Authors: Lynn Hightower
The priest gives me a steady look, but there is a light in his eyes. I am thinking that he knows his slang is off kilter, and enjoys making fun of himself. âAnd do you have dealings with him now, this Dark Soul Paul? It occurs to me, dear lady, that if Paul had no luck finding what he was looking for with us, he might go elsewhere in his search. And it worries me that Sandbone left with him, and did not return.'
This is my chance, I see it, I could tell this man everything. I am too close to this business, too weighed down in worry. He would be objective. He would be wise.
âDo you think that it is this Paul who may be responsible for Sandbone's disappearance?' he asks.
âJust that it would not surprise me, Father.'
âI remember how Sandbone was good to him.'
âYes, Father. But with a man like this, who is searching for spiritual redemption, there is a risk in becoming his spiritual advisor. He might tell you things, and then regret the telling. He might have certain expectations. He might be disappointed when they were not met.'
Father Panatel nods, and in his eyes I can see understanding, and worry. Somewhere I hear the faint tread of footsteps. The sun streams in through the windows and lights the motes of dust in the air.
âThere is something else you wished to say.' Panatel sounds sympathetic, but he watches me.
My throat feels sore. âEverything that I tell you puts you at risk.'
âNothing you say will go further than this room.'
âI would ask you to tell me your memories of this man, and, for your own sake, not ask me any questions.' I find I have tucked my hands beneath me.
Father Panatel has been in the business long enough to know there is quite a lot I wish to say, and he waits me out, a technique I have used myself.
âThis man. This
. Before he came here, to your abbey, he came to me.'
âAh. I wondered if that might not be so. There is more?'
âMuch more,' I say. âBut nothing I can discuss without putting other people, not to mention you, in danger. I know how that sounds, how dramatic, but it's true and I would ask you to keep my confidence on this.'
He looks at me for such a long time. I am tired and worried and I wonder if I should say more, but I feel, strongly, that I may already have said too much.
He leans toward me. âI would like there to be more for me to do than the telling of old stories, dear lady, for I think you are in need of some help.'
I scoot to the back of my chair, keeping my knees together and my ankles crossed. I hope I do not look as uncomfortable as I feel. My ears are tuned now, to the rhythm of his speech. I am ready for once upon a time.
âFourteen years ago I was still just a student, you must understand. I was here on retreat as well. I was very interested in Thomas Merton, as I am a follower of this man. You are familiar with this Thomas Merton?'
âI am. I studied him in seminary.'
He nods. âI was present for two weeks of retreat, and my time ended on the same Friday afternoon that it did for Mr Sandbone and Mr Paul. He has made quite the impression, Mr Paul, what you call the
. He did not seem to know the ways of religion, and he broke many rules, many rules.'
âFor example?' I ask. Looking for anything.
âPlease understand this, dear lady. A retreat is a place apart to entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God. To pray for your own discovery. This man, Mr Paul, will speak without any thinking. He does not say much, but his time for speaking is very misjudged. He is lodged next to Mr Sandbone in the retreat house and each guest has a private room with a bathroom. The others here did not know what to make of Mr Paul, and it is clear that he had no notion of expectations. He was conscious of the self and felt the odd man out. Mr Sandbone took him in hand â is that the expression? Took him in hand?'
âDepends on what you mean by that,' I said.
âWhat I mean is that the good Mr Sandbone is the constant companion of Mr Paul, and if they are talking more than is expected late at night in their rooms, no one is complaining, because Mr Paul has them all feeling unsettled. But they are noticing, yes, Mr Paul and Mr Sandbone are very much noticed.'
âDid you overhear any of their conversations? Or did anyone else overhear them and make any kind of comment you recall?'
âMy dear friend, I was listening for the voice of God, not the back and forth between two men who did not have the courtesy and respect to follow the rules. But there was one night when I was awakened by the voices and the smell of the cigarettes. The walls, you see, are very thin. I admit to you I was quite annoyed by it and thought to complain. I was disturbed by their noise and their disrespect.'
âWhat did you hear?' I say.
The priest lowered his head. âIt would seem that Mr Paul has led a life of great violence.'
âThat is what I have heard. Sandbone himself is a veteran of war, and this creates between them a sort of empathy. But mostly it is Paul who is talking. He says that he has committed acts of actual murder. It was a thing most chilling for me to listen to, because he speaks with such a way that is matter of fact. Mr Paul said that most of the killings were for monetary gain. He spoke again and again of internal transformation, saying he wishes not to kill ever again, but is unclear how to make that stop. There seems to be a fear that if he changes into a man of good, he will die. He spoke over and over of the dangers of morality, as if it is some kind of curse. He is asking for God to show him the way. How to become another, but still be safe.'
Father Panatel looks out the window. âYou would think that I would feel pity for such a man. But I was young then, and quick to condemn. I felt Mr Paul was looking for something, but not looking, if that makes sense at all. I could not find it in my heart to feel sad for him, not at that time in my life.'
I nodded. I understood. Only too well.
âYou should know that I did have conversation with Mr Sandbone on the afternoon of departing. Mr Paul had gone back to his room to look for a keychain he had bought from the gift shop, and their car is packed for leaving.'
âSo there's no question, then, that they left together? You saw this?'
âI saw the preparations being made. I told Mr Sandbone farewell, and I am with my own bags packed, waiting. He asked me if I needed transportation anywhere, he knows I am a student. And I told him that such has been taken care of by the abbey. He asks me where I am to go, and I tell him that I am on my way to take a plane for India. I ask him what are his own plans, and he says he is on his way to the Shepherds Of The Land, which is a monastery begun in Utah by monks from this very abbey here. He has spent his six months there as a postulate, and is ready to begin his two years as a novice, after which he will take a temporary vow to bind him to the monastic life for three years. He says that Mr Paul is interested in becoming a postulate, and I can tell you, dear lady, that I must have looked surprised. Mr Sandbone, he puts a hand on my shoulder, and he calls me son. That is a thing in America, yes, for a man of some years to call a young man son. And he says to me something that I was always to remember. He says “Mr Paul has a past, my son, but also he has a future.”'
Sandbone's words seem to generate a sort of presence, and we both sit quiet for a while.
âSandbone was a brave man,' I say finally. âBut foolish. Men like this Dark Man. I'm not sure they
I can see it in Father Panatel's face, that in spite of the optimism of certain passages of scripture, he has struggled with the very same thing âDo you really believe that, dear lady?'
It's a good question.
question, as a matter of fact.
âLet's say it is my
, Father Panatel, that they cannot.'
y cell phone rings on my way home from the seminary. I pull to the side of the road. I am distracted and it takes all of my concentration to drive.
âMy name is Mrs Hunter, Melissa Hunter, and I'm with the Sebastian County Humane Society. I was told to call this number for a Joy Miller.'
âI'm Joy Miller. I'm sorry, who did you say you were?'
âMrs Melissa Hunter. With the Sebastian County Humane Society.' She sounds like an older woman, and easily annoyed. âWe understand that you are the contact in regard to a golden retriever mix named Rubyâ' I hear the rustle of papers, ââ¦ a dog belonging to a Caroline Miller?'
âI â¦ yes. Is Ruby there with you?'
A pause. âShe's in our kennel.' There is disapproval in her voice, as if I have accused her of the impropriety of having the dog sit with her at her desk. âThis dog was brought in and left here by the police.'
âRight. Right, of course.'
âWe'd like to know what you want done with the dog. Do you want her to go up for adoption, or do you want to pick her up?'
âOh, no, I'll come and get her. I â do I need to come myself? Can I have someone pick her up for me?' I was thinking of Sanderson. Caroline's Fayetteville boyfriend.
âUmm â¦ well, this is unusual, but I've got instructions here in the file that say that the dog can only be released to you. But really, if you want to fax me a signed authorizationâ'
âYou have instructions? In the file? Who gave you the instructions?'
She makes a noise of exasperation. âLet me look at this here. It says â¦ evidently we had a phone call from someone in the family. They said it had been arranged for you to pick the dog up. They left your number andâ'
âYes. Yes, that's fine. I'll be there as soon as I can.'
âWe close at five.'
Automatically I check the clock on the dash of my car. It is three thirty and it will take me fourteen hours to drive to Fort Smith if I make the usual stops.
âI'll can't be there until tomorrow. But I'll get there as soon as I can. Is she OK? Ruby?'
The woman's voice changes. âActually, I checked on her myself this morning when I was reviewing her arrangements. I understand that she has not been eating. When I saw her she was curled up at the back of her cage, and she did not look well. She's quite elderly, isn't she? I'm wondering if she has arthritis meds or something she might be needing.'
I have a flash of memory, of watching Caro give Ruby her pills. âI think she does, come to think of it. I'll stop at my daughter-in-law's house and pick them up. And I'll be there as soon as I can.'
âExcellent. Ruby will be waiting. And if something comes up, and you won't be able to get here, you'll be sure to let me know?'
âOf course. But I'll be there.'
I flip the phone closed. A car with oversized speakers blows past, and the pulse of music makes me jump.
A phone call from someone in the family? Instructions for me to pick the dog up? Caro's dog. Andee's dog.
The FBI will be watching my mail. They are probably monitoring my phone. The Dark Man is getting in touch.
I stop by the house to pack a bag and make arrangements for Leo. Marsha's car is in the driveway and she has parked up near the front door, blocking the garage. I don't want to tell her where I am going. It is impossible for her to keep a secret.
I walk into the house, and she meets me at the door.
âThere you are. I've been looking all over for you.'
She has had her hair done. It has been shellacked to her head, and she is wearing a forest green silk blouse, and khakis. One hand is balled in a fist at her throat.
âHere I am. Why are
âI work here, remember? I had a hair appointment, I mentioned it yesterday. You
me to stay late. But listen, Joy. The FBI has been to my house. They told me about Caroline and Andee. They â Joy, do you realize they think you might have had something to do with that? I tried to tell them how ridiculous it was.'
âThank you for that.'
âBut what's going on?'
âIt's complicated. All I know is that Caro and Andee are missing, and they have to check everybody out.'
âHas there been a ransom note?'
I hesitate. âNo, not yet.'
âThose agents â and by the way, that Mavis Jones agent girl is such a bitch. But they said you got some pictures in the mail. They showed me the envelope and asked me if I'd seen them. I told them it was part of my job to get the mail, and that I'd brought the envelope in myself. I remembered it. Giving it to you. And then they wouldn't tell me what it was all about. Joy, what was it?'
âPictures, Marsha. You don't want to know.'
Her mouth opens wide. âPornography?'
âWhat kind of crimes?'
âThere were three of them, three people. Pictures of them shot in the throat. All of them evangelists I went to seminary with.'
âDid you sayâ' Marsha puts her hand out as if to break her fall. Her face has gone chalk white.
I take her elbow and lead her to the couch. Caroline and Andee have been kidnapped, and it is somehow tied into the execution of three evangelists that I used to know, and I am suspected of being involved. Collapsing in the foyer is a personal best for Marsha â in circumstances such as these how else will she be in the center? She will offer to help, then come unglued, that will be the pattern. Whether or not she will actually be of any help will be a matter of chance and caprice.
But she is quite capable of crashing to the floor, and much too heavy for me to lift. I need to shut this down. I guide her to the couch and when she resists I admit I am a little bit rough, but I'm in a hurry. The Dark Man has instructions for me in Arkansas. I need to pick up Caro's dog.