Chapter One, Part Three

There are some things one can get used to, and sex with men who don't care about you is one of them. Father Cash had genuine regard for me, though, and that was a problem. It wasn't so much the act itself; I knew what he liked and could get him off pretty quick. It was the afterward that bothered me, when he pulled me into his arms and toyed with my hair, murmuring about his priestly vows and calling me his Magdalene. The first few times he had done this, I tried debating him, but quickly found that this only encouraged him to talk more about religion and our "relationship." The best way to not feed his fantasies was to keep things all business.

Tonight, though, he surprised me. "What am I going to do, Judith?" He sighed and pulled me to his chest, where I could hear his heart still beating fast. "I want to do right by Sella, but this isn't the place for her."

"She needs to go home," I agreed, hoping he hadn't been thinking about his niece while he was fucking me.

"Something is wrong there, too."

"Your sister."

"Yes. I'm worried that she and Sella may both be in danger."

"Do they have enemies?"

His body shifted under mine. "Lena is a good Christian."

That didn't answer the question, and he knew it. "There's always room for misunderstandings," I offered.

Father Cash's arms clenched tightly around me, but it was clear his mind was elsewhere. "There are evil people in this world."

My mind drifted to the deceptions and lack of judgment that had landed me here, selling any service I could offer. I crossed paths daily with some of the most rabid degenerates in a town that was known for them, but somehow I sensed that the evil Father Cash was thinking of ran deeper than a little drug-dealing and prostitution. Without meaning to, I shuddered.

"Are you cold, dear?" His hands rubbed the gooseflesh from my skin. "Before I turn in for the night, I'll bring you an extra blanket."

I started to protest, but then thought better of it. Father Cash's greatest pleasure in life, besides women, lay in offering kindness. And besides, what position was I in to refuse a gift of any kind? An extra blanket would be welcome.

"What should I do about Sella? She can't lie on my couch forever, and I can't look after her all day long."

"Therapy?" As soon as I said it, I knew it was the wrong thing. He had no money for fancy doctors. "I suppose I could try talking to her, like you asked. Maybe get her outside for a walk or something."

Although I couldn't see his face, I knew Father Cash was smiling. "I would consider myself greatly in your debt."

I shifted so I could look at him. "No guarantees. I'll do my best to draw her out, but if she doesn't want to communicate, there's only so much I can do."

"I understand," he said, his eyes ablaze with gratitude. "I know you'll do your very best."

I sighed and lay back down in the circle of his arms, not sure where his confidence in me came from, and feeling fairly certain I wasn't worthy of it.

Chapter One, Part Two

It was eight o'clock when I knocked on Father Cash's door, one floor down from mine. I could smell the glorious aroma of soup from the hallway and I hoped he still intended to offer me some, even though I was late.

"Judith, what a nice surprise." Father Cash winked. Apparently I was to pretend he hadn't invited me.

I stepped into the two-room apartment, grateful to be in a warm place after my chilly little flat. Not much had changed since the last time I had been there; the furniture was sparse as a room in a seminary and the gray walls were bare of all but a few crosses and a print of the Virgin Mary holding a rose.

"I'd like you to meet my niece, Sella."

He led me to the sofa where a young woman lay under a mound of faded quilts. She was a petite girl with tip-tilted eyes and skin so golden compared to Father Cash's dark brown that I wouldn't have immediately guessed a family relationship. "Hi Sella." I extended my hand.

"This is Judith McGillum," Father Cash told her. "She's a friend from upstairs."

The girl took my hand lethargically but didn't speak. Her fingers were as light and fragile as the bones in a bird's wing.

"Are you here for a visit, or do you intend to stay awhile?" I asked, even though I knew the answer. No one comes to this place unless they're running from something.

Sella dropped my hand and turned her face away. "She's still deciding," Father Cash explained.

He brought me a chair and for the next several minutes I tried to draw Sella out, but nothing I said elicited any response more cogent than the occasional sigh. Finally at a loss, and distracted by the gurgle of my empty stomach, I looked up at Father Cash and shrugged.

He had been standing nearby, watching in glum concern, and now he came over and stroked Sella's hair. "You're tired today, aren't you dear? Perhaps Judith can come again tomorrow while I'm making my rounds, and the two of you can have a nice chat without Uncle Marcus in the way."

I tried not to show my alarm. I didn't have any deals, tricks, or odd jobs lined up for the next day, but that didn't mean I wouldn't take any if they were offered. Rent would be due soon and I still owed money on the gas bill, if I hoped to get the heat turned back on.

Father Cash must have read my thoughts because he changed the subject before I could speak. "Have you eaten today, Judith?"

I followed him into the nook off the main room that passed for a kitchen, and waited while he ladled soup from a cooling pot on the counter into a smaller pan that he then heated over the blue flame of his two-burner stove. While I waited, I noted the empty bowl in the sink and a still-full bowl, now cold, on the counter.

"She wouldn't eat a bite," he said quietly, noting where I was looking.

I took my bowl of soup from him and sipped at it hungrily while he dug in a drawer for a spoon. "Don't take her behavior as a comment on your cooking skills," I said. "You should've been a chef."

Father Cash gave an embarrassed smile. "Then who would minister to the Lord's flock?"

"Jesus won the masses over with loaves and fishes," I reminded him.

"Yes, he did, didn't he?"

"Don't get any ideas about converting me, though."

"Of course not, dear. You're always very clear on that subject."

I nodded as I spooned the hearty soup, thick with beans, onions and carrots, into my mouth.

"Would you like some to take upstairs with you?"

I met his eyes over the rim of the bowl. Had Father Cash not been so dark, he would've been blushing.

"I haven't been with a woman since Sella arrived," he went on, "and you did say earlier..."

It crossed my mind to tell him I was booked, but Father Cash always knew when I was lying. "It has to be my place, I guess."

He nodded. "So Sella won't know."

Chapter One, Part One

I had taken a pill the night before, otherwise I would've heard him the first time. Father Cash had to knock twice, rapping at my door with his bony knuckles until I emerged from the rare blessing of a hushed and dreamless sleep.

"Let me in, Judith."

I'd been acquainted with Father Cash long enough to know he wouldn't leave until he'd gotten what he came for. Priests, especially defrocked ones, could be aggravatingly persistent. I wrapped a blanket around myself and padded to the door. "What do you want at this hour?"

"Almost one in the afternoon, I know. This northern climate is deceiving, isn't it?" Father Cash offered a crooked smile as if to say he knew full well that it was more than just the gloom of the far north that had kept me in bed so late. He pushed his way into my bare room and stood rubbing his hands. "Is your heat out again, my child? I thought you cleared that up with Mr. Landsdowne."

I shrugged and went to put a kettle on the hot plate. "Deal fell through. He let me keep the electricity for now, though."

"Small blessings."

"Yes." I wiped two mugs with a rag and when the when the water was hot, offered Father Cash a cup. Whatever my faults, no one could say I had bad manners. "Sorry no tea, but it'll warm you up, at least."

"Thank you, dear." He took the chipped mug in his chillblained hands.

I took my own cup and sat on the edge of my unmade bed with my feet near the electric space heater. Father Cash was usually a regular visitor, but I hadn't seen him for a few weeks and I still wasn't sure how I felt about that. He was the closest thing I had to a friend in this town and had been a useful ally when I arrived penniless and on the run, but I had no patience for his religion or his occasional pleas for sex. I blew on my hot water and savored the steam rising off of it. "You can sit down, you know."

Father Cash started, then gave a nervous smile. "I've come to ask a favor."

"Does it have to be right now? I only just woke up."

"No, not that." He took my one chair, pulled it up to the bed and sat down. "Although I could use some of that, too, if you're feeling better later."

To keep from having to answer, I took a sip of water.

"I've had a visitor for the last couple of weeks; my niece, Sella."

It crossed my mind to ask what Sella had done to screw up her life, since no one came to Cold Haven for kicks or opportunities, but the expression on Father Cash's dark face was so pained that I remained silent.

"She seemed okay at first. Wouldn't say why she was here, but I figured it could be anything; a fight with her mother, a bad breakup with a know."

As if I didn't know all the reasons a person might run here. "What does her mother say?"

Father Cash cupped his mug in his thin hands and gazed into it, as if it held clues. "Sella wouldn't let me call her at first, except to say she was here and safe. But now when I try to call Lena, I get no answer."

"Is that unusual?"

"Yes. And now Sella isn't talking. She won't speak, won't eat, hardly even leaves the couch except to use the bathroom."

"She's depressed," I said. "This miserable place will do it to anyone."

"I hope that's all it is." Father Cash raised his head. "Would you come talk to her?"

I drew back at the intensity of worry in his brown eyes. "She doesn't even know me."

"But you're a woman, and you're close in age."

"How old is she?"

Father Cash frowned. "Seventeen, perhaps?"

"Then we're nearly a decade apart."

He waved a hand, as if he were annoyed. "Not important. You hate this place, so if it's the town or the cold and dark that's doing this to her..."

"I'll know what to say?"

"Misery loves company."

"I guess so."

Father Cash smiled. "Then it's settled? You'll come?"

Nothing was settled, but I supposed I was on the hook now. "Does it matter what time? A customer paid me in Xanax last night and I'm still not all here."

The ex-priest unfolded his lanky body from my chair and patted me on the knee. "You were careful?"

"Yes, Father. You won't catch any diseases if you want to fuck me later."

His eyebrows arched in dismay. "I genuinely care about you, Judith. You know that."

I bowed my head over my cup. He was right of course. Just because he was a letch didn't mean he was any less concerned about my welfare.

Father Cash set his still-warm mug of water on the chair. "I have no plans for the rest of the day, and Sella refuses to leave the couch, so anytime will be fine. If you come around six, there will be hot soup. Navy bean and onion."

In spite of myself, I smiled. "A bribe."

"Think of it as payment for your service."

"I'll try to be worthy of it."

After he had blessed me and gone out, I set my mug on the floor and burrowed back under the covers. Who was I to give a pep talk to someone when I couldn't even give one to myself?

Damn Father Cash to hell.