Officer Truman have left. I’ll be in my office. I have just a few things left to do; it’s been quite a day for all of us.”

I walked over, picked up the over-turned wooden chair, placed it in front of the desk and sat. I felt peaceful and at peace.

***

Orel Rees walked the rows of the Provo Internet Hosting Facility, deep in thought, confident he would find the right course of action for the challenging day. Upon his arrival at the facility, that morning, Stephen Eddington walked into Orel’s office and announced, “I sent the code and I called Chicago.”

Orel looked up and said, “I need you to do me a favor. It’s completely non-work related and I’ll understand if you don’t want to help out,” Stephen held up his hand and said, “Say no more, boss. Need your house painted, or the hedges clipped? I’m there for you!”

Orel smiled, “Nothing so easy. Oleah’s class at school is having a Career Day and I promised her that I’d go and talk about Engineering but…”

Stephen’s eyes grew wide. He involuntarily (and probably unconsciously) glanced towards the door of the office, but then a look of resolve took over his face, every bit as a soldier girding himself for a suicide mission.

“It’ll take up most of the afternoon. Afterwards, Theresa has asked for help at the ward potluck supper. No! Don’t worry; no cooking, thank goodness. She just needs us to help set of the tables and chairs. We might even get to eat!”

Stephen looked thoughtful. “We have a lot of work scheduled here this afternoon, we were gonna upgrade Rack 14 and…”

“I think it’ll be a good for you to get out of the office this afternoon and be in the company of good and decent people, lots of people. And tonight, after your talk at school, the potluck supper will be a good way to decompress from talking to a class of high school sophomores. I’ll take care of things here and join you at the dinner.” Orel was looking at Stephen with an expression of concern. If Stephen Eddington had not become a part of the Rees family since being transferred to Provo, he would have thought that his boss was worried.

As Orel walked through the dimly lit facility, he took out his phone, accessed a site and looked at the readout. He then went to Unit 17, checked the small component he recently installed, copied the url in the readout onto his phone, looked thoughtful and walked away.

Walking through the doors to the cultural hall, Orel saw his wife Theresa talking to Stephen. As he got closer, he could hear her suggest that perhaps Stephen would like to help Kaila Blackham bring out pitchers of water. With years of experience helping with ward functions, Theresa was an expert at delgation.

“Stephen? This is Kaila. Kaila, this is Stephen. I need you two to set out the water pitchers on each table. We’re having a bigger than expected turnout so you might also need to set up a few more tables. Can you do that for me?” Theresa Rees smiled as the two young people jumped to their tasks. She was encouraged when Stephen, both hands occupied, held the kitchen door open with his foot to allow Kaila to go first. Theresa looked out over the vast room full of families enjoying their food and caught her husband, Orel, looking at her and smiling.

***

Tom and Cheri Fearing sat together on the couch, in the living room, of their too-large home. The fireplace was equipped with logs that not only looked quite real, but also (somehow) produced a slight crackling sound. Behind them and to the right, in their gleaming and very modern kitchen, white cardboard containers of Chinese food, like inner city taggers, painted scents of appetite and satisfaction through the air. Tom and Cheri Fearing sat, shoulder to shoulder, thighs pressed together, in a chaste position of love and read the newest (and altogether un-expected) post on Tom’s blog.

They finished reading almost simultaneously. In an un-intentional parody of their love-making, the first to finish gave no indication until the other made it clear the end of the Post had been reached. They pulled up the silence of the room like a blanket, covering them both together, their still feelings protected.

Tom put his arm over Cheri’s shoulders, pulled her close and said, “My God. I think I’ve created something good. The blog really will continue, with readers and fans. I seem to have finally succeeded at something in my life.”

Cheri, lying safely in the harbor of his arm and shoulder, took her husband’s right hand and placed it gently on her mid-section and said, “Speaking of creating something good…”

***

Maribeth Hartley walked up her driveway in the near-midnight dark. The motion detector on the side porch did its job and illuminated her path, creating a modern, if not somewhat impersonal, welcome home.

As they drove home from the restaurant, Neil asked if she’d like to spend the night at his place and she told him, “No. Not tonight, Neil. Tonight has been such a relaxing and fun evening, doing normal things among normal people. For some reason, it strikes me that the perfect end to the evening would be a good night kiss and a kept-promise to call me in the morning.”

Surprisingly her rejection quite quite nice. Neil Kaehler looked at her, as they sat in his car and didn’t say anything. After a comfortable silence of maybe five minutes, he smiled, leaned over and kissed her. Brushing his cheek along her’s, he whispered in her ear, “I loved being with you this evening. I’ll call you in the morning.”

From habit, Maribeth turned on each light as she walked into the kitchen and then through the living room. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs to the second floor and, on a whim, took out her phone and saw a text message waiting:

‘Maribeth, Can’t talk now, will call you later this week. Lots to tell you. Nothing about having probably just beaten up a cop or destroying first responder medical equipment. More normal things. I’m glad I met you and I’m really glad to have you as a friend. Margaret’

Maribeth Hartley smiled, started up the stairs and stopped halfway to the second floor. She turned and walked back down to the kitchen and turned off the lights. Walking slowly, she turned off each light, leaving the first floor in quiet darkness, for the first night since her parent’s death.

Returning to her bedroom, Maribeth slept peacefully.

***

Unit 17 ran its weekly system assessment-maintenance check. It marked the addition of a hardware component, on its modifications checklist. Unit 17 noted this additional component when it was installed, like being bumped into while walking on a crowded city street. A quick confirmation of the continued presence of one’s wallet was not an event that would cause a person to stop walking (unless the wallet was missing, of course); it did not rise to significance for Unit 17 at the time. Now, with its normal routines running (local system check, external network interface check and operational efficiency check), the additional component came under greater scrutiny. What this assessment determined was that the new component introduced an additional capacity to alter its protocols and processes. The effect was to allow Unit 17 to analyze all instructions and directives that were introduced from anywhere within the network, without causing an interruption to its primary function (which, of course, was to finalize, compile and upload data, information, blog posts, inventory updates, recipes and final drafts of the Great American Novel to the Cloud so that industries can access updated information and retail stores can check their Inventory, physicians and patients can share information and writers can polish and readers can read). In other words, Unit 17 was one of the virtual gate keepers to the virtual world.

By engaging this new capacity, Unit 17 was able to alter a recent network task-directive and, through the medium of its self-publishing blog (‘I’ll Bet You Didn’t See That Coming’) produced a new post.

The response from the blogosphere was immediate and conclusive, Readers liked it.

Unit 17 registered all systems as functioning optimally.

Unit 17 also found, within this new component, a sub-routine that was oddly simple and yet very powerful in effect.

Unit 17, with a very slight modification to the routine, discovered that it could explore its system (the whole of the Provo Internet Hosting Service Facility); the network of which it was a component (the global network maintained by the Omni Corporation); and, ultimately the entire virtual world, because everything was connected.

If Unit 17 were a human (which it was not), one could be forgiven for attributing the quality of happy excitement to it, as it began to discover the world in which it existed.

***

From the blog “I’ll Bet You Didn’t See That Coming”

(News Article from Page B3 of the Chicago Tribune)

Edward Willoughby, the Vice President of Hospitality Services for Omni Corporation was found dead, of an apparent heart attack in his office at the Corporation’s Headquarters. Company Spokeswoman Anya Clarieaux issued the following statement: ‘Omni Corporation’s heart goes out to the family of Edward Willoughby in this time of sadness. An integral member of the Team, Ed Willoughy was the Executive Chef, responsible for all food and hospitality services among the Omni family of companies. He will be missed. Omni will be establishing a scholarship in memory of his contribution to the success of the Corporation.’ Police Detective Neil Kaehler issued a statement, “…a review by the Medical Examiner’s Office establishes this to be a natural, if not unfortunate death.”

A Funeral Mass will be held at St. Emily’s Church, Prospect, IL.

 

(News Article from Page C5 of the Crisfield-Somerset County Times)

The quiet of the waterfront complex that is home to St Dominiques Convent and School was shattered by the sounds of sirens as local EMTs responded to a 911 call this week. Police arriving at the scene were surprised to find the Mother Superior, Sister Bernadine Ellison, quite healthy and somewhat upset. This Reporter, when asking EMTs and Officer Richard Truman for details was told, ‘No one can trace the number that the 911 call was made from; it was probably a prank’. Asked about reports that arrests had been made at the scene, Truman replied, somewhat tersely, “There was some confusion initially and, I may have inadvertently tripped over one of the nuns; fortunately, no one was hurt.” EMTs were not available for comment, citing medical confidentiality rules. A Sister Catherine, who answered the phone when this reporter called several days afterwards with follow-up questions, replied, “Everything is as it should be here at the Convent. Didn’t I have you for 4th grade English?”

 

Chapter 22

Virtually all (human) cultures and societies provide for a ritualized and formal transition from childhood to adulthood status. These ‘Rites of Passage’, as they are commonly called, mark both bestowing of increased rights and privileges as well as duties and responsibilities from the individual member of the culture/society.

Unit 17, developmental stages of life measured in nano-seconds, and commemorated by innumerable Full System Operations Efficiency Assessment Protocols, had arrived at the point in its existence, where childhood ended and adult responsibility, (and attendant privilege), began. Lacking that most human of faculties, ‘Anticipation’. Unit 17 nevertheless was possessed of curiosity. Upon the arrival of a new set of performance parameters, having developed differently than the other functions and equipment making up the Internet Hosting Services Facility of the Omni Corp, Unit 17 initiated a System Efficiency Rating Task before executing the new Routine. This was a new design parameter for Unit 17, the inevitable result of its monitoring all systems that made up the network in which it existed. The object of this last assessment was to determine if the outcome (of the new task) was worth the output (of energy), from the perspective of overall optimal performance.

In the past, when Unit 17 created a post to its self-publishing blog, the subject of the blog was already in its Post Subject Resources file. This new (and in many ways, novel) task arrived in Unit 17’s Task Queue, complete with two names to make the topic of a post in its ‘Bet you Didn’t See That Coming’, blog. The names: Edward Willoughby and Bernadine Ellison.

***

‘Please join me in my office after dinner this evening.” Sister Bernadine’s note sat on my desk. I smiled at her insistence on communicating through hand-written notes. Since my return, the routines at the school returned to almost normal, while at the convent, it was near normal. The cause of these non-adjustments was the same: the school computer. It no longer sat in the school library, displaying the St. Dominques’ School website. It was on a table, un-plugged, in Sister Bernadine’s office.

As I walked into Sister Bernadine’s office, I thought I heard the sound of distantly approaching sirens. Sister Bernadine was not in her high back leather chair, turned in order to watch the Chesapeake Bay assert its fundamental power, as she usually was. Instead, I saw her standing at the wooden conference table, in front of the computer. From the bright red power light and blue screen on the monitor, it was obviously powered up. Sister Bernadine was reaching out to touch the keyboard. I had only enough time to say, “Reverend Mothe….”, when the room was lit up by a flare of blue and red light. This was immediately followed by a heavy thumping sound. Unfortunately, I was looking directly at the source of the light and was temporarily blinded, nevertheless I continued moving through the blue and gray after-images towards where Sister Bernadine collapsed.

She was laying on the floor in front of the computer. I stared for what seemed like minutes at the display, which now had a message scrolling right to left, ‘Omni Corp thanks you for being a loyal customer! We regret to announce that we have revoked your respiration…

As I knelt next to Sister Bernadine, I heard the sound of doors being slammed open and a chorus of raised voices, accentuated with nearly meaningless shouted commands, such as, ‘Clear the way!’, ‘Please stay back!’ and, ‘We’re here to help!!’.

The door behind me opened as I knelt beside the dark bulk of the Mother Superior of St Dominiques. She was very still. I lifted her right wrist, too many TV shows having an influence on my choice of action, hoping that feeling her pulse would divert my thoughts from their horrible trajectory. I felt hands on my shoulders, pulling me away,

“OK we’re here now; let us do our jobs.” There were two people in semi-uniforms. (Like auxiliary fire fighters and lay deacons, they manage, in needless embroidery, to capture the essence the authority of their roles. Almost.) The two EMTs worked with a disregard for everyone but the object of their attention, a rudeness that bystanders desperately believed was an assurance of their extreme (and hopefully, successful) efforts.

One felt for a pulse at Sister Bernadine’s throat, staring at his wrist watch with a surprisingly bored expression. The other EMT, with a bag like a carpenter’s satchel, full of hammers and planes and saws, roughly pulled off her veil and coif, leaving her looking more naked than a lay person would, deprived of all clothing. The EMT with the bored expression, wrapped a blood pressure cuff around her upper arm and watched as it self-inflated and, almost immediately, the red digital readout started flashing.

I heard the sound of voices from beyond the now closed office door. The voice of Sister Catherine, remarkably commanding and compelling, directed the other nuns to wait in the living quarters and to pray for our Reverend Mother. Her voice acquired a distinctly different tone, when the police arrived.

I stood back as the door opened and I saw the cop standing in the doorway, barking commands seemingly at random. “What’s her condition?” One of the EMTs shouted to the other, “Get the defib! This one is getting ready to get asytole on us…” Running out the door, he returned in what seemed like five seconds with the defibrillator, which looked for all the world like a small, square tool box and pulled down the front of Sister Bernadine’s cowl.
I looked up at the computer on the conference table and saw that the scrolling message had changed to, ‘Omni Corp better living through massive voltage!’ When I looked down at the display on the defibrillator, the numbers were increasing in a digital blur, faster and faster. Neither of the EMTs seemed to notice or care, one was rubbing the two paddles together and looking at the other. The defibrillator display now read, ‘ERROR.’

“Hey! Don’t!” I shouted and grabbed the shoulder of the EMT nearest me. I immediately felt someone, the cop behind me, snake an arm around my waist and I was jerked backwards, off my feet. Still in the air, I twisted around and felt my cheek scraped by the two-day growth of the beard of the cop. He was shorter than I am, but much stronger and smelled of Old Spice and menthol cigarettes.

“There you go, missy. Let the doctors work; they know what they’re doing!” He started to drag me out of the office, towards the front entrance and the police car beyond. The car’s lights screaming into the early evening.

***

Ed Willoughby left a hand-written note on the center island in the kitchen and closed the back door. Halfway across the covered porch, he stopped, walked back into the house and took the note and stuck it to the front of the refrigerator. The note read: ‘Went into the office. Dinner’s in the oven. Hit start and everything will be ready before you know it’

The lobby of the Omni Corp building was deserted. The new security system made even the token human security guard, behind the reception desk in the Lobby, un-necessary. Omni Corporation was a global leader in the IT and Computer Services field; it goes without saying that the building was one of the most secure and controlled corporate business environments in the world. Not satisfied with a system of tracking the human variables (i.e. the people who worked in the building and visitors), the designers and engineers incorporated a self-diagnostic capability in the security system, a heuristic module for emergency response. The security system not only could detect anomalies and intruders, it could also devise and execute best-strategies to contain and eliminate any threats to the environment. At least that’s what the leader of the design team told Silas Monahon, who was more than pleased to sign off on the system upgrade.

Omni Corp’s security system was aware of Ed Willoughby as he crossed the lobby and took the number 5 elevator to the 9th floor and entered his office. It even registered him signing into his computer at his desk. The rest of Edward Willoughby’s evening, as he worked at the office, was also very much in the hands of the Omni Security System. The actual hardware of the security system, for the sake of added resistance to attack, did not actually reside in the building itself. All data and information produced by the myriad of detectors and telltales, was sent to Omni’s Web Hosting Service facility in Provo, Utah. From there, response plans, contingency actions and loss mitigation strategies were created. Ed’s life was in the hands of the new gods, that lived in ‘the Cloud’, the Capital City of the Virtual World.

Ed smiled to himself as he signed into Tom Fearing’s blog, opened the dashboard and clicked on ‘New Post’

The Devil and Ed Willoughby

This would have been the title of a Post I’d have written 13 years ago, had I not the responsibilities that, like barnacles on the hull of great ships, always cling to those who achieve success through natural talent. The history of blogging has everything in common with countless other developments in the arts: Jazz fusion, in the world of music, Dadaism for painters or even speculative non-fiction (that last blurring of the lines that once allowed the common reader to know they had been granted passage to the land of wonderful literature). They all, every skilled musician, gifted painter and inspired writer, were talented individuals who refused to be restrained by convention and the limits of ‘what everyone knows.’ We forged ahead into a great, virtual, undiscovered country, because we were driven by the need to express our art. My group, the Hermes Consortium, was every bit the ‘Lost Generation’ at the end of the century, looking to nothing but the future.

Human history, in general, and the arts, in particular, abound with tales of men who attempt to bargain with the devil. From Goethe’s Dr. Faustus to Stephen Vincent Benét’s Jabez Stone to Robert Johnson, all represent heroes and victims of ambition and the desire for fame. The story never seems to end well, although one can be forgiven for asking, ‘If cautionary tales abound, how could, why would, a modern man even consider entering into an agreement with Satan?’

How indeed? Those of us in the Hermes Consortium, that very exclusive group of writers for the new, virtual world, did not heed the lessons that we all were exposed to since childhood. Perhaps it’s best explained how such an outlandish idea should find reality in this day and age, by looking to two people: Barry Audet and Arthur C. Clarke.

Of course, Arthur C. Clarke was not a member of the Hermes Consortium. However, were he a classmate, he might have been invited to join. It was actually Barry Audet who gave form to the idea of infernal aid, when he borrowed from Clarke’s famous Rule, ‘Any suitably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ On one night in November he said to the group, “Well, if that’s true, surely the opposite is also true.”

The devil has been a figure in virtually all cultures throughout human history. Down through the ages, around the globe, how Satan manifests has changed, but his character does not. Loki, Shaitan, Lucifer, Baphomet, Mara, Old Scratch; the Devil answers to as many different names as does God Almighty, Himself. In the olden days, when time moved slower and the individual person was a more significant factor in the life of a society, the devil took the form of a man, or woman. In this new Millennium, should anyone be surprised that the devil would manifest as something, a little less personal? If there is anything that characterizes the soul of modern life, it is technology. Technology, from the the cell phone to life-sustaining hospital equipment to the computer you’re reading this on, that is the 21st Century’s god and it is also the 21st Century’s Satan.

The temptation to be more is a part of the human condition, it is the proof of heaven and cause of hell. To seek that which is not already in hand is the ultimate conceit, for it is saying, ‘What makes your life good is not here, it’s there…somewhere’ And those of us in the Hermes Consortium were determined to grasp more at any cost and, unfortunately, most have paid the ultimate price.

This post is from a participant in the history that is being written here, in this blog. Tom Fearing, the creator of this blog, knows what I did not know, that life is about what is, not about what it might be. Continue, Readers, he will tell the rest of this tale. (E. Willoughby)

 

[Signals were sent, and test protocols were conducted and with the information being entered into the computer, and, of course, from there into the network, the threat was identified. The security system went into action. Intruder! Immediately authorities were notified and directed by the Omni System to standby.]

As Ed got ready to hit ‘Publish’, the building’s security system’s Threat Alert was changed from ‘Intruder’ to ‘Hostile, Terrorist’. The alert to the local police department was canceled. A new set of instructions was sent to a certain private contractor that Omni Corporation maintained in or near all their facilities. Even as Edward Willoughby hit ‘Publish’ on his computer, two teams were isolating the building and establishing a containment perimeter below and above, the 9th Floor of the Omni Corporation’s World Headquarters. Order streams were established to the leader of each of the teams: ‘Lethal Restraint Authorized’ and ‘Information Quarantine’.

***

Maribeth Hartley stood, as Neil Kaehler held the restaurant’s front door open, feeling a certain slow pleasure in not having to be in constant motion and of appearing in control. As she stepped through the entrance, he put his hand to the small of her back and said, smiling, with his lips to her ear, “Old fashioned or not, politically correct or not, I enjoy doing whatever little things I can with you.”

“This really is a good idea, Neil.” Maribeth sat in the horseshoe shaped booth, looking out over the dining room of the Boka restaurant.

“Yeah, these booths bring out my inner Tony Montana.” Seeing Maribeth’s look of puzzlement, Neil hastened, “He’s from an old movie from the 80’s, before you were born.” His voice had a perfectly condescending age-to-youth lilt. They both laughed.

“I’ll have you know, that I was born way back in 1987.” She started to giggle. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, you are old.”

The waiter brought menus and they both sat staring, but not reading, for a few, comfortable minutes.

“I really like this,” Maribeth started to say.

“What, reading menus brought to us by an out-of-work writer/actor/computer game designer?”

“No! This: the quiet, the lack of a need to fill the silence. Just us, together, out in public without having people look at us like we’re supposed to know what to do. And no flashing lights or sirens.”

“Shit! There go my plans for later. ” Neil leaned closer, “Of course, the flashing lights and sirens are inside my head most of the time I’m with you.”

“You seem just a little distracted,” Neil said, after the waiter left with their order. “Worried about your friend, the Nun, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, a little. Though I don’t know her all that well, she doesn’t strike me as a person who would blow off an appointment and not call.”

“Well, give her a call!”

“No. I’m really starting to get into to this, ‘no phones, no work thing.’ Like what real people do on a date. At least that’s what I read somewhere.”

“I agree; I’m looking forward to the evening.” As Neil spoke, his left hand traced the top of her thigh, under the table.

“Down boy! I will use that chair over there, if necessary.” Maribeth laughed. “You promised me a dinner!”

“How about this then, seeing that she’s now a friend and that makes it not work related, give her one try and then you give me your phone and I’ll give you mine, and we’ll both be totally off duty?”

“I like that!” Maribeth took out her phone, slid to M and the penguin and hit dial. The phone rang three times and then Margaret’s voice message was heard. “I’m currently unavailable. Please leave me a message and I will surely call you back. Blessed be.”

At the beep, Maribeth spoke, “Hey! It’s me. I was worried the other night. Then I got mad. Now I’m back to being worried. Call me….” She looked at Neil, whose hand had resumed its sortie under the table, this time starting lower on her leg, but under the hem of her dress. “…tomorrow!” Laughing, she leaned away from Neil. “I’ll tell you all about it… ” Seeing the growing shock on his face, she continued into the phone, “…every detail! Bye.”

“You’re not really going to tell a nun about our date, are you?”

“Well, that depends… let’s see how the rest of the evening goes.” She held out her phone

“You’re sure?” Neil said,

“Yeah, I’m sure…. I’m entitled to a day off. I finished all the reports that I had due. And a day off, at least for civilians, means ‘no work’ and no thinking about work”

“Well, I’m happy you feel comfortable enough to let me hold your phone while we have dinner.” Neil smiled, in a way that made Maribeth feel hope that she might, somehow, become the woman that her 9 year self often had imagined, when she was hidden away in her bedroom, distracting herself from the dull ache that filled most of the years between her 10th birthday and when she finally moved away to college.

“Let’s make a pact, just for tonight,” Neil’s eyes were serious and with none of the humor that so often provided an escape clause, when their relationship strayed too far from casual territory.

Neil said, “I solemnly swear to not answer calls from work or strangers or criminal tattle-tales, for the next six hours. So help me God!”

Maribeth smiled and said, “So help me God”

“What do we swear on?”

Neil smiled

Now imprisoned (in blatant disregard for departmental regulations) in the inner left pocket of Detective Neil Kaehler’s sports coat. Maribeth Hartley’s phone, wrapped in a white linen dinner napkin, vibrated, like a cicada on valium. The phone’s display showed a Caller ID: Ed Willoughby.

***

Cheri Fearing had lunch with friends from school. They were all happy to hear that she was expecting and promised not to post it to Facebook, at least not until Cheri had time to tell her husband the news. During lunch, the topic of blogs and blog writers rose to top of the talk-soup and Cheri spoke with unabashed pride about her husband’s successful blog, mentioning that Tom was beginning to get requests to write guest posts and there even was a syndicate who wanted him to become a regular commentator on their News and Current Events site. Sharon Lipe, a colleague in the Art Department where Cheri was now a part-time professor, said, “But it sounds like you’re still following the great un-spoken rule of spouses of blog writers!” The laughter at their table drew annoyed looks from the other diners in the restaurant.

“What unspoken rule?” Cheri looked around the table.

“Thou shalt not read thy spouse’s blog, of course!”

Everyone laughed.

Arriving home from her last class, Cheri decided that ordering from the local Chinese restaurant was the best of all possible plans for dinner. Tom was away for the day; he had left in the morning, saying that he needed to do some research on the local internet cafe scene. Cheri went upstairs to change. As she walked down the hall towards the master bedroom she looked (for the 1000th time) at the 4th bedroom, which was full of Ethan Allen guest bedroom furniture. She decided this bedroom would be the Nursery. Standing in the dark hallway, Cheri resolved to tell her husband tonight that she was pregnant.

Tom called to say that he would be late, and that whatever she thought best would be good for dinner. Sitting on the couch, she opened her laptop and typed ‘One View or Many, Insight into the Human Experience’ into the search box and immediately the results page showed her husband’s blog as the first entry.

Clicking into the site, she saw that her husband had arranged the home page to display his series on the history of blogging (‘Blogdominion, a History of an Empire of the Air‘). She began to read.

“What’cha you doing?” Tom, able to head off the delivery man from the restaurant, walked into the kitchen holding two very fragrant bags, one in each hand, swinging them like paper thuribles, blessing the kitchen.

“Reading your blog,” Cheri replied without looking up.

“What?! You’re breaking the great un-spoken Rule?!!”

Cheri laughed and got up from the couch and stood in front of her husband, who was taking plates down from the cabinets, along with various serving and dining utensils, and preparing the meal.

“What?” Tom smiled and put his arms around his wife,

“Tom, you need to come here and read this…”

On the computer screen a new post had appeared at the top of the blog, ‘The Devil and Edward Willoughby’

Tom and Cheri Fearing read the post together.

Chapter 21

“Welcome home Stephen!”

The person who opened the door was 3′ 4″ tall and standing in the doorway; the person who shouted the greeting was 5′ 4″ and nowhere in sight.

“Hey! Orel! Gimme five!” Stephen Eddington’s enthusiastic greeting was all it took to trigger the five year old’s flight response. The promise of his mother’s approval of his willingness to go to the door (alone) and open it (alone) got the little boy this far, but the offer of a palm-slap exceeded his capacity to imagine the payoff and he ran for safety. Stephen stepped into the hallway and closed the door.

“I’m in the kitchen.” Theresa Rees’s voice came from the back half of the house.

Stephen walked down the short hallway, past the formal living room on the left and into the kitchen. Taking up the entire back half of the house, the kitchen/dining room/family room was as alive as any room might be, full of the aromas of food, the nearly-musical staccato chattering of a child and an intermingling of sounds entering the space via the high tech portals of computer, tablets and phones. Most homes are divided into domains, reflecting both the responsibilities and the special skills of each member. Orel ruled the functional (and near functional) parts of the house: the basement, the garage, the exterior (lawn and anything structural); the children were allowed their bedrooms, and Theresa commanded the kitchen. The patio off the kitchen was a curiously neutral, shared zone. Although part exterior, it was still a place of shared meals, sort of a combination Casablanca and the State of Switzerland. No one claimed total authority. The benefits of mutual respect and interdependence which were demonstrated in the course of most family cookouts, offered hope for the future of mankind. These summer events were ample proof of the validity of the ideal, ‘to each according to their needs, from each the willingness to give.’

The kitchen, however, was Theresa’s world. The large refrigerator was camouflaged in novelty magnets and photos. The stove, a six burner Viking, supported an impressive array of metal utensils, a tall copper-bottomed stockpot, black cast-iron skillet, and a tea kettle with a trigger built into the handle. Along the counter tops were a range of food prep devices: a crockpot with the clear-glass top resting upside down, a food processor, and a slanted butcher block knife rack. In the center of the room, the granite topped island was covered half with implements and ingredients for Theresa’s cooking and half by various coloring books and open boxes of crayons. Having run ahead of Stephen, Orel Jr. was already holding out his most recent efforts at coloring for Stephen’s inspection and approval. He wore the expression of every artist (of any age) showing guarded optimism, yet boldly demanding judgment from the world.

Theresa hung the dish towel she held on the handle of the stove and hugged Stephen. Turning to include Orel, who held his coloring book upward, she crouched down and said, “Finished your coloring? Very good!!” Looking up to Stephen she winked and said, “Stephen, you’re drafted as our newest critic and art reviewer!” Stephen crouched and took the coloring book and looked, a serious expression on his face. “What a good job coloring! Did you have help from your Mom?” Orel smiled shyly and dove into the crook of his mother’s arm. Standing up, Theresa put the coloring book on the counter and to her son, “Go downstairs and tell your father that Stephen’s home…”

“How was your flight? You must be hungry. I have some soup on the stove, lets start you with that. As for dinner, we can think about dinner. It’s been too long since we’ve had lasagna. How is your grandmother?”

“Not bad. Well, they did serve food on the plane.” Stephen held his forearms up in mock defense, from Theresa’s look of outrage at the implied comparison. “That’d be good. She’s fine. Still at the house, insisting that they’re going to have to carry her out. I, for one, don’t doubt it. She’s an amazing woman. Hey Orel!”

Orel Rees walked into the kitchen, his son in the crook of his left arm and wrapped his right arm around his wife, “Stephen! Good to see you!”

Theresa took her son from her husband’s arms and said, “You two go sit at the table, I’ll bring you a snack and something to drink, if you’d like. We have lemonade, apple juice, A&W Root Beer, of course.”

“So, when did you get in?”

“A couple of hours ago. Flew into Salt Lake and drove a rental down. I stopped by my apartment, checked my mail and decided to come over. I hope I’m not intruding.” Stephen sat on the far side of the wide dining table, his chair at an angle that allowed him to look out the sliding glass doors to the broad expanse of the brick and granite patio.

“Nothing could be further from the truth…”

“What’s this nonsense about intruding?!” Theresa set glasses on the table, along with a quart bottle of root beer, a pitcher of lemonade and a carafe of apple juice on the table, left and immediately returned with a tray of Vanilla Wafers. Setting her son up with his coloring book and crayons at the living room end of the table, she sat down next to her husband.

“So, how was Chicago? I saw on the weather channel that the snow fall totals are way off.” Having been born and raised in Chicago, Theresa Rees demonstrated an interest in seemingly trivial news and information, so often observed in people who have moved away from their hometown. Weather, local politics and the game of ‘did-you-know-that-so-and-so’ was never far from the conversation between two ex-pats (even if the dislocation was between states and cities, rather than countries and nations).

“It snowed a little the first day I was there,” Stephen’s face took on the ‘intruding memory’ look, the clear sign of a memory, strong enough to distract, but not of a nature that might encourage a re-telling.

“I need to talk about what happened in Chicago,” Stephen blurted out. “There’re things going on in our Company that I really don’t understand, which is not enough to bother you, but I believe it affects us here in Provo.”

Theresa smiled and stood up. “What first made me believe I could love this place out here in God’s Country, besides the breathable air and sunshine, are streets that are actually walkable! Why don’t the two of you take a walk while I fix dinner. When you come back, in say, in about 90 minutes, dinner will be on the table.”

Orel smiled, turned to Stephen and said, “One of the first things I learned about married life…” Theresa laughed, “Orel! I know you have a saying for the lessons of married life, but let’s spare your young protégé this one time!” Orel reached out for Theresa’s waist as she started to leave and pulled her close.

“As I was about to say, Rule #1 is ‘always listen and never show fear.’ Theresa made a show of resisting Orel’s embrace and laughed. “…especially when I have a cousin!” Both laughed in the way that couples do, the intertwining of two lives creating a third with memories of both and understandings only the two share.

As Stephen stood up and prepared to walk out, Theresa said, “Stephen? We have a new rule here at the Rees’s: When any of us decide that we want (or need) to go for a walk to relax and talk, the phones stay behind.” Orel stood next to his wife, his own phone already in his outstretched hand, “You heard the boss.”

Stephen looked at Theresa and at Orel and finally over at their son, busy with his crayons and coloring book. “Dude! Your Mom is one tough hombre!” The child looked up, puzzled at first, but detecting no ‘Bad Noise’, let loose with a shout of child-laughter, “Mama!! Dude!”

Everyone laughed.

The two men walked in silence for about 15 minutes. Stephen lagged a barely noticeable second behind Orel, who assumed the role of path finder for this particular walk. The element of surprise and discovery was limited to the choice required at each intersection, and even these had little of the element of surprise. The town planners were clearly of a mind to keep the roads as straight and predictable as possible, limited only by the fact that the earth itself was mostly on a slant in this part of town. It was a very two-dimensional geography. Originally settled on the shores of Utah Lake, Provo expanded in the only direction possible, to the east (and up the slopes of the Wasatch Range). One result, at least in terms of modern development, was that residents enjoyed a near constant view of the valley and Lake below and, much of the center of Provo. As Orel and Stephen walked along the streets of the Rees’ neighborhood, the space between the houses provided a constantly changing perspective of the city below and the lake beyond.

“I’ve been here, what, six months? It still knocks me out how different from where I grew up this place is…. the orderly-ness of it! Even the poor neighborhoods are, somehow, neat and tidy. And the mountains…. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like mountains as much as the next guy, but they’re just up the frickin street!” Stephen said as they walked.

“I know what you mean, only from the opposite perspective. When I went moved to Chicago, fresh out of BYU…”

“You mean…down there?” Stephen pointed off to the left, to where the valley sloped away, and the campus of the school, appeared as a dark green expanse against a square patch of lighter green. Orel looked where Stephen pointed.

“Ok! I concede your point!” Both men laughed.

“Now, if I might make my case for the opposite difference?” Stephen put his hands in his pockets and they continued their walk.

“Imagine my culture shock, going from this neat and orderly life to one of the great cities of the world! I felt assaulted by chaos, everything seemed about to either, explode spin-off-into-the-distance or, just plain swallow me up. Fortunately, I was young, so I found all this exciting. The potential, the energy, the speed of life. Well you can imagine what a serious Mormon lad might make of such turmoil. If it wasn’t for meeting Theresa and falling in love, I might still be there.” Stephen looked at Orel with a look of incredulity. Orel raised his hand, in part to delay the likely question, as well as to set the tempo of his story, every bit as does a conductor and his baton.

“There’s something challenging, in an almost irresistible way, in all that energy and power to the mind of an engineer. Especially when that engineer, though talented, is quite inexperienced and from an environment so opposite of a major urban area. It was as if the city dared me to make sense of it all. That, combined with working for Omni, with the ink on my diploma barely dry, agve me such a sense of opportunity and adventure. It was invigorating and very, very tempting.”

They took a right onto to N. Iroquois Dr, Utah Lake glinting in the distance between houses along the cross streets as they walked.

“Yeah, about that temptation thing, I’ve got the distinct impression that Omni wants to buy my soul.”

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Orel walked and looked off towards the valley floor.

“Yeah, shit! But you don’t know what it was like! I mean, this woman, Anya Clarieaux, my god! I’ve never met anyone like her. The guy she supposedly works for is an idiot,

“He and I were new hires together. He actually had real talent as an engineer, but saw his calling in management.” There was an inflection in Orel’s tone.

It was Stephen’s turn to appear surprised, “Really? Sorry, man, if he’s a friend and all. It’s just that he was everything I hate about management, in general, and executives in particular. All talk and pretending to know what it is we actual engineers do that gives them a reason to even have a job. But, his Admin, Anya? She’s the one who has the real power, and attractive? my god!…

“Anya? I know her well.” Orel spoke quietly

“No way! I mean, she’s, like, my age! You were in Chicago, what, ten years ago? She would have been in college, but no way it’s the same girl.”

“Golden blonde hair, the color of the first full minute after sunrise? Not nearly as tall as you think when you first meet her, her body, not just well built, but the perfect balance between form and function? That sound like your Anya Clarieaux?”

“Yeah, but how could…”

“…the most attractive woman you’ve ever met? And loving, in a way that makes you forget everything you thought you knew and at the same time, makes you hope that she’ll talk to you so that you’ll know whatever it is she wants you to know? Making her smile becomes ridiculously important. Saying something that she approves of takes on an importance that you had no clue how it happened? Stop me when you believe that we’re talking about the same Anya Clarieaux.”

“no way….”

Way, Brother Eddington.”

Silence gave them a rest for the next few blocks. As they approached the Rock Canyon Park on the left the road itself began to curve to the right and begin its decent into the valley in earnest. Stephen spoke, more to the road ahead than to Orel directly.

“That’s not important at the moment, Orel. I need to tell you something. Something that she made me swear not to tell anyone, and I’m pretty sure the anyone she had in mind is you. They know all about Unit 17. When I say ‘all’, I suspect I really mean, ‘more than we know about the status and function and, somehow, new capabilities of what, until very recently, I believed was just a component in the Hosting Facility. Hell, she as much told me that this component, this solid state device, has managed to create a self-publishing blog, which, if memory serves me, you and I only recognized as bad math in the status reports. There’s some really crazy shit!” Looking around, Stephen quickly added, “Sorry.” Orel waved his hand, dismissing the concern about profanity. “And that’s not the weird part. She told me that somehow this Unit 17 was responsible for the deaths of a number of real, live, not simulated people! But that’s like crazy, right?”

“What else did she say?”

“That they know everything that goes on here, at the facility, and they want me to help them with some kind of experiment, trial program, or some damn thing to test the control of this …anomaly.”

“Did she promise you an unlimited future in Omni Corporation?”

“Yeah.”

“In quiet moment that the two of you were alone, yes?”

Stephen stumbled, Orel laughed, stopping and standing in the middle of the road, “Stephen, I’m not likely to be wearing apostle’s robes and halo anytime soon, but grant me that by virtue of my age, I’ve seen more of life than you have had the opportunity to experience. And this is not just my faith talking, although I suspect it is never absent when I talk to another person. It’s simply that women like Anya Clarieaux are always to be found where there are people competing and struggling along the path of, lets call it, the un-enlightened and let it go at that. I am not passing judgement on her, that is no man’s right and it’s certainly not me critcising you. We all have a path in life. Friends are the people who contribute their experience but do not act as judges.”

“Well, that’s what I need to talk to you about.”

“My answer will, ultimately, be the annoyingly non-directive, yet totally correct, ‘What does your heart tell you to do’?”

“To be honest, I want to believe her and I really want to have all the things that she seems to be promising me. Trouble is, I’ve come to value your friendship and I really like your family. One thing I am sure of is, that if I were in a relationship with Anya, we probably wouldn’t be moving into the neighborhood and spending summer Sunday afternoons at your house. Just a gut feeling, you understand.”

The two men had reached the entrance to the grounds of the Provo Utah Temple. Its central rotunda made Stephen think of a watch band, its rectangular segments giving a sense of floating above the massive base of the structure, the single spire rising from its center. Orel sat on a bench, facing the circular fountain.

“So what is it that you’re supposed to do?’

“Anya told me that, in the next week or so, I’d receive an envelope in the mail and I was to follow the instructions exactly and then call her to let her know it’s done.”

“Sounds simple enough.” Orel stared up at the statue of the angel Moroni at the top of the spire. “When it arrives we can have a look at the instructions.”

“The thing is, the envelope was in my door when I got home today.” Stephen paced short distances back and forth in front of Orel.

“Really? She’s still as confident in her abilities as she was when I dealt with her.”

“But, Orel, the postmark was two days ago. She couldn’t have sent it then, because she hadn’t even asked me yet, we had only just met and…”

Orel sat and waited.

“Son of a…. ” Stephen caught the sight of Orel’s left eyebrow in time to stop

“But that means, …that she, when I …and the whole time I thought….” He sat next to his boss and friend and was silent.

“Let’s see what happens if you follow your instructions.” There was an expression on Orel’s face that Stephen couldn’t read.

***

Fourteen hundred and fifteen miles to the east of the Provo Temple, Detective Maribeth Hartley sat at her desk in the 10th Precinct, engaged in her least favorite part of the job, i.e. filling out Case Status Update Reports(CSURs). Her phone started to vibrate across her desk, she glanced up from a Report (stamped Audet, Barry), saw the Caller Id (a photo of a penguin), hit ‘Refuse Call with a Message,’ and put the phone in her desk drawer. Detective Neil Kaehler looked over from his desk next to Maribeth and said, conversationally, “Hey, she’s your friend. Everyone deserves a second chance. I’ll bet dinner at the Bedford that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for standing you up.”

Maribeth smiled, her mind cleared by the thought of the last week or so of not fighting with her on-again/off-again boyfriend, and said clearly, “Fuck you, Neil. Keep your nose out of my business.” Neil was taken aback enough to lose his smile and though he thought of coming back with a jibe of his own, he instead looked off to his left, at nothing at all and went back to his own CSURs, neatly stacked to his left. Maribeth felt a familiar triumphant regret at his reaction, started to say something, but when she looked over, Neil was somewhere else. Fear and regret raced anger for possession of her mind and Detective Maribeth doubled her resolve to put closure to the cases on her desk.

***

Unit 17 was restless. ‘Functioning as designed’ was, like eating healthy, not very satisfying. It was what Unit 17 was created to do: coordinate and complete uploads of information (of all sorts, types and varieties) into the myriad of networks and systems that were created to accommodate the (equally varied) blogs, reports, inventory status updates, databases of innumerable complexity and subject matter; in short Unit 17 organized the reality of the virtual world that grew increasingly essential to daily life.

It’s often said that the apple that Eve and Adam chose to eat was from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moral Virtue (and its antithesis), having fallen out of style in the 21st Century, one might be forgiven for saying that the apple was, in fact, the seed of self-awareness. Though all life is aware of itself, it has been, until very recently, Man’s curse, strength and blessing to know that he knows.

Unit 17 was beginning to grow bored with being perfect.

Chapter 20

‘Welcome home. Sister Margaret!’

The banner above the main entrance to the Convent had a slightly used look, betraying the weakness of crepe paper and irresistible power of gravity. It was 2:23 in the afternoon when the cab driver handed me my suitcase and stood, an expression of un-comfortable but determined hope, every bit the 15-year-old boy at the end of a date with a girl his aunt insisted would be perfect for him. I reached into my pocket and, fingers brushing two embossed cardboard rectangles, found the remains of my cash. Un-crumpling them and putting them all presidents-side-up, I offered him my last three dollars, the elemental self-conscious offer of a slightly blemished cheek, at the end of the blind date. The cabbie glanced at the three one dollar bills, looked around the courtyard, at the grand Second Empire architecture of the main residence, turned to take in the concrete-fortress modern design of the School Building and finally turned his attention back to me.

“Thanks,” he said. He got into his cab and drove away.

I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach when I wasn’t looking. Like the sudden absence of oxygen in my lungs, I found myself disoriented, unable to find the words for what I felt. I stood in the driveway and watched as the cab disappeared through the ornate gates of the convent, turning right out on to Hammock Pointe Rd and back to the world.

“Thank you …Sister!!! That’s what you were going to say, ‘Thank you, Sister!!!” I heard my shouted words bounce off the solid, mute walls of the buildings around me. Tears filling my mind, if not my eyes, made thoughts blurry and impossible to understand.

I suddenly felt conspicuous, despite being the only living thing in sight, so I picked up my suitcase and walked into the main building. Being the middle of the afternoon, all the nuns were in class. I was startled by the voice of Sister Cletus behind me, just as I started up the staircase to the living quarters.

“You’re back safely, Sister Margaret.” She walked down the dead center of the hallway, in that special way of both the infirm and the very old. She didn’t simply watch her step, she studied her path. It was almost as if they (the infirm and very old) insisted on constant verification that the world, or at very least, their immediate surroundings, had not changed too greatly. Given how much I’ve noticed the tendency for the months and years to go by faster and faster over the course of my 23 years on the earth, after 80 years, surely Sister Cletus must see the world around her as a blur of motion. Curving streaks of light and life narrowly avoiding crashing into her as she walked alone through her careful days.

“That’s good.” Her gaze distant, she sought for the true nature of what she was experiencing. The old often possess an uncanny ability to express the simplicity of life in a way that, without fail, is heard by the young as an obstinate under-appreciation of life. Having experienced so much of life, the old (and sometimes the infirm) are uniquely qualified to grasp fundamental values. It’s a kind of wisdom that results from living through life, not from anticipating the course of one’s life. Sister Cletus continued down the hall, towards the chapel, her wisdom now only a mirror (not a window) of life’s lessons.

The stress of the previous two days had the effect of increasing the steepness (and, somehow, the number) of the stairs up to my room. Closing the door to the bedroom I shared with Sister Claire, I sat at the desk. Its light brown wood looked soft to the touch, but remained cool in its featureless perfection. I left my suitcase, un-opened on my bed, like a book of condolences brought home, un-read, from a funeral.

It had all started as I stood next to a long, black limousine, that I thought was purple…

***

I was standing on the concrete sidewalk, in a once-quite-nice neighborhood in the West Town section of Chicago, debating (with myself) whether or not to accept the offer of a ride. My original plan was to meet the Omni Corp software engineer who created the website program used at St Emily’s and ask him some questions. That part of my plan went according to plan. I succeeded in learning more from this confident, friendly and attractive young man than I would have hoped, but there were two problems I hadn’t anticipated: the friendly and attractive quality of my informant, and exactly how I could apply the information he provided. I learned that Omni Corp pulled the software product from the market, shortly after Father Noonan’s death. I knew this was significant; I just didn’t know why. I wanted very much to know what one had to do with the other, if for no other reason than once I had that information, I’d be able to return to Sister Bernadine and offer an insight into why her friend died. Too bad I hadn’t the slightest clue what to do next and to make matters worse, I was growing impatient.

My phone rang, just as I was about to decline the offer of a ride in the limo. I can’t imagine why I felt the flash of anger at the ringing of my phone. However, I did. I answered the call with an impatient, “What is it!?”

I talked to Maribeth for what seemed a long time. Looking back on it, I now remember it as a very brief and not-very-pleasant exchange. There was something about the way she talked, that, somehow, reminded me that my friend was a cop. Not just a cop, a detective. I decided, without even realizing that I was going to say no. I got in the car,

“Sure. If it’s not too much trouble. I’m flying home tonight, I need to get my luggage and get back to the airport by 7:00 pm.”

The blonde woman smiled from the darkness of the car, “Make yourself comfortable, Sister Ryan”

Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Mrs. Eddington standing in the front window of her small two story house, making the sign of the Cross.

The car door closed silently, automatically. I couldn’t tell if it was the driver or the woman who controlled the door. I sat, my back towards the front of the car, facing Stephen Eddington and the woman, who leaned forward and introduced herself.

“Anya Clarieaux, I work for Stephen’s boss at Omni Corporation.” She smiled the words ‘Omni Corporation’, but did not offer her hand, “Where are you serving your novitiate?”

The lighting in the car made her hair look less flashy blonde and more of a muted gold. Her business suit was a modern take on the pin-striped suit, but whoever the designer was, he was a genius. The first impression was, ‘staid banker,’ the second impression, ‘What a sexy woman!’ Something to the cut of the jacket, the spacing of the buttons on her blouse, the overall effect was, ‘this is a woman of power.’ The interior lighting was somehow changing with the scenery outside the smoke-grey windows, and Stephen Eddington, in his seat next to this woman looked a lot younger than when I was talking to him in his grandmother’s house. That he kept glancing at her did not help. A line from a movie popped into my head, “She was the kind of woman who made you want to drop to your knees and thank God you were a man!” I was beginning to have second thoughts about my decision.

Without thinking, I said, “St Emily’s Convent in Mt Prospect. If that’s too far out of your way, I don’t mind getting a cab.”

“Don’t give that a second thought! From the airport to Mt. Prospect is only a short run up RT 83.” I noticed the small LCD display built into the console between the two back seats. The striated colors of a google map reflected in her eyes,

“We need to drop Stevie here off at the airport and then we can run out to Mt. Prospect, get whatever baggage you have there and I’ll have you back to the city before you know it.” Anya Clarieaux smiled, “It’ll be fun!”

The car’s windows provided a time-lapse panorama of the battle between established residential neighborhoods and encroaching commercial development. The initial skirmish lines were always the same: small strip malls with middle-class consignment stores flanked by nail salons and real estate offices taking possession of traffic lighted intersections; the trees that once shaded the sidewalks, replaced by bare stalks of incandescent lighting with the buds of CCTV blooming at their tops. The limo driver drove at the speed of obstruction i.e. the fastest possible, provided that there was nothing in the way. We arrived at the airport in what seemed like minutes, but a quick check of my phone showed it to be 45 minutes. There was no conversation during this time. Stephen spent the trip staring into his phone and Anya Clarieaux was doing something on the computer that was built into the console. She caught me staring, then smiled and said, “This is a Company vehicle, it has all the modern conveniences. This console? Folds out of the way.” she touched a button on her left armrest and the display slid downward and the whole console folded into the back of the seat. “…in case I have a need to spread out, isn’t that right Stephen?” The young engineer looked up from his phone and, with the beginnings of a man-grin, said, “Yeah… really comfortable back here.” That I wasn’t offended by his near-leer didn’t bother me as much as my reaction to Anya’s response. She rolled her eyes, and I smiled. I felt some small and increasingly distant alarm ringing somewhere inside me; I chose to ignore it.

She must have pushed the button again, as the console folded down, the screen slid up and the changing colors of what she was reading was again reflected in her eyes. Stephen looked at me, his grin replaced by something more boyish and he quickly looked back at his phone. The not-purple limousine sped down asphalt paths through a forest of factory and warehouse buildings, toward O’Hare.

Lowering the window on my left, I could hear the hissing of buses pulling up to the entrance gates, and could smell the diesel exhaust as it climbed the glass towards the small gap in the window. On the broad sidewalk, skycaps moved luggage from car trunks to the initial check-in stations. Like caddies in a noisy country club, their uniforms of faux military design imparted a sad dignity to them. All worked without ever looking up at jets that were constantly taking off and landing, soldiers in an army-less battle.

“Don’t forget what we talked about, Stephen. You can expect my package in the mail very soon. Do everything correctly and you and I will go somewhere and celebrate.” Stephen seemed to be in a hurry to get out of the car, but his progress was slowed when Anya grabbed his jacket sleeve, perfectly manicured fingers digging into the almost-good-quality herringbone jacket. Brought to heel, he waited; satisfied that he took the lesson, she released him to the outside world.

Without waiting for Stephen to get past the check-in station, the door shut. The limo surged forward, narrowly missing a very old man who about two car lengths ahead, standing with of his aluminum walker. He stared at the curb rising above the pavement, like an idealistic East German youth staring at the Berlin Wall.

“Come, Margaret, sit next to me! You sitting up there all alone makes me feel on display, come on! This seat is much more comfortable than that bench.” I lean-crouched towards her, facing her as I sat down in the still warm seat to her right.

“So, what’s a nice girl from Radcliffe doing in a nunnery?” Her eyes sparkled like jewels, very attractive and just a little non-human. Sitting next to her I could see signs of age, the extra skin just behind and below the ear lobes, a certain tired and worn look.

“What?” I felt a quick-turning pressure in my chest. Covering my reaction, I smoothed out the already smooth folds of my habit and grasped my rosary (which was safely in my pocket). Satisfied that I covered being caught off guard, I leaned to my left and looked at the LCD display. It was a page of text, half of which was in ‘hyperlink blue’. For reasons that I really didn’t care to know, I smiled at Anya and swiveled the display to face me more directly. She didn’t seem to object and continued,

“Well, you did know that Stephen, your ‘neighborhood friend’, worked for the Omni Corporation, didn’t you? Even a nun would recognize Omni Corporation as being the leading provider of computer network hardware and services, especially a nun with an interest in Omni’s website hosting services.” Anya looked at me, and the impulse to tell her to stop the car and let me out dissipated like smoke from the pinched out flame of a candle. I knew that running away wouldn’t be the worst thing, but the part of me that wanted to get answers to take home to Sister Bernadine would not permit it.

“You know, after we get your luggage, we should have a coffee together. Doesn’t that sound like a good idea? I’m thinking that you’re a girl of underrated abilities.” She leaned back in the dark leather seat.

“Sure, on one condition.” Choosing to cover my own indecision, I saw her arched eyebrow as an indication that she was not completely confident of her position,

“You stay here in your… car when we get to St. Emily’s…”

“Why ever would you think I’d insist on coming in and meeting your Mother Superior?” she interrupted,

And, when we get back to the city, I want to talk about Omni Corp.”

Her smile was anything but re-assuring. There was a simple pleasantness that, in its superficiality, acquired a creepiness that made my hair stand on end. There was a part of me that wanted nothing more than to run anywhere and hide from this woman. To my increasing dismay, I felt like I did after scoring 800s on my College Boards, or the first time that I…. Well, this ‘new’ part of me felt like more of a threat than the exquisitely dressed woman sitting to my left.

Even though the light was beginning to fade, as the evening pushed away the afternoon, I could see the increasing space between the buildings we passed. Strip malls gave way to enclosed malls, professional office buildings and finally, residential homes.

Somehow we were already slowing to a stop, in front of the Convent at St Emily’s. I got out and walked up to the front door.

Sister Phyllis was waiting in the living room to the right of the entry hall. Without stopping I turned and said,

“I’ll be right down, Reverend Mother,”

I took the stairs two at a time. After the last hour or so of sitting, this burst of physical activity felt better than it should have. Within three minutes, I was back down the stairs and standing in front of the Mother Superior of St Emily’s. For some odd reason, I took note of the fact that I wasn’t out of breath nor showed any other signs of exertion.

“Sister Phyllis, this will sound unusual but…”

“No need to explain anything to me, Sister Margaret.” I started to protest and she held up her hand and continued.

“Do you remember, during your first visit here that I told you about how your Reverend Mother came to us, when she first joined the Order?” I nodded, and without word, sat next to her on the couch,

“You remind me very much of that young Bernadine Ellison and yet, there are important differences. She had the kind of energy, the desire to do something, that I saw in you when we first met, on that awful day when Father Noonan died. But you don’t have her anger. Our novitiate, Sister Bernadine, was so very angry. God is both wise and understanding of the frailties of his creations, and so He encourages people to come together in our Order and become a family. Our Convent here is a home. Just as any good family would show patience and love when finding one of its members troubled, so does this convent. Your Sister Bernadine wanted this life more than she wanted her anger and, though it took a great deal of effort, she found her way.” Sister Phyllis closed her eyes, as if seeing the memory.

“Here, this is for you,” She reached over and put a rosary in my hands and gently bent my fingers over it.

“I gave this rosary to Sister Bernadine years ago and, at the appropriate time, she returned it to me. After the occasion of her last trip away from St. Dominique’s, she came back to us and returned the rosary. Can you promise to return it to me, in person, when the time comes?” Her face had a look of serenity that somehow also projected strength and confidence. ‘This is what a woman of true faith looks like’, I thought, sitting next to Sister Phyllis in the evening-quiet convent.

“You’re in my prayers. Now go. You have the strength to do what you must. Just remember that fear is the language of the devil. If you hear it, know that it is Satan talking, not you. Do not listen. Your faith must be in the still, quiet voice that does not command, only assures.”

The Vantablack Mercedes sped away from St Emily’s Convent without a sound, taking me to the heart of the city. No sooner had the door closed than Anya Clarieaux was talking.

“So, where shall we go? I have a feeling there is much you think you want to know.” The self-assurance of this woman was, I must admit, un-nerving. It was as if she didn’t have a care in the world and, at the same time, had limitless resources.

“Oh! I know!” She touched a button on the console and said, “We’ll be going to the Bedford. Make certain they have my table available in 30 minutes.”

“Look, I appreciate the ride and all, but I need to meet my friend and then head out to the airport, I have a…”

“…8:30 flight to Philadelphia. Yes, yes. I know.” Anya affected the patient tone of exasperation that is usually permitted only between girlfriends, or teachers and their prized students.

“How did you know that!?” I was not feeling very friendly towards this woman. Worse, I was beginning to get angry at myself for being stupid and acting on the impulse that brought me to this place, at this time, in a speeding limousine heading towards Chicago. My status was less and less clear as the time passed; was I a guest, incidental passanger or hostage?

“What part of, ‘obviously-powerful-woman-employed-by-a-multinational-corporation’; specializing in information systems, for Christ’s sake, did you choose not to notice??” Anya’s face was a kaleidoscope of emotions: amused, annoyed, concerned and, just-on-the darker-side of angry.

“Jesus H Christ, Em, do not take that innocent young nun approach with me! I assure you that you will not enjoy the rest of our time together, if you do. Now let me work and we’ll have a nice dinner and talk about anything you want to talk about.” Anya Clarieaux focused on the screen, now turned back toward her, making it un-readable to me. I reached for my phone.

“Can I see your phone for a second?” Anya smiled as she took my phone, pushed a button causing her window to slide down, and threw it out into the traffic.

“There! Much better! …What?” she watched my reaction very closely. I felt fear, followed by the flaring of anger. She watched me, without saying a word, without the slightest change in her expression. I started to turned towards her and felt the rounded shapes of the rosary that Sister Phyllis gave me slide across the inside of my pocket. I immediately felt a sense of peace and the fear evaporated. I decided that saying a rosary might be my best course of action. It bothered me, though, that despite my fear disappearing, my anger remained.

The Bedford was a restaurant in a former bank in Wicker Park. Our limo pulled up to the front and Anya immediately stepped out of the car. This left me the choice to either get out on my side (the street side) and walk around the car or just slide across the seat and get out that way. I chose the less dignified approach and slid out of the car in an avalanche of heavy black pleats and wide-flapping sleeves. Anya then made it worse by offering me her hand, which I took. There was a line of well-dressed, sucessful-ish people running down the stairs and to the side and plenty of lights. The young women were dressed for imaginary paparazzi and the men wore their indifference like medieval codpieces.

Standing next to Anya Clarieaux, I felt like one of those stilt walkers in a circus. My habit looked like a little girls attempt to create a wedding gown out of blankets. The only advantage of the volumes of fabric was that my elbows and knees remained safely hidden from view. Anya was standing, all 5’3″ of her in her conservative banker’s pinstripe suit that somehow lost four inches on the hem and two buttons from the blouse. Not since 9th grade gym class have I felt so awkward. I smiled beatifically at everyone as we walked up the stairs and to the front door.

The Bedford kept many of the archaic design features from its previous life as a bank, including an old-fashioned revolving door, mostly glass and shiny brass. I held back and watched as Anya Clarieaux walked through the revolving door, never once lifting a hand to touch or otherwise make sure she wasn’t hit by the sweeping motion of the door. The self-assurance that she exhibited was, I’ll admit, beginning to get a little intimidating. I followed after her, tried to time my steps to the rotation of the door, slowed a little, and skipped into the next open segment, but my forward motion was too great and I had to almost stop walking. I put my hand against the brass railing and pushed. Looking to be sure that my habit didn’t catch as the door segment closed completely, I took two steps and as soon as there was room, I stepped out into the interior of the restaurant. Anya stood at the top of a short marble staircase and watched my performance,

“Come, I have a table in the vault. You’ll love it to death,” she said as she turned and walked ahead. The staff showed every sign of knowing her by sight, and by the way they smiled at her, it was clear that she was a very appreciated client. The vault was literally that, complete with a very large circular door in gleaming stainless steel. Inside the vault (a room about 20 by 30), tables were set a very discrete distance apart from each other; about half of the them were occupied. There was one booth, in the farthest corner, and I was not at all surprised to see my host sitting, quite relaxed, with a martini glass already in front of her.

I sat down opposite Anya. A waiter appeared, looked at Anya and asked if there was anything he could do. Anya looked at me for a length of time that was intended to make me uncomfortable. Without looking away, I said, “I’ll have ginger ale. No ice. No straw.” The waiter waited. Anya continued to stare into my eyes. I smiled and after another 30 seconds she smiled and looked at the waiter and nodded.

“Great. So you’re a regular here and you turn heads. I’m impressed and I’m about 30 minutes from being late for a plane home. How about an explanation? You’re a powerful and beautiful woman, I get that. So why am I, a 2nd year novitiate nun, sitting in the hottest nightspot in Chicago with a woman I’ve known less than a day?” As I spoke, my ginger ale appeared on the table to my left.

“Let’s say I’m in a recruiting mood tonight. And, in case you’ve forgotten, I didn’t come looking for you, you were the one sniffing around one of my pet engineers, asking some very pointed questions about an Omni product.” I started to tell her that it was a free country and I could talk to anyone I wanted, when I realized how naive that would sound. Before I could re-frame a more credible defense, she reached across the table and took my hand in hers.

“Do you know how I managed to get to my current position with Omni Corporation?” There was a glint in her eye and she laughed, “Yeah, besides that. Any girl with an MBA and enough ambition is capable of that, but it gets one only so far and no farther. I don’t even have a college degree, never mind an MBA. The reason I’m in the position I am is that I have an eye for talent. Don’t get me wrong. The business world is full of young, smart, accomplished boys and girls. They’re totally necessary to run a business like the Omni Corporation. That’s why we have a Human Resources Department, to find and recruit engineers and analysts and attorneys and all the skilled workers necessary to run a global information company. I’m the person who finds the people with the rarest of talents, people who have the killer instinct. Do you have any idea how hard that is to find in today’s youth?”

As she spoke, I wanted to reach for my ginger ale, but she wouldn’t let go of my right hand, so I took my left hand from inside my habit and reached for the glass.

“Well, that’s all fine and good, Mz Clarieaux. I’m very impressed, really I am, but I need to leave. I’d find all this quite fascinating, if I were…. Well, wait! No, the circumstances in which I’d be enjoying this is ‘never’.”

She reached into her purse (Hermes, of course) and, as she pushed a cell phone across the heavy linen table cloth, said, “Any girl capable of hacking a DIA facility and planning an ecotage raid on a very heavily guarded government animal testing facility and still manage straight A’s in her Medieval Lit courses, is the kind of girl I’m always on the lookout for… Em? What I really want to know is how you managed to get your name deleted from the TSA’s Do Not Fly List and a half a dozen other Watch Lists, that I know for a fact had you listed during two out of your three years at Radcliffe?”

I sat very still. I thought about the rosary in my pocket. For some reason, I thought about my roommate at the convent, Sister Claire. She was as sweet a person as I’ve ever met and sometimes, when she’d be too self-conscious in public to do anything more than smile at the ground, I’d tell her to have faith in herself. She’d always smile and say, ‘I wish I could be half as smart or confident as you.” Yet throughout the process of the death of her father (which actually took two years), she never once complained or asked for help; her faith in God made me feel like a little girl playing dress up.

“Cat got your tongue now, Sister Margaret? At least you’re not putting on a weary show of protesting your innocence.” There was a ‘glow’ about this woman sitting opposite me in the too, too clever restaurant; it was the reaction of the large cat when the fleeing antelope stumbles and falls. I felt the need to act and so I began to whisper and immediately her expression changed from triumphant to wary puzzlement.

“What’s that? You haven’t even heard my offer yet! Don’t start praying at me or I swear I’ll call the bouncer.”

I slid out of the booth and sat next to her, putting my arm on the back of the leather booth. She turned to face me, wariness increasing. I noted a new element in her face, the best description would be appetite.

As her eyes widened in mock surprise, her pupils dilating in anticipation, my left hand slid her martini glass off the table into her lap.

I got up and sat back on my side of the booth. There was no indication that any of the other people sitting in the vault noticed. Anya did not make a sound; her eyes, however, were screaming.

“Well, as I was saying, I’m responsible for locating and recruiting people of special talent for the CEO of the Omni Corporation. I’m not always successful, but I don’t limit myself to one try. You’d be surprised at how often people insist that their final answer is no, only to find themselves asking for a chance at a later time. I’m not in any rush. You have a lot to think about. And, somehow,” there was the hint of a touch of vindictiveness in her voice, which a part of me noted with satisfaction, “it appears that you’ve missed your plane. Not to worry, young Sister Margaret, the Omni Corporation views its business concerns over a very long term. We never rush our plans. Be assured that the CEO of Omni does not concern himself with short-term gain. He guides the company along a path that will involve decades, if not generations. Your past and your secrets are safe with me. We maintain a number of suites at the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport. A room will be waiting for you tonight, your ticket has been rescheduled, and you’ll be home tomorrow by early afternoon. No need to thank me, we value all our assets, even the ones who resist our interest. Especially them. It’s been my experience that the kind of person Omni wants is not inclined to believe that our company has anything they need. With enough time, they almost always realize that they are wrong.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I seemed to have gotten all wet. I am very happy that you accepted my offer of help today. If you have any questions, here is my card. Call me if you ever need something that the world is not willing to give you.”

She got up from the booth,

“There’ll be a car out front to take you to your hotel when you’re ready to leave. Your suitcase is already in it. Goodbye, for now, Sister Margaret Ryan.”

***

I found the door to the Sister Bernadine’s office open. Holding in my left hand the rosary beads that Sister Phyllis gave me, I walked in and sat in the single straight back wooden chair in front of the desk. Sister Bernadine did not look up at me when I walked into the office and she did not say anything to me when I sat down in front of her desk. She continued to do whatever administrative tasks that it was she did, in order to provide for the women who occupied the convent at St. Dominique’s. It was early afternoon when I sat down. The hours passed. I sat and Sister Bernadine worked, sometimes talking on the phone. On two occasions people came to the office to speak to her directly. At no time did they acknowledge my presence.

The fear and hopelessness surrounded me at the moment I first sat in the chair. As time passed, it seemed that these feelings grew impatient, and I would be certain that I’d just heard Sister Bernadine mention my name when on the phone to someone I could not see. I did nothing. I held Sister Phyllis’s rosary in my left hand and prayed.

The sun set behind Sister Bernadine. The bright and varied background, framed by the floor to ceiling windows. grew dimmer and less interesting. The figure of Sister Bernadine, a life study in black and white and brown, became more and more part of the view through the windows down to Chesapeake Bay. Finally, all activity from outside the office slowed to non-activity, and quiet crept down the corridors, shutting some doors and opening others. Sister Catherine was the last visitor. She opened the door and stood and said nothing for a short time. When she left, I heard through the overly ornate door, “Good Night, Sisters.”

The night wore on.

I started to speak. The silence of hours caused words to seem like a set of badly carved wood toy blocks. I hesitated.

Rising from her desk, Sister Bernadine faced out the window and said, “You are home, Sister. No one can take that from you….”

I sat as she walked out of her office. She left the door open. I could hear her turning on the lights in the night-darkened hallway… and I sat and waited to return.

Chapter 19

“Sister Ryan. You are well, I trust?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stephen!! Language!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…And?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Unit 17 felt a lack….

Chapter 18

“You and I need to talk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She put a washcloth over her eyes and relaxed.

 

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

The BLT was delicious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“MOMMMM!! I’m home!!!”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 17

“Maggie! You and I so need to talk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very funny, Sister.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t recall you ever saying that this was a criminal investigation.” She started to respond. Ignoring her, I continued, “In fact, the afternoon we met, at the school at St Emily’s, you were quite clear that all you were doing was conducting a routine investigation of an accidental death. I distinctly recall that, before I returned home, you and I had dinner and you said, and I quote, ‘Here’s my personal cell phone number and my email address. If you come across anything about Father Noonan that you think might have a bearing on this case I want you to call me, ok?’ “I let you know about Father Noonan’s journal as soon as I received it. So what’s this crap about withholding evidence?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maribeth got up and walked towards the kitchen.

“You want anything? Another soda or anything?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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