From an inner pocket of the coat draped over his arm, Romanovich produced a long vertical-fold wallet, and from the wallet a laminated card, which he did not at once present to me.
“Mr. Thomas, if you were to read a twenty-page report on me that was prepared by seasoned intelligence analysts, you would know all that is worth knowing about me, as well as much that would not have been of interest even to my mother, though my mother doted on me.”
“Your mother the assassin.”
“That is correct.”
Sister Angela said, “Excuse me?”
“Mother was also a concert pianist.”
I said, “She was probably a master chef, too.”
“In fact, I learned cakes from her. After reading a twenty-page report on you, Mr. Thomas, I thought I knew everything about you, but as it turns out, I knew little of importance. By that, I do not mean only your … gift. I mean I did not know the kind of man you are.”
Although I wouldn’t have thought the Russian could be a medicine for melancholy, he suddenly proved to be an effective mood-elevator.
“What did your father do, sir?” I asked.
“He prepared people for death, Mr. Thomas.”
Heretofore, I had not seen Sister Angela nonplussed.
“So it’s a family trade, sir. Why do you so directly call your mother an assassin?”
“Because, you see, technically an assassin is one who proceeds only against highly placed political targets.”
“Whereas a mortician is not as choosy.”
“A mortician is not indiscriminate, either, Mr. Thomas.”
If Sister Angela didn’t regularly attend tennis matches as a spectator, she would have a sore neck in the morning.
“Sir, I’ll bet your father was also a chess master.”
“He won only a single national championship.”
“Too busy with his career as a mortician.”
“No. Unfortunately, a five-year prison sentence fell at that very point at which he was at his most competitive as a chessman.”
As Romanovich gave me the laminated photo-ID card with embedded holographs, which he had taken from his wallet, he said to Sister Angela, “All of that was in the old Soviet, and I have confessed it and atoned. I have long been on the side of truth and justice.”
Reading from the card, I said, “National Security Agency.”
“That is correct, Mr. Thomas. After watching you with Jacob and with this girl here, I have decided to take you into my confidence.”
“We must be careful, Sister,” I warned. “He may only mean that he is a confidence man.”
She nodded but seemed no less perplexed.
“We need to talk somewhere more private,” Romanovich said.
Returning his NSA credentials, I said, “I want a few words with the girl.”
As once more I sat on the floor near Christmas, she looked up from her book and said, “I like cats, too, b-b-but they aren’t dogs.”
“They sure aren’t,” I agreed. “I’ve never seen a group of cats strong enough to pull a dogsled.”
Picturing cats in the traces of a sled, she giggled.
“And you’ll never get a cat to chase a tennis ball.”
“Never,” she agreed.
“And dogs never have mouse breath.”
“Yuck. Mouse breath.”
“Christmas, do you really want to work with dogs one day?”
“I really do. I know I could do a lot with dogs.”
“You have to keep up rehab, get back as much strength in your arm and leg as you can.”
“Gonna get it all b-back.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“You gotta retrain the b-b-brain.”
“I’m going to stay in touch with you, Christmas. And when you’re grown up and ready to be on your own, I have a friend who will make sure you’ll have a job doing something wonderful with dogs, if that’s still what you want.”
Her eyes widened. “Something wonderful — like what?”
“That’ll be for you to decide. While you’re getting stronger and growing up, you think about what would be the most wonderful job you could do with dogs — and that will be it.”
“I had a good dog. His name was F-Farley. He tried to save me, but Jason shot him, too.”
She spoke about the horror with more dispassion than I could have done, and in fact I felt that I would not maintain my composure if she said another word about it.
“One day, you’ll have all the dogs you want. You can live in a sea of happy fur.”
Although she couldn’t go directly from Farley to a giggle, she smiled. “A sea of happy fur,” she said, savoring the sound of it, and her smile sustained.
I held out my hand. “Do we have a deal?”
Solemnly, she thought about it, and then she nodded and took my hand. “Deal.”
“You’re a very tough negotiator, Christmas.”
“I’m exhausted. You have worn me down. I am bleary and dopey and pooped. My feet are tired, my hands are tired, even my hair is tired. I need to go and have a long nap, and I really, really need to eat some pudding.”
She giggled. “Pudding?”
“You’ve been such a tough negotiator, you’ve so exhausted me that I can’t even chew. My teeth are tired. In fact my teeth are already asleep. I can only eat pudding.”
Grinning, she said, “You’re silly.”
“It’s been said of me before,” I assured her.
Because we needed to talk in a place where bodachs were unlikely to enter, Sister Angela led Romanovich and me to the pharmacy, where Sister Corrine was dispensing evening medicines into small paper cups on which she had written the names of her patients. She agreed to give us privacy.
When the door closed behind Sister Corrine, the mother superior said, “All right. Who is Jacob’s father, and why is he so important?”
Romanovich and I looked at each other, and we spoke as one: “John Heineman.”
“Brother John?” she asked dubiously. “Our patron? Who gave up all his wealth?”
I said, “You haven’t seen the uberskeleton, ma’am. Once you’ve seen the uberskeleton, you pretty much know it couldn’t be anyone else but Brother John. He wants his son dead, and maybe all of them, all the children here.”
RODION ROMANOVICH HAD SOME CREDIBILITY with me because of his National Security Agency ID and because he was droll.
Maybe it was the effect of rogue molecules of tranquilizers in the medicinally scented air of the pharmacy, but minute by minute, I grew more willing to trust him.
According to the Hoosier, twenty-five years before we had come under siege in this blizzard, John Heineman’s fiancée, Jennifer Calvino, had given birth to their child, Jacob. No one knows if she had availed herself of a sonogram or other testing, but in any case, she had carried the child to term.
Twenty-six, already a physicist of significant accomplishments, Heineman had not reacted well to her pregnancy, had felt trapped by it. Upon his first sight of Jacob, he denied fatherhood, withdrew his proposal of marriage, cut Jennifer Calvino out of his life, and gave her no more thought than he would have given a basal-cell carcinoma once it had been surgically removed from his skin.
Although even at that time, Heineman had been a man of some means, Jennifer asked him for nothing. His hostility to his deformed son had been so intense that Jennifer decided Jacob would be both happier and safer if he had no contact with his father.
Mother and son did not have an easy life, but she was devoted to him, and in her care, he thrived. When Jacob was thirteen, his mother died, after arranging for his lifelong institutional care through a church charity.
Over the years, Heineman became famous and wealthy. When his research, as widely reported, drove him to the conclusion that the subatomic structure of the universe suggested indisputable design, he had reexamined his life and, in something like penitence, had given away his fortune and retreated to a monastery.
“A changed man,” said Sister Angela. “In contrition for how he treated Jennifer and Jacob, he gave up everything. Surely he couldn’t want his son dead. He funded this facility for the care of children like Jacob. And for Jacob himself.”
Leaving the mother superior’s argument unaddressed, Romanovich said, “Twenty-seven months ago, Heineman came out of seclusion and began to discuss his current research with former colleagues, by phone and in E-mails. He had always been fascinated by the strange order that underlies every apparent chaos in nature, and during his years of seclusion, using computer models of his design, processed on twenty linked Cray supercomputers, he had made breakthroughs that would enable him, as he put it, ‘to prove the existence of God.’ “
Sister Angela didn’t need to mull that over to find the flaw in it. “We can approach belief from an intellectual path, but in the end, God must be taken on faith. Proofs are for things of this world, things in time and of time, not beyond time.”
Romanovich continued: “Because some of the scientists with whom Heineman spoke were on the national-security payroll, and because they recognized risks related to his research and certain defense applications as well, they reported him to us. Since then, we have had one of ours in the abbey guesthouse. I am only the latest.”
“For some reason,” I said, “you were alarmed enough to introduce another agent as a postulant, now a novice, Brother Leopold.”
Sister Angela’s wimple seemed to stiffen with her disapproval. “You had a man falsely profess vows to God?”
“We did not intend for him to go beyond simple postulancy, Sister. We wanted him to spend a few weeks deeper in the community than a guest might ever get. As it turned out, he was a man searching for a new life, and he found it. We lost him to you — though we feel he still owes us some assistance, as his vows allow.”
Her scowl was more imposing than any of his had been. “More than ever, Mr. Romanovich, I think you are a dubious piece of work.”
“You are undoubtedly correct. Anyway, we became alarmed when Brother Constantine committed suicide — because thereafter, Heineman at once stopped calling and E-mailing his old colleagues, and has not since communicated with anyone outside St. Bartholomew’s.”
“Perhaps,” said Sister Angela, “the suicide moved him to trade his research for prayer and reflection.”
“We think not,” Romanovich said drily.
“And Brother Timothy has been murdered, ma’am. There is no doubt of it now. I found the body.”
Although she had already accepted the fact of his murder, this hard confirmation left her stricken.
“If it helps you come to terms with the situation,” Romanovich said to her, “we believe that Heineman may not be fully aware of the violence he has unleashed.”
“But, Mr. Romanovich, if two are dead and others threatened, how could he not be aware?”
“As I recall, poor Dr. Jekyll did not at first realize that his quest to rid himself of all evil impulses had in the process created Mr. Hyde, whose nature was pure evil unleavened by the goodness of the doctor.”
Seeing in my mind’s eye the uberskeleton assaulting the SUV, I said, “That thing in the snow wasn’t merely the dark side of a human personality. There was nothing human about it.”
“Not his dark side,” Romanovich agreed. “But perhaps created by his dark side.”
“What does that mean, sir?”
“We aren’t sure, Mr. Thomas. But I think now it is incumbent upon us to find out — quickly. You have been given a universal key.”
“Why, Mr. Thomas?”
“Brother Constantine is one of the lingering dead. I was given a key so I could let myself into anyplace on the property where he went poltergeist. I’ve been trying to … counsel him to move on.”
“You lead an interesting life, Mr. Thomas.”
“You’re no slouch yourself, sir.”
“You are even allowed access to John’s Mew.”
“We connected, sir. He makes good cookies.”
“You have a culinary bond.”
“Seems like we all do, sir.”
Sister Angela shook her head. “I can’t cook water.”
Romanovich threw the switch that beetled his hydraulic brow over his eyes. “Does he know of your gift?”
“I think you are his Mary Reilly.”
“I hope you aren’t becoming enigmatic again, sir.”
“Mary Reilly was Dr. Jekyll’s housekeeper. For all that he concealed from her, he subconsciously hoped that she would find him out and stop him.”
“Did this Mary Reilly end up killed, sir?”
“I do not recall. But if you have not actually done any dusting for Heineman, you may be safe.”
“What now?” asked Sister Angela.
“Mr. Thomas and I must make it alive into John’s Mew.”
“And out again alive,” I said.
Romanovich nodded. “We can certainly try.”
THE STORM-SUITED MONKS NUMBERED TEN more than seven. Only two or three whistled while they worked. None was unusually short. As they secured the southeast and the northwest stairwells, however, I half expected Snow White to stop by with bottled water and words of encouragement.
In the interest of safety, the stairwell doors could not be locked. At each floor, the landing was a generous space, so the door opened into the stairwell instead of outward.
At the basement level, ground floor, and third floor, the monks drilled four holes in each door frame — two on the left, two right — and fitted them with steel sleeves. Into each sleeve, they inserted a half-inch-diameter bolt.
The bolts protruded an inch from the sleeves, preventing the door from opening. This scheme engaged not merely the strength of the frame but also of the entire wall in support of the door.
Because the sleeves were not threaded and were wider than the shafts inserted into them, the bolts could be plucked out in seconds to facilitate a hasty exit from the stairwell.
At the second floor, the children’s dormitory, the trick was to devise a way to prevent the doors from being pulled open in the unlikely event that something broke into the stairwell, through a bolt-reinforced door, at another level. Already the brothers were debating the merits of three security options.
From the southeast stairs, Romanovich and I enlisted Brother Knuckles, and from the northwest stairs, Brother Maxwell, for the defense of Jacob Calvino. Each of them brought two baseball bats in case the first was cracked in battle.