“Special Bulletin” flashed across the television screen interrupting Nan McHough’s early morning exercise program. She was caught with one hand touching her toes and one hand in the air. She righted herself, brushed her long hair away from her face and stared at the screen. A dry-voiced pallid-faced television announcer began to drone a story. Over the announcer’s shoulder were the electronically projected scene of a broken window, a ruptured safe, and a collection of uniformed police officers standing around a clutter filled office.
The noise of the television was momentarily interrupted when an air bubble gurgled in the tabletop fish tank. . “Sheesh, I don’t believe it.” Nan shook her head, again pushed a lock of hair from her eyes, and plopped her long torso down into her overstuffed chair while still staring at the television screen.
“St. Zita’s -- robbed.” A banner flashed across the screen.
The announcer continued with details of the break in. Even before the hurricane such subject matter was common in the police stories of New Orleans. The old city was used to a high crime rate, but this particular break-in ranked among the more shocking crimes because St. Zita’s was known as the church of the poor, an older building with a distinguishable facade; Nan always assumed the St. Zita’s building was a rundown tenement, which happened to have a steeple, rather than a Holy place.
The phone rang. Nan leaned over the arm of her chair and picked up the receiver.
Saturday morning phone calls at the small apartment were usually telemarketers or Nan’s mother. She had forgone caller I.D. so that she could afford internet and cable television. The voice on the other end of the phone was neither her mother nor a telemarketer
Nan answered with one hand on a cup of coffee. “Yes.”
A graveled male voice asked, “You up?”
Nan tried to focus. “Yes, er no, who is this?” .
“Wake up - it’s Lee.” Lee Burke was the general City Editor of the New Orleans Herald-Bagatelle, a tabloid type webpage. “Get yer tail down here.”
“Sheesh, Lee, it’s Saturday. Isn’t the weekend crew there?” Nan knew better, the news crew on weekends worked Friday night only.
Burke ignored her question. “The Pope’s secret hoopla and other stuff musta been stored in the safe at St. Zita’s Cathedral, I can’t image they had any money there,” Burke’s voice raced through the phone wires; the mention of the Cathedral, associated with Zita’s, seemed incongruous to Nan. “Oh, one other thing, the parish priest drowned in his own bathtub last night and the bishop is missing ”
“Meet me in my office at noon Nan.” The phone clicked.
Nan’s foggy morning mind began to clear.“I oughta call him back, I just got moved in here and he wants me to give up a Saturday.”
Nan was a Herald Bagatelle investigative reporter, a distinction she earned after a less than stellar performance as an obituary writer; but more the result of her current boss’s relationship with the Dean of Journalism at the university. The Herald Bagatelle featured the sensationalist side of the news competing in New Orleans. And, now with news strictly on line, the competition for a story was grueling.
A breeze whisked past the corner of Poydrus and Tulane Street when Nan stepped off the bus. The usual commotion of the city was absent at 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The wet streets were the final chapter to a Friday night of partying in the New Orleans French Quarter. She knew that the serene scene would soon be broken by a parade of tourists. A bright glare reflected off of the city hall offices; the eastern view of the buildings faced the morning sun. The only activity surrounding the city council chambers was a hand full of gulls searching the flowerbeds for worms and rodents.
Minutes later she jogged up the steps of the Herald Bagatelle building. Her footsteps echoed in the hollow hallways. “Won’t have to wait on the elevator today.” Nan laughed. “I really have to stop talking to myself.” When she pressed the elevator button it opened immediately and she stepped in. “First rule of elevators, never get in one on a weekend, but Lee should hear me pounding if it gets stuck.”
The elevator door opened at the fourth floor and Nan walked out into the sea of half walled cubicles that made up the city news offices of the Herald Bagatelle. She noted a light shining in the fixed wall office of her boss Lee Burke. “Phew.” This place has a funny smell when it is empty,
“About time, the day is half shot.”
Nan looked at her watch; it was not yet noon. “What’s up chief, and why did you call me?”
“First, you are available, and if you are not going to be here on Saturday, you always leave on Friday night and go to your folks; and second, Manny, your squeeze, and my chief photographer, is in Atlanta, so I know you have nothing else to do.”
“You’re saying I don’t have a life?”
“You and I kid, two peas in a pod.” He leaned back in his chair and merged into a wall of clutter.
“I really don’t like the sound of that.” She walked around to the side of his desk. “You said a priest drowned in his bathtub and the bishop is missing?”
“Yeah, the police are treating it as a completely separate event, I think something stinks.”
“You mean other than the office on Saturday? Who found the priest?”
“ His name is Father Bobert. Report I got says the cleaning lady called the other priest. Apparently, she found the dead one. Crimeanittally, can’t they label these guys, well, anyway, because this Father Bobert was in the can for four solid hours she thought that was strange. Especially, on a morning when the man was supposed to be meeting with the church hierarchy, helping with the Hispanic food pantry, and apparently hosting a bunch of children’s first confessions.”
Nan stood up. “So, what are we supposed to do? Report on the drowning or the theft?”
“I figure most of the media will swarm all over the break-in and shove the poor drowned guy on the obituary list with the rest of the OD's and Heart Attacks. Bathtub drowning isn’t uncommon among old folks.”
“It’s not?” Nan walked toward Lee’s door, “Did you start a coffee pot?”
“Break room, long as you are going,” he held up his U.S.S. Black Sea official cup. “I saw a report that one big western city had about 75 elderly folks drowning in bathtubs - over a five year period, so it certainly is not uncommon. You can use it in your story, make it look like an epidemic.”
Nan could hear Burke rattling through his paperwork as she found her way through the darkened cubes to the small break room. The tiled area held only one small café table with two chairs, quite an incongruity to Nan, since nearly 20 people worked on the news floor during the week.
She poured two cups of coffee and after applying sweetener and creamer to her cup, she returned to her boss’s office.
“So, what can I do today?” Her voice seemed to echo in the vacant offices.
Burke looked over his glasses. “Get yourself over to Zita’s, find out what you can before the cops and the church cover the whole thing up. What do you know about the Catholic Church?”
She found a level space amid the clutter and set Lee’s cup in the shadow of a stack of papers. “Not much.”
Nan fidgeted. “My car is in the shop, I dropped it off last night for an oil change and other stuff,.”
“Should do that stuff yerself, save money. Here.” He dug in his pocket and tossed a handful of keys across the desk to Nan. “Take mine I’m meeting some folks for dinner at seven so bring the car back before then. And, don't wreck it.”
Nan picked up the ring of keys. “Can I get in Fort Knox with these?”
“Probably,” scoffed Lee, “I think there’s a key on there to the officer’s john on the Kitty Hawk.” Lee Burke, was a retired Navy Chief, and regularly dropped the names of ships he had served.
Nan walked over to her darkened cubicle and picked up a notepad and pen from the desktop. “I may need a photographer.”
“Billy Bob, the intern is already there, I called him first cause I knew we would need pics of the safe and the corpse coming out of the tub. I gave him Manny’s keys to the cabinet.”
“His name is William,” corrected Nan, “and he is a sweet kid,” she paused, and walked up to the door of Lee’s office, “and a wee bit country.” Both Lee and Nan laughed at her whimsical thought. William Cordberrry was a photojournalism student from the local college, and was in his second week at the Bagatelle; he had taken over the photojournalism duties for Nan’s boyfriend, Manny Minina. Manny was in Atlanta on assignment.
“Keep him out of jail, oh, I forgot, you are the jailbird.” Burke was referring to Nan’s recent overnight stay when criminals attempted to frame her in a drug case.
“Hey, be nice, I am the one who crawled out of a comfortable Saturday morning ritual to come in here and appease our reading public.”
“Touché.” Lee slurped his piping hot coffee as if it was iced tea. “Don’t forget your press badge.”
Nan tossed Lee’s keys in the air and started for the stairway, she decided not to press her elevator luck again that day.
Lee’s voice echoed through the vacant room. “Nan, no car chases.”
“Not a chance in your hog,” she yelled back. Lee’s car was a full size Toyota Land Rover, complete with 4-wheel drive; an asset Nan was confidant came in handy when driving the streets of New Orleans. She sat her half empty coffee cup on top of a file cabinet and exited into the stairwell.
St. Zita’s was jumping with television news crews when Nan arrived. She parked the Land Rover about a block away from the church and walked to the commotion. Yellow crime scene tape encircled the old church. “I wonder why they’ve taped off the front doors?” Nan lifted the tape and walked toward a group of uniformed police officers.
“You can’t come in here right now.” An officer held his left hand out to prevent her progress.
“Hmmm.” No rings, kinda cute, stop that.“I’m with the Bagatelle.”
“Ma’am, the reporters are over by the side stoop.”
“Thanks.” She glanced at a crowd of photographers and reporters who were standing and looking at a door. “What is so special about that door, as opposed to this one?” Nan pointed at the left doorway.
“Rumor is that the Bishop is going to make a statement,” said the officer.
“I thought he was missing.”
“He was for awhile, but they found him in the sanctuary of the main building.”
“Oh.” So they found the Bishop in the church, Sheesh, where else would he be? “Very interesting.” She tried not to sound too snide. “If that’s what’s going on over there, then what is happening here?”
“Church officials entrance, closed to everyone else.”
“You mean the parishioners cannot enter the church?” .
“No, ma’am, the church folks are using the fellowship hall right now, they are holding some kind of Hispanic service, and I think they are going to do the whole thing in the fellowship hall.”
“Cool.” She walked back to the edge of the yellow tape and scanned the area for the Bagatelle photographer; however, he was nowhere to be seen. Nan unsnapped her cell phone and dialed the number of an old friend. “Juanita, I thought Gabriella would be working today,” said Nan.
Juanita was the full time maid and personal assistant to Rosa Minina, the elderly aunt of Nan’s boyfriend Manny Minina. “Nan, have you heard about Father Bobert?”
“That’s exactly why I am calling, I need to get into Zitas, and I was wondering if you or Gabby were going to this evening’s service?”
“Gabriella will be for sure, but I will probably have to stay with Ms. Minina, she is not feeling well.”
“Can you tell Gabby that I want to attend with her? I need some background on Zita’s and the church in general.”
“The service will be in Espanola?” .
“That’s fine, it will be good for me.”
“Okay, I’ll let her know, where do you want to meet her?”
“How about if I just come by the house, I can see Rosa for a few minutes, then go on to the service. You don’t think I would catch anything from Rosa, do you?”
“I think Rosa just has a cold, so don’t worry, I will spray the room before you come. And, I’ll tell Gabriella you are coming, she will be waiting.”
“Thanks Juanita,” said Nan. “I haven’t been over since I moved into the apartment, it will be like old home week.”
“Does that mean I have to lock up the cookies.”
Absolutely.”From somewhere in the distance Nan could hear her name being shouted. “Miss McHough, Miss McHough.”
Finally, Nan caught sight of the Bagatelle photographer William Cordberry. The young intern was standing on top of a mailbox.
She waved to the calling voice, and worked her way through the crowd to the photographer. Nan noted that he had gone back to focusing his camera as soon as she acknowledged him. She carefully approached from behind him, knowing that if she would surprise the young man he would come tumbling from his lofty perch.
Finally, she arrived at his right hand side, and said quietly, “William.”
The young photographer looked down and saw Nan, “Miss McHough, I lost you after you waved.”
“I know. Get any good shots this morning?” The young man had not moved from his original position.
“Yeah, really cool. They were carrying out the dead priest and one of the guys pushing the gurney stepped on an edge of the sheet, I got four shots off before they got the priest covered back up.”
“Nothing much. They only let us in a corner of the room that’s upstairs in a church wing. There was’t much to see, the whole place is being remodeled, so, unless Mr. Burke wants pictures of painter’s tape and tarpaulins. There’s just nothing else to shoot.”
“So, did you photograph any of the bathroom or the bedroom?”
“Like I said, they only let us into a corner of the apartment, and we were all in a bunch, television folk, news people, even a radio guy, so there was not much room, I kinda held the camera up and motored through a few frames, but there probably is nothing there. Cool place for an apartment though, up above everything.”
“How about the break-in, and the safe?”
“Police would only let us stand in the doorway one at a time, I got a couple of shots, not much to see, the safe and stuff is in the office area a long ways from the priest’s apartment.”
“Probably in the finance office, anything else?”
“Well, I heard one guy say that there wouldn’t be any money in the safe on Saturday morning, ’cause all the offerings are on Saturday night and Sunday. So, I guess the thief was frustrated. But, there’s a hole cut in the safe.”
“Might have been bonds or something though, we’ll have to ask. Guess the days of thieves who crack safe codes are over.”
“Cool to me.”
“What are you waiting for now?”
“Bishop is supposed to appear in a few minutes with a statement. There’s one other thing.”
Nan brushed a lock of hair from her eyes and looked up at the hulking young man.” What’s that?”
“Can you help me get down from here?”