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They all seemed afraid of something, but what?
It wasn't John. Most of the time the friars were so preoccupied with whatever had them troubled that they noticed John only as an afterthought. No, whatever bothered them was something they were trying to conceal from him. Too many low conversations came to an abrupt halt whenever John came within earshot; too many doors were closed too quickly when he passed by them.
He understood the politics of the abbey, and knew that the cloistered life could instill some odd habits and behaviors, but this was far too obvious to be anything but a cooperative effort to keep him in the dark.
Mercer wasn't any help. For one thing, he slept most of the day, and spent his nights shut up in the abbot's house. The few times John did get close to him, he smelled wine on the abbot's breath. John had counseled enough alcoholics to know that Mercer had fallen off the wagon, hard.
He tried to pry a little information out of Brother Nicholas while they worked together in the gardens, but the old man could hardly string three coherent words together, let alone explain the oddness at the abbey. Thanks to Mercer, John found himself buried in the heaviest yard work and babysitting the elderly friar, who meant well but was also a little deaf as well as feebleminded, which John soon discovered the hard way.
"Need a sign," Nicholas told him one afternoon. His robe was covered in wet sage-green splatters. "Wet paint."
Two hours earlier John had given him a bucket and a scrub brush and instructed him to clean the bronze life-size statue of Saint Frances of Rome in front of the chapel.
"What paint?" He looked down at the scrub brush in Nicholas's hand, which was also covered with green paint, and rushed out to see the brothers gathering around what was now a sage green statue of Saint Frances.
Nicholas came to stand beside him and gestured. "Green, like you said. Green statue of Saint Frances. For Ireland." He nodded, satisfied. "Good color."
John didn't mind the physical labor, or the extra headaches Nicholas sometimes created for him. It gave him a sense of working for his keep, and he had done much worse working in the labor pool in Kentucky. He even attended the liturgy of the hours services in the abbey's chapel, although he came to observe, not to participate. As for Mercer, he never came to meals, and said nothing about John disdaining the robe for comfortable work clothes.
Mercer was also using the brothers to keep John out of his hair, as he had when John had asked to speak to the abbot after vespers about buying some necessary gardening equipment to replace that which Brother Nicholas had destroyed or rendered inoperable.
"I will pass your request along to the abbot as soon as he awakes," Brother Ignatius said. "In the meantime, would you mind washing some dishes in the kitchen? Brother Rupert isn't feeling well."
John went to the kitchen, which was stacked with dirty pots, pans, and dishes from breakfast and lunch—as if they had been saved especially for him. The abbey didn't have an electric dishwasher, so John spent the next three hours up to his elbows in suds. By the time he finished the brothers had left the chapel and were back working at their individual tasks, and Ignatius informed him that Mercer had left the abbey on church business.
The secrecy made John seriously consider leaving the abbey. He certainly didn't owe the church anything; after New Orleans and Chicago John felt that all the accounts had been settled as well as they ever would be. Mercer would probably lend him enough money to make a fresh start. It was the anxiety in the eyes of the youngest brothers that kept him from packing up his suitcase. He'd seen the same desperation in his own eyes after leaving Rome.
Better to find out what was going on first, and then decide how much he wanted to get involved.
John waited until Mercer asked him to drive into town to pick up supplies. Ordinarily Brother Ignatius or one of the senior friars performed the chore, but the abbot told him they were needed for a prayer study.
"Here's the list of what we need," Mercer said, handing him a lengthy tally of groceries and several hundred dollars in cash. "I can trust you with our funds, can't I?"
"If I were a thief, Mercer," John advised him, "I'd blackmail your parents. They've got more money than God, don't they?"
The abbot laughed as he handed him the keys to the abbey's old but reliable station wagon. "Make sure you get the yellow peaches. Brother Nicholas is convinced the white ones aren't ripe and refuses to eat them."
John worried one of the friars might be sent with him, but no one met him at the car. He drove out through the electric gates, using the remote clipped to the visor to open and close them. A few blocks from the abbey was a busy apartment complex with guest slots for visitors, where he parked the station wagon.
I could be wrong, he argued with himself as he walked back to the abbey. It could just be some crisis of faith, or the brothers wanting to oust Mercer because he's drinking. The more he thought about it, the more something like that made sense.
John stopped at the chain-link fence at the back of the abbey's property and hesitated. If he did this, he would be in essence betraying his friendship with Mercer. He would be spying on a man who had offered him sanctuary when no one else would.
Mercer has been lying to me, he thought. I can't pretend it isn't happening, and I wouldn't be much of a friend if I ran away instead of trying to help.
He climbed the fence easily, and kept to the trees as he walked to where he had left the extension ladder propped against the outside of the brick enclosure wall. He climbed up far enough to see if the way was clear, and then hoisted himself over the top and dropped down.
The grounds were empty, but he could hear the voices of the brothers coming from the chapel. Quietly he walked to the side of the building and edged up to one of the windows to look inside.
The brothers had abandoned their double standing rows and had gathered in a circle on the floor of the chapel. They were kneeling, their hands clasped, and praying in Latin together. After a moment of listening he realized that they were uttering the same prayer, over and over.
"Pater noster qui es in coelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in coelo, et in terra…"
John knew the paternoster in English, Latin, and Italian; he bad been forced to recite it dozens of times each day while the Brethren had been "initiating" him in Rome. Hearing it from the mouths of the gentle brothers of the abbey made him want to scream his outrage—but it was a prayer used by priests, monks, and friars all over the world. The Brethren had nothing to do with this place. If they had, John would be dead.
It doesn't mean anything.
John felt foolish. All this clandestine nonsense, and the brothers were simply praying together informally, perhaps as they always did when not called upon to perform for strangers like him. He moved away from the chapel and retraced his steps, intending to walk back to the car and run the errands for Mercer and never, ever question his friend or his motives again.
Maybe while I'm in town I can see if there's a psychiatrist who does charity cases. He certainly needed his head examined.
On his way to the gate, which was his only exit, John saw the abbot walking with Ignatius toward his house, and realized Mercer would spot him if he stayed out in the open. Since he was closer, he trotted behind the little house and waited there until his friend was inside.
"If you would give the brothers more time, Father, I know they will be better prepared for what must be done."
John looked at the window that had been left open; Ignatius's voice was coming through it, low but clear enough for him to overhear. He told himself to stop eavesdropping and go, but then he smelled the fruity odor of wine.
"You were all trained, were you not?"
That was Mercer, John thought, yet his voice was no longer mild or kind, but flat and cold as stone.
"We were, but you have to make allowances for the fact that we have not been activated in twenty years." Ignatius sounded as if he were pleading.
"They have not had one of their demon lords to lead them here since they befouled this country with their presence," Mercer replied. "This one that has come, he was the devil who destroyed our faithful soldiers in Dublin."
"That can't be right. We were told that one was their executioner—he protects their king—"
John heard the sound of a hard slap, breaking glass, and Ignatius's sob. He closed his eyes.
"You do not question the word of the Lightkeeper, Brother. You follow orders, or you violate the oath and die. Now, make me a drink." Something liquid was poured into a glass. "They have established another of their infernal nests somewhere within this area. I have set up the search grids. You will send groups of three into each one every night. They are to be fully armed, and use only the copper weapons I have provided, nothing else."
"If one of my brothers is caught killing these things, they will be arrested."
"Any brethren taken by the police will not live to see trial," Mercer promised. "You will remind them of this. Where is Keller?"
John held his breath.
Ignatius was sniffling. "You sent him into town to pick up groceries."
"It was foolish of me to bring him here. Find another place for him tomorrow and secure the grounds. No more outsiders until we have finished our mission."
"Father, please understand, I am not questioning your orders. I only ask for more time. Most of the brothers here are old men—"
"You were all born to the Light. You will die in it. That is what matters. Give me more of that wine." A bottle gurgled, and liquid poured. "The Lightkeeper has thought up an ingenious way to capture as many alive as possible—by setting traps with their own kind. If you can prove your worth, I may send for one of the prisoners being reserved for your use."
"What if the prisoner uses his powers to escape?" Ignatius's voice was fearful. "Is it not better to keep them in one of our facilities and only make the maledicti believe we have one of their kind?"