Chapter Ten, Part Two

The walk home didn’t seem quite so cold and my apartment building not as bleak as before. Even the stray I had been feeding seemed a little friendlier and purred when I knelt to scratch its ears before going inside.

Was Cade really going to forgive my evasiveness and bad behavior? I climbed the creaking steps and fumbled with my key. A romantic relationship was still a little too much to ask, but maybe we could at least be friends. A normal friendship with someone who had no agenda would be a nice change. As if to make a nasty cosmic joke of this last thought, I heard heavy footsteps on the stairs below.

“Judith? Do you have a minute?”

I hesitated, half-in, half-out of my doorway. “I was just about to have dinner.”

Father Cash appeared at the top of the stairs. “I’m sorry to interrupt, my dear. I’ll only be a minute.” He offered a conciliatory smile. “How was work?”

“Great. We’ll be ready for that audit in no time.”

“That’s good to hear.”

If he was pleased, it didn’t show in his voice.

“I’ve had some news about my sister.”

I set my dinner, still in its paper bag, on the table. “Everything’s okay, I hope.”

“She’s alive.” He sat down on my hard wooden chair. “It would appear she hadn’t been coping well for quite some time, though. She’s been in rehab. Didn’t want anyone to know.”

“And now she’s out and you had to tell her what happened.”

Father Cash sighed heavily. “In seminary, they train us in these types of situations, and certainly my time in Cold Haven has given me plenty of opportunity to practice, but…”

“There are some things nothing can prepare you for.”

He nodded and buried his face in his hands.

I cast a wistful look at my dinner, suppressed a sigh and went into the kitchen to heat a kettle of water. A few minutes later, I handed him a cup of tea.

He took it in his hands but didn’t drink any “Lena blames herself, of course. She says Sella ran away because of her.”

“That may have been part of it,” I offered, “but lots of kids have parents with substance abuse problems. They don’t generally run away unless there are other problems too, and when they do leave they usually don’t go any farther than a friend’s house.”

“I know. I assured her there must have been other factors, but she was in no mood to listen.” Father Cash took a sip of his tea. “She wants Sella sent home.”

“That’s understandable.”

He set the cup on the floor. “I have no money to do that. I had to borrow just to give that poor child a proper Christian burial. And Lena has no money after being in rehab for three months, but somehow she thinks this is my problem.”

“Well, it’s not like there’s any great urgency,” I pointed out. “Sella’s not going anywhere. When your sister has the money, she can make the arrangements then.”

Father Cash fixed me with a look. “That’s not how she sees it. She even suggested that this was all my fault; that I hadn’t watched Sella properly.”

I glanced again at my dinner. “People say crazy things when they’re grieving. She just needs time to process.”

“I hope that’s all it is. Tragedy is supposed to bring people together, not tear them apart.” He got to his feet. “Thank you for listening, dear. And I’m sorry to have interrupted your dinner.”

I told him to think nothing of it and accepted his blessing. Once he was out the door and I could hear his footsteps on the stairs, I ripped open my bag from the diner, my stomach growling in anticipation.

As I ate my cold burger and fries, it occurred to me that having a simple explanation for Lena’s disappearance and Sella’s decision to run away might convince Father Cash to quit imagining that Sella’s death was anything more than an ordinary suicide. But of course there was still the matter of Crazy Eddie seeing her talking to Arlo before her death. Like mother, like daughter, it would seem.

Why did it still seem fishy though? It was a little too convenient, too obvious. I wiped my greasy fingers on a paper napkin. There was something about all this that didn’t add up, and in spite of my previous assertions that it was a business I wanted no part of, my curiosity was now starting to get the better of me.



Chapter Ten, Part One

Rain and sleet pattered on the window, but the church office was cozy and a small heater warmed my feet as I frowned at the computer screen. A month had passed since the gruesome evening when I came out of a blackout at Crazy Eddie’s place, and my numbers weren’t balancing, but I was more irritated than concerned. For someone who couldn’t budget her personal finances, I was finding I had a knack for putting the St. Ignatius charity books in order.

The arrangement had been made by Father Cash, at his insistence, and although I was reluctant to be beholden to him, it was a chance to earn a little money in a way I didn’t have to hide. My pay wasn’t enough to keep me from having to make the occasional drug drop-off, but I hadn’t needed to turn a trick in weeks. The church paid cash, too, which was helpful.

I peered at my spreadsheet, found the discrepancy and corrected it. What a shame not all problems were solved so easily. I printed my report, shut down the computer, and went to say good bye to Miriam, the aging full-time church clerk who I had been hired to help for the next few months. She was on the phone when I laid my reconciled budget in front of her, so she merely waved and mouthed the words “thank you.”

At the bottom of the stairs, I stepped into my boots, put on my coat and grabbed my umbrella. It was a nasty afternoon and I wanted to go straight home, but had nothing to eat. Going to the store was cheaper, but the Elk Diner was along my way and offered takeout. I was sitting at the counter, waiting for the waitress to bag my order when the door opened and two men in heavy jackets blew in with the wind. One of them glanced my way and I caught my breath.

Cade’s eyes widened in surprise, then he gave me a quick, enigmatic smile and turned his attention to his colleague as they sought an empty booth. While they pored over menus, I feigned absorption in my phone, all the while acutely aware of Cade’s presence. Each time I glanced his way, he was looking elsewhere or engaged in conversation with his friend, but there was still something tangible in the room, as if the air itself had been drawn tight as a bowstring, ready to snap.

"Here you are, Miss. That’ll be $6.78.” I fumbled in my purse and handed the waitress a twenty. She moved with agonizing slowness to the register, while I kept my head down, pretending to check my order, check my receipt, look at anything but where Cade was sitting. I was desperate to flee, but at the same time wished the waitress would take all night counting my change so I could be in Cade’s presence just a little longer. I was facing my bills, smoothing them neatly into my wallet as if the process was of utmost importance, when I felt him approach.

"Imagine running into you here.”

I offered what I hoped was a polite but not chilly smile. “I could say the same of you. My excuse is that it’s near my work. What’s yours?”

“Where do you work? I don’t think you ever told me.”

“It’s a new job.” I shrugged as if it were no big deal, but I was secretly pleased to be able to talk about work like normal people did. “I’m doing a short-term assignment at St. Ignatius, helping get their charity accounts ready for an audit.”

“Helping the poor.” He nodded in approval. “That can be very rewarding.”

“I don’t know how much help I am to the needy,” I admitted. “I mainly make sure that the invoices for baby formula and canned tuna match the budget and were paid with the right type of funds.”

“If the books aren’t kept straight, no one eats.” Cade thrust out his hand. “Well, nice seeing you. I need to get back to my colleague. We’ve got a deal we’re working on. Sort of a partnership."

“Good luck with that,” I said. I grasped his hand and found I didn’t want to let it go. The next words tumbled out before I could stop them. “Can I call you? I feel like I owe, or just want to say—"

Cade smiled, and although it wasn’t the warm grin that I loved, the kindness in his voice made up for it. “Call me. We’ll talk."


Chapter Nine, Part Two

Although this wasn't the sort of place patronized by classy folk, I felt filthy and suspected I looked like a fright, so I ordered a slice of pepperoni to go. It was just as well that I not have to tip or pay for a drink, since it was possible that the money in my purse was for a drug handoff and needed to be given to someone. Mouse, maybe? Arlo?

I sighed as I thought of Arlo, took my pizza box and my change. Then I headed back into the cold, pondering as I walked toward my apartment. It wasn't likely that Sella would've known Arlo before coming to Cold Harbor, and it was equally unlikely that our brief encounter on the street the day I took Sella to the docks would have resulted in a second meeting. But according to Eddie, she had business with him, and I tried to get my muddled brain to parse this piece of information.

By the time I reached my apartment building, I was no wiser. I was fumbling with my key when I heard footsteps on the stairs behind me. I turned and saw Father Cash on the landing, gazing stony-faced at me. "Hi," I offered.

"Are you okay? You've been gone for two days and you look terrible."

Two days? Things were worse than I realized, but I was in no mood to deal with Father Cash, of all people. "Nice to see you, too," I said. I unlocked my door, and he followed me inside.

"Where have you been?"

"What, are you checking up on me now? I thought we weren't friends any more." I dropped my coat on the floor and took my pizza into the kitchenette, defying him to follow.

"I'm not heartless, Judith. It's obvious that you haven't been yourself lately."

"Hm."  I started to put the pizza on a plate, but then decided why bother? It would only mean I'd have to wash a dish later on. I grabbed the pizza out of the box and took a bite. It was cool from the chilly walk home, but it was greasy and salty, which was what my body craved.

Father Cash came into the doorway. "You're killing yourself, and I can't stand by and let that happen."

"Why not?" I gulped another bite. "I'm not your responsibility."

He sighed and his dark eyes took on a mournful cast. "We are all each others' keepers. I've been wrong to push you away over our little disagreement. You're entitled to your opinions." He looked away. "And perhaps you're right. I made excuses for Sella so I wouldn't have to see the truth, but I can't keep doing that with you."

I gnawed the crust of my pizza, wondering if I understood him correctly. "You may be more right about Sella than I gave you credit for," I told him.

He shook his head, not understanding.

"We thought she never went anywhere, but one of my contacts says he saw her talking to Arlo Pontoski - you know, the oxy distribution guy. Says it looked like a drug deal."

"My Sella?"

My mouth felt dry and the pizza crust was like glue. I fumbled in a cupboard for a glass, filled it with water from the tap, and took a few gulps before explaining. "He saw a girl who matched her description, including the coat and scarf, talking to Arlo. He says something changed hands." I took another sip of water, my body craving it after the salty pizza. "He assumed it was drugs, but he had no proof. I suppose it could've been anything."

Father Cash turned away, his brow furrowed in thought. "I would need more than hearsay to believe it, but I suppose if she had an addiction of some kind, it would explain a lot."

Now that I had a little food in my stomach, my head was starting to clear a little. With that came the realization that I was exhausted to the core. "Well, it's something to think about. If you don't mind, I want to get some sleep."

"Yes, you look like you need it, dear." Still frowning, he moved slowly toward the door. "I'd like to talk about this later - maybe you could try to get more information?"

The last thing I wanted to do was go near Crazy Eddie again, but explaining would have started a whole new conversation I wasn't willing to have. "Maybe," I said. "I need to rest now."

"Of course you do. And maybe you'll let me help you. Perhaps I could find you a little job or something. No strings."

I must have given him a skeptical look because he smiled sadly."You are one of God's children. Be good to yourself, dear." Then for the first time in weeks, he blessed me before going on his way.