Pain and Prayers
Foil thought that it was best to get going and discover exactly why his aunt had called him there and what he might do for her. “Okay, well,” he began tentatively, searching for the right words of assurance and reverence for the situation, “I am here to try to help the best I can” and he paused to look at his aunt, who seemed lost in her own thoughts for a moment. Foil leaned over to her and whispered, “Aunt Eleanor.” Being called back from her thoughts, she now looked at him with attentiveness. “Yes, we’ll start with Sister Grace,” she said, with emphasis, and she motioned to an older woman who had been standing slightly behind two others and seemed to want to hide. Sister Grace stepped forward then and to Foil she seemed like a little, round dumpling, short and wide, almost like a character in a children’s story. But she did not have a merry disposition at all. He could see that she was more frightened then the rest of the women surrounding him.
“Sister Grace found the first of the painful mysteries we’ve experienced and we will start there,” said Aunt Eleanor to the group. And then she turned to Foil and said, “there are no secrets here, Seán. All the Sisters are aware of what is happening in the Convent and we are a community. But it is my role as the Reverend Mother to find a solution. I hope you will be able to help us” and then she turned to Sister Grace and said briskly, “come Sister Grace, show us the way to the Garden of Contemplation and Prayer.” Here, Sister Grace turned obediently and began to move away through the kitchen to a door on the other side; Aunt Eleanor and Foil followed her, leaving the rest of the women to get on with their baking preparations. Foil took note of everything around him as he left the kitchen behind and its safe, cloistered warmth. They walked through a passageway and arrived at a small chapel, but instead of going in, they turned to go through a door just beside it, which led outside into a grassy area. They walked down a close path to an old, wooden blue door in a wall of stones. It looked to Foil almost as if they were walking into some kind of imaginary land that he remembered from his days as a child reading about knights of the realm, but as they entered this new space, he saw only a small garden and the first problem that his Aunt Eleanor was worried about, immediately in front of him.
This was the Garden of Contemplation and Prayer and at its center was a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary, but it was not intact. In fact, Foil could see instantly that it had been vandalized and beaten with something large and heavy. The alabaster statue, ornately carved to show the folds of the Virgin Mary’s dress and the intricacies of her beauty stood in the center of the garden. Her face was smashed and part of her robes had been hammered away so that there were pieces of her strewn about at her base and one of her hands had broken off; like a severed appendage, it was cruelly tossed into the rose bushes that were planted against the stone walls in this otherwise beautiful space. The sense of violation was acute. Even Foil, the lapsed Catholic that he was, felt the pain of seeing this religious statue destroyed. The contrast of the white stone fragments of the Virgin scattered about on the grass and in the dirt of the rose bushes with the beauty of the blue sky, the sweet scent of flowers, and the green ivy climbing the stone walls made the criminal act stark and overwhelming.
Foil had been standing for just a few seconds taking in what was around him and now he turned to speak to his aunt and saw that Sister Grace was crying. She was letting the tears come and hadn’t moved to stop them upon seeing the statue again that she had found not many days ago in its current state of destruction. Foil knew that this would be a very hard interview for Sister Grace, and he turned to his Aunt for direction and guidance. Aunt Eleanor, he could see was distracted; clearly, it was extraordinarily difficult for these two women to stand in a space that had once been about silent contemplation and prayer. This was a room in God’s house, which had been created to feel the connection between Him and Mother Earth with the sainted Virgin Mary looking over the congregation of women sent there to minister to the earthly world of sinners. The spirituality of the garden had been damaged and would be repaired, but the sanctity of the space had been irreparably destroyed. A delicate approach was best, and Foil gestured to both his aunt and Sister Grace to sit on one of two benches that were available. The two women sat together and waited as Foil began to ask them questions.
It was slow going as Sister Grace was particularly emotional and had a hard time calming down and concentrating on anything Foil was saying. But slowly it emerged that she had come to the garden on the Wednesday of the previous week to pray, finding the solitude of the natural space to be particularly calming. She had entered through the same door that they had just walked through and was stunned to see the statue in its current state. She had been so shocked by the image of it in pieces that she just stood for a moment before turning and going to the Reverend Mother to alert her to the horror. It was impossible to understand who would do such a terrible thing to the statue or to the convent of women, who had been nothing but good and supportive to the community around them. At the end of this tale, Aunt Eleanor explained, “I didn’t want to call in the police because they would have made everything worse and to expose the Sisters to so many uncouth men was out of the question. It is one thing to minister to the community of our neighbors and their children, it is quite another to have strangers traipsing into the convent and disturbing the quiet of our home. No, I believed that we could handle this problem on our own. But then we discovered another problem, which we will show you next, and I knew that we needed someone different for these mysteries and I thought of you, Seán.” Here, she ended her explanation and sat back on the bench with a deep sigh. It had been a hard six days and she was ready for a respite but knew that most probably life was simply going to get harder.
Foil stood looking at his aunt and Sister Grace and wished he had some quiet contemplation of his own to inspect the grounds around the statue. He needed to examine the entire area to see if by chance he could find some clues left in the garden, though he doubted this as it had rained since the incident. The sky above him was a light blue, and the sun shone down on the three of them from above casting shadows across the lawn. He walked around the small space, but found nothing. Perhaps it was preferable to see the next mystery as the day was getting on and he didn’t want to keep his aunt or Sister Grace in this space for too long. “Let’s see the next mystery that was found, and then we can discuss what to do,” said Foil to his aunt. “Yes, that is best, I think” said Aunt Eleanor, sounding tired, but resigned. “You should see everything and then perhaps you can help us devise a plan for how we will move forward,” said Aunt Eleanor as she rose to leave the garden, with Sister Grace coming up behind her. Foil held the door open for the two women and they all left with Aunt Eleanor leading the way back towards the chapel. At that door she turned to Sister Grace, and said, “you may go back to the others, Sister, thank you for your help.” And Sister Grace said goodbye to Foil, still slightly teary-eyed, and left.
Then Aunt Eleanor entered the chapel with Foil following behind her. This space felt cool and peaceful after being outside in the late-afternoon sun, and Aunt Eleanor walked to one of the walls and picked up a picture, which she brought over to Foil. When she turned it around Foil saw that it was a painting of the Madonna with Jesus. It would have been striking, but someone had made a slash across her face; the folds of the canvas fell into the backing of the frame in a vicious cruelty. This was another painful mystery to the Sisters. “When did this occur?” asked Foil, tempering his voice to the somberness of the space. “We’re not sure,” said his aunt, adding, “we only found this on Sunday after the chapel was used for a baptismal service for one of the local families. It was a special event, held here because of the connection of the attending family to one of the Sisters. We didn’t find it right away, but only later in the evening. We are mystified by these acts against the Virgin statue and now this beautiful painting. And we are frightened by the invasion, and the aggression. The Sisters are afraid and I don’t know what might happen next. That is why I wrote to you. My dear boy, I hope you will be able to help us.”
Foil looked at his aunt and saw in her eyes a beseeching that opened up a side to her he had not seen before. She was his aunt, strong, caring, and always in charge, but now he felt her fear and worry. He was not a child anymore and she had come to him requesting his help in a way that he had done with her when he was young. Now it was his time to come to her aid. He reached out and took the painting from her, holding it up to the light of the sun that was streaming in through the stained-glass windows of the chapel and looked carefully at the picture. He could see that the slash made was neat and deliberate. It did not look like a crime of passion, ripped or torn in a frenzy, but it was a cut made deliberately right across the face of the woman. The act did feel aggressive, but it also felt vengeful, as if the perpetrator was trying to send a message, but what? “And who would do such a thing, especially to a small convent of Sisters who did nothing but help the community around them,” he thought to himself while examining the painting. It was a conundrum but he was also looking at two crimes, two acts of extreme vandalism that worried him greatly, though he did not say this to his aunt.
At the convent gate, Foil said goodbye to his Aunt Eleanor, hugging her once again and feeling that youthful love flood his heart. Looking into her eyes he said, “I promise to help you and to keep the Sisters safe.” His aunt took his hand and held it in hers, “Thank you, my dear boy. I have great faith in your abilities, and I know you will help us with these horrible events,” she said. Driving away, Foil knew that he would have to bring Arms and Hog in on this case, and soon, for even if his Aunt did not like the idea of others joining him, he sensed that there was more trouble ahead for these women and the painful mysteries that they had already experienced were weighing on them considerably. He did not believe that this was just a case for him, but he needed the brains and skills of his two friends to discover the truth of what and who was intent on hurting the Sisters at the Convent of Angels.
Wealth in the LA Hills
Foil had seen his Aunt Eleanor on the Tuesday after he received the letter from her, but before then he had handed over the large envelope from the banker and his stolen jewels to Arms. This seemed like a straightforward case, perhaps one of the few that they took up in these matters, but one that required some delicate handling and that was Arms’s forté, after all. It had been a slow couple of months, and a case that would reap some high pay rewards would be fine with the boys. Occasionally, they did take such cases if only to be able to spend more time on the challenging ones that they preferred, and that often brought in less money. It was the intense adventure, the puzzles, and the twists and turns of a case that they enjoyed the most. It was not that they purposely sought out danger, but that they discovered danger sought them out and they were happy to comply as long as they survived and so far, they had been lucky in this regard.
Arms read over the letter from a Mr. Skeffington,* a rich banker who lived in the Los Angeles hills in what Arms knew was a palace of a home; he believed that he could handle the case on his own. This seemed to be a simple situation of beefing up security, making sure the house was well guarded, and the owner assured that these measures would fix the problems encountered so far. Arms was confident that he would be able to help Mr. Skeffington to feel assured and to alleviate his worries. Yes, this would be a nice and tidy case, and their fee would hold them over for a few months in the future until the more interesting cases came rolling in, he was sure of it.
Arms drove up into the Los Angeles hills feeling the wealth rise up along with him. The houses were huge, sitting on the side of the hill like teetering giants looking as if they might just topple over at any moment. But they had been built into the side of mountains and weren’t going anywhere; still, it always astounded him the immense wealth that he felt whenever he came up here. But the views were spectacular; just one look over his left shoulder and he could see all of LA spread out below and in front of him. It was a mighty feeling being up there, like living in the clouds. Arms kept going, sensing that the address he sought finally would be one at the very top and he was right. He came to a stop in front of an imposing wrought iron gate with a guard standing alert, and waiting for any visitors. He handed over his business card, and then was given the once over by the guard who clearly hadn’t seen many people up there and was going to make the most of this one experience. Arms didn’t mind, and just knew the man had to do his job.
Finally, Arms was let in, the gates opening slowly and silently on their large, well-oiled hinges, and he drove through. Up the imposingly large driveway with tall pines on either side, Arms took in all the grandeur of Mr. Skeffington’s property in the hills. For this meeting, Arms had put on a suit. He had to look the part in this instance; his typical fashion, though perfectly respectable, didn’t quite cut it in the hills of wealth and he knew it. He had to make the best impression on this rich banker, and only a smart suit would do. He took a hint from Hog’s fashion sense for this one and wore a brown three-piece suit; despite the flashy newness of the suit, he still wore his old brown fedora; he was never without it, considering this piece of fashion to be one that he would not give up, even for a pile of money. It added a little bit of an air of use to Arms’s demeanor; he was quite debonair after all, some women even said handsome, but he had his stubborn side and he was never without his fedora or his gun, which he carried with him at all times. He arrived in this state of dress, parking his Corvette just outside the grand entrance of this palace of a home, and got out to take in the grounds around him.
He needed to get a sense of what he was up against before he met the owner of this estate. He stood, feeling the cool air move around him, and listened. He heard little but sensed that there was more to this place than he was seeing. “How had someone managed to get on to the grounds and to even steal from this home,” he wondered to himself. There was little way for someone to have reached the house from the road, certainly not up the driveway which could clearly be seen from the home’s top story windows. He was looking out over the grounds, which he could see were large and expansive, but he did notice certain places to hide, if someone wanted to camp out for a little time and wait for the dead of night to come. Perhaps it was possible to scale the side of the home somewhere; people had done it before who were determined to steal from the wealthy. But this seemed to be an anomaly of a crime of theft. No robberies had been reported in the area for months, and more police presence was up here in the hills than down in the city of Los Angeles, for whatever rich people wanted they got when they put some dollar bills in front of the request. No, this was one of the safest areas in Los Angeles, at least at the moment, and as Arms turned to look at the palace in front of him, he sensed that this was an inside job.
He rang the doorbell, one of those gong-like sounds could suddenly be heard ringing across the home, and waited. The door was opened by a butler right out of a 1930’s black and white movie. “Yes?” he inquired, as if Arms was some kind of tradesman who should have gone around to the back to the servants’ entrance. Arms noted the tone, and presented his card. He was not about to be put in his place by this old man who clearly had seen better days, but he was also polite and knew it was smarter to follow the ancient decorum of the home than to try to make a statement about how times had moved forward to the modern 1950’s. The butler looked at the card and then back at Arms, and silently nodded and gestured for him to come inside. Arms stepped into the front hall, which if it could be called that, was enormous. The wealth of this banker, Mr. Skeffington, was made apparent with every single architectural detail. Arms stood in front of two marble columns, and a grand staircase met his eyes with lush, deep red carpeting, and ornate spindles, which climbed towards the high ceilings and clearly went up into more ornately decorated rooms. Arms could not only see the money splashed everywhere in this hall, but he could smell it. Everywhere were bunches of beautiful flowers, arranged in large gold, gilded vases. Roses, lilies, gardenias, and chrysanthemums in all different colors filled this front hall with their scents.
Arms stood feeling out of place, but determined to get to the bottom of this case, which he saw as rather cut and dried. He felt sure that this was an inside job, he just had a hunch that he was right about this; the servants, anyone who was in the house was under suspicion as far as he was concerned and who knows how many people worked or lived in this behemoth of a home. He would get to the bottom of it in his usual methodical manner, and solve the case. The size of the estate did not intimidate him, nor did the wealth of the client. He had taken on much harder and more difficult thefts in his years as a detective and he certainly could handle this one. He would figure out what was stolen; he was sure the jewels in question had been insured and probably for many hundreds of thousands of dollars, even more than they might have been worth in the long run. But the owner would have made his claim and received a tidy sum from the insurance company. Arms assumed he was not there to recover anything but to discover how the theft was done and to stop up whatever hole – whether inside or outside – was necessary for it to not happen again. Yes, an easy case and one that would probably take no more than a couple of visits to solve.
The butler was suddenly by his side, Arms had been so long in his own reverie that he had not even noticed the man was there. He gestured once again for Arms to follow him and led the way towards a door off the hall and into a large sitting room. Arms encountered the same lush wealth in this room as well, and the overabundance of flowers in huge vases even more lavish than the ones in the hall. The sweet scents reached his nose in waves as he walked around this expensive room, examining the books on the walls, and the portraits of ancestors dead and gone. The architectural style was definitely modeled on the old landed British gentry of long ago; someone obviously wanted to feel like a king, or even a lord of Victorian times. But there was a falseness about it all that struck Arms as cheap and tawdry even though the opulence seemed never-ending and rare. Something seemed amiss in this space and he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Then he heard a door open and saw right away what was wrong, it was Mr. Skeffington himself.
In walked a large man, holding a cigar in his fat fingers and laughing in a big bawdy way that Arms saw immediately did not match the decadence of the room or the home in which the man lived. Mr. Skeffington wore a bright, yellow checked suit and his skin tone, like a lobster just cooked, clashed with his ugly clothes. He wore his thin, black hair slicked back and his eyes looked like two currents set into a rather doughy face. He was like a gigantic yellow taxi cab come alive and filling the room with his presence. “Hiya, there detective!” boomed Mr. Skeffington, walking over to Arms and grabbing his hand, seeming to shake it off his body in his hard grip. Arms held his ground and shook right back, looking Mr. Skeffington in the eye and sizing him up quickly. Here was a man who got what he wanted because he had so much money and knew how to use it. “Someone else, maybe a wife?” Arms thought to himself, “was the decorator of this ornate home. Not this man.”
“Come to help us, have you detective?” Mr. Skeffington ploughed on in his huge voice, as he offered a seat to Arms on one of the fancy settees that filled the room. “Where did this man rest his laurels?” thought Arms, for every seat seemed to be only for normal sized people. But he needn’t have worried because Mr. Skeffington seemed to prefer to stand, which he did throughout the entire meeting with Arms. “A drink, detective?” asked Mr. Skeffington as he moved with nimbleness, despite his huge size, between pieces of furniture over to the drinks’ cabinet. Arms never turned down a good tipple, especially from the wealthy who always had the best liquor at hand. “Yes, we’ve got a bit of a problem to solve in this house,” Mr. Skeffington yelled, even though Arms was quite near to him. “There seems to be only one decibel of pitch to this man’s voice and that is loud” observed Arms to himself, taking a glass of what looked like a high-end Scotch and letting Mr. Skeffington run on about the house and his lost jewels.
“It’s a puzzle! Yes sir! One day the jewels was there and the next they was gone! My daughter, Ruby, well these are her mother’s jewels. It’s all she’s got of her dear, departed mother, and she is just beside herself, she’s so upset about the whole thing. Now, detective we heard you was the best in the city and we knew who to get in touch with then! We need to find the scoundrel who took these jewels from my house and get him into prison, I don’t care how you do that and I gots the money to pay ya! But my Ruby, she’s fit to be about these jewels, which was her mother’s and I got to make my little girl happy, detective, come hell or high water! You can do that, can’t you? Find the guy who took them and throw him into prison! I gots the money, I tell ya! And I ain’t going to stop until we gets the man and my little girl is happy again. I can’t stand to see her cry!” And here he ended and paused to take a drink.
Every word had come out of Mr. Skeffington’s mouth like there was an exclamation point after it for emphasis. The man had seemed to say all of this in one breath, it was rather incredible to see and certainly to hear; had he breathed at all? Arms wasn’t sure, but he did know one thing, there was no scoundrel who took the jewels. He knew it was an inside job and he was going to prove it. He hadn’t felt so sure about a case like this in a long time, but something just told him that there were secrets in this house that Mr. Skeffington was not aware of nor would he have believed them had he been told. Arms rose then and said, “Mr. Skeffington, may I see where the jewels were kept?” The big yellow taxi cab looked at Arms and sighed. He seemed rather deflated after that wind up of emotion. He put down his Scotch and turned to leave the room; Arms knocked back the rest of his drink quickly, never one to leave a good drop undrunk, and followed as Mr. Skeffington made his way to a small door just under the grand staircase. Much to Arms’s surprise, he saw the man pull open what looked like a small cubicle and step inside. It was a fantastic moment for Arms in the most surreal of ways, but this was clearly an elevator that he was meant to enter with this gigantic man and ride to some floor in the house.
He knew enough already about Mr. Skeffington to know that he would not and could not say no to this man, so into the elevator Arms stepped. Well, squeezed would be a better word for what Arms did in that moment. Somehow Mr. Skeffington managed to push a button and the elevator wheezed into life, chugging upwards to a floor and then stopping abruptly and bouncing a little bit in the air from the weight of its load. The door slid open and the large man seemed to pop out of this small space like a Jack in the Box. Arms, left behind, and feeling distinctly squished, followed Mr. Skeffington down a hallway to yet another ornately decorated space, but this time they were clearly in an office of some kind. It would not have been clear to anyone, as it was not clear to Arms as he stood there, that this space was meant to be a man’s office or place of work. Like the other parts of the home that Arms had seen, the abundance of flowers overshadowed much of the space so that the sweet, pungent scents permeated all corners of the room. Different colors overwhelmed the eye and Arms felt like he was in a fun house of patterns as he tried to adjust to the scene in front of him. But the hulking taxi cab seemed right at home.
“Over here, detective, is my safe!” In this small space, Mr. Skeffington’s voice seemed to be right in Arms’s ears it was so loud. He walked over to a corner of the room that Arms hadn’t quite realized was there because of all of the contrasting patterns around it. He pulled back a curtain of big, pink gaudy flowers and there was the safe, built into the wall. It was open and had been left untouched from the time it was found to be breached until now when Arms was introduced to the crime scene, which had been just over 48 hours. It was a large safe, and clearly had once held many things of value as there were velvet lined cases that had been left open inside, but were devoid of their contents. Arms assumed that these had held the jewels. “Was anything else taken besides the jewels?” asked Arms, tallying the number of cases to be about seven. “No, nothing else, detective! And that’s the puzzle too because I got a load of cash in here, see? But that scoundrel, he didn’t touch that, just took the jewels and was gone! No one heard nothin’, the dogs didn’t bark or nothin’! I tell ya, this thief is a good ‘un. I ain’t seen nothin’ like it before, but see here detective, you gots to figure this out and get those jewels back for my little girl.” Mr. Skeffington was getting worked up again and Arms didn’t need that right now. What he needed was for the man to leave the room so that he could examine the evidence or what was left of it and take some time on his own to ponder the puzzle, as the taxi cab kept calling it.
Arms turned to Mr. Skeffington and said, “perhaps you can go get your daughter so that I can speak to her about this matter while I examine the safe to see what clues I can find.” He was particularly formal in his speech with Mr. Skeffington because he felt calm and balance would be a better way to handle this man than anything else. But Mr. Skeffington resisted this request, saying, “what you got to talk to my little girl for, detective, she ain’t got nothing to do with this. She’s just beside herself with this loss, she is. She ain’t got nothing to do with it!” he insisted. Arms tried again with his usual persuasive patience, one of his strengths when dealing with ornery clients, and in Mr. Skeffington he could see that the man was going to be a problem to solving this case. “Sir,” Arms started with emphasis, “I’m not accusing your daughter of anything, but these are her mother’s jewels so I need to ask her a few questions about them. It is merely routine, that’s all. This is part of what is now an investigation into the stolen items. I need as much information as I can gather to find the thief and perhaps even recover the jewels. I’m sure you understand that I must be thorough. You have hired me because I’m good at what I do. Now, sir, let’s meet your daughter and see what she has to say.” Arms said all of this very firmly, but calmly and he could see Mr. Skeffington give way as he spoke.
Much to his relief, the large man turned around and lumbered out of the room to find his daughter. This gave Arms the time he needed to examine the safe and the room. He first looked inside the safe, being careful to not touch anything. Nothing looked forced or bent. He took out a very small case and opened it; he could quickly dust for fingerprints in the time it took for Mr. Skeffington to look for his daughter and the time he returned, but just as Arms suspected there was nothing. The safe was clean both inside and out. The thief was careful and probably methodical in his hunt for the gems. There was one intent only, to get all the jewels; the cash, the documents, everything else was there. He scanned the room, which was a bit hard to do considering the abundance of patterns and vases of flowers that blocked even the windows. The room, in fact, was rather encased in flowers and it was a wonder that Mr. Skeffington could even breathe in such a heavily scented space. Arms walked around then, taking in the stripped wallpaper that clashed with the couches covered with polka dots and finally the rug, which seemed to have some kind of swirling pattern that just made the entire space take on the feeling of an insane asylum of design. But he found nothing of interest, no, the thief had been very careful. Then Arms heard voices in the hallway coming towards the room, and he stood ready to question the daughter, Ruby, and see what she had to say for herself about her mother’s jewels.
*This is a character created by Arms (Conor McKenna) for a sketch he wrote. He read the sketch during the Hog Show (Episode 1), which FAH posted to their Patreon page on October 22, 2020. I have permission from FAH to use this character’s name in my novel.