“More coffee anyone?” This was Anna’s third trip to their table for refills, and Emily thought that if she swallowed even one more drop of coffee, her occasional acid reflux problem would rise up and become something closer to a right-now bile and lava eruption.
She quickly put her hand over her cup. “Not for me, thanks.”
“Sure, I could use another warm-up.” Not surprisingly Alex held his half-empty cup out. If he was anything, Alex Khirshon was a penny-pincher, and in his eyes free warm-ups on his coffee was getting something for nothing, whether you wanted it or not.
His wife, Marie, was a carbon copy. “Mine too, please. And you may as well fill Pattie’s cup. She’s in the ladies, but I’m sure she’ll want more.”
Anna, who had been working at Polonia’s since they opened in 1986, could have predicted not only their answers to the coffee question but most likely their entire order without having asked. She just smiled, poured the coffee and left them to their conversation.
The four of them had been coming in for lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays for years, since before Emily’s husband had died, and that was way back in ’93. It was that way with most of Polonia’s customers; they were regulars. After all, it wasn’t a coincidence that they served the best, authentic Polish food in Hamtramck, heck, in Michigan, probably outside of Poland.
Pattie returned from the ladies room and took her usual seat next to Emily. “So, have we made a decision?”
“Is that why you went to the ladies? So you wouldn’t have to decide?”
Pattie could feel her eyes tear up, but she refused to give in to her emotions. Instead she looked Emily straight in the face and spoke. “We’ve been best friends for over forty years, Emily Scanlon. Do you really think so little of me?”
“It’s not that, Pattie. But you work for Father Cass and well, you tend to get very emotional.”
Alex broke in. “The point is this. We have a cardinal from the Vatican snooping around, and we have to decide what we’re going to do. I think maybe we made a mistake shooting our mouths off to everyone about what happened to us. For God’s sake, I signed a release so my doctor could talk to this guy from Rome…”
Emily raised her hand. “Me too.”
“That’s my point.” Alex continued, “Maybe we should have just left well enough alone. Maybe we should have just thanked God for His goodness and kept quiet. Look, I don’t want to get Father Cass in any kind of trouble. I think Margaret did the right thing in not talking. It’s what we all should have done.”
Marie straightened her back and her resolve. “I can’t believe what you’re saying. I really can’t. Alex, you couldn’t even walk to church anymore. Emily, for pity’s sake, you were dying. You had cancer! And you were both healed. Father Cass prayed with you, and you were both healed. Margaret’s daughter doesn’t have leukemia anymore. Don’t you get it? This is like Lourdes. This is like Fatima or those statues of the Blessed Virgin that cry real tears. Not only did God heal you, He’s granted all of your wishes. It’s like you’ve won the Powerball lottery!”
Emily’s face went as pale as the kraut she hadn’t finished that still clung to the last bite of fresh kielbasa left cold on her plate. “Please tell me that you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking.”
Pattie looked up from her cheesecake. “What is she thinking? What are you talking about?”
“God bless you, Pattie. I’m talking about the newspapers. I’m talking about Katie Couric, Good Morning America, Barbara Walters. And if they won’t pay, the tabloids will. This is the story of the century, and the beauty of the whole thing is that it’s true. It’s not a fake. It’s not a lie. It’s all true. All we have to do is tell the truth and then stand back and watch our bank accounts grow. Emily, how long have you been telling me that you’d love to move to Chicago to be closer to your daughter, Edie, and your grandchildren?”
“We? I don’t remember Father Cass praying over you, Marie. In fact, I don’t recall you attending even one of the prayer circles.” Emily could feel her blood pressure rising along with her voice. Quickly she lowered it to a loud whisper. “So, in light of that fact, I don’t think you should have a say in how we handle this matter.” As much as she was grateful that she had been healed, she was equally as sorry that she had shared that news with anyone outside her inner circle.
“Well, I never. Alex tell her…”
“Nope, she’s right, Marie. I’m sorry, but this has to be between those of us who were actually affected.”
“Then Pattie can’t have any input either.”
Pattie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She had always hated confrontation of any kind. It was one of the things she loved about her husband, Jackie. He always handled everything for them. But she knew, in this case he wouldn’t be able to come to her rescue. “That’s not exactly true, Marie. Although it wasn’t me, it was Luke, my son-in-law. He was in a coma after that car accident he and Melanie were in last week, and Father Cass prayed, and the next thing we knew he was awake and perfectly fine.”
Marie shook her head back and forth. “Sorry, Pattie, but I would still say no. That was Luke. It wasn’t you.”
“Well, there was a bit more then that, you see. You see Father Cass didn’t exactly pray over Luke. I told him what happened and asked him to pray, and he put his hand on me and made a wee cross on my head and then told me to go to Luke. He told me it was my faith that saved him. So, I guess the healing happened to Luke, but sort of worked through me, if you see what I mean.”
By the time she finished speaking, Pattie’s face had blushed to a deep crimson and the others were suddenly struck silent. Emily was the first to break the silence. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Father Cass asked me not to say anything and I promised him I’d keep mum.”
“I see. That’s unbelievable. I mean he wasn’t even with Luke. How is that possible?”
“Doesn’t matter.” Alex leaned forward and lowered his voice. “This just makes it all the more important that we keep all of this to ourselves from now on. However or why ever, I’m pretty sure that God is playing a big role in this, along with Father Cass. But it’s not up to us to be the ones who bring the ‘good news’ or whatever you want to call it. We’re not apostles or angels or cherubim or seraphim or any other kind of heavenly body, and it’s just not our job. So from now on, we keep our lips zipped. Prayer helps, sure, but most likely we went into remission or got better or whatever and we have no idea why. Agreed?”
Emily and Pattie nodded and at a stern glance from Alex, Marie joined them.
“Oh, one more thing. When you talk to that Cardinal from the Vatican let’s just keep this conversation in mind.”
Pattie cleared her throat. “That’s a wee problem for me.”
“A wee problem? What exactly is a wee problem, Pattie?”
“I’m truly sorry, Alex, but he was so tricky, wasn’t he? The cardinal, I mean. He was enjoying my banana bread, and by the time he was finishing his second slice, I’d already told him all about Luke’s coma and the wonderfully sweet thing Father Cass had done for him. I didn’t mean to, but he was just so sweet and he promised me he’d keep the whole thing a secret. I didn’t mean to, and I don’t know how it happened, but the whole story came pouring out like fresh cream onto strawberries. He’s just that clever. I could just die. Father will be so put out with me, and he’s the most sainted man.”
Marie’s grin said everything before she even opened her mouth, and Alex stopped her before she could try. “Don’t start, Marie. I’m serious, don’t even start. Alright, so you talked to the cardinal, so the milk has already been spilled, so to speak. But let me ask you this, Pattie. Did the doctors ever say outright that Luke wouldn’t wake up? Did they say anything like, “He’s brain dead” or “There’s no hope,” or anything like that?”
“Well, uh no, no…they just said that he should have woken up, and they couldn’t explain why he didn’t. They told us to wait, just wait and pray. Melanie was just that worried, and I was at my wit’s end as to how to help her. So I went to Father Cass and well you know the rest.”
“Great!” Alex slapped his hand onto the table hard enough to make the glasses shake. “No miracle as far as I can see, not even a real healing. As far as I can tell, looks like no more than a lucky coincidence. The doctors told you to wait and see. They didn’t you he was done for, after all. As long as we all agree that Pattie is just the type to exaggerate and get over excited. No offense intended.”
Pattie’s face blushed an even deeper shade of red. “None taken. You’re a genius Alex, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if one of your Polish ancestors once kissed the Blarney Stone, for the way that mind of yours works.”
“I don’t know about the Blarney Stone, but we’ve been known to get around. Anyway, is there anything that we’ve missed, anything that we might have forgotten?”
“That depends. Have you had the duck soup yet?” Father Cass had come in and was standing directly behind Pattie, who jumped at the sound of his voice.
“Oh! Father, you startled me!” Her face had gone completely ashen. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Nothing to worry about, Pattie. Take as long as you like. I won’t be back to the rectory until late this afternoon. I’ve got a meeting back at the school in about ten minutes, and I think I’m going to stay for the eighth grade basketball game afterward. I just stopped in to pick up a small piece of cheesecake to ease my way with Sister Agnes. She’s got a wicked sweet tooth, and I’m still on her bad side about showing the boys at my lunch table some tricks that were definitely unmannerly.”
“I wouldn’t worry about her, Father, if my information is right, Sister Ignatius can belch even louder than you. So, I hear we’ve got a ringer this year. Some kid who can nearly sink one and he’s only twelve?” Alex had slipped into his everyday, sports chat in an effort to turn the conversation away from their previous subject.
Father Cass grinned. “It’s true. His name is Randy Horchow. He just turned twelve and he’s already five foot eleven, though thin as a beanpole. But he’s fast and amazingly coordinated. Coach Pat thinks he’s found the next Michael Jordan. The poor man hasn’t stopped smiling since the first time he saw the kid on the court.”
“That’s great. Hey, I’m not doing anything this afternoon. How ’bout I meet you at the gym around three fifteen and we can watch the game? I’d like to get a look at the ‘next Michael Jordan’ before he’s pulling down ten million dollars a month.”
“Sure, Alex, sounds good. Well, I’ve got to get going or I’ll be late, and no amount of cheesecake will get me back in Sister Agnes’s good graces.”
“I’ll see you back at the rectory Father.”
“That’s fine, Pattie. I’ll see the rest of you on Sunday.” He went to the take-out counter, paid for and picked up his order, and left.
Emily was the first to speak. “Well that was a little too close for comfort, if you ask me.”
“Why? We didn’t do anything wrong. After all, we were just talking about protecting him, weren’t we?”
“Yes, Marie.” Alex patted his wife’s arm. “But that doesn’t mean he has to be in on the whole thing. The less he knows, the better. I think we all better get going.”
“I couldn’t agree more. Besides, the less we say, the less likely we are to be overheard. Let’s go.” As Emily finished speaking, she picked up her check and stood, and as tin soldiers in a line, they all followed her to the counter to pay, and then headed straight out the door.
What they didn’t know, because they had no reason to notice or even to be aware of, was that they were being observed. At a table for two by the window, separated from their table by another table for two, sat a small, non descript man. He was of average height, average weight, had a plain, average face, no distinguishing marks of any kind, bland, brownish hair, dressed in even plainer clothes.
In fact, he was nearly invisible. Invisible in the way that if you had seen him, you might have difficulty exactly remembering him, and that was all by design. He never made a fuss, he always ordered the simplest thing on the menu, and he always stayed for many, many refills of coffee. He was an excellent listener. His name was Arnold Park, and he was currently in the employ of Senator John Gardner. In the past two hours and twenty minutes the things he’d managed to hear had been very interesting and extremely surprising, but more than that they had made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on edge.
What had seemed to be a mostly boring, average background check had suddenly turned into something really interesting. Arnold had an instinct about these things, and if he’d learned anything in the last thirty years it had been to trust his instincts. Less than thirty seconds into their conversation he had activated the recording feature on his phone.
Once the group left the restaurant, he put eighteen dollars and nine cents on top of his lunch tab, anchoring it with the change. This was equal to the amount he owed, plus a two dollar and twenty cent tip, exactly fourteen percent, not too much and not too little. Everything that Arnold Park did was calculated to make him virtually invisible. He was very good at his job.
He was in the car and starting the ignition when he said, “Call Gardner.” It only rang once before it was answered.
“This is Park. I’ve got some interesting information. How far do you want me to go on this?”
“As we discussed before, this is a comprehensive project.”
“I take that to mean you want me to dig up everything, go back as far as I can; parents, school, relationships, everything?
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Okay, I’ll get back to you soon.”
“Fine, that will be just fine. I look forward to it. Thanks for calling.”
Senator Gardner ended the call, and Arnold said, “End call, end recording.” It seemed to him that the way to get more info on the subject would be through the weakest link of the group at the restaurant. And that link would be the housekeeper - Patti.