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Apokryphos

by Jim LaVigne

 

It is better to be shattered jade than unbroken pottery.

- Chinese Proverb

Prologue

- Saturday, October 13th, 2003, near Florence, Minnesota

Jeff Martin, college sophomore, was good and drunk. Not to say falling-down, furniture-smashing drunk, just plain old beer-buzz drunk. Plus a little stoned. He was also quite alone, shambling down the shoulder of Interstate 90 at 2:30 AM, hoping against all reason that some good soul would see him and offer a ride. But it had been almost an hour since he'd left the party and so far, not one single car or truck had passed.

Vehemently, he cursed and punched the air. He was a well-built, handsome young blond man of nineteen, healthy, if somewhat pale of complexion. Damn that Kent anyway, he thought angrily. This was all his fault. If Kent hadn't cajoled him into going, he, Jeff, wouldn't be in this lonely spot. Sure, the party was fun, the beer was cheap, and the girls were willing, but this last part, hitchhiking back to campus drunk in the middle of the night? That just plain sucked.

Maybe Kent hadn't meant to ditch him, he thought, trying, through the beer-fog, to piece the evening together. Maybe there had been some kind of mix-up. Let's see... The last time he'd seen Kent was with what's-her-name. Paula Somebody. And then? Nothing. So that was it.

Angrier yet, Jeff kicked at the asphalt roadway. Damn it! His "friend" had ditched him for yet another female conquest. It seemed that Kent, some months back, had discovered something; many good Catholic girls did not consider blowjobs to be sex. They were loath to actually do the Real Thing, but they were mostly game right up to that point. All one needed was the right approach to the issue. Hey, it wasn't like they were having sex, was it? Oh, no. That meant actual penetration. The hummer was just a hand job executed by mouth. Moreover, Jeff had to admit, Kent was very persuasive when it came to such things. But to ditch his pal? Man, that was low. Ruefully he wished he'd tried to talk his buddy Milo into going instead. Milo was weird, but at least he wouldn't have ditched like this.

Jeff cursed again and plodded on, occasionally looking over his shoulder for the lights of any approaching vehicle. Still nothing. On he went, staggering along towards his dorm and the merciful rest it promised. How far? Three miles? Four? He shook his head and tried to concentrate on simply lifting his feet.

The night was very dark, with low clouds and a light drizzle, and very quiet. On both sides of the highway there were dense pine forests, black eaves of foliage that fairly oozed with crepuscular menace. The land here was more or less flat, with gently rolling hills at distant intervals, but the trees all around prevented any long views or faraway horizons. Along the long empty stretches of the highway, though, one could see for many miles. The only noises were the hiss of the wind through the trees and Jeff's own irregular footfalls.

Somewhere far away a train whistle sounded, a high, eerie tone that was shredded on the rising wind and quickly faded. Normally he kind of liked that noise. It was a nice thing to hear when you awoke late at night, snuggled into bed. But now it just made him sad and lonely. A wave of self-pity washed over him.

What the hell was he doing here, anyway? Why had he come to this place? For maybe the twentieth time, he wished he'd gone to the big University in the city instead. Oh, it had sounded good, this place. St. Mark's, with its sister campus, St. Jude's, was a well-respected (and expensive) school. It was known for it's strong academics, picturesque campus, and gifted faculty. But, right now, to Jeff, it was a backwater dump, an effete continuation of High School for rich (mostly Catholic) kids, and he wished he'd never heard of it. He'd even considered quitting, dropping out, but he didn't even like to think of what Jade, his older sister, would say about that. Damn, damn, damn!

He looked backward again and holy shit! Someone was coming! The vehicle, whatever it was, was still a far ways off, just two dots of light in the gloom. A semi truck? Probably. He quit walking and peered at the lights, getting ready to stick out his thumb. Come on, stop, he willed the oncoming lights. He straightened his clothes and tried not to stagger.

Suddenly he felt a sharp pain on the back of his neck, like a bee-sting. Yow! What the hell was that? Reflexively, he swore and swatted at the general area. Something came away in his hand and he held it out and frowned drunkenly at what he found. It was a dart of some kind, an inch-long, feathered dart. What the fuck? He wheeled around and squinted into the darkness of the trees, but there was no one there. What was going on? Was this somebody's idea of a joke?

As he turned back to the oncoming lights, intent now more than ever on getting away from this desolate place, he started to feel sick. His vision dimmed and narrowed and his already-overloaded system tottered on the edge of collapse. Oh shit, this ain't good, his mind shrilled. He tried to walk, to get nearer the road so that the approaching vehicle would see him and help him, but he couldn't do it. His legs gave up and he fell in a heap on the asphalt. The lights, blurry as they were, were brighter now. Just a few hundred more yards. He pulled vainly at the ground, trying to drag himself towards the lights.

Something grabbed his legs and he screamed, a horrible exhalation of fear that shot through the foggy night and echoed from the tall pines. Looking down, he saw that it was a person. Someone, a tall, thin figure all in black, had him by the ankles. Jeff's mind swam in confusion and febrile panic. Unbidden, a pathetic whimpering came from his throat. What was this? Was he dreaming? Was this... person trying to help? Or were they trying to drag him off into the woods?

Desperately, he tried to kick, to call out, to do anything, but it was too late; whatever had been in that dart was now kicking in for real and Jeff, despite a jangling surge of adrenalin, was lucky to keep his eyes open. One of his hands clawed uselessly at the gritty tarmac as he was hauled bodily, face first, off the highway and into the deep grass of the ditch. Help! He tried to scream, but only a gurgle came out. Then he couldn't fight it anymore and darkness closed in for good. His last thought was for his sister. This will be hard on Jade.

When the big eighteen-wheeler roared by, seconds later, there was no trace of Jeff Martin. Just another lonesome stretch of I-90, a black ribbon to anywhere or nowhere at all...

- Wednesday, October 15th, Rome

Down vast, ornate corridors, on thick carpets of gold and red, past halls, arches, atria, offices and other, lesser luminaries at work, the tall man made his way. Somewhere between forty and fifty years of age, he was handsome if weather-beaten and moved through the gilded corridors with the purposeful grace of physical strength and agility that stood in marked contrast to the typically slow, shuffling gait of this place's denizens. He'd been here only twice before, but there was no getting lost; all of these halls led eventually to the man at the center. Showing credentials three times to the striped-uniformed, pike-toting guards, he finally arrived in an anteroom and here, with a cup of weak tea, waited for his meeting. The chamber where he sat was, like the others, ornately and lavishly decorated, a throwback to earlier splendor and wealth, but it didn't do much for the tall man; he'd seen it before. As he waited he wondered about the Chief's health. Lately it had been impossible to even pretend that the old man wasn't dying, but no one would suggest retirement. It just wasn't done.

Finally a page, a thin young man with very pale skin, floated in and informed the tall man that he could enter. Nodding gracefully, the man set down his cup and walked into the Chief's private office. Here he found the old man propped up in a chair by a roaring fire, a thick bible in his lap and a rosary curled in one wizened fist. Smiling, the old man, wrapped in thick white robes, waved the guest to a chair opposite and welcomed him, speaking in perfect Muscovite Russian. With an unsteady hand, he put aside a sheaf of papers he'd evidently been reading.

"Please, sit, my son," said the old man. He looked bad, thought the guest; his skin was yellowish and he shook terribly whenever he moved. Poor man.

"Thank you, Your Holiness," said the other, also in Russian, and, bending down, kissed the back of the old man's hand, brushing his lips on the thick signet ring. Ritual done, the tall man sat and crossed his long legs.

"Now then," said the old man. "I suppose you know why you are here."

"I fear so," said the other. "And I must be so bold as to beg you to reconsider."

"My son," said the elder softly, "I am afraid that the matter is all but settled. With Father Dominick gone, you are the last of your Order. And, as noble as your efforts have been, I think that perhaps their time has passed. As hesitant as I am to bow to the pressures of progress, in this case I think that we may have no choice."

"Please," said the tall man intensely. "I implore you. Do not let these evil men go unpunished. Let me continue alone if need be, but please, do not dissolve the Order."

Heaving a deep sigh, the old man closed his eyes. Trying to be patient, the tall man waited. Had the Chief dozed off or was he thinking? Finally the elder stirred and, with a little groan, opened his eyes.

"Very well," the old man said. "I have decided this. If, in the next instance that you are able, you do defeat these men, we will not move for dissolution. Funding will continue and recruitment pursued. But, if in this next instance you do not defeat them, if they escape again, I will conclude that it is no longer tenable to support your actions and the Order will be dissolved. I know that this may seem unduly stern to you, but that is my decision. Are we in understanding?"

"Yes, your Holiness," said the other, bowing. "I understand." Yes, the tall man thought, I understand. Either I produce some impressive results on my next investigation or my job, life, and almost 2,000 years of effort, tradition, and sacrifice would be so much history, buried in the vaults, unknown to the outside world and unmissed by the jealous members within. Oh, yes, I understand.

"Thank you, sir," he told the old man. "I will not fail."

"Yes," said the other, nodding again. "Father Ignacio will see to the details..."

"Yes, your Holiness," said the tall man, rising to leave.

"Go with God," said the old man, unsteadily making the sign of the cross. A wry little smile touched the creased, waxy features. "And... good luck."

The tall man said nothing but bowed deeply and, treading firmly but softly, left the office. Walking back the way he'd come, scowling, he thought it over and decided that, come what may, and despite official disapproval, he wasn't going to quit his work. Even if the Chief pulled the plug on him, he'd keep at it. He had too much invested in this to quit now; it was his whole life and had been for thirty years. And, despite what his theological training taught him about passivity and forgiveness, there was the matter of avenging the death of the man who'd been his mentor, friend, and ally for half of that time, Father Dominick Franteonelli. This esteemed man, the next-to-last of their order, had been killed a month earlier, murdered by an organization that the tall man and his compatriots had been chasing for a very long time. And now it was down to just him and Them. Alone, he had nothing left to lose. Grimly, the tall man left the palaces and great halls and headed for his field office.

Checking his cell phone, he saw that there was a message from the US, from one of his many contacts. Curious. Mr. Kozlowski, the contact in question, almost never called; whatever had made him do so must be important. Standing in the shadows of the immense bulk of St Peter's, he dialed the number and spoke briefly with his contact. Then, scowling, he called for plane reservations on the next available flight to New York.

ONE

- Tuesday, October 16thth, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Jade opened the door to her apartment, sniffed the stale air, tossed her bags into the entryway, and sighed with profound relief at returning home. Business trips were a part of her career at Anders and Howe Accounting, but she'd never learned to like them. And this last one, a weeklong trip to San Diego for a convention, had been a bad one; the weather, the interminable waiting at the airports, the people, and the convention itself had all worked together to wear her out. Thank God she wasn't due for another of those for a while... Most of her coworkers seemed to regard conventions as excuses to get drunk and go to seedy strip clubs but Jade, far too asocial (and dedicated) for such things, always demurred. Let them do what they wanted and think of her what they wanted to think. She would quietly step over their hung-over bodies on her way up.

Looking around, she saw that everything was as she'd left it in the apartment. Scrupulously clean and organized, the place was small but comfortable, very well reflecting its inhabitant; both were small and spare, both were somewhat drab, both looked like they... needed something. Some color, some life, some break in the sameness, perhaps. Not that Jade saw it like that, of course. To her, there was great comfort in regularity and predictability, the stability of routine and simple living. To her, it was perfectly plain and perfectly comfortable.

After opening a window to the chilly fall air, she unpacked, took a shower, put on some pajamas, closed the window again, and went into the small kitchen to fix a snack. Looking through a cupboard, she noticed that the answering machine on her phone was blinking. Probably phone solicitors, she thought. She had no family, other than her brother Jeff, who only rarely called of late, and no real friends. Absently, she poked the button to receive the messages and then froze in her tracks, one hand holding an unopened jar of mayonnaise, as she listened to the disembodied voice on the tape.

"Uh, hello Ms. Martin. This is Father Sean Miller, Dean of Student Affairs at St Mark's University..." The voice paused, stammered slightly, and went on. "I... I'm calling today because your brother Jeff has you on record as his In Case of Emergency contact. I don't want to alarm you, but please call at your earliest opportunity. This is very important. The number here is..."

Jade snatched up a handy notepad and pen and wrote down the number, a lump growing in her belly. What was wrong? Had Jeff been hurt? It wasn't as if she and her brother, five years her junior, had much contact lately, but there was a strong bond there nonetheless. Five years earlier, their parents, Lou and Diane, had died in a car crash, leaving the two of them on their own, with no other living relatives and very little money. It had been hard, but Jade had finished college, provided for her and Jeff, and they had somehow managed to survive the bad times. When she'd landed the job at Anders and Howe and Jeff had later been accepted at St Mark's, she'd decided that they were finally going to be all right. They wouldn't end up homeless and starving after all. And for the past year and a half, that's how things had been. Nice and neat. Oh, she missed Jeff, but he'd been so excited about going off to school and seemed so involved once he got there, that she didn't begrudge him his space. He was just growing up was all, and didn't need his big sister so much anymore. It was a good thing, she always told herself. Really. It showed that he was developing a sense of himself and some measure of independence.

So what was this all about? If anything had happened to him... She looked at the clock over the sink and, seeing that it was just past 4:00 PM, picked up the phone. Her hand shook slightly as she dialed and she willed herself to breathe and concentrate on what she was doing. It'll be OK, she told herself. It's probably nothing. Obliviously, she still clutched the mayonnaise in one hand.

A friendly voice answered the phone on the other end and quickly sent her through to Father Miller. After identifying herself, she stood, listened, and then slowly slumped to the floor, the mayonnaise jar rolling forgotten from her limp hand. Then she made the man repeat himself so she could start to understand what it was he was telling her.

"Your brother is missing, Ms. Martin," the man said, slowly and succinctly. "He did not attend classes on Monday and we notified the authorities that evening. We're doing everything we can to find him, let me assure you. The police are working non-stop and searches have been conducted, but... so far nothing has turned up. I'm very sorry to have to tell you this, but..."

"Wait a minute," Jade interrupted. "Let me get this straight. Jeff is missing?"

"That's right."

"What does that mean?" Jade asked, watching, but not seeing, the jar of mayonnaise slowly roll across the floor and bump into the wall. "Missing?"

"Well," said the man hesitantly. "Just that, I'm afraid. He was last seen with some friends at a party in Florence and it's thought that he was hitch-hiking home when he... went missing."

"Florence?" she asked, confused. "What... what's that?"

"Oh, it's the nearest town. It's where St Jude's, our sister school, is located."

"Uh huh," she said. "So the searches, the police. Was he kidnapped? What progress so far?"

"Well," said the man sympathetically, "not much, I'm afraid. The police will know more, I'm sure. But there's every reason to think that..."

"I'll be there tonight," she said, cutting him off. She hung up and, essentially unaware of what she was doing, went to pack her bags all over again. Outwardly stone-faced, within she roiled and churned with anxiety bordering on panic. Jeff was missing? For what, three days now? A cold pit had opened in her stomach and she wiped away tears reflexively as she packed, knowing that this was bad, very bad. Jeff wasn't sick or hurt or getting kicked out of school. He was no longer there. Gone.

Twenty minutes later, running on adrenalin and willpower, she pulled her sensible Honda out of the apartment building's garage and pointed it north on Interstate 90. In her mind, a cruel hard voice kept telling her that she was being foolish. Jeff was gone and nothing she could do would matter. If he could be found, the police would do it. Angrily, she silenced the voice and kept driving. She had to go. She had to see if there was anything she could do. And, most importantly, if she didn't go she would have to admit to something she feared more than anything, the idea that, without Jeff, she was alone in the whole wide world.

It was a three-hour trip to St Mark's. Jade knew this because she'd helped Jeff move last year. She'd helped carry boxes and furniture into the dorm, had made sure Jeff was well provided for, and then she'd left him there. She'd told him good luck, to study hard, and to call her. But leaving him there was the hardest thing she'd ever done in her life. For his sake, though, she'd actually smiled and laughed, making a show of her good wishes. But inside, she'd been profoundly terrified because, if life and the world were a hostile sea, Jeff was her anchor.

Despite a carefree childhood and a genuinely decent, caring family, when she was ten years old, the doctors had diagnosed Jade as autistic. At sixteen, it was some sort of neurosis or Dissociative Disorder. At twenty, it was agoraphobia and Withdrawal Syndrome. Lately, they'd begun to admit defeat as far as diagnoses went and just tagged her as chronic paranoid schizophrenic. Of the rare, functioning, non-dangerous, Productive Citizen type, of course, but schizophrenic nonetheless.

The plain fact, though, (which she kept trying to tell them) was that she just didn't like people in general very much. She wasn't afraid of other people, (well, not most people) she just didn't... get along well with them. Painfully shy, she always said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Often full-blown paranoid, she perceived sleights and snubs that didn't exist or weren't intended. To her, the give and take of everyday conversation and simple interaction were baffling and perversely difficult and, since it was nearly impossible for her to interact like most people, she developed ways of dealing with it. First was just plain zoning out, going away to an untroubled, ever-comforting inner world. That was the autism. But drugs took care of that.

Then came the use of a persona, a simulacrum of herself who, while the inner person squirmed in anguish, behaved so glib and cool and funny that she had to fit in. That worked just fine until the day when she realized that she couldn't leave the house anymore, because to do so would cause Jade the Fun to completely and ultimately supplant Jade the Real. The fake one would win and she'd be gone, plowed under by a personality she hardly knew. And that was the agoraphobia. Again, drugs to the rescue.

And, little by little, she'd conquered that, too. Short trips out of doors, then longer ones, then in cars and so on, so that now she only rarely feared leaving the safety of home.

And, through all of these varying troubles, had been her hallucinations, terrifying visions, mostly, sights that were as real as anything anyone ever saw but that were just plain not real. It was one thing to have trouble relating to other people but it was quite another thing when she saw fire raining down on the amusement park or laser beams coming from space. It was hard to ignore things like that and even harder to convince anyone else of their existence. More ills came, naturally, when she would act, with the best of intentions, on these visions, trying to make them stop or leave her alone. But things that don't exist can't be battled, she learned, only banished or ignored. With medicine (again) and therapy, she'd learned to, if not doubt what she saw, at least question it. Her rule of thumb was that if it seemed weird and unreasonable, it probably was. Time for a re-evaluation on her meds.

The main part of getting rid of all this unreasonable fear was developing her own personality, her own thoughts and feelings. Once Fun Jade was gone and the hallucinations were bearded, all that was left was scared, misanthropic Jade, the same old misfit as always. With determined effort, she built on what little there was, making of herself a unique and functioning person. Of all the things she'd had to overcome, one thing had been the hardest; the doctors and her family wanting her to overcome her "illness" and to become just like anyone else. They wanted her to be "normal". However, through long trial and grievous error, she'd decided that that was simply impossible. For whatever reason, she was born with the problems she had and they could not be talked or drugged away completely. She had to live with them because her problems were who she was. They were as much a part of her as her arms and legs. It wasn't fair, it wasn't just, and it wasn't easy, but it was reality. Not even trying to exorcise the problems out of her was going to do it. She had to live, exist, and grow with the problems, not spend all of her time fighting them. To do more, to actively seek to do battle with and potentially eradicate these problem traits, was, at least in her case, to give in to further psychological deviance and deeper delusion.

Lately, Jade had been doing quite well. Although sometimes aloof or terse, she interacted just fine with the people at work. She could go wherever she wanted and talk to just about anyone she wanted to. Some peopleóold men, for some reasonóstill gave her the creeps and made her want to scream and run away, but even that was coming under control. She was down to two visits to her shrink per month and took only light doses of neuroleptics, this compared to three visits per week and heavy doses of all kinds of anti-psychotic and mood-altering drugs. She was stable, functioning, relatively happy, and, most of all, herself. She was even thinking about dating, something harmless, but that was a ways off. First things, first, she always said.

There were side effects to her therapy as well, some good, some bad. Most of these unwanted consequences were connected to the drugs; weight loss or gain, mood swings, energy levels, and sleep habits were the most likely to be changed. But there were other unforeseen results from her treatment that were actually quite positive, at least as far as she was concerned. For example, she could concentrate more deeply and productively than most genius-level individuals. She could control her emotions and reactions, even in extremely trying situations (well, most situations), more effectively than a career politician on sedatives. And those were just the things that she herself noticed. Maybe there were others that were not apparent to her, just as some of her behaviors were unknowingly aberrant... Still, she had to say that life in general, of late, had been not too bad.

But now this. The one person in the world who had always stood by her, who'd never given up on her, her little brother, was... she couldn't say it. Missing. Jeff was the one person on the face of the planet with whom she felt genuine attachment. No one else made her laugh, no one else could even make her smile; not her parents, not the cajoling doctors, no one. Even the recent space between them had been good; she'd grown a lot without his constant support. But this? No, it had to be some kind of mistake, right? Some kind of mix-up. Maybe some other Jeff Martin... Yeah, right. Like hell.

Jade checked the road signs and saw that she was still almost two and a half hours away from St Mark's. Lots of time to think.

 

The sun was just past setting when she finally took the turnoff for St Mark's and finished the drive with a long straight piece of tree-lined blacktop that lead, after a mile or so, up to the campus. The place was just as she remembered it, a fair-sized grouping of buildings, some huge, some much smaller, all organized around a large open commons area and dominated by the impressive church on the far side. First, she passed the school's football stadium, an open-air amphitheater with bleachers, now silent and abandoned. Then past the library building, a monolithic gray brick structure, and then up to the commons itself. All around were dense pine forests and, off to one side, the sparkling cobalt of a rock-bound lake. Overall, the setting brought to mind a summer camp rather than a university. Here and there were kids, some in groups, some alone, going back and forth, playing Frisbee and hacky sack, and sitting around chatting, enjoying the untimely fall warmth. All was serene and postcard perfect.

Jade couldn't help but feel a degree of ill will towards these carefree souls. Didn't they know that one of their fellow students had gone missing? Why weren't they looking for him? Why did they seem so unconcerned? Human Nature, came the answer. Like anyone anywhere, they were fundamentally removed from the misfortune of others. Besides, these were kids. Adults by virtue of age, but kids all the same, blithe and self-centered. It's not their problem, the swine.

She parked near the large Administration Building and, taking a deep breath, went inside. A series of signs pointed her to Student Affairs and, within a few minutes, she was in the presence of Father Miller himself, the voice on the phone now made physical. He was a thin man of medium height, dressed in full-length black cassock and scapular, totally bald, with a pinched and narrow sort of countenance. He welcomed Jade, somewhat coolly, she thought, and asked her to sit. The man's office was comfortable, furnished in leather and dark wood.

"I must say Ms. Martin," he began, "I wasn't expecting you so soon."

"It's Jade," she said firmly.

"Oh." The man sat back in his chair. "All right then. Jade..."

"What's the score here?" she asked bluntly. "Have you found Jeff yet?"

"Well, no..." said the priest. "I'm afraid not. But, as I said on the phone, the police are really in charge of the search."

"I see," she stood up and made to leave.

"Ms. Martin... Jade," Miller said pleadingly. "Please... We here at St Mark's are very concerned with the welfare of our students. But we don't have the resources of the authorities... You must try to understand."

"I understand," she said quietly. "You handed the mess off to the cops and now you're done with it."

"Not at all!" Miller protested. "But, as I said, we simply do not have the resources to fully... investigate this sort of thing. We are men of God, not policemen. Educators, not detectives."

"Uh huh," she nodded. "Well that's fine, then. I guess I'll go see the police."

"Please," he said again. "I understand your concern."

"Oh yeah?" she said. "How many kid brothers have you lost?"

"That's... not the point," Miller said, two spots of red appearing on his thin cheeks. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Please... we can offer you the services of one of our Brothers as a liaison if that will help. Someone to act as a go-between with you and the university. Show you around, answer any questions you may have."

"Huh," she grunted. "OK, great. When can I meet him?"

"Well, let's see..." Father Miller consulted a calendar on his desk. "How about tomorrow morning? Say 8:00 o'clock?"

"I'll be here," she said.

"Fine, then," he nodded and smiled. "And if there's anything else we can do..."

"Do?" she said. "How about finding Jeff?"

"I mean other than that..."

"Oh," she thought about it. "Well, you could point me to a place to stay..."

"Of course," he smiled again. "There are a couple of motels in Florence, just a ways back down the Interstate."

"Great," she said sullenly. "Thanks a lot."

"You're quite welcome. And we'll see you bright and early tomorrow morning."

"That you will."

Next stop was the Florence Police Department, a single-story, cinderblock building near the highway. Here she met with Chief Dwayne Wilson, a portly, florid man who, though harried and obviously tired, calmly and caringly put forth all of the facts as the police knew them. Jeff had left a party in town at about 2:00 AM on the morning of the 12th, three days ago. A number of witnesses saw him leave. And somewhere between Florence and the campus of St Mark's, he'd simply vanished. So far, three separate searches had been conducted in which volunteers and local law enforcement had combed the forests along the highway. So far, not a scrap of evidence had come to light, but a new search was on for the following morning and there were plans to send divers into Drum Lake.

"Actually, Ms. Martin," said the chief, "I'm damn glad you're here."

"Why's that?" asked Jade. "And, by the way, you can call me Jade."

"Well, you see," Wilson said carefully, "...Jade, it's always good police procedure to question relatives and friends in cases like this."

"I see," Jade said. "So what do you want to know?"

"Get right to the point, don't you?" Wilson said, smiling. "I like that... Well, for one thing, has your brother been under any kind of undue stress? Any family problems, any recent... troubles?"

"Not that I know of," Jade replied. "Jeff's a normal, happy kid. Are you trying to figure out if he ran away, is that it?"

"Well, yeah," said Wilson. "It happens, you know..."

"I'm sure it does," she said. "But no, not with Jeff. He wouldn't do that."

"All right, fair enough," Wilson made some notes on a legal pad. "How about his behavior lately? Was he depressed, oróand I hate to ask thisówas he doing drugs?"

"No," Jade said firmly. "He was a little homesick, maybe, but that's got to be pretty normal..."

"Yes, yes it is," agreed the chief. "OK, what about enemies? I mean, I know Jeff is just a kid, but was there anyone he'd argued with? Anyone you can think of that would want to do him harm?"

Jade considered this. "No," she finally said. "Not that I know of."

"Hmm," Wilson said, making another note. "Well, believe it or not, that's a big help to us. You see, many times there are things in a missing person's recent history that can point us in the right direction. Now we can rule out a few possibilities..."

Jade, seeing no reason to reply to this, sat and looked steadily across the man's desk. After a minute or two, Wilson looked away and sighed.

"How about the rest of your family?" he queried, looking at his notes. "Are there any out-of-town relatives he might have gone off to see?"

"No," she said, fighting a sudden urge to cry. "There's just the two of us..."

"OK," Wilson made another note. "So that's out... How about his friends? Did he ever mention anyone?"

"Not really," she answered. "Although he did talk about someone named Milo..."

"Yeah," nodded the man, "that would be his pal Milo Freidler. We already spoke with him. Plus the young man he went to the party with, one, uh... Kent Greenwood."

"...never heard of him," she shrugged. "Were they any help?"

"To be honest?" he said and frowned. "No. They basically said what you've just told me. That Jeff is a good guy, no enemies, no real big problems..."

"They're right," she said.

"And I have no reason to believe otherwise," Wilson said. "It's just that we have to, you know, cover all the bases here."

"Of course," said Jade.

"By the way," said Wilson. "When was the last time you spoke to your brother?"

"I don't know..." Jade said and thought it over. "Maybe a week ago? Ten days?"

"Uh huh," said the chief. "May I ask... are you close?"

"Very," she said, battling again the tears that never even began to show on her face. "He's my... best friend."

"Yeah..." Wilson nodded gravely. "And let me say, you know, how sorry I am. This must be plenty rough..."

"It is," she agreed. "But feeling sorry for myself isn't going to find Jeff, now is it?"

"No, Ma'am," he said, "no it isn't..."

They sat for a moment in silence. Jade noticed that, throughout this little interview, they'd been using the present tense when referring to Jeff. Jeff is, not Jeff was. At what point would they begin to use the past tense? When would Jeff go from "is" to "was"? A week? A month? When they found his decaying corpse? She shook her head and grimaced. Stop it, she said to herself; that's not helping.

After a few hollow-sounding reassurances and a handshake from Wilson, she got ready to leave, promising that she'd be there tomorrow at 10:00 AM to take part in the next search.

Just then, another man entered the building. He was middle-aged, maybe fifty or so, somewhat paunchy, dressed unassumingly, with a sad face and thinning hair. Chief Wilson looked up at the man and groaned a little. Off to one side, Jade feigned interest in something in her purse and listened.

"Hi there, Al," Wilson greeted the newcomer. "Long time no see."

"Not long enough," said the other. "I guess you know why I'm here, Chief..."

"Yeah, I know," said Wilson acidly. "You want to be in on the search, right?"

"You got it," said the man. "Some reason why I shouldn't be?"

"Not at all," said Wilson. "Knock yourself out."

"Thanks," said the other. "I will. What time tomorrow?"

"Ten AM," replied the chief stonily.

"See you then," the man said, and then spun on a heel and left again, banging the door on his way out.

Jade was intrigued. "Who was that?" she asked the chief.

"Oh, an amateur sleuth," Wilson said. "Name's Kozlowski. See, maybe five, six years ago now, his son went missing from St. Mark's. We... never did find the boy. And Al, that's his first name, by the way, well, he never really got over it. Kinda devoted his life to... Well, he helps out all over the country when people go missing. And... there were some... hard feelings, I guess you'd say. He has the idea that we didn't look hard or... well enough, I guess."

"Is that true?" Jade asked.

"No Ma'am," asserted the chief, his face coloring. "It is not true. We did everything possible to find that young man. Everything."

"Uh huh," Jade said doubtfully. "How many kids have gone missing like this?"

"Precisely?" said Wilson testily. "Two. Counting your brother."

"Huh," said Jade. "Well, see you tomorrow, then."

"Good night Ma'am," said the chief, going back to his notes with a sigh that spoke volumes.

"Good night." She didn't let the door bang on the way out.

As she left the building and was walking to her car, she noticed Kozlowski pulling out in a beat-up old Ford pickup. She couldn't quite say why, but there was something about this man... Did she admire him? Feel a kinship? She'd have to think about it.

Jade drove around the little town of Florence, a handful of residential streets and a "main drag" of businesses, before she found the Super 8 next to the campus of St. Jude's. Like its brother school, the all-female campus was picturesque, almost quaint, and the air of charming backwoods isolation struck Jade deeply. Only to her, it was not so charming. Born and raised in the city, she had a nearly instinctive distrust of small towns, as if around any corner one might find a gang of murderous hayseeds, hillbillies with bad teeth dressed in overalls that wanted to do unspeakable harm to the unwary traveler. A stereotype, she knew, but it was hard for her to feel otherwise. There was just so much open space here. No one would hear you scream.

The other thing that gave her pause was the sight of two nuns who rode past on bicycles. Fully attired in ankle-length black robes, head-cloths, and all, they attracted no attention from anyone else, but Jade couldn't help but stare. Odd, she thought, that this attire was accepted here while, if say, a man (or even a slob) were to wear that, he might very well be sat down for a round of psychiatric evaluations.

The motel had a room and she checked in, paying for two days in advance. The clerk was an unassuming, soft little man who smelled of cooked fat. He went through the motions and finally handed her a card-key. Number 128, he said, down on the end to your left.

She was moving her car over in front of her room when she noticed a beat-up old Ford a few spaces away in the parking lot. So what's-his-name, Kozlowski, was staying here, too...

The room was typical, an anonymous space with cheerily mundane decor. She tossed her one suitcase on the bed and sat down in the lumpy chair next to the cheap, fiberboard desk. Yuck. She'd decided, after about her sixth business trip, that she really didn't like staying in hotels and motels. They were ugly and smelled funny, for the most part, but the worst thing was that untold other people had inhabited this exact space. Who knew what might have happened in this room over the years? Sure, most people just slept here and left, but what else? Dirty trysts between a boss and his secretary? Drug using and/or dealing? Prostitution? Murder? It was just too creepy...

After a shower and a change of clothes, she felt better physically, but the part of her mind that kept thinking about Jeff just wouldn't be still. She felt so helpless. Not that she wasn't used to feeling helpless, but she'd worked so hard to overcome those emotions that now, when she really was helpless, it seemed all the more aggravating. Over and over in her mind, she asked herself. What had happened? Had Jeff been abducted? Killed by a hit-and-run driver? Or, unlikely as it seemed, had he run away for some unknown reason? She sat on the bed in the silent room and thought about it.

After an hour or two she noticed (was forced to notice, really) that she was very hungry and so, grabbing her coat and purse, headed out of the motel. Looking around, she spotted the ubiquitous golden arches of a McDonalds, a doughnut shop, and a Subway sandwich place. She got in her car and drove over to the McDonalds, where, to her surprise, there was no drive-through window. Weird, she thought. Must be some small-town thing...

Inside, where everything was familiar even though she'd never been here before, she ordered and got her food amid a gaggle of chattering, energetic college kids. A couple of families, too, locals, but mostly these fresh-faced, loud-voiced young adults, as yet idealistic and, at the very least, aggressively sincere. Healthy looking, scrubbed and unlined by age. Unused to this intensity and vigor, she found them somewhat intimidating. Well, she reasoned, she'd better get used to it, at least for the next day. Or two. Or until Jeff was found.

Back in her room, she ate her Big Mac and fries slowly, still mulling things over. Finally she decided that, tomorrow, she wouldn't go on the search. No, she needed more information. Instead, she would try to meet people at the university who knew Jeff. Form a picture of his life here. Because she felt that somehow, someone at the school knew something about Jeff's disappearance. Someone had seen or heard something that could point to what had happened. Knowing Jeff, that would probably be quite a few people; he was definitely the gregarious type. All the more reason to get started.

It was exactly 2:48 AM by the cheap clock radio on the nightstand when Jade woke up in the darkness of her rented room. What was it? What had happened? She sat up in the lumpy bed and looked around. Then the noise came again. It was coming from the handle of her door; someone on the outside was trying to open it. Stiffly, as if in slow motion, she pulled her knees up to her chin and stared at the handle. Click, click. Then nothing. It stopped.

She was about to get out of bed to see what was going on when a shadow passed in front of the room's one window, next to the door. Maybe the outside lights distorted it or maybe she was still half asleep, but the shadow seemed enormous, far too tall for a human being, and...wrong somehow, as if the person casting it was deformed or hunch-backed. Jade sucked in a breath with a hiss. What the hell was that? Suddenly she felt very frightened, and not in any unreasoning way. This wasn't some phantom phobia, this was real. Wasn't it?

Unsure as to what to do, she grabbed the desk chair and, emulating something she'd seen in a movie once, jammed it lengthwise under the door handle. Then she walked back and sat on the bed. An hour went by, and she started to feel drowsy again. She knew she should call the motel manager, maybe even the police, but, once the initial scare had faded, decided that it was nothing; probably some drunk who just got the wrong room. And she didn't want to look crazy, now did she? No, she didn't want that...

TWO

- Wednesday, October 17th

The next day dawned gray and cold, a normal fall day in Minnesota, but Jade had no eye for the weather. For all she cared it could have been blowing a hurricane. First, she called and left a message for Police Chief Wilson, saying that she would not be aiding in the search. She also left her cell phone number. Then she called work and, speaking with her supervisor, arranged for a week (or more, if necessary) off. Considering that she'd never missed a day on the job, this was no problem. By 7:30, she was in her car and on her way back to St. Mark's. The incident of the night before with the figure at the door was, if not forgotten, stowed away for future reference.

The campus was just the same as the day before, but off to one side, near the football stadium, she spotted a fair group, maybe 100 people, gathered around Chief Wilson and another couple of uniformed men. Receiving instructions for the search, no doubt, she thought. What to do if you find a corpse, things like that. Maybe it was just as well she wasn't going along... Well, at least some of the students had volunteered to help look. That was good.

Father Miller was already in his office when Jade walked in at 7:50. The man looked exactly the same as the previous evening, but, she reasoned, he probably looked the same every day, what with the robes and all. To her, the monastic garb looked uncomfortably like a dress. The man greeted her and then motioned for her to sit. He had, he informed her sadly, nothing new on Jeff. Silently, she nodded and sipped the weak coffee she'd picked up outside the office.

After a few minutes, during which Father Miller busied himself with some paperwork, a fat man, dressed like Miller in a (jumbo-sized) cassock, bustled into the room. A remarkable specimen, the man had rather more hair and beard than was becoming and, in between the hair, a face like a cherub, round, pink, and cheerful. He looked at Jade with eyes of startling ice blue.

"Ah, Brother Joseph," Miller said. "Come in. This is Jade Martin, the woman I told you about yesterday. You'll be her guide and de facto liaison for as long as she's here."

"A pleasure, Ma'am," said the fat monk, a trace of East Coast in his inflection. "Although I wish it were under happier circumstances..."

"Yeah, me too," Jade said, shaking his big hand.

"And now," said Miller, "if you two will excuse me, I'm quite behind on these reports..."

"Of course, Father, of course," said Brother Joseph. He turned to Jade and motioned to the door. "Shall we go? Have you had breakfast?"

The two left Miller's office and Jade looked back at the door as they went.

"What's his problem, anyway?" she asked, more to herself than anything.

"Oh, don't mind him," assured Brother Joseph. "He's just got a stick up his ass, that's all..."

Taken aback, Jade stopped, frowned, and looked quizzically up at the man. "What did you say?" she asked slowly.

Joseph laughed, a deep rumbling noise that shook his ample belly. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said, "I shouldn't talk that way. He's a good man and he's got a hard job. I shouldn't make fun... It's just that Father Miller is a little uptight, shall we say."

"I see..." Jade said. The two resumed walking. "So where are we going?"

"Ah, well," said Joseph. "To the refectory, if you don't mind. I, at least, have not had breakfast yet."

"Suits me," she said, acknowledging that she was starving. "But what's a refectory?"

"Fancy word for cafeteria," Joseph answered. "You'll see that a lot here. They use the old Latin terms. Gives the place some class..."

Down a few hallways and some stairs, they found the school cafeteria, a huge open space with dozens of sturdy wood tables and chairs and a two-sided serving-area at the end. Bright wall hangings and ample lighting kept it from being cavernous. Many of the tables were in use and the noise of some 75 or 100 college boys mixed with the clank and bang from the kitchen. Brother Joseph guided her through the line and then to a table by themselves, off to one side where it was a little more quiet. The food was good, if somewhat institutional, and they ate eggs and bacon and toast as they talked.

"So tell me about Father Miller," said Jade between mouthfuls.

"What's to tell?" said Joseph. "Dean of Student Affairs for the last five years or so, somewhat... uptight, as noted, and a generally good fellow."

"No, I mean," said Jade, shaking her head. "Why is he so, I don't know, uncooperative? I mean, it seems like he's not even interested in finding Jeff..."

"Oh, well," Joseph said, "you see, it's just that he's not very... fond of the kids. Matter of fact, he plain dislikes ëem."

"Really?" she asked. "Doesn't that make him kind of ill-suited for his job? A guy who dislikes kids in charge of their well-being?"

"You'd think so," said Joseph, "but, on the contrary, it seems to work quite well this way. He's more analytical, less emotional than someone who genuinely likes the students. Someone who identified with the kids and got along with ëem would have a lot harder time. Trust me."

"If you say so..." she said and poked at her eggs. Then she pushed aside her plate and sighed restlessly. This was just wasting time.

Brother Joseph, noting her anxiety, finished up his meal and also pushed aside his plate. He wiped his ample mouth with a napkin, (getting most of the debris from his beard) belched decorously, and looked at Jade.

"Now then," he said. "I am here to help you. What do you want to do first?"

"I..." Jade said, thinking. "I'm not sure. I guess I'd like to meet Jeff's friends and teachers. I want to learn more about the university itself, too, but first things first. I spoke with Chief Wilson in town, and he says that he questioned some people already..."

"He did, indeed," nodded Joseph. "Fairly extensively, I believe..."

"Yeah, but..." Jade shook her head. Internally, she was divided. On one hand, she liked this Brother Joseph. On the other, she didnët have it in her to trust him. "I want to talk to them myself, if that's OK."

"Why not?" he said, shrugging. "Maybe you'll find something that the police missed. But, if you don't mind my asking, why?"

"Why what?" she asked.

"Why question the students and faculty?" Joseph asked gently. "Do you... suspect something? That you're not talking about?"

"No, no," Jade said thoughtfully. "Just a feeling, I guess. A hunch."

"Well, OK..." he said dubiously. "It's your call."

Rising, they deposited their trays on the way out and Joseph led the way back out into the crisp morning air of the commons. En route, he pointed out the various buildings and areas. Over there was the library, here was the Quadrangle or Old Building, that over there is the gymnasium, and these here are the academic halls... Jade listened politely, nodding at each description, but something about this man was making her wonder.

"Brother Joseph?" she said when the man paused in his tour. He stopped and regarded her with one bushy eyebrow raised.

"Yes?"

"If this is too personal," she said, "tell me so, but I was wondering..."

"What's that?"

"What were you before you became a monk?" she asked. "I mean, sorry if I'm being blunt, but there's no way in hell that you've always been a monk... Am I right?"

Joseph suddenly roared with laughter. "Oh, you've got my number all right... But to answer your question, no I wasn't always a monk. I was a longshoreman."

"Ah," she said simply. "I see..."

"How about you?" Joseph said. "The way you're approaching this whole... situation with your brother. You're, well, calm and you obviously have some ideas about what's happened... You must be some kind of police, right? Maybe a detective?"

"I'm an accountant," Jade said evenly.

"No shit?"

"No shit." she said. "I just know my brother..."

Deciding to visit with students first, (since the kids would most likely still be in their rooms at this time of day) they started walking over to the student housing, a series of four huge stone buildings in a row at one side of the commons. Each bore, on a big brass plaque, the name of a different saint: Jerome, Boniface, Thomas, and Benedict.

"What do you think?" Jade suddenly said to Joseph.

"About?" he said innocently.

"What's happened to Jeff," she said impatiently. "What do you think?"

"I... I'm not sure," Joseph said haltingly. "But, since you're asking, and I'm not sure why you are, since my opinion hardly matters, I'd say that... he probably got picked up by some... bad people."

"Bad people..." Jade echoed softly. "Yeah, plenty of those around, I guess. How about Father Miller? What's his take?"

"I'm not sure you..." Joseph said, "You want to know that, Ma'am. Father Sean's not always the most... sympathetic kind of guy."

"Tell me," she said.

Joseph sighed. "All right, fine... He thinks that Jeff was drunk, took a shortcut, and fell into Chapel Lake. Like I said, not the most sympathetic. Are you happy now?"

"No," she said. "But it's not a bad theory."

Joseph stopped walking and looked Jade up and down. "You're really something, you know that?"

"What do you mean?" she asked, suddenly self-conscious and fearful. What was he talking about?

"Well, it's just that..." Joseph said. "If it was my brother that was missing, I wouldn't be calmly discussing the scenarios involved; I'd be a damn wreck. Sick with worry! See what I mean? I'm not sure which, but I think you're either very brave or kind of crazy..."

"Oh, that..." Jade said, relieved, and turned back to the dorms. "The latter would be closer to the truth."

Bushy eyebrows lifted and shaking his head bemusedly, Joseph followed her. The dorm (or hall, as they were called) that they visited happened to be Boniface, home to one Milo Herman Freidler. They walked up two flights of stairs and then down a long hallway, and all about them were the noises and activities of young men living on their own. And, Jade thought, judging from the way they lived, most of them were doing it for the first time. Many of the doors were open and from them spilled both loud music and kids. Inside, the rooms were almost uniformly messy, with clothes and papers and old pizza boxes making up the prominent décor. The loud thump of bass sounds and the screech of guitars mixed with yells and laughter. Under it all was an institutional feel, as if, despite the kids' efforts to individualize their spaces, this was a prison. How could Jeff have lived here, she wondered?

Jade, a woman walking through the all-male dorm, was acutely uncomfortable under their sometimes leering gazes but strode down the hallway purposefully and, with the imposing Brother Joseph right behind, encountered no trouble. Brother Joseph pounded three times on the door to room 388 and they waited. From within, Jade could hear some coughing and some nebulous rustling noises. Then the door opened a crack and a kid with bright blue hair, spiked, and a couple of nose rings, well emphasized by the huge nose into which they were punched, peeked out. His eyes were red and puffy, the pupils very wide and a strong waft of incense and something else trailed into the hallway over the kid's shoulder. Jade, a minor expert on the subject of drugs (even illegal ones) and their effects, knew that the kid was high on pot. Maybe very high.

She looked at Joseph, who rolled his eyes and shrugged, and then back to the blue-haired kid, who was still standing there blinking at them as if they'd just flown in from Mars.

"Milo Freidler?" she asked.

"Wha?" the kid said thickly. "No, man. I'm Paul."

Jade spoke slowly. "Is this Milo's room?"

"Oh, yeah..." said the kid. He looked vaguely around the ten-by-ten foot room. "Milo's not here, man..."

"So I see," Jade said. "Do you know where he is?"

"Uh... yeah," Blue Hair said. "Let's see... Oh, yeah, he's practicing... With the band."

"Band?" asked Brother Joseph. "What band would that be?"

"Oh, uh, his band," the kid said, obviously confused that they hadn't heard of this. "The Lacerations, man. They rock."

"Uh huh." Jade said, beginning to lose her patience. "Where do they practice?"

"The basement," said Blue Hair. "The gym basement, I mean..."

"Thank you," said Jade and turned away, back down the hallway. Over her shoulder, she could hear Brother Joseph issuing some stern words to the young man, but she walked on and out and then waited outside by the door. Joseph came out a few minutes later. If the kid was facing disciplinary issues, the fat monk said nothing of it, and, since Jade really didn't care, they silently walked over to the gym.

The ground floor of the gym was one wide-open, parquet-floored area, but a service stairwell led down to a murky utility level with lots of pipes and wiring. They could hear a racket from the stairwell, but up close, it was simply intolerable; a nasty series of shrieks and wails, punctuated with machinegun-like banging and grounded in a bone-rattling bass. Both Joseph and Jade held their ears when they came to the metal fire door from which the noises emanated. Joseph banged on the door, and then kicked, but the noise kept on. Then they shrugged and walked back to the stairwell, where they could at least talk.

"What is that?" said Jade, having to almost shout to be heard.

"Music," replied the monk, grinning. "I think..."

"What do we do?" asked Jade. "I need to talk to someone in there..."

Joseph nodded wisely, held up one hand in an "I'll take care of this" gesture, and walked back down the hallway. He turned a corner, was gone from sight for a few minutes, and then suddenly the horrible noises, aside from the drumming, went silent. Then the drumming, too, petered out, just as Brother Joseph came walking back. Jade looked a question at him, one eyebrow raised.

"Cut the power," explained Joseph. "Now, shall we?"

"Thanks," Jade said and walked back down to the metal door. Again the monk hammered on the door, and this time it opened. Inside was a small, dank room, dark as night with the power off, with a densely packed array of rock-band equipment. Guitars, amplifiers, drums, microphones, and four skinny kids... Jade found it hard to believe that the nasty din she'd heard could have been made by just this stuff. She'd expected a banshee at the least. Maybe a few broken washing machines or perhaps a small army of wounded animals.

"Uh, hi fellows," said Joseph. "Sorry to interrupt your... practice. But we'd like to talk to Milo Freidler..."

"Yo!" one of them said, coming forward. The young man was tall and thin, with jet-black hair and dressed in black clothes of a strange, almost archaic type. He wore black lipstick and eye shadow, offset dramatically by a pasty white complexion. All in all, to Jade at least, a very striking, even intimidating, figure. Was this a costume? For the band? Must be...

He walked up and looked at Jade impudently. "'Sup?" he said simply.

"I, uh," Jade stammered. "I'd like to talk to you about my brother Jeff... Jeff Martin."

"Yeah, OK," said Milo. He turned to the other three youths. "Guess that's it for today. Same time tomorrow?" The others agreed, grumbling a little, and turned to put away their instruments.

Jade, Brother Joseph, and Milo walked down the service hallway and up into the gym. In the bright light and wholesome atmosphere of the gym, Milo's appearance was even more startling and pronounced; Jade noticed that he had a leering skull tattoo that covered the back of his right hand and that a devil's face adorned the other. Maybe it wasn't a costume after all... The three of them sat on the bottom row of bleachers as they spoke.

"So, what can I do for ya?" asked Milo reasonably. "You're Jeff's sister?"

"That's right," she said. "My name's Jade."

"Nice to meet ya," Milo said and stuck out his hand. Jade shook hands, a little reluctantly. "It sucks about Jeff... I mean, man... It really, really sucks. Ya know?"

"I do," Jade said. Despite the colloquial choice of words, the sincerity in this strange young man's voice was somehow refreshing for her; at least somebody felt bad. "Can I call you Milo?"

"'Course," said Milo. "Why not?"

"I want to know about Jeff..." she said. "About his life here. He mentioned you in letters and when we talked on the phone, so I thought that maybe you could... I don't know. Tell me about things that Jeff wouldn't tell his big sister. Tell me the facts, I guess..."

"Sure," Milo said, shrugging his thin shoulders. "Like what?"

"I don't know," she said and frowned. "Is Jeff really happy here? Does he like school?"

"Yeah, he likes school," Milo nodded. "He's way into like, learning, ya know? He loves reading and studying and all that... But happy? Yeah, I guess... It's just that this place is kinda whitebread, if ya know what I mean. Most of the guys here are from rich suburban families, ya know? The cocky jock type, see? Joe College, BMOC, all that crap... I'd say that Jeff feels kinda like me. Like he doesn't fit in."

"I see," Jade said softly.

"I mean, look at me..." Milo waved a hand at his person. "Like, I'm not gonna fit in anywhere, right? The way I like to dress and all... But for Jeff it's different. I think he feels like he earned his way into this school. As opposed to the other jock types who just bought their way in. Know what I mean?"

"Yes," said Jade. "I know what it's like to not fit in..."

"Yeah..." Milo said. "Well, it worked out, though, ëcause there are more than a few of us misfits at this school, and we kinda gravitated towards each other, know what I mean? Sure, we still get grief from the assholes once in a while, but who cares, right? Their kind is always around anyway..."

"Uh huh," she said indulgently. "What about school, then? What are his favorite subjects?"

"Hmm," Milo said, looking thoughtful. "I'd say probably his art classes. Painting, drawing, appreciation, history, all the art stuff... And philosophy, too. Like, just in the last few weeks, he really got into philosophy. Always trying to tell me about some old dead dudes and their views on stuff..."

"What about instructors?" she asked. "Does he have any favorites among the teachers?"

"Well, yeah," Milo said. "Brother Diego, he's like some kinda art guru... And Brother Calvin, he's the philosophy-slinger..."

"Are there any subjects or teachers that he doesn't like?" asked Jade.

"Yeah, sure," Milo said. "Like anybody... I know he doesn't like his councilor much."

"Councilor?" said Jade. "What's that?"

"Every student," put in Brother Joseph, "is assigned an advisor. Someone they can go to with problems..."

"Oh," she said, turning back to Milo. "Do you know why Jeff doesn't like his councilor?"

"Nuh uh," Milo said, shaking his head. "Jeff just said he was a dickweed and kinda left it like that, ya know?"

"Yes," Jade said, thinking. "Tell me, Milo. Recently, was Jeff upset about anything? Had anything... bad happened?"

Milo frowned. "If it did, he never told me anything... And I woulda known. Jeff's not like, real hard to read or anything, you know? Sort of a heart-on-his-sleeve kinda guy..."

"That's him all right," she said. "Is there anything else you can think of? Any ideas about what might have happened?"

"Oh, I got ideas..." he said cryptically. "But... you know. All just speculation, right?"

"But I'm interested," said Jade. "What's your opinion? What do you think happened?"

"I uh..." Milo said, scratching the back of his neck. "I can't really... say. Right now." He darted his eyes at Brother Joseph, obviously trying to say that he wasn't comfortable talking in front of the monk. Joseph, ostensibly watching some kids play basketball, seemed to have missed the gesture.

"Ah, of course," Jade said, picking up on the look. "Maybe some other time?"

"You got it," Milo agreed. "You know, the band's playing at Sally's tonight... That's a bar in town... I could put ya on the guest list..."

"Um... no thanks," said Jade. "That's not really my... thing. But thank you."

"Whatever," said Milo. "Look, uh, I gotta get to a class. I guess I'll see you later, then..."

"Yes," Jade said. "It was nice to meet you. Thanks for your help."

"No problem," Milo said. Then he got up and loped away, a black-and-white apparition in the streaming sunlight of the gym. Once he'd gone, Jade and Brother Joseph stood up and headed for the door.

"Well?" asked Joseph. "What next?"

"Next," Jade said, "we talk to Brother Diego and Brother Calvin. And then Jeff's councilor."

"Well," said the monk slowly, "that might not work out so well. You see, the brothers who teach, like Diego and Calvin, will be busy with classes until, oh, 5:00 this evening or so. Then there's prayer service and dinner... I'd say it would be better to visit with those two later in the evening, say 8:00 or so..."

"OK, then," said Jade, pondering. "I do want to know more about this place... How about finishing the tour? Meanwhile, you can tell me the place's history."

"History?" said Joseph. "What do you mean?"

"Well, for instance," Jade said. "I know that you are Benedictines, right? But what's that all about? Are you missionaries, or scholars, or what? I mean, I thought monks sat in dark cells transcribing books all day... I guess I want some background. History."

"Ah!" said Joseph with relish. "Well, it all goes back to Saint Benedict, who was born in 480 AD..."

What followed was a primer on Benedictine monasticism, the basics of what the Order was all about. Jade learned that monasticism itself, the forming of men and women into far-flung monasteries and convents under the auspices of a central Order, was a reaction on the part of various holy people in the Middle Ages to the growing wealth and power of the church in Rome. Seeing that many areas of the church were growing increasingly involved with affairs of politics and economy, as opposed to the salvation of souls, men and women, mostly priests, splintered off from the central Roman church and started their own sects. Some of these sects thrived, some died out, and some were condemned by the church as heretical and subsequently wiped out. Of those that survived, the most successful were those that devoted themselves to lives of abstinence and charity. Over the centuries, the Orders became formalized and spread all over the world. Some were larger, with thousands of devotees, such as the Franciscans or Jesuits, while some stayed small, with only dozens in their rolls.

Saint Benedict of Nursia, once a theological scholar in Rome who gave up his studies to become a hermit, wrote the most important document of the Order, the Rule of St Benedict, and founded the order at Monte Cassino in Italy. The Rule, a set of precise regulations, laid out the day-to-day existence of the brothers and defined how they should conduct both themselves and the monastery itself. A monk took vows of poverty, obedience, chastity, stability, and conversion of manners. The main activities of a monk were to pray and to work and he was to observe silence unless absolutely necessary. Over time, the order became known also for its educational endeavors and the founding of various schools, of which St. Mark's was one.

"Of course," Joseph said, "things have changed some since the sixth century... For example, the whole silence thing is pretty well out."

"Uh huh," Jade said, taking this all in. "And what about these vows? How seriously are they taken?"

"What do you mean?" he asked, a slight color coming to his hirsute face.

"Oh, um, nothing," she said, "it's just, I mean... Well, what's "Conversion of Manners", anyway? And what about the whole poverty thing? You guys seem to be doing all right here. I don't mean to be rude, but you charge the students quite a lot, and the whole place looks pretty prosperous. That football field looks brand new..." She trailed off and stopped because of the look in Brother Joseph's eyes. Uh oh, she thought, what did I say?

"It is," Joseph said. His face was placid but a kind of fiery gleam lit his cold blue eyes. "New last year. And just between you, me, and the grand piano? I agree with you. We do get too bogged down in the money sometimes... But the ideal of it, that, while the monastery might make money, we brothers own nothing, that still works, and we all live by it. I don't own a car or a TV or a computer, or even a radio. Besides my clothes and personal effects, I own nothing. I could own more stuff, if I wanted to, but most of us stick to the Rule."

"Look, I'm sorry," Jade said quietly. "I didn't mean any offense..."

"None taken," Joseph said, the fiery gleam in his eye belying his words. "But you might want to withhold your opinions till you know all the facts..."

"Well, I will," she said. "From now on."

"Thank you," said Joseph, softening. "And I'm sorry, too. It's just that most people don't know a thing about monastic life. They think we're little tonsured guys who sit around praying and not talking all day..."

"Yeah," she said, nodding. "That's about what I thought. Before today, that is."

"Common misconceptions," he said. "And no worse than some that people have about Catholics in general. It's always been that way. The mistrust, the superstitious fears, the wild ideas that some folks get. I don't know... It's not easy sometimes."

"No, I suppose not," said Jade distantly. She was thinking about how these same misconceptions and fears plagued the mentally ill. Sometimes the way people acted after they knew you were "sick" was worse than when they didn't. Of course, all people reacted differently to the idea that a coworker or acquaintance was a diagnosed schizophrenic, but she'd seen it so many times over the years that she'd noticed a sort of pattern. First came surprise, then incredulity, then either acceptance and tolerance or fear and avoidance. In her experience, there was really no other, middle ground. Mental illness, insanity, was something that still gave people the willies, as if the crazy person should be quarantined or locked up for everyone's safety. After all, the office schizophrenic might just snap any day, right? Go nuts and hose down the place with a machine gun. Or maybe they thought they'd catch it, like a cold. Jade suspected that the real reason that people feared the mentally ill was that they saw something there that scared them more than anything; a hidden, lurking infirmity. If someone has a broken leg or cancer, there's something there to see, some physical sign of malady. But when the brain is sick, that's different. You can't see any wounds, any scars or bruises. Sure, some of the ill looked crazy, their eyes wild, their persons disheveled, but those kind weren't so bad. Those you could point to and say that that person is sick. But the normal-looking ones, like her, they were the scary ones, the ones that, more than anything, reminded you that crazy and sane were ultimately subjective. And if sanity was subjective, where did that leave you? Scared, that's where.

"...OK?" Brother Joseph was speaking. "Miss Martin? Jade?"

With an effort, she shook off her thoughts; sometimes, when she really concentrated, she would just sort of take off, go to a quiet, thinking place. Problem was, that usually took a little while and, to the outside observer, it looked like she was some kind of wide-eyed narcoleptic, staring and slack-jawed. Like she'd zoomed off into la-la land. Jeff called it Zoning Out. Doctors tended to call it a Partial Fugue State.

"I'm sorry," she said, ignoring the strange look on the man's face, "what were you saying?" From long experience, she knew that she'd been "out" for only a couple of minutes at most.

"Uh, it's not important..." said the monk. "I was just explaining Conversion of Manners. Are you, you know... OK? You looked a little... sick there for a minute."

"Just thinking," she said. "Sorry if I... alarmed you."

"No, no," protested Joseph, palms up. "Quite all right..." They sat in silence, with Joseph scrupulously nonchalant.

Jade looked at her watch. "Looks like I've got some time to kill... Unless I want to go join the search, that is..."

"Oh, I don't know..." Joseph said softly. "Are you sure you want to do that?"

"No," she said at once. "No I don't. But what else can I do at the moment? The kids are in class, the teachers are in class..."

"Well, you could sit in on a class," he suggested. "If you'd like..."

"Yeah?" Jade said and considered the idea. "Well, why not? How about this Brother Diego?"

"Certainly," the monk said. "We'll need to head over to St. Jude's for that, though. Most of the arts classes are held there..."

"Oh," she said. "I didn't know that you... traded off. Do nuns also teach here at St. Mark's?"

"Sure do," Joseph said, motioning her along the brick sidewalk. "Shall we? I can get a car if you'd like... Or we can take the bus."

"Naw," she said and pulled out her car keys. "I can drive."

"Then by all means," smiled the fat man, comically bowing and waving an arm. "After you..."

"Thank you," Jade said, utterly deadpan, and walked past. Joseph stared after her for a minute, grunted, and then, shaking his bushy head anew, trundled along behind.

Held in a large, amphitheater-like chamber with comfortable wooden desks, the class was interesting, but there was something about the teacher that Jade didn't like. Brother Diego was a tall black man with a shaved head and small-framed glasses, dressed almost nattily in a pair of jeans and a polo shirt. Handsome, the man (monk, she reminded herself) nevertheless struck her as something less than a lady's man. He had a pronounced lisp, for one thing, and moved with the grace and gentle motion of a ballerina. If he wasn't gay, she'd eat her hat.

But none of those things were what bothered her about the man. And what did? She had no idea. But there was something...

It was evident, though, why Jeff in particular would like Diego as an instructor; the man was very enthusiastic. Whatever he was describing was always made to seem magnificent, stupendous, beautiful. In a word, superlative. And, she knew, Jeff liked that quality in a teacher. He had ever since kindergarten...

Startlingly, some cold slithery thing squirmed in her belly as she remembered, full force, no-holds-barred, that Jeff was missing. Oh, God... Adrenaline began to flow and she felt her respiration and heart rate speed up. Using exercises she'd taught herself to deal with other, less tangible, dread, she rode out the fear and concentrated instead on the vagaries of Romanesque architecture, as presented by Brother Diego. After a few minutes she had it under control and was back to normal. Or at least what she accepted as normal. And not a hint of this made its way to her face; outwardly, she appeared calm, even bored.

Finally the class wound down and the kids got up to leave. Jade stood and walked down to the front of the room and up to the teacher. Joseph stayed in his seat, watching. Up close, she found that Diego was actually quite tall, maybe six foot five, and built like an athlete. At about five two, Jade was dwarfed by the man and had to look up just to see past his chest.

"Brother Diego?" she said. He turned from stuffing some things into a briefcase and looked down.

"Yes?" he said, his voice incongruously soft and sibilant.

"My name's Jade Martin," she said, extending a hand. "Jeff's brother..."

"Jeff... Oh, yes," he said and shook hands. "I'm so sorry to hear about your brother... You must be very worried."

"I am," she said. "And thanks. But what I really wanted was some of your time. I'd like to ask you about Jeff."

"What about him?" asked Diego. "He was in several of my classes... He was a good student, seemed to a have a real flair for the creative..."

"Is," Jade said flatly.

"Pardon me?" asked the teacher.

"Jeff is a good student," she said. "Not was."

"Oh, of course," Diego said hurriedly. "I'm so sorry... is, of course. Oh my..."

"It's OK," she said. There was an uncomfortable pause and Diego shuffled and looked at his watch. Jade noticed and frowned.

"I think," she said icily, "that you've... helped me all you can. Thank you."

"Not at all..." said the man. "And again, I'm very sorry. If there's anything I can do..."

"I'll let you know," she said and walked back up to where Brother Joseph was sitting. Behind her, Diego packed his briefcase and left.

"That was quick..." said Joseph inquiringly.

"Yeah," she said, watching Diego as he went. "He told me all I need to know. About him, anyway..."

"What's that?" asked the fat monk.

"Nothing," she said. "Let's go."

"You're the boss," said Joseph and grunted to his feet. "Where to?"

"Well, I was wondering," she said. "Your library. How... extensive is it?"

"Considered one of the best in the country."

"No, what I mean is," she said, "how objective is it? I mean, this is a Catholic university, right?"

"I see what you're getting at," he said. "But no, we don't censor the selection of literature or any other information here. All points of view are welcome, even those that we find distasteful or contrary to our beliefs. So, to answer your question, I'd say that the library is very objective"

"Uh huh," Jade said, nodding. "Good. Well, in that case, I'd like to spend the rest of the afternoon there. If that's OK."

"Certainly..." Joseph said. "So you won't be needing me?"

"Guess not..." she said. "Can we meet again later?"

"Of course," he said. "How about dinner? Say 7:00? Out front of the refectory?"

"You're on."

The library was quite a place, a soaring piece of architecture that brought to mind a cathedral rather than a place of learning. Huge, freestanding stacks dominated most of the open, atrium-like first floor, but long tables, desks, and study carrels were arrayed all about as well. A series of desks took up one whole wall and here kids were checking out books and taking them back in.

Jade took it all in, uninterested, and went over to the main desk. Here, after explaining herself, she was issued a guest password for the library computer system. Next, she went over to an unused machine and, after familiarizing herself with the cataloguing system, hunted up several titles by subject. Then she enlisted the aid of a cheerful, acne-ridden young woman named Ashleigh (according to her nametag) who pointed out various areas in the shelves and gave directions to others.

"This last one," said Ashleigh, "is down in B2. In the archives section. You'll have to get a pass for that..."

"Yeah?" Jade said. "All right... Where's B2?"

"The sub-basement," said the young woman. "Take the elevator."

"Thank you," she said, "for your help."

"No problem!" Ashleigh said chirpily and, with a toss of her head, walked away.

The next three hours were spent in looking up and then reading the relevant passages in the titles she'd selected. History, for the most part, and concentrated on the origins and growth of western monasticism, with a special focus on the Benedictines. She didn't take any notes; she didn't need to. About her, unnoticed, students came and went, studying, reading, and socializing.

Reflecting, she decided that it wasn't so much that she didn't trust Brother Joseph when it came to Benedictine history. As a point of fact, she didn't trust anyone. But the man was a monk, part of the organization itself, and a most decidedly biased observer. He couldn't help but take the monks' side and she needed facts, not one man's slant on things.

More important to her, though, was the sense of background, the nomenclature, the terms and definitions and concepts of the Catholic Church and, in particular, its monastic arms. Never one to willingly operate from a position of ignorance, she familiarized herself as much as time allowed with the correct terms. And it wasn't easy; it seemed like the Church had names, however archaic, for all kinds of things. For example, the cup used in the mass was called a chalice. A church building was composed of several parts, all with specific names and uses. Priests (and monks, too, for that matter) had different robes, called vestments, that they wore for different functions. There were seven special rites, called sacraments, that priests could practice, each with a particular purpose and ceremony. And on and on...

Finally, she shut the last of eight books she'd consulted, a little overwhelmed, and returned them to the main desk. Checking her watch, she saw that it was a little past 5:30 in the evening. Time to check out B2. Even if, as Ashleigh claimed, she couldn't get in, she wanted to see what kind of book was so important as to be kept locked up.

 

The elevator stopped and a musty smell washed in as the doors slid open. The area beyond the car was dimly lit and Jade stepped forward cautiously and looked around. Unlike the sunny, lofty space overhead, the sub-basement was claustrophobically dark and cramped, with narrow aisles through row after row of high wooden stacks. It was absolutely quiet; not a sound but her own footfalls. Every twenty feet or so was a shaded bulb hanging from the low ceiling. In between these pools of light, the aisles were deep in shadow. How do they expect you to find anything? Jade wondered. She dug in her purse and pulled out the powerful little flashlight she kept on her key-chain and used it to orient herself by the numbers on the shelves.

Down one row and over three, she found the archives section, a partitioned-off corner made inaccessible by a thick, floor-to-ceiling fence made of many layers of chicken wire. A stout wooden doorway sat in the middle of this barrier and Jade went over and looked at the handle, where a thick padlock completed the nominal security. Lacing her fingers in the wire, she looked into the almost lightless space. A set of dusty shelves could be seen, containing what looked like scrolls and some over-sized books. In the back was a large lectern or bookstand of some kind, ornately carved of dark wood, and on the stand was a huge leather-bound book with metal clasps and hinges, lying open at about the midpoint. It was far too dark in there to make out any of the words, but on the dim pages, she could see the glint of gold and thick black lettering.

"Need any help?" came a scratchy voice from behind her. Jolted as if by an electrical shock, Jade jumped, spun, and backed into the chicken wire. She hadn't heard anyone come up behind her. Instinctively, unconsciously, she crouched into a fight-or-flight posture, poised to act and balanced on the balls of her feet.

Before her stood a monk, a little, hunched-over man with very wrinkled skin, bad teeth, wispy white hair, and a milky cast to one eye. Breath lodged in her throat, Jade edged away from the man, bumping into a shelf. Oh boy. Oh no. Her heart revved up to triple time. This was just the kind of person that she would normally avoid like the plague. Old people, and men especially, still, despite all the therapy, made her very, very nervous. Well, to be fair, terrified would be more like it. All she knew at this point was that this old man was scaring the hell out of her. The way he'd just appeared like that, the way his horrible bird eyes looked at her, the smell of him, the greasy, lank strands of hair... Shakily, baring his discolored teeth in either a smile or a grimace, the old man reached a hand towards her.

Get out! Screamed a voice in her head and she bolted, dashing down the rows and back to the elevator. Verging on panic, she stabbed at the single button. Come on, come on... She thought she could hear a shuffling behind her and wheeled around, but no one was there. Where was the old man? Sneaking up on her again, ready to throttle her with those skeleton hands? She stood with her back to the elevator door until it opened and then backed into it, jabbing at the inner buttons to get the thing moving. Blessedly, the doors closed and she rose, away from the musty darkness. She tried to breath.

Ding! The elevator opened and bright sunlight flowed in. Jade stepped out onto the main level and looked around. Everything normal, everyone calm... It felt like walking out of a mausoleum and into a garden. She looked back at the elevator and shuddered. Then she walked out of the library and sat on the wide steps outside, taking deep breaths and willing her heart to slow down. Around her, a few students went by, laughing and chattering.

OK, she told herself. Take this thing logically. It was just an old monk, that's all. Some poor librarian-type guy, just doing his job. Right? Of course. It was all in her head, right? Naturally. OK, so take it easy. No big deal. Just an old monk. Just a wall-eyed, toothless, scary-as-hell old monk. That's all...

Looking over at the enormous church across the way, with its soaring bell tower and cave-like entryway, darkening now in the oncoming dusk, and then down at her own clasped fingers, she thought for some reason of the kid's rhyme about the church and the steeple. Only hers was a little different:

Here's the creepy church and here's the creepy steeple.

Open the creepy doors and see all the creepy people.

Now where did that come from? She wondered... The wind was rising and she pulled up her collar and shivered. Suddenly, she noticed that the commons was all but deserted, long shadows having replaced the scurrying forms of the coeds. Standing and looking about nervously, she hustled towards the better-lit Quad building, dead leaves crunching under her feet.