Father Frank was quite well-known in U-town. I had never met him before, and he was both taller and younger than I had expected. He held out his hand when he greeted us at the front door of his church, and it enveloped mine like a catcher's mitt.
"Miss Sleet," he said as my employer inclined her head in greeting. He turned to me. "And Mister..."
"Marshall O'Connor," I said.
He smiled. "Catholic?" he asked.
I laughed. "Once upon a time."
"I'm hoping you didn't ask us here with the idea of saving our souls," my employer said.
He smiled as he escorted us into the empty church, but he didn't reply.
We had received a note from Father Frank that morning, saying that he would be in his office all afternoon and asking us to visit him at our earliest convenience. The note was addressed specifically to my employer, so it didn't seem that it was an official request to the U-town government.
The church was quite old, with some fairly impressive statues, and there were stained glass windows which might have been quite beautiful if they had been cleaned recently. One area at the side was shrouded, but it looked to be a construction site rather than some sort of religious observance.
Father Frank's office was small and plain, clearly a working office. He waited for my employer to sit, then he and I sat as well.
"I am, I confess, wondering why you invited me to come here," my employer said.
"I'm hoping I can ask you a couple of questions," he replied, his hands clasped on the desk in front of him.
"That would be fine. Our time is not infinite, but we try to be accommodating."
"I am curious about marriage in U-town, for a start."
"In general, or in specific?"
"In general. I have heard that anybody can get married who wants to."
"I can see why people would say that, but it's not entirely true. It is true that we have no categorical restrictions. Men can marry men, women can marry women, marriage is not limited to only two people, and so on. All of that is true."
"What about children?"
He meant it sarcastically, but she didn't take the bait. "Good point," she said. "No, children are not allowed to marry. They are, by definition, not mature enough to make that sort of decision."
"Then who determines when somebody is old enough?"
"We do, but you're approaching this backwards. Start with the rule, not the exceptions. Say you want to get married. You come to us, you and the person you want to marry, and you make a request. We consider it, we talk to everybody concerned, and then we make a decision. If we decide we approve, then it depends on waiting for Doc Morse to be available to preside. If we don't approve, then you can get married by somebody else, or somewhere else, or not at all. Or you can reapply at a later date."
"This has always confused me," Father Frank continued, "and some of my parishioners as well. It seems almost as if anybody who says they're married is considered married."
"That's not far from the truth," my employer replied. "Most countries in the world, and most religions, consider marriage to be a good thing in the abstract. We don't care one way or the other. Because most societies consider it a good thing, they encourage people to get married, by giving them financial and other benefits for doing so.
"Once that starts to happen, then you have to be able to reliably identify who is married and who isn't, so you can be sure you're giving those benefits only to the right people.
"And, of course, societies use this to enforce their particular views on who should be able to get married and who shouldn't." She shrugged. "We don't do any of that, frankly because we don't care, as I said. Get married or not, what does it matter to us? You get no benefits from us, so we have no reason to track who is married and who isn't." She smiled. "It makes life so much easier.
"Which doesn't mean we're against marriage on an individual basis. Marshall and I are married, but I'm not going to impose that on other people, any more than I would try to force people to smoke cigarettes and wear neckties just because I do."
"What about incest?" Father Frank asked.
She frowned. "Are you asking in relation to marriage?"
"Yes. What if two people who were blood relations wanted to get married? A brother and sister, for example."
She looked thoughtful. "An interesting question, in theory. Does it have any basis in fact? Do you know of any instances of this happening?"
He shook his head. "No, thank God. But it sounds like you're leaving the door open."
She laughed. "I suppose we are, and thank you for pointing that out. But I think we'll hold off on worrying about that scenario until we find out if it's real. Not that incest of various sorts doesn't occur, but I don't believe it usually ends up with a desire for matrimony." She shrugged. "Abstract theoretical discussions can be challenging and fruitful, but public policy should really be bounded by reality."
There was more she could have said – that she would have said under different circumstances. But I could tell she was on her guard. She was trying to figure out what Father Frank was after, and she certainly wasn't going to discuss any personal matters with him.
What she would have said – under different circumstances – was that she and I had, rather unintentionally, set the tradition for weddings in U-town. We had asked Doc to preside, because she was in charge of the government and because she was our friend. What we had not anticipated was that, after that, everybody would want Doc to conduct their weddings.
Doc used to complain about this from time to time, saying, "If I had known what this would lead to, I'd have let you two continue to live in sin."
Whenever she said this, my employer would just smile, secure in the happy knowledge that, of all the couples who had ever been married in U-town, none of them had ever been better dressed than we had been.
The photographs of us, in our matching morning coats, had been published in many newspapers all over the world. Doc's theory for the surprising reach of the story had been that it both supported people's view of U-town (as a place where eccentric things happened) and subverted it (since the general impression of U-town was that the citizens were all quite scruffy and unkempt).
Of course, there was another theory, which was that many of the photographs showed the entire wedding party, and Vicki had surprised everybody by not wearing her usual all-black ensemble of jeans, T-shirt, and leather jacket. Instead, she had worn a dress, and newspaper editors are not too noble to run a photograph featuring a small teenage girl who just happens to be showing a lot of cleavage.
My employer frowned. "Is that it? Did you invite us here just to ask about marriage? The answers to these sorts of questions are publicly available. They don't require–"
"No, I have another question as well. I understand that you terminate unwanted pregnancies."
"In your eagerness to make this sound like an accusation, you have turned a potentially true statement into a false one. I don't perform abortions, not from any moral objection but for the same reason I don't perform appendectomies or hysterectomies. Those are surgical procedures and I have no medical training, apart from a few informal experiences in combat situations."
"I'm sorry," he said, "but I must interrupt. Are you saying that you have been in combat? I hope you're not referring to the few days following the beginning of U-town. That was chaotic, yes, but it hardly qualifies as combat."
She looked annoyed, as she always did when she met somebody who was not sufficiently familiar with her curriculum vitae and who tried to judge her based on her studious appearance and her impeccable three-piece suits.
"Before we came here," she said, "Marshall and I spent over six months in Bellona. During the worst part of the war."
Her annoyance, at the question and at the entire interrogation, was starting to creep into her voice, so I spoke up.
"In addition to reporting on the war, we sutured and bandaged wounds, set broken limbs, and even delivered a couple of babies. Under conditions which certainly seemed like combat at the time, based on the number of people who were being shot and blown up all around us."
"Ah," the priest replied, "I was not aware of this. I read your magazine pieces at the time, at least some of them, but perhaps I missed those installments."
She smiled, somewhat mollified. "Most of those experiences were not included, not unless they were relevant. I'm a reporter, not a diarist. In any case, yes, abortions are performed at the hospital, by people who have had the appropriate training."
"I have one more question," he said. "It's about starling."
"Not to be rude, but I'm starting to lose interest in this. The question of our resident mass murderer has been a matter of discussion with city, state, and federal officials, more than once. I–"
He held up a hand. "Please, you're anticipating what I'm going to say, and you're wrong."
"I am aware that you allow starling to live here despite all the people she has killed. She is evidently trying to change her life. A member of my congregation lives across the street from her, and he thinks she should be killed. I told him that I thought you were right, that everybody deserves a chance at redemption."
My employer leaned back and smiled. "My belief in redemption is conditional, depending on how you define the term. Do I believe in becoming free from the consequences of sin? No, because I don't believe in sin as such. But do I believe in someone becoming released from blame or debt, being changed for the better? Yes, absolutely. By the way, what is the purpose of all this? Are you interviewing me? I always think I'm not interviewed often enough."
"This is serious–"
"I'm afraid you'll have to convince me of that. So far, all you've done is ask me three questions. Two of them are a matter of public record, as I said, and you could easily have researched them yourself. For the third question, it turned out that you already knew my answer, and for some reason you wanted me to hear yours." She lit a cigarette.
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't smoke in my office."
"And I'd appreciate it if you'd come to the point."
Father Frank led us out to the street and around to the side of the building. There, on the rough stone wall, it said, in large letters, "Jesus sucks!"
My employer shook her head. "I often investigate crimes other than murder, but vandalism, though very regrettable, is–"
She smiled. "I would have said that it wasn't the best use of my time."
"Well, I'm not asking you to investigate this. I know who did it. Please wait here."
As he went back inside, Jan muttered, "Oh, no," and I knew we were thinking the same thing.
Father Frank came back out a moment later with Ron. He was holding her upper arm in his huge hand, half pulling her and half lifting her. She was furious, tight-lipped and fierce. This was not going to be like the college case, with her running into my arms.
"This girl claims–" he began.
"Let go of her arm," I said.
"Please, I need to explain–"
"Let go of her arm first," I said, stepping toward him. I noticed that a couple of people had stopped to watch this.
I know it may seem that I was overreacting, and part of it was certainly annoyance at how he was treating Ron. There was another aspect to it, however, which was that I knew her well enough to know that if Father Frank yanked on her arm one more time she would probably haul off and punch him, priest or no. And given how tall he was, and how short Ron was, I really wanted to try to prevent that blow from being delivered.
"Are you threatening me?" Father Frank asked in disbelief.
"Marshall was raised Catholic," my employer said, exhaling a cloud of smoke, "so it's always been a dream of his to manhandle a man wearing a clerical collar. You're tall, but he could wrap you up and put a bow on you without breathing hard."
"So, this is how you settle disputes," the priest said, while I wondered where she got her exaggerated idea of my physical prowess.
"Of course not," she replied. "Don't be fatuous. We will talk, all four of us, about this and whatever else is on your mind. That's how we settle disputes. And that does not require physical coercion."
"You're trying to provoke me."
"Oh, definitely not," she said, "at least in the sense of starting a fight. To arouse you to action, though, yes. You had some reason for asking me here, something more serious than my daughter defacing your church, and I want to find out what it is." She glanced at Ron. "Serious as this vandalism is, of course."
"Your daughter? You must have been a very young mother." He released Ron's arm, and she stalked over to stand between Jan and me.
"We recognize many types of family relationships which you probably wouldn't countenance. Ron is our daughter. With whom I will have a substantial conversation later today about intellectual rigor, methods of argumentation and debate, and the importance of respect."
This was sufficiently unexpected and arcane that it shocked Ron out of her sullen attitude. She unfolded her arms and looked up, demanding, "What?"
Jan leaned over and hugged Ron, which also surprised her, and she said, "Later. For now, I need you to understand that it was wrong to write on the church. Not because it's a church, not because it's sacred in some way, but because the people who worship here have not harmed you. There are walls all over U-town which are explicitly set aside for people to express their opinions. Now, I will admit that, if you had written these same words on one of those walls, I would still be disappointed in you for making such a shallow and facile statement–"
"But that's the conversation we're going to have later," I put in.
"Yes, you're right. For now, Ron, you need to work with Father Frank and his parishioners to clean off their church. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Ron said quietly.
My employer turned to the priest. "Is that acceptable? She can come whenever you want, though I would request that it be in the afternoon. Ron performs a vital governmental function every morning, and she doesn't like to rely on anybody to replace her."
"That would be fine. Perhaps tomorrow afternoon. I do think that an apology is also in order," he said, smiling indulgently at Ron, who made a face.
"That is between you and Ron. I will not try to compel her to make a coerced and insincere apology. If you want to receive a coerced and insincere apology from her, for some reason, you're welcome to try to elicit one yourself, tomorrow afternoon when she's working with you. Meanwhile, I think we should let Ron go so that we can go back to your office and you can tell us why you really asked me to come here today." She lit another cigarette.
Back in Father Frank's office, we resumed our seats. Ron had gone off to wreak havoc somewhere else.
"My initial questions were not unimportant," the priest began. He opened one of his desk drawers and brought out a large glass ashtray, which he slid across the desk to my employer. "You always say people should bring their problems to you."
"True, though we don't claim that we'll always be able to solve them." She tapped her ash into the ashtray.
"Well, my first concern was whether you'd even see this situation as a problem." Seeing her impatience, he continued. "The diocese wants to close this church."
She nodded. "I see. And you wondered whether we'd care one way or the other, or if we'd even welcome it."
He raised his eyebrows, clearly asking the question.
"Well," she said. "speaking just for myself, do I want this church to close? No, I don't. From a personal point of view, I would like it to close someday for lack of interest. But there is clearly interest now. You have a large congregation, one which is quite active in the community. For example, I know that your church has taken on almost total responsibility for staffing the hospital on Saturdays, including arranging for replacements when one or more volunteers are going to be unavailable. I don't have to tell you what a help that is to the regular staff.
"There are several other factors as well, but I'm still not sure why you wanted to start our conversation with a discussion of some issues where you already know that we disagree."
"My bishop is very much in favor of dialog. Even if it does not yield immediate results."
"So, you want to be able to report to him that you're talking with us. Even..." She frowned. "By the way, I do hope that 'dialog' isn't being used as a verb. If you're reporting that you're 'dialogging' with us..." She shuddered. "I might have to abandon you to your fate."
The priest shook his head. "No, I have never said that. I will, however, tell you that my bishop has said exactly that. Twice."
She shuddered again, delicately. "Then we will have to help you triumph over him. Please describe the situation. You are about to tell me that you have a mystery for me to solve. Let's suspend discussion of these other topics and move right to that."
"Well, there is a connection, since there has been a murder here. That will–"
"Indeed. Now this all starts to make some sense. You want this murder solved, in such a way that the bishop never hears about it. Because it might sway his decision about closing the church."
"That would be ideal, of course. For various reasons, however, I suspect that it will not be possible."
She smiled. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you that I make no guarantees." She stood up. "Let's go. I'm impatient to see this."
He smiled. "One might almost think that you like it when one person murders another."
"One might almost think you're chiding me for enjoying the very thing you want me to do for you."
"Fair enough," he said. He stood up. "Please come with me."
As I mentioned before, there was one area of the church itself, near the altar but way on the side, which was hidden by several large pieces of cloth hanging from the edge of a balcony. I had assumed that there was construction of some sort, and the hanging cloths were to contain the dust and debris, but Father Frank led us around behind this impromptu curtain and there was no construction.
There, behind the curtain of sheets, were several pews, a beautiful stained glass window portraying the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and, facing the window, mounted on one of the wooden posts which held up the balcony, a crucified man.
Father Frank was watching my employer when we came upon this atrocity, and I wondered if he had been skeptical about her claims of toughness under fire.
If he did have any doubts about her ability to deal with the sight of a corpse, they were quickly dispelled as she limped forward, her eyes locked onto the body. "Fascinating," she said quietly, walking around to examine it from different angles.
The dead man was middle-aged and unshaven, with graying hair which didn't appear to have been washed recently. His clothes were worn, tattered, and dirty. He was not really crucified; he was hanging from the wooden pillar, his jacket nailed to it in such a way that his arms were lifted up to around a forty-five degree angle. Placed where he was, however, facing the crucifixion image, the intent was clear.
Without taking her eyes off of the body, my employer said, "Father Frank, please describe how and when you found this."
He sighed. "I came in to pray this morning, as I always do, and at first I didn't see him. I sat over there, in the second section of pews, and it was fairly dark. I was alone.
"When I was done, I got up and as I was turning to go back to my office, I saw his arms sticking out on either side of the pillar. I didn't know what they were, but I came over, and I saw what had been done. I was stunned, and as I tried to collect myself, I heard a sound outside on the street. I rushed out, and I found that girl. She had just finished writing her blasphemy on the wall."
"And you thought she had had something to do with the body?" Jan demanded.
"Oh, no, of course not. She was obviously just some street urchin. But then she said something about being related to you, and that gave me the idea of sending for you. Both to see if the girl was telling the truth and to see if you would have any ideas about this mess."
My employer turned to me and she pointed at Father Frank. "Marshall," she said, "please restrain this man." The priest looked up, startled, as she turned to him and demanded, "Who are you and what have you done with Father Frank?"
His face betrayed him in that minute and he knew it. It clearly revealed the effort of trying to figure out how Father Frank would have reacted to this accusation.
By that time I had his wrist, but my grip wasn't firm and he wrenched his hand loose and took a swing at my chin. That told me he was strong and fast, but not experienced. I was about to kick him in the knee when he stepped back and pulled out a small pistol.
"Fuck you, Father Fuckface!"
The familiar caterwaul seemed to fill the church, and "Father Frank" made the mistake of looking around to try to locate the source, then he made the bigger mistake of starting to swing his gun toward where he thought she was.
The crook of a cane snaked around his wrist, pulling the barrel of the gun farther away from me, and I stepped in and hit him in the stomach as hard as I could.
"Ron," I yelled as he crumpled, "go outside and find a runner. We need a nurse with a gurney and restraints. Two gurneys." I dropped to my knees, straddling the phony priest, my hands holding his wrists. He seemed docile, but I wasn't sure he was going to stay that way.
Ron's head popped up between two pews. "Two what?" she demanded.
I grinned at her. "Just tell them we have a dead body, and a murderer who may also be insane."
She nodded knowledgeably. "You want a loony jacket." She stood with her arms crossed behind her back in demonstration.
I nodded. "A loony jacket, yes."
"Got it!" she said and ran for the door.
"I'm not a murderer," the man said.
My employer tapped his cheek with the tip of her cane. "For now," she said, peering down at him, "the only question you need to answer is the one I asked a few moments ago, specifically the location of Father Frank."
"I wouldn't hurt him," he protested. I grabbed the clerical collar and ripped it off him, just because it annoyed me that he had it on. "He's my brother," he said, more quietly. "He's tied up in the basement."
I felt my employer's strong fingers on my shoulder. She leaned over to whisper, "I suppose it would be trite to mention Cain and Abel right now." I nodded as she kissed my cheek and managed to get erect again, leaning heavily on my shoulder.
"I sent the runner," Ron said as she came back to us. "I told him to burn rubber or he'd have to answer to me."
Jan smiled at this and said, "Ron, your father is rather busy right now, as you can tell, so I need you to assist me. Alright?"
She nodded. "Sure."
So, they set off to find and free the real Father Frank, while I restrained the phony one. He closed his eyes and started to mumble, evidently praying.
A hospital aide arrived a few minutes later, with a straitjacket. The phony priest tried to break free when he saw this, but we held him and the aide gave him a shot that quieted him down.
The real Father Frank appeared as we were tightening the straps, accompanied by Jan and Ron. He was, as I had originally expected, a bit smaller and older than the impostor. He was disheveled and walked unsteadily, but he appeared to be unhurt.
"Father Frank," my employer said as they came up, "please sit down."
He shook his head, looking down at the impostor. "I'm fine. After a few hours tied to that chair, I need to stretch my legs." He sighed.
"The first question is about his claim that he's your brother. Is this true?"
Father Frank nodded, looking down at the man. "Yes, he is."
This was more or less a formality, given the resemblance between the two men, but it was possible they were more distantly related.
"What's wrong with him?" Father Frank asked.
"He's been sedated, and he will be restrained."
"He's not crazy," he said sadly.
"With all due respect, Father," I said, "he apparently crucified a fellow human being in your church. He will be treated humanely, but we won't take any chances."
He closed his eyes and nodded. My employer turned to the aide. "He should be restrained during examination, and I need a very thorough autopsy on the corpse. I need to know how he died, beyond any possible question." She looked around. "You're not going to handle this alone, are you?"
She shook her head. "Oh, no. Two others are following me, with the gurneys. I came ahead on the bike with the runner."
Jan nodded. "Good. Do you need us to wait until they come?"
The aide shook her head. "No need. I'll be fine."
"Then, Father Frank, let me ask if we will need any information from your brother to help us understand what happened here, or can he be taken to the hospital when the others arrive?"
Father Frank shook his head. "I think I know the answers, at least to what he did."
"And we can fill in the rest."
So, my employer, the priest, Ron, and I adjourned to Father Frank's office.
My employer held out her cigarette case. "Please have one of mine," she said. "I'm sure your nerves could use it."
He smiled as he took one. "You've deduced my secret vice. I do try to hide it from my congregation, though I'm sure I'm not fooling them."
"That was the easiest deduction I made today. You keep this ashtray in a drawer. Why? If it's for guests to use, why hide it? Out of obsessive neatness? The rest of your office tends to indicate that neatness is not your particular vice. And the ashtray wasn't your brother's; he didn't want me to smoke, and then he made faces at me when I did."
"Don't tell me that's how you knew."
"Of course not, but it was one indication that something was not what it seemed."
Father Frank slid the ashtray to the middle of his desk, where they could both reach it.
Ron leaned forward, but I said, "You're too young to smoke."
"There are several places we could start," my employer said, drawing deeply on her cigarette, "but I am most curious about the things that your brother told us when he was pretending to be you."
Father Frank shrugged. "Of course, I have no idea what he told you. Not to be flippant, but with my brother it could have been almost anything."
"I'll summarize," she said, "rather than recounting it all verbatim."
She told Father Frank what his brother had said (with some indication of her responses), including the scene on the street with Ron, though she omitted my confrontation with the phony priest.
Father Frank nodded, stubbing out his cigarette butt in the ashtray as she finished. "The main thing that wasn't true is that the decision of the diocese has already been made. The church will be closed. That's what set my brother off, more or less, or really my decision that I wanted to stay and minister to my congregation anyway."
Her eyes widened. "Indeed? On your own?"
"It's not my preference, of course, but I disagree with the decision. This church has stood here for over a hundred and twenty-five years. It's one of the oldest buildings in this area. And it has usually ministered to people who would have been considered beyond help, people the Ashfords and the DuQuesnes and the Forresters wouldn't have looked twice at."
"I realize this is a very open-ended question," my employer said, "but why did your decision set off your brother so badly? And what was his position here in the church, if he had one?"
"I'll try to be brief, though as you'll see, I could write a book about my brother. In fact, I've thought about doing exactly that.
"My brother is about ten years younger than I am. There were two sisters in between. At first, like most healthy young boys, he hated going to church. The dressing up, the sitting still, the whole thing. But then, as he got older, and as I started to realize that I wanted to enter the priesthood, he began to be really interested." He smiled for a moment. "As his friends were getting into various scrapes, he was always the one there to chastise them.
"He became fixated on the idea that he would become a priest also, and it was fairly obvious that he thought he'd be a much better priest than I would ever be. Much more devout, much more pious. I never argued with him about it, but I always thought he was a bit too much... Well, let me not digress into things which probably wouldn't interest you."
"It sounds as if he lacked humility, which could be relevant."
"He did, but he also lacked intellectual rigor. Piousness without study and contemplation – and introspection – is not the way to become a priest, at least in my opinion.
"He was rejected by the seminary, and... he didn't take it well. I don't believe it had ever occurred to him as a possibility."
"In any case, it set him off. He stopped going to church, got married, started a business, started drinking, but it all fell apart. Some of it quickly, some of it slowly, and one night he called me from a pay phone, talking about suicide. I convinced him to come here.
"The short story is that he moved in, and he lived here for several years. He had no official standing, to answer your other question, but he assisted me and helped people in the congregation, and it settled him. The structure, the rituals and routines, being around people who treated him with concern and respect, it was all good for him."
"I gather something went wrong."
"To be honest, you did. U-town, it was – is – everything he hates. That's why he was asking you those questions, I believe. He knew the answers – he's been following things obsessively – but he wanted to give you a chance to repent, in the house of God. That's how it used to happen in the comic books we read when we were boys. You confront the wicked with their sins, and they fall to their knees and repent. He's never quite given up on that idea. But that's not what you did, of course. You confirmed everything he hated – well, at least some of it – so you were damned in his eyes."
"I can't tell if you're capping the 'h' in 'his.' Do you mean your brother's eyes, or god's eyes?"
"I'm afraid that, in my brother's mind, when he gets like this, that distinction can get blurred."
"Who was the dead man?" I asked. "Do you know who he was?" I thought this question engaged Ron's interest, though she was clearly getting bored.
"He was a tramp," Father Frank said. "We called him Toledo, since it seemed he came from there. He was a bit dotty, including about his name. Harmless, but not totally..." He tapped his forehead, and my employer nodded. "He slept in the church some nights. I'm always flexible about people sleeping here, especially if it's cold out. One of the many things which my brother considers shocking and improper. I'm hoping that Toledo just died of natural causes and my brother decided to use his body to create that awful tableau."
Ron was starting to get bored again, rocking back and forth and looking around the room, so I said, "I want to know what happened to Ron." I turned to her. "I thought you'd gone away, though I was certainly glad when it turned out you were here."
She smiled. "You would have taken him, Dad."
I laughed. "That wasn't the question."
"Well, Father Frank–" She pointed at him, to make it clear which "Father Frank" she meant. "–caught me writing on the wall this morning. He sent a note to you guys, then he told me to wait in a smelly little room, but then the loony guy came in–"
"In deference to Father Frank's feelings, maybe we could just call him by his name."
"Is this a quiz? I don't know his name."
I turned to Father Frank, half-expecting my employer to produce the name, but it was the priest who answered. "His name is Joe. Joseph."
Ron shrugged. "Okay. So, he came in and he told me I had to act like he was Father Frank when you got here. He showed me a gun and said he'd shoot you if I messed up.
"But I wasn't worried, because I thought you'd see through him, and you'd point at him and say, 'You're not Father Frank!' But you didn't say that, and then you took his side, against me." She was looking at the floor. "I was mad, so I went away...
"But then I started to think about the gun the loony guy had, and I knew I had to come back and rescue you."
Jan smiled as our attention turned to her. This was the other reason I had asked Ron to tell us her story. As we each told our part of the tale, I knew my employer would want her portion to be last.
"How did you know Joseph wasn't me, Miss Sleet?" the priest asked. "Had you seen a photograph of me?"
She frowned at the suggestion that it could have been anything so mundane.
"No, not that. I have read the articles about you, but the U-town newspaper doesn't have pictures. No, it was because of that poor man who was hanging there." The priest's expression was perplexed. "I'll explain. What was your reaction when you saw Toledo?"
"I was horrified, at what had been done to him and at the fact that my brother was apparently responsible."
"Exactly. Your brother wanted me to believe that Father Frank had left that body hanging there for several hours, just waiting for me to come and witness the tableau. That was preposterous. Everything I've read and heard about you has led me to believe that you are both devout and compassionate. For both of those reasons, the sacrilege and the disrespect to the dead, you would have made some effort to take the body down. And, if that wasn't enough, there was the story that the fate of the church was hanging in the balance. Under those circumstances, it was difficult to imagine that you would have left the body in the position where it would have caused the maximum amount of scandal.
"Combine that with the other things I'd seen, like the ashtray, and the apparent pointlessness of the questions that he had asked, and I became fairly sure that he was not really Father Frank. And the best way to find out was to surprise him with it, and see his reaction."
My employer glanced at our daughter. "There was another factor as well. It appeared that you'd been holding Ron here since the morning. I know my daughter, and she would never have allowed herself to be restrained in that way, priest or no, unless there was a real, life-threatening danger to her or somebody she cared about."
Father Frank smiled at Ron. "So, you're no respecter of authority, young lady?"
"Don't call me that!" she snapped.
He laughed as Jan said, "I think one could go as far as to say that Ron doesn't care for any authority at all. Except for us, but she selected us."
Father Frank smiled. "Which would be one more thing for my bishop to disapprove of. And my brother."
Jan turned to Ron. "But you are going to come tomorrow afternoon and help them clean off the church, Ron."
"Yeah," she said, looking none too happy (but, for her, not that unwilling either).
"At some point," Jan said to the priest, "when this business with your brother is resolved, I would like to interview you. The fact that you've decided to break from the church–"
"I'm sorry to interrupt, Miss Sleet, but we are not breaking from the church. This is, to us, not an academic distinction. We are going to continue, the congregation and I have agreed – at least most of them agreed – that we will continue here, as we have been. The great likelihood is that the bishop will continue in the course he has chosen, but there is a possibility that he will change his mind, seeing our resolve and hearing our reasons. If not, the final decision will be his, not ours. As I said, that distinction matters to us."
She nodded. "I see what you mean. In any case, I would like to interview you, and probably write an article. This situation is unusual and newsworthy." She smiled. "And we can also debate the existence of god."
He chuckled. "I would enjoy doing an interview, but I'm fairly certain that neither of us will change the other's mind about God."
"I expect you're right. But you were talking before about intellectual rigor, and the importance of study and contemplation. I would add discussion and debate to that list. When I talked to Ron outside the church, as I reported to you, I mentioned 'methods of argumentation and debate, and the importance of respect.' This is what I was talking about. Put your best arguments on the table, I'll do the same, and I bet we'll both learn something." She turned to Ron, who was clearly still bored, though she had started to pay attention when her name had been mentioned. "You don't have to come, Ron."
"You mean tomorrow?" she asked.
Jan laughed and ruffled Ron's hair (which Ron hated). "No, I mean when I interview Father Frank. You still have to come tomorrow and help clean up."
Ron shrugged. "It was worth a try."
As we left the church, into the light of a beautiful sunset, I expected Ron to run off to do whatever it was that Ron did when she wasn't delivering the mail, but instead she walked with us, demanding, "When are we gonna eat? I'm starved."
This seemed to assume that Ron ate with us quite often, whereas in reality the three of us had never had a meal together. Jan caught my eye, shrugged, and said, "We'll eat as soon as we go home. I need to change."
"Change what?" Ron demanded.
"My clothes," she explained.
It occurred to me that, though I had never considered the question before, Ron did always seem to wear the same clothes. I wondered if this was her preference, or if this ratty sweatshirt, denim jacket, jeans, and sneakers were the only clothes she had. And I wondered if she ever washed them, though I suspected I knew the answer to that question. I had momentary mental pictures of "Marshall and Ron do the laundry," and "Marshall and Ron go shopping for clothes."
As I was reflecting that having a daughter was turning out to be quite complicated, Jan caught my wrist, leaned over, and whispered, "You think this is bad, wait until she reaches puberty."
"Dear God," I said, but Ron took no notice. She was probably fairly used to hearing the people around her calling on the Lord for assistance.
"Ron," Jan said, "why did you write those words on the church? Why do you think Jesus sucks?"
She shrugged. "Well, because of my friend Becky. She started seeing this guy, and I told her not to fool around with him, but she didn't listen to me, and then she got pregnant, and I told her to go to the hospital and take care of it, but her family didn't want her to, they said it was a sin, but I said, 'You've got to go and take care of this. You're not smart enough to be a mom,' I told her, 'you're not even smart enough to be a teenager.'"
"You must have been a big comfort to her," I commented.
She smiled. "Well, she's my friend."
"So," Jan asked after a moment, "what happened?"
"Oh, she wasn't pregnant anyway. Her ... thing was just off schedule, probably because she was so freaked out. I told her, 'Listen, you need to calm the fuck down, right now.'"
"Her 'thing'?" Jan asked.
"You know... her ..." She scrunched up her face and glanced around us before whispering, "her period."
I knew that Jan would have a whole discussion with her about calling things by their real names, along with the one about intellectual rigor, methods of argumentation and debate, and the importance of respect, but we were at the hotel by then, and Ron was not going to tolerate any theoretical discussions without getting some food.
I was relieved to find out that there were at least some facts about human reproduction that Ron knew about already. That was a start. If there were gaps in her knowledge, however, I was willing to bet that it would end up being my job to fill them in.
"Were you scared, Ron?" I asked as Jan changed for dinner. Because Ron was there, Jan was changing in the bathroom.
Ron shrugged, not looking at me.
"Well, I was," I said. "When he was waving that gun around, and I didn't know where you were, I was really scared. I didn't know..."
I stopped, because her tears had started to come. I was sitting on the edge of the bed, so I could have my eyes on her level, and I took her into my arms and held her, her tears pouring down my cheek, her hands clutching at the back of my jacket.
She tried to say a couple of things at different times, but she was gasping and crying too hard, and I just held her and stroked her hair (making a mental note to insist that she had to have a shower and a shampoo before going to bed; and reflecting that, as her father, I should really have some idea where she did sleep).
Jan came in while Ron was crying, and she went and sat quietly in her desk chair. She just watched; she didn't even light a cigarette.
I did get some impressions from the few words Ron managed to get out in between her sobs, mostly about how much better we were than her birth parents. I never did press her for details, though as she grew older we did learn quite a bit more. We even met her birth parents eventually, but that was much later.
But, as I say, we never pressured her. Even the great detective realized that this was not a mystery that demanded investigation. Some things just require patience, and a willingness to listen.
I also got the idea that Ron was half expecting to find out at some point that we were kidding about her being our daughter. Given that fact, doing the laundry and shopping for clothes and insisting that we had to know where she slept might help convince her that we were serious.
The next morning we got the autopsy report. It said that Toledo had died of a heart attack. There was no evidence of foul play. We knew that Father Frank would want to know this, so we went with Ron when she went to help clean off the church, and we stopped to have lunch together on the way.