LAST CHANCE

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Chapter 24

From the time Barbara had pushed John Gardner and Father Cass into the room behind the wall in Arnold Park’s library to the time Arnold came and retrieved them was approximately three hours, give or take ten minutes. As he explained to them later, it was imperative that they stay put until after the police had come and gone. Both the priest and the senator agreed that allowing anyone knowledge of their whereabouts, including the police could only be counterproductive to their efforts. The story of the supposed “break-in and subsequent trip and fall” story had played well; the police had gladly taken Arnold’s statement and then just as happily taken the suspect away in handcuffs. It was unlikely that the man would have admitted to his real reason for being there. Far better to cop to robbery than to attempted murder.

During his time locked up in a four-by-ten foot badly lit space with two other people, Father Cass had time to think about the current situation, and saw that he would need to prioritize the tasks at hand if he was going to be able to move forward with the whole reason he’d been created. First, if he believed Arnold’s report about the Vatican’s plan for him, and sadly he did, there was no way that he could return to St. Florian’s, not now or anytime in the near future. Second, he must get word to Pattie Cleary that he would not be returning, at least for the present. The woman meant far too much to him to put her through what for her must be a near-paralyzing worry. Focusing on just that problem, he thought he might have come up with a solution. He would talk with Arnold and the senator and see if his plan were possible. He hoped so. And third, well third would have to sit on the back burner for just a bit longer.

For John Gardner, the three hours gave him uninterrupted time to take the amorphous plan he had begun regarding protecting Father Cass, and try to bring it into something more tangible, and, ultimately more in line with what he suspected was the priest’s own plan.

As for Barbara, she took the three hours she had been given as a sign, a sign that she was finally on the right path in her life. Others may have seen the opposite, that sitting in a hidden passage behind a wall, hiding from an intruder for three hours, was a sign that you were definitely on the wrong path and you should look for the nearest EXIT sign as quickly as possible. But after everything she had been through in her life, Barbara had remained an optimist, and the fact that there was an intruder and there was a place to hide and that the danger had disappeared made her believe there was now nothing that could cross her path that she could not handle.

They gathered in the family room for what Arnold called the “de-brief”, which was basically a recap of everything that happened with the intruder and the police. The takeaway was that they were now all aware of the hidden room in the library; accessing it was easy-simply tip out the book Houdini, A Mind in Chains, and the wall opens. As soon as you cross the threshold, the wall closes. Getting back out was just as simple; a lever on the floor to the right of the entrance opened the wall from the inside.

The second item on Arnold’s list was that he would be hiring a contractor to correct the situation regarding the easily breached garage. He felt the problem would be resolved within the next few days. Meanwhile Father Cass would have to be temporarily relocated.

“Wait a minute,” said Father Cass, “doesn’t the intruder prove that they know where I am? Shouldn’t I move to a new place permanently? I mean, he didn’t see me obviously, but…”

“No. It’s really not an issue. The way these things work is like this: Their guy got caught. As far as his employers are concerned, he’s completely dispensable. Once he got caught, they have no use for him. They won’t be coming to his defense or hiring him lawyers or helping him in any way. As far as they’re concerned, they don’t even know him. He’s on his own. So he won’t be sharing any information with them, not that he actually has any. So how he got a lead on this place is anybody’s guess. We’ll fix the breach on the garage and be more careful with everything else. Trust me, it’s not a problem.”

Father Cass shook his head. “That’s really cold.”

“You’re right. That’s the way these people operate.”

“What ‘people’ are you referring to, exactly?”

Arnold thought carefully before he answered. He had no desire to shatter any moral illusions the priest might have, right or wrong. “Contract employees, murder for hire, those types of people.”

“I see. Thanks for clarifying that.”

Barbara cleared her throat and then spoke. “I hope I’m not speaking out of turn, but you mentioned needing a safe place for Father Cass, and my sister has a little farm on the outskirts of Port Huron. It’s not much, but it’s pretty private and they haven’t really farmed on it for years. They mostly just use it now in the summertime. I’m sure I could get the keys from her, no questions asked.”

“I wouldn’t mind doing some freshwater fishing. How about you, Cass? It’s okay if I call you Cass, isn’t it?” John Gardner smiled and held out his hand to Father Cass in an open gesture of mutual respect and friendship.

The priest returned the offer and shook hands with the senator. “I believe from now on, first names for all of us will probably serve us best, John. Don’t you think so, Arnold?”

“Arnold is as good as anything else, Cass. Believe me, I’ve been called much worse. However before we go traipsing off to Port Huron or anywhere else, we’ve got to get you some clothes. And I don’t mean the ones with the Roman collar, just regular clothes: jeans, shirts, stuff like that, okay?”

“Anything at all is fine with me, I have very plain tastes. It doesn’t really matter, does it?”

“Actually it does. Maybe not now, but in time it will. Just write down your sizes: pants, shirt, jacket, shoes and I’ll have it taken care of, don’t worry about it.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that. I’m a senator, remember? I have people who are paid to do those things for me. They don’t ask questions; they just do them.”

Arnold gave John a sideways glance, started to open his mouth to say something and then stopped.

“I’m kidding,” he said. “I’ll ask Anne to do it. She loves stuff like that and if I ask her not to ask questions, she won’t. It’s one of the upsides of being married to someone you consider a friend in addition to being your mate. Trust between the two of us is never an issue, because there’s no one we trust more than we do each other.”

“I’ve never heard anyone say anything like that about a woman they were married to, much less any woman. I think I’ve been hanging around with the wrong kind of women.”

Father Cass grinned. “Only you could know for sure, Arnold.”

“Sounds like it’s a possibility, though,” agreed John.

Barbara stood up and headed for the kitchen. “I’m going to go make us all some sandwiches now. When I get back, maybe you’ll have figured out if Father Cass wants to go to Port Huron or not. You guys can talk about women when there aren’t any of us hanging around. Trust me when I say this, you don’t really want to hear our general opinion on single guys and their hanging out, excuse me-dating habits.”

“Barbara, you can call me Cass.”

“I don’t think so, Father. It wouldn’t be right.”

“Well, maybe you could say the father quietly in your head and then say the Cass out loud. What do you think?”

“Ooh, I don’t know.”

Arnold walked over to her and put his hand on her shoulder. “I know it feels weird for you to just call him ‘Cass,’ but it will be easier to hide him in plain sight if all of us get used to not referring to him as a priest. So for his sake, just give it a try, okay, Barb?”

“Okay, I can do it. Okay.” Walking into the kitchen she stopped at the threshold and whispered, “Cass.”

Later over sandwiches and coffee, Cass floated his idea regarding contacting Pattie Cleary with Arnold. Why not send her a message in a flower arrangement? It didn’t necessarily have to have his name on it; in fact he’d already figured out a way around that hurdle. So, hashing it out with Arnold, John, and Barbara, it was decided that the outcome was worth the risk, and the flowers were ordered. For the first night in some time, Cass fell asleep easily.

The following morning brought an all points bulletin from the Vatican on every local and nearly every cable station, which brought increased activity and a newfound urgency to leave Bloomfield Hills and head for Port Huron as soon as possible. John let his wife, Anne, know that the shopping that needing doing had been moved up from the “as soon as you can” category to the “drop everything and do it now” category. Arnold’s executive secretary, Fran rented a plain, no-frills sub-compact Ford from Enterprise and would be bringing it by later. John and Cass would be leaving together right after dinner, just two old friends heading out for some “time away from the wives.”

What John nor Cass knew and what Arnold intended to keep that way was that he had arranged for a small security detail of two to head up to Port Huron and maintain a perimeter defense of the farm where the two men would be staying. He didn’t want a repeat of what happened with the intruder in the family room. John may have five or six inches on him and may outweigh him by forty or fifty pounds, but Arnold seriously doubted the man had ever had to defend himself in any kind of face-to-face encounter. Better to pay for protection you didn’t need than to not have it and regret it for the rest of your life.

Fran arrived about six forty five. She had arranged to meet up with Anne Gardner on her way over so she could pick up the new clothes for Father Cass. Arnold opened the door to let her in and took some of the bags she was carrying. In all there were six-seven if you counted the hanging bag that contained the suit that John had instructed her to purchase. Father Cass was just rounding the hallway and stopped dead when he saw them. “What is all that? I just needed a pair of jeans and a couple of shirts.”

John came up behind him. “I guess I’m responsible for this. You’re actually going to need much more than jeans and a few shirts. Think about it, Cass. You haven’t explained the whole plan to me, but I think I have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. I had Anne buy a suit for you.” He hesitated for just a minute. “Was I wrong?”

“No. You weren’t wrong. Thanks for thinking of it and thank you for the clothes. I can’t pay you back, you know. Money is something I don’t have, and I don’t really see it in my future.”

“It’s not a problem, Cass. I don’t need money. I’m very comfortable. Consider the clothing a gift. We’re square, okay?”

“Okay. Well, where are we going to put all of this?”

Arnold headed down the hall to the master suite. “Follow me, I’ve got some luggage you can use.”

“Oh, that reminds me.” Fran looked at the senator. “Your wife packed a bag for you. It’s in the trunk of the rental car.”

He smiled. “So what else is new? That woman knows the answers before I ask the questions.” He followed them down the hall. “Arnold, I’m telling you. You’ve really got to look into getting a wife. You’ll be glad you did. Seriously.”

Arnold was already in the back of his closet pulling out duffels and carry-on bags. “Did you say something, John?”

“I think he said you should get a wife. I didn’t know that was something you were considering, boss.” Fran couldn’t hide the amusement in her voice.

“It’s a joke, Fran, just a private joke. Don’t worry about it.”

“Who said I was worried? Are these the bags you want to use?”

“I guess so. These are all the bags I have. So let’s get packing.”

By seven forty five the two men were on the road and heading north. They decided to take the busiest streets and skip the freeways, thinking it would be easier to lose a tail if they were being followed. Subsequently a trip that could have taken about an hour took just over ninety minutes. They nearly passed the drive onto the property due to the darkness and lack of signage, but by nine thirty they had unpacked the car, were safely locked inside and had coffee brewing.

Barbara’s sister Lily’s farm was indeed on the outskirts of Port Huron, as Grosse Point Park is on the outskirts of Grosse Pointe. The farmland was due west of the house, and the house was about two hundred feet from the sandy shore of Lake Huron. John and Cass weren’t aware of this when they had pulled the car in and parked in the dark the night before, but as soon as they settled into their beds with the windows open, they could hear the gentle lapping of the waves onto the shore which put both of them to sleep in record time.

The next morning proved to be a challenge as Lily’s cupboards, aside from coffee, tea, and a few cans of black beans, were bare. Shopping in any of the local markets didn’t seem to be a good idea since both Cass and John had been in the news recently, Cass in relation to the Vatican’s plea for his whereabouts and John regarding a bill he had coauthored tying raises in Congress to raises in the minimum wage. No one had thought to raid Arnold’s cupboards before they headed out last night, but then again looking backward wasn’t turning those black beans into bacon and eggs either.

So, while John made coffee, Cass asked, “Any idea how we’re going to get supplies up here, without being noticed?”

John nodded. “I’m sure Arnold can figure something out. But first I need to make a short grocery list. What do you like to eat?”

“I’m not picky. I’ll eat anything. But I’m not a cook. I’m a disaster in the kitchen.”

John grinned. “Not a problem. I love to cook. Do you like lasagna? How about linguine with clam sauce? I can do a mean jerked chicken, and my barbecued ribs are excellent; I don’t use a sauce though, I use a rub. What about breakfast? Are you an oatmeal kind of person, or do you prefer omelets? What about pancakes?”

“John, stop, please. If you want to go to the trouble of making all those things, go ahead. But my tastes are really simple and I don’t eat a lot. Really, it drives my housekeeper crazy. Usually I have a poached egg for breakfast and two slices of dry wheat toast with a cup of black coffee.”

“Seriously? Well, we’re going to have to change that. Just give me a few minutes to call Arnold.” The conversation was brief. “We’re all set. I’m going to text Arnold a grocery list, and Lily is going to order everything from the grocer in town. Then he’ll deliver it and just leave it at the side door. She’ll tell him her guests are out fishing all day. The sooner I text the list, the sooner we can eat! Oh, are you allergic to anything?”

“No, I’m not allergic to anything. I’m good.”

“Okay, then.” He got busy texting and a few minutes later he was filling his coffee cup. Then he sat down, opened his laptop, and pulled up the online New York Times. He read for a couple of minutes when he suddenly stopped and said, “Oh my God, I forgot all about it. I have something for you.”

“Excuse me?”

“Wait right there. Be right back.” He hurried down the hall to the bedrooms and quickly returned with a slim laptop in his hands. “This is for you. I thought it might help if you had something to do; a way to stay connected to the outside world.”

“My goodness, John. Thank you. This is very thoughtful. Yes, it would be good if I could know a bit more of what’s going on out there. I’m also interested in what’s going on at St. Florian’s.”

“Well without a spy, I don’t know how I can help you with that.”

“I don’t need a spy. St. Florian’s puts out an online parish newsletter. It keeps everyone up to date with what’s going on. You know, births, deaths, who might be sick or in need of prayer, those kinds of things. They’ve all been on my mind. It would just be nice to know how they’re doing since all of this hit the press.”

“Okay. Now you can do that. Consider this your laptop. The only thing you have to be careful of is not signing in to any of your own email accounts or any other accounts you may have such as social media, etcetera. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still look at St. Florian’s newsletter, does it? Do you have to be a member to look at the newsletter?”

“No. We designed it so anyone can read it. We felt that if we opened it up that way, it would be more transparent and perhaps someone considering making St. Florian’s their parish would be able to read all about us and be encouraged to join.”

“That’s great. So all you need to do is go to the website and read the newsletter. No one will know that it’s you reading it, as long as you don’t sign in. Okay.”

“Got it.” Cass turned on the laptop and entered the web address for St. Florian Roman Catholic Church. When the website came up, he touched the tab on the menu for Newsletter. The most recent posting was from two days ago: May 1-“Jay and Lena Schraft have delivered a 9lb. 4oz. baby boy, mother and baby are doing fine. Child has been named Michael Charles Schraft, after Jay’s father and Lena’s grandfather. Christening date to follow.” There were two postings from Wednesday: “Please pray for Joseph Farber as he undergoes gallbladder surgery this Friday” and “Best wishes to Alice and Teddy Michaelson on their engagement!” It was the posting from Saturday, April 27 that immediately caught his attention: “I would like to thank the entire parish for the lovely flowers I received today. They meant so much in Father Cass’s absence, particularly now that Emily Scanlon has been in such serious need. The doctor recommends eggs.”

“Oh dear Lord! I’ve got to get to her. She needs to talk to me!”

John stood and went to Cass. His usual ruddy complexion had paled and his eyes had grown darker. “You’ve got to get to who, Cass? What’s happened?”

“Look at this. Look at this message. This has to be from Emily Scanlon, or possibly from Pattie Cleary, my housekeeper. The egg reference is what makes me sure that it’s important that they speak to me. I’ve got to see them. I’m calling Arnold.”

“The first thing you need to do is sit down and take a couple of deep breaths. Try to get control of yourself. I understand how important this is to you. I’ll call Arnold.”

“She wrote this on the twenty-seventh. Today is the…What day is this?”

“It’s May third. Everything is going to be all right. I’m calling Arnold.” He dialed his cell, and after just a few seconds it was answered. “Cass has found a message from his housekeeper on the parish website…What?...No, he didn’t sign in, no one could even know that he’s using a computer…But you need to get up here as soon as possible….Right, okay see you soon.”

Cass went to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of water, opened it, and nearly drank half of it down. “I apologize for my behavior. I was momentarily stunned and forgot myself. I forgot the reason I’m here. I forgot the bigger picture. I know I can’t go to St. Florian’s and speak to Emily or Pattie just to calm their fears. However, I would like to find a way to have someone personally contact them and let them know that the danger I’m in is being handled. I really hope that Arnold has the resources to do that.”

“If anyone can do it, Arnold can.”

In an effort to keep the priest’s mind off his most current concern and away from the laptop, John suggested playing one of the many board games the family likely used in lieu of television. After a brief discussion, they decided that Scrabble held the most interest and so the board was opened, tiles were chosen, lowest letter drawn and it was senator’s turn to make the first play.

The seven letters he had drawn were R-B-N-D-E-T-A. After mixing them up in a number of combinations, he was astonished to see that he had a seven-letter word, BARTEND, which earned him a total of seventy-two points.

Cass drew K-R-O-A-A-N-G, and without more than half a minute gone by, he placed RAGNAROK on the board, arranging it vertically using the R in bartend and scoring seventy-six points. “Ragnarok? Are you sure that’s a term you really want to be playing with, Cass? If I were you, that’s a word I’d like to forget.”

“It’s just a word, John. Just like the child’s rhyme, word’s really can’t hurt you; it’s more the intent of the speaker and their actions, than the actual word itself.”

It was then that they heard a car pull up outside and a car door open. A few minutes later they heard the car door slam, and then it sounded as if it drove away. Carefully checking through the window and seeing no one, John opened the door and pulled in three full bags of groceries. “The heck with Scrabble, let’s eat.”

There was an ocean of difference between Cardinal Marin’s attitude towards mealtime and the senator’s. Like the cardinal, John had a true appreciation for food, but unlike the cardinal, he was also able to appreciate the company of those around him, so that any meal became a pleasant social event. From unloading the bags of groceries to deciding on that morning’s menu, Eggs Benedict, to preparing, serving, and finally sitting down to enjoy it, John kept up a constant banter with Cass. Cass knew that this was most likely designed to redirect his mind to things other than Pattie Cleary and St. Florian’s, but he was grateful for it all the same.

As he set a plate filled with home fries, half of a grapefruit, and Eggs Benedict down in front of Cass, he said, “This my friend, is the correct way to eat a poached egg. In fact, I believe I’d have to say that it’s bordering on sinful to eat it naked with plain wheat toast. So to avoid hurting my feelings, just give it a try and tell me what you think.” Then he sat and started in on his own with an obvious hunger that needed to be sated. After three large bites he looked up at Cass to see if he’d tried the eggs. To his surprise and delight the priest had already finished the first one and was starting on the second. “Good?” he asked.

Cass smiled with his mouth full. After he swallowed, he answered. “I’ve never tasted anything like this. How did you make this sauce? It’s amazing.”

“The hollandaise? Oh, that’s just some egg yolks, butter, lemon juice, a little water, and some salt and pepper. No big deal. I’m glad you like it.”

“No big deal? Wow. How did you learn to do that? What else can you do?”

“Seriously, it’s no big deal. Anne taught me. We like to cook together on the weekends. So if I wanted to keep up, I had to learn a few things. I’ll make pasta tonight with a Pomodoro sauce and knock your socks off.”

“I’m glad I’m the recipient of all of your hard work. Mrs. Cleary has tried time and time again to get me to eat more. Maybe it wasn’t really me at all; maybe it was her Irish stew, poor dear, although she does make a very nice poached egg. I wonder if she knows how to make hollandaise sauce.”

“It never hurts to ask, does it?”

“No, I suppose not. Did Arnold have any idea about when he’d be getting up here?”

“He said he had some things to finish up with the guys who were doing the work on the garage, and as soon as they finished, he would drive up. My guess would be sometime after lunch and before dinner, but I don’t think I can give you anything more specific than that. Have you had any more ideas on how to contact your friends?”

Cass shrugged his shoulders. “Yes and no. I think we could send Emily flowers and communicate with her the same way we communicated with Pattie. But the problem isn’t communicating; the problem is, who do we send? I can’t go and you can’t go and I’m just not sure that they would trust Arnold.”

“Why do you think that would be a problem?”

“Pattie and Emily are kind of old school. They’re both in their sixties; they’re both widows. I just can’t see them being comfortable with a man they don’t know. If Fran or Barbara were older maybe, but I just don’t know. It doesn’t feel right. But somebody needs to get to them and let them know that I’m aware of the danger I’m in, but it’s being handled. I just don’t know who that person can be.”

“I’m as clueless as you are on this one, Cass. Feel like playing gin rummy, or would you rather go fishing?”

“What are the chances of a sniper being out on a blind on the shores of Lake Huron waiting to pick me off?”

“Honestly, I’d say slim to none.”

“Same here. Let’s go fishing.”

They found a small rowboat with oars, none the worse for wear, two usable fishing poles, and a small, tackle box in the shed. John grabbed the jar of clams he’d intended on using with pasta for bait, and the two men managed to drag the boat, oars and everything else they needed down to the shore and within twenty minutes had paddled past the sandbar looking for a pleasant fishing spot.

Three hours, two mild sunburns, and one disappointing ten-inch trout later, John and Cass were pulling the boat back up to the shed just as Arnold was pulling up to the house. After being treated to a three-minute sermon on the dangers of being out in the open when there were at minimum three contracts out on Father Cass’s life, Arnold finally threw up his hands and followed them inside, locking the door behind them.

John immediately took the trout to the sink and began cleaning it in preparation for dinner, which was now to be Pasta Pomodoro with Trout Almondine. Cass reheated coffee for himself and Arnold and got him caught up on Pattie’s message in the parish newsletter.

“So what you’re telling me is, you want me to figure out a way for somebody to meet up with these ladies to assure them that you know about the Vatican, but it’s being handled. Is that it?”

“Yes, I suppose, in a nutshell. Yes, exactly. But it has to be handled very carefully. These ladies are very fragile. They can’t just be…I don’t know, you can’t just show up at their door like a telegram with bad news.”

“I understand, Cass. Really I do. You forget that I know these ladies, too. I’ve sat and observed them on more than one occasion. This can be handled very easily. It’s a snap really.”

“Really?”

“Not a problem. You’re going to send flowers to Emily Scanlon, right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, tell her you’re sending your aunt to talk to them. Pick an inconspicuous place to meet.”

“I don’t have an aunt.”

“That doesn’t matter. Oh and tell them that she’ll be wearing her brown pantsuit.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Just do it.”

“You’re sure?”

“Have I led you wrong so far?”

“Okay. Let’s call the florist.”

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