“I don’t think he saw his killer’s face, either. Anyway, you’d be surprised how little help I get from the lingering dead. They want me to get justice for them, they want it very bad, but I think they must abide by some proscription against affecting the course of this world, where they no longer belong.”
“And you’ve no theory?” she asked.
“Zip. I’ve been told that Brother Constantine occasionally had insomnia, and when he couldn’t sleep, he sometimes climbed into the bell tower at the new abbey, to study the stars.”
“Yes. That’s what Abbot Bernard told me at the time.”
“I suspect when he was out and about at night, he saw something he was never meant to see, something to which no witness could be tolerated.”
She grimaced. “That makes the abbey sound like a sordid place.”
“I don’t mean to suggest anything of the kind. I’ve lived here seven months, and I know how decent and devout the brothers are. I don’t think Brother Constantine saw anything despicable. He saw something … extraordinary.”
“And recently Brother Timothy also saw something extraordinary to which no witness could be tolerated?”
“I’m afraid so.”
For a moment, she mulled this information and pressed from it the most logical conclusion. “Then you yourself have been witness to something extraordinary.”
“Which would be — what?”
“I’d rather not say until I have time to understand what I saw.”
“Whatever you saw — that’s why we’ve made sure the doors and all the windows are locked.”
And it’s one of the reasons we’re now going to take additional measures to protect the children.”
“We’ll do whatever must be done. What do you have in mind?”
“Fortify,” I said. “Fortify and defend.”
GEORGE WASHINGTON, HARPER LEE, AND Flannery O’Connor smiled down on me, as if mocking my inability to solve the riddle of their shared quality.
Sister Angela sat at her desk, watching me over the frames of a pair of half-lens reading glasses that had slid down her nose. She held a pen poised above a lined yellow tablet.
Brother Constantine had not accompanied us from the reception lounge. Maybe he had at last moved on from this world, maybe not.
Pacing, I said, “I think most of the brothers are pacifists only as far as reason allows. Most would fight to save an innocent life.”
“God requires resistance to evil,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am. But willingness to fight isn’t enough. I want those who know how to fight. Put Brother Knuckles at the head of the list.”
“Brother Salvatore,” she corrected.
“Yes, ma’am. Brother Knuckles will know what to do when the shit—” My voice failed and my face flushed.
“You could have completed the thought, Oddie. The words hits the fan wouldn’t have offended me.”
“I’m a nun, not a naïf.”
“Who in addition to Brother Salvatore?”
“Brother Victor spent twenty-six years in the Marine Corps.”
“I think he’s seventy years old.”
“Yes, ma’am, but he was a marine.”
“‘No better friend, no worse enemy,’” she quoted.
“Semper Fi sure does seem to be what we need.”
She said, “Brother Gregory was an army corpsman.”
The infirmarian had never spoken of military service.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I thought he had a nursing degree.”
“He does. But he was a corpsman for many years, and in the thick of action.”
Medics on the battlefield are often as courageous as those who carry the guns.
“For sure, we want Brother Gregory,” I said.
“What about Brother Quentin?”
“Wasn’t he a cop, ma’am?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“Put him on the list.”
“How many do you think we need?” she asked.
“We’ve got four.”
I paced in silence. I stopped pacing and stood at the window. I started pacing again.
“Brother Fletcher,” I suggested.
This choice baffled her. “The music director?”
“In his secular life, he was a musician.”
“That’s a tough business, ma’am.”
She considered. Then: “He does sometimes have an attitude.”
“Saxophone players tend to have attitude,” I said. “I know a saxophonist who tore a guitar out of another musician’s hands and shot the instrument five times. It was a nice Fender.”
“Why would he do a thing like that?” she asked.
“He was upset about inappropriate chord changes.”
Disapproval furrowed her brow. “When this is over, perhaps your saxophonist friend could stay at the abbey for a while. I’m trained to counsel people in techniques of conflict resolution.”
“Well, ma’am, shooting the guitar was conflict resolution.”
She looked up at Flannery O’Connor and, after a moment, nodded as if in agreement with something the writer had said. “Okay, Oddie. You think Brother Fletcher could kick butt?”
“Yes, ma’am, for the kids, I think he could.”
“Then we’ve got five.”
I sat in one of the two visitors’ chairs.
“Five,” she repeated.
I looked at my wristwatch. We stared at each other.
After a silence, she changed the subject: “If it comes to a fight, what will they fight with?”
“For one thing, baseball bats.”
The brothers formed three teams every year. Summer evenings, during recreation hours, the teams played one another in rotation.
“They do have a lot of baseball bats,” she said.
“Too bad that monks tend not to go in for shooting deer.”
“Too bad,” she agreed.
“The brothers split all the cordwood for the fireplaces. They have axes.”
She winced at the thought of such violence. “Perhaps we should concentrate more on fortification.”
“They’ll be first-rate at fortification,” I agreed.
Most monastic communities believe that contemplative labor is an important part of worship. Some monks make excellent wine to pay the expenses of their abbey. Some make cheese or chocolates, or crumpets and scones. Some breed and sell beautiful dogs.
The brothers of St. Bart’s produce fine handcrafted furniture. Because a fraction of the interest from the Heineman endowment will always pay their operating expenses, they do not sell their chairs and tables and sideboards. They give everything to an organization that furnishes homes for the poor.
With their power tools, supplies of lumber, and skills, they would be able to further secure doors and windows.
Tapping her pen against the list of names on the tablet, Sister Angela reminded me: “Five.”
“Ma’am, maybe what we should do is — you call the abbot, talk to him about this, then talk to Brother Knuckles.”
“Yes, ma’am. Tell Brother Knuckles what we need here, defense and fortification, and let him consult with the other four we’ve picked. They’ll know their brothers better than we do. They’ll know the best candidates.”
“Yes, that’s good. I wish I could tell them who they’ll be defending against.”
“I wish I could, too, Sister.”
All the vehicles that served the brothers and sisters were garaged in the basement of the school.
I said, “Tell Knuckles—“
“—that I’ll drive one of the school’s monster SUVs up there to bring them here, and tell him—“
“You said hostile people are out there somewhere.”
I had not said people. I had said them and they.
“Hostile. Yes, ma’am.”
“Won’t it be dangerous, to and from the abbey?”
“More dangerous for the kids if we don’t get some muscle here for whatever’s coming.”
“I understand. My point is you’d have to make two trips to bring so many brothers, their baseball bats, and their tools. I’ll drive an SUV, you drive the other, and we’ll get it all done at one time.”
“Ma’am, there’s nothing I’d like better than having a snowplow race with you — tires chocked, engines revved, starter pistol — but I want Rodion Romanovich to drive the second SUV.”
“He’s in the kitchen, up to his elbows in icing.”
“I thought you were suspicious of him.”
“If he’s a Hoosier, I’m a radical dulcimer enthusiast. When we’re defending the school, if it comes to that, I don’t think it’s a good idea for Mr. Romanovich to be inside the defenses. I’ll ask him to drive one of the SUVs to the new abbey. When you talk to Brother Knuck … alvatore—“
“Knuckalvatore? I’m not familiar with Brother Knuckalvatore.”
Until meeting Sister Angela, I wouldn’t have thought that nuns and sarcasm could be such an effervescent mix.
“When you talk to Brother Salvatore, ma’am, tell him that Mr. Romanovich will be staying at the new abbey, and Salvatore will be driving that SUV back here.”
“I assume Mr. Romanovich will not know that he’s taking a one-way trip.”
“No, ma’am. I will lie to him. You leave that to me. Regardless of what you think, I am a masterful and prodigious liar.”
“If you played a saxophone, you’d be a double threat.”
AS LUNCHTIME APPROACHED, THE KITCHEN staffers were not only busier than they had been previously but also more exuberant. Now four of the nuns were singing as they worked, not just two, and in English instead of Spanish.
All ten cakes had been frosted with chocolate icing. They looked treacherously delicious.
Having recently finished mixing a large bowl of bright orange buttercream, Rodion Romanovich was using a funnel sack to squeeze an elaborate decorative filigree on top of the first of his orange-almond cakes.
When I appeared at his side, he didn’t look up, but said, “There you are, Mr. Thomas. You have put on your ski boots.”
“I was so quiet in stocking feet, I was scaring the sisters.”
“Have you been off practicing your dulcimer?”
“That was just a phase. These days I’m more interested in the saxophone. Sir, have you ever visited the grave of John Dillinger?”
“As you evidently know, he is buried in Crown
Hill Cemetery, in my beloved Indianapolis. I have seen the outlaw’s grave, but my primary reason for visiting the cemetery was to pay my respects at the final resting place of the novelist Booth Tarkington.”
“Booth Tarkington won the Nobel Prize,” I said.
“No, Mr. Thomas. Booth Tarkington won the Pulitzer Prize.”
“I guess you would know, being a librarian at the Indiana State Library at one-forty North Senate Avenue, with thirty-four thousand volumes about Indiana or by Indiana writers.”
“Over thirty-four thousand volumes,” Romanovich corrected. “We are very proud of the number and do not like to hear it minimized. We may by this time next year have thirty-five thousand volumes about Indiana or by Indiana writers.”
“Wow. That’ll be a reason for a big celebration.”
“I will most likely bake many cakes for the event.”
The steadiness of his decorative-icing application and the consistency of details in his filigree design were impressive.
If he’d not had about him an air of deceit equal to that of a chameleon sitting on a tree branch, disguised as bark, waiting for innocent butterflies to approach, I might have begun to doubt his potential for villainy.
“Being a Hoosier, sir, you must have a lot of experience driving in snow.”
“Yes. I have had considerable experience of snow both in my adopted Indiana and in my native Russia.”
“We have two SUVs, fitted with plows, in the garage. We’ve got to drive up to the abbey and bring back some of the brothers.”
“Are you asking me to drive one of these vehicles, Mr. Thomas?”
“Yes, sir. If you would, I’d be most grateful. It’ll save me making two trips.”
“For what purpose are the brothers coming to the school?”
“For the purpose,” I said, “of assisting the sisters with the children if there should be a power failure related to the blizzard.”
He drew a perfect miniature rose to finish off one corner of the cake. “Does not the school have an emergency backup generator?”
“Yes, sir, you bet it does. But it doesn’t crank out the same level of power. Lighting will have to be reduced. They’ll have to turn heating off in some areas, use the fireplaces. And Sister Angela wants to be prepared in case the generator falters, too.”
“Have the main power and the backup generator ever both failed on the same occasion?”
“I don’t know, sir. I don’t think so. But in my experience, nuns are obsessed with detailed planning.”
“Oh, I have no doubt, Mr. Thomas, that if nuns had designed and operated the nuclear plant at Chernobyl, we would not have suffered a radiation disaster.”
This was an interesting turn. “Are you from Chernobyl, sir?”
“Do I have a third eye and a second nose?”
“Not that I can see, sir, but then you’re largely clothed.”
“If we should ever find ourselves sunning on the same beach, you are free to investigate further, Mr. Thomas. May I finish decorating these cakes, or must we rush pell-mell to the abbey?”
Knuckles and the others would need at least forty-five minutes to gather the items they’d be bringing and to assemble for pickup.
I said, “Finish the cakes, sir. They look terrific. How about if you meet me down in the garage at twelve forty-five?”
“You can depend on my assistance. I will have finished the cakes by then.”
“Thank you, sir.” I started to leave, then turned to him again. “Did you know Cole Porter was a Hoosier?”