Authors: James Lilliefors
And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.
iracles. What can I tell you? In a skeptical world, if a real miracle occurred, it wouldn't even make the evening news. Who would believe it? This one, though, will be different. This one, the skeptics won't be able to explain. ÂPeople will want to see for themselves; they'll line up around the block to have a look. That's what we need to talk about.”
Walter Kepler watched his attorney's own skepticism harden slightly as he waited on the details of Kepler's plan. Jacob Weber was used to this, to Kepler's Barnum-Âlike enthusiasm as he introduced a new idea. Weber had precise, dark eyes, a narrow face, bristly white hair cut close to the scalp. Seen from behind, he could appear as small and fragile as a child. But he also possessed that rarest of human qualitiesâÂconsistent good judgment: unerringly good, in Kepler's estimation.
As presented, Kepler's plan consisted of three parts: A sells a painting to B; B sells the painting to C; and C (who was Kepler) uses the painting to bring about a “miracle.” The first two parts of the plan he would handle himself, with the assistance of Nicholas Champlain and, of course, Belasco. It was for the third part that he needed Jacob Weber's helpâÂneeded his judgment, and, ultimately, his skills as a negotiator.
Kepler had been formulating versions of this plan in his head since he was a boy, trailing his father through the great art museums of the Northeast and Europe, stopping to stare at some painting or sculpture that, his father insisted, was not only an important work but also a masterpiece. With time, Kepler had learned to tell the difference, to understand why certain paintingsâÂlike certain Âpeople, and ideasâÂheld greater intrinsic value than others. He had spent much of his adult life refining that understanding, through the storms of sudden wealth, divorce, and the more mundane trials of daily living.
When he finished telling Weber his plan, Kepler turned the conversation to the painting. He watched Weber's face flush with a new interest as he described the masterpiece that had dominated his thoughts for the past three weeks, ever since he'd ascertained that it was the real thing.
. Fourteen men trapped on a boat. Each responds differently to a life-Âthreatening storm: one trying valiantly to fix the main sail, another cowering in terror from the waves, one calmly steering the rudder. Fourteen men, fourteen reactions. Kepler imagined how his attorney would react once the waters began to churn in another several months.
Then Kepler sat back and let Jacob Weber voice his concerns. They were much as he had expectedâÂcandid, well-Âreasoned, occasionally surprising. Kepler managed to fend off most; those he couldn't, he stored away.
“So what are we looking at?” his attorney asked. “When would it need to happen?”
Kepler glanced at Weber's right hand, absently tracing the stem of the coffee cup. It was a pleasant April morning, the Bay shivering with whitecaps.
“Late summer,” he said. “August, I'm thinking.”
His attorney thought about that, showing no expression. Calculating how the plan would interrupt and impact his own life, no doubt. Jacob Weber finally closed and opened his eyes. He nodded. “It's doable,” he said. After a thoughtful pause, he added, “Actually, I kind of like it.”
Weber's response would have sounded lukewarm to an outsider. To Kepler, it was a hearty endorsement. In fact, he had never known Jacob Weber to be quite so enthusiastic about one of his ideas. All in all, it was a very good start.
A painting is complete when it has the shadows of a god.
âÂRembrandt van Rijn
Summer is only the unfulfilled promise of spring, a charlatan
in place of the warm balmy nights I dream of in April.
âÂF. Scott Fitzgerald,
This Side of Paradise
ot all mysteries are meant to be solved, and Susan Champlain, it seemed, would be one of those that wasn'tâÂan unknowable visitor who came in like the heat of summer, left impressions as tangible as sunburns, and then slipped away into the cooler air of September.
That was how Luke Bowers figured it, anyway.
But on the afternoon of July 30, the fifth Tuesday of the year's warmest month, the mystery of Susan Champlain became more complicated. And the next day, it turned deadly.
Susan Champlain was one of the summer people, who came to Tidewater County for its informality, for the boating, the steamed crabs, the long breezy evenings. The summer people were part of the transformation that Tidewater went through every June, when the quieter instruments of its natureâthe wash of wind through the marsh grasses, the clangs of harbor buoys, the honks of Canada geeseâgave way to the cacophony of tourism. Summer Âpeople tended to come in two varietiesâthe regulars, who owned vacation homes or condos, and the short-Âtermers, who visited for a week or a weekend, some just for the day.
But Susan Champlain, who had arrived with her husband in early June, didn't fit neatly into either category. The Champlains were renting the old Victorian place at Cooper's Point for the summer, and were so private that no one knew who they were or what their connection, if any, was to Tidewater County. Uneasy with such a dearth of information, some locals did what Âpeople do in that situation: they invented stories. One that Luke had heard told several times now was that Nicholas Champlain, a construction contractor whose business was based in the Philadelphia area, had been relocated to Tidewater under the federal witness protection program. As near as Luke could tell, the only basis for this tale was the fact that Champlain vaguely looked the partâÂhe was big and swarthy, with a self-Âassured smile and a matching walk; on the two occasions that Luke had seen him, he'd been wearing a gold neck chain.
The only time either of the Champlains was spotted with any regularity was on Sunday mornings, when Susan showed up, alone, at Luke's church, Tidewater Methodist, where he served as head pastor. The sixty-Âyear-Âold wooden church, which sat prominently on a bluff high above the Chesapeake Bay, was largely immune to the summer transformation that went on elsewhere in the county. The congregation grew a little larger in July and August, but only a little; summer Âpeople tended to sleep in on Sundays. When visitors did show up, some of the congregation tried to make them feel at home, and some didn't. Despite the spirit of fellowship the church fostered, congregants tended to hold fast to their own social orbits. And a few were, by nature, wary of outsiders.
This divide seemed particularly evident when Susan Champlain began attending in early June. Several congregants (a few of the men, in particular) went out of their way at first to make her acquaintance, while others seemed to ignore her. She cut a striking appearanceâÂtall and long-Âlegged with full, shoulder-Âlength blond hair that bounced as she walked. There was a compelling downward twist to her mouth as she smiled that made her seem like someone Âpeople knewâÂalthough she wasn't quite as friendly, it turned out, as the smile suggested. There was also a self-Âsufficient, detached quality about her, which created the impression that she was concealing herself out in the open.
Luke had long been a student of the whims and mysteries of human nature, and something about Susan Champlain's elusiveness aroused his curiosity. Whoever she was, she was a loner at heart, he had decided, and Luke felt a small kinship with her because of it.
His astute wife, Charlotte, had told him early on that Susan seemed troubled. As the summer unwound, and he spoke with her briefly after each Sunday's serÂvice, Luke began to suspect that Susan was coming to church to get away from some unpleasantness at home. About a month earlier, he had said to her, “You know, my door's always open if you ever want to come by and talk.”
But she didn't. And by late July, when the cornfields were taller than most of the Âpeople in Tidewater County, the heat so intense that locals spent their afternoons indoors, Luke had stopped thinking she might. Susan Champlain, he'd decided, would be one of that summer's small mysteries that remained unsolved.
So Luke was surprised on the afternoon of July 30 when he looked up from his desk and saw a BMW braking across from his window, raising a cloud of gravel dust as it skidded to a stop beside his Explorer. It was Susan Champlain who emerged, dressed in white cotton slacks and a sleeveless blouse, a large handbag slung over her right shoulder. Luke watched through the Venetian blinds as she strode toward the church offices as if heading to a business appointment.
There were various facets to Luke's job as head pastor, many of them administrative and not terribly interesting. He prepared the annual budget and was also the final arbiter on such matters as how many church bulletins to print each week and whether to set the thermostat at 72 or 74 degrees in summer. He presided at weddings and funerals, performed baptisms (sometimes in the Bay) and gave a sermon every Sunday. But the most rewarding parts of his job were the one-Âon-Âone interactions with church members. Luke liked to think that he was in the good and evil business; his job was to help Âpeople find greater meaning in the ordinary march of their days, to bring light into the darker corners of their lives.
He kept his door open and encouraged congregants to stop by anytimeâÂalthough not a lot of Âpeople did. This week, he'd been visited by Tim Blake, a film school student who was trying to convince Luke and the staff parish committee to let him shoot a zombie movie at the church (he'd offered Luke a “prominent” role); J. Michael Bunting, the irrepressible new reporter for the
, who was writing about the church's off-Âseason “pet worship” proposal as if it were a local controversy (even though he hadn't yet found anyone opposed); and Delores Crowley, who wanted to leave a chunk of her fortune to the church on the condition that the Activities Room be renamed for her late husband and, more problematic, that his name be mentioned at the start of each Sunday serÂvice ad infinitum.
Yesterday, a large family with cameras had stopped by simply to gawk at the imposing building, with its tall, narrow stained windows and skyward-Âpointing spire. When Luke looked up from his desk at one point, three of them had been at the window peering in, waving, surprised to find that someone actually worked here.
He looked up now and saw Agnes Collins, his efficient and protective office manager, standing diminutively in the doorway.
“There's a Susan Champlain to see you,” she announced in her slightly breathy voice.
Susan Champlain, or
Susan Champlain?” he almost said but decided against it. Aggie was a delicate soul who'd lost her husband to suicide five years earlier. She'd emerged from mourning as a refreshingly different person, more talkative and open to surprising new interests, including, for a while, singing in the church choir. The only unattractive trait she'd acquired was a proclivity to gossip. It was from Aggie that Luke had first heard that Nick Champlain was in witness protection. She'd also mentioned to him at least twice over the summer how Âpeople were starting to talk about Susan Champlain always being the last to arrive for Sunday serÂvice.
Susan was lurking just behind her now, three or four inches taller than Aggie, jockeying to establish eye contact with him through the crack in the doorway.
“Sorry,” she said as soon as Luke waved her through, angling sideways past Aggie. “I hope I'm not interrupting anything.”
“No,” he said. “Please.”
Her eyes did a quick scan of Luke's office. Then she eagerly reached to shake his hand, bending at the waist and exaggerating the effort, not seeming to notice that Luke's left arm was in a sling this afternoon.
“Susan Champlain,” she said. “I thought I ought to finally stop by and say hello properly. It's always so hectic on Sunday.”
“I'm glad you did.” Luke nodded for her to sit; they both sat before he realized that Aggie was still in the room.
“Would either of you like some coffee or water?”
“No, thank you.” Susan turned slightly to face her.
“We're fine,” Luke said.
“Hot tea?” she said, to Susan.
“No. Thank you.” Susan showed Aggie a pleasant smile, which disappeared as soon as she closed the door.
“I appreciate this,” Susan said, and her eyes suddenly widened, looking at his sling. “What
“I fell,” Luke said, feeling a little embarrassed. “Cleaning the drains on our house yesterday, nothing serious.”
“Ouch.” She winced. “I hope you're right-Âhanded.”
Preliminaries over, Susan scooted forward. She moved his stapler one way and his desk calendar the other, claiming the new space for her arms. And then she began to tell Luke about herself and her husband, answering many of the questions that Âpeople had been asking all summer, without Luke having to say anything.
Susan and Nicholas Champlain had come to Tidewater from Philadelphia, she said, to escape the city for a few months. Nicholas, a contractor and land developer, had brought down his boat, a thirty-Âfooter called
, named after his grown daughter. But he was in the midst of a big shopping-Âcenter deal that required travel back and forth to Philadelphia, so they rarely got out on the water. Sometimes, he'd leave her in Tidewater for two or three days at a time, she said. “Which is okay for me, I'm pretty good at being alone, but not always great for our marriage.”
Susan described herself as an artist, a “primitive photographer,” originally from Iowa, although she had lived more recently in New York City, Greenwich Village, before meeting Nicholas and moving to Philadelphia four and a half years ago. She spoke with a surprising facility, revealing rounded Midwestern inflections that Luke hadn't noticed before. Her skin was tanned and lightly freckled, which brought out the blue of her eyes, and her hands couldn't seem to keep still; Luke took note of her multi-Âcarat diamond wedding ring as she gestured.
It soon became apparent that she was working her way, in a very roundabout fashion, toward a point, and that, whatever the point was, it was the real purpose of her visit. Luke was a good listener, and he waited for it, nodding and smiling appropriately as she talked.
Finally, after telling him of her summer exercise regimenâÂa combination of free weights, jogging and bike ridingâÂSusan leaned back, looked at the ceiling and blew a long stream of breath from her mouth.
“Actually,” she said, “I really kind of need to talk to someone.”
She licked her lips once, her eyes going to Luke's.
“Can I tell you a story?”