A New Eden, Part II of the Idolatry series, is the continuation of an epic tale told in five parts. In Genesis, Part I of the series, set in the twilight of the Roman Empire, a sculptor struggles to keep an 800-year dream alive while honoring the love of his life and raising his adopted son. It is highly recommended that a reader first enjoy Genesis, Part I of the Idolatry series before reading the continuation of the story in Part II, which begins below. Part I is available here. . . .
* * *
A NEW EDEN
It was Maria’s fourth week on the job, and the third week during which when she knocked on the door of Suite 117 and called out “housekeeping,” there was no reply. Using her passkey, she entered, pulled the cart in behind her and quietly shut the door.
The suite featured a kitchenette, a large Jacuzzi tub, and gas fireplaces in both the bedroom and living area. The Prairie-influenced design, in light woods and local stone, was finished in a warm palette, with sensuous fabrics covering the plush furnishings. Accenting the walls were sepia photo-prints of the local fauna. French doors opened onto a flagstone patio, beyond which a double terrace of flowering flora bordered a tidy square lawn with a cascading stone fountain in the corner. The perimeter of sculpted hedging, taller on the sides to provide privacy from the adjacent units, was cropped shorter across the end to allow a sweeping southerly view of the high-desert valley. The rugged range of snowcapped mountains rising close to the west and the soft rolling hills to the east cradled the city below and stretched away to the distant, hazy horizon.
On a reclined lounge chair on the patio, the suite’s lone occupant lay prone in the sun, her head to the side, her eyes closed. She hadn’t moved when the housekeeper entered. She was completely nude.
Maria cleared away the breakfast tray from room service, wiped down the slate-floored bathroom, replenished the towels and toiletries and emptied the nearly empty wastebaskets. She tucked the tip that had been left on the bed into the pocket of her apron. As she stripped the Egyptian-cotton sheets, her eyes were drawn again to the patio.
The young woman was hardly older than Maria herself, probably in her mid-twenties. Her lithe, runner’s body was already well tanned. Her bobbed chestnut hair gleamed in the sun. She had been present in the suite each day Maria had entered to clean, usually on the patio reading a book or writing longhand in a spiral-bound journal. Her face was pretty, in a tomboyish way, a lingering girlish cuteness with a tauter set to the mouth; her moss-green eyes tracked in a gazelle-like watchfulness, not afraid, but ever mindful, ready. When she wasn’t sleeping or sunning she might acknowledge the maid’s presence with a polite nod, but otherwise she said nothing and made no requests. The dozen or so books she had finished reading during her stay were mostly paperback suspense novels and biographies. On some days, Maria would find her standing silently at the end of the lawn in a bathrobe, gazing in silence at the valley.
The suite was always quiet. The televisions and radio were never on. A leather satchel, in which a notebook computer and camera case were tucked, had been left leaning against the wardrobe. Maria never saw the computer or camera being used, or a phone, if the woman had one. Surely she had one. Hanging in the closet next to the bathroom were three outfits of casual travel wear. Next to the single piece of generic carry-on luggage was a pair of well-used but clean walking shoes and a pair of sandals.
In the three weeks the guest had occupied the suite, none of the staff had seen her leave the suite, save for over the last few evenings when she had gone down to the hotel lounge to sit at the bar, where she would order a cocktail and take her dinner with a glass of wine while continuing her reading. After dinner, she would always return directly to her suite for the night.
The woman intrigued Maria, so much so that her thoughts were filled with her night and day.
One afternoon when the woman was sunning on the patio, she began talking in her sleep. To Maria it sounded as if she were arguing with someone, and in increasingly desperate tones, but in a language Maria didn’t at all recognize. Then, with a sharp turn of her head, as though someone had slapped her, she fell silent again.
Who was she? How could she afford to stay in such an expensive place for weeks on end, and if she were wealthy enough to do so, where was the rest of her luggage? Where was the expensive clothing and jewelry? Didn’t she have friends or family, or an employer she needed to check in with occasionally? Maybe she wasn’t rich at all. Maybe the owners of the resort were letting her stay, helping her through a difficult situation of some kind. Maybe she was recovering from a broken heart. Maybe she was hiding from someone. Had she killed an abusive husband and escaped with his money? Maybe she had been the secret love interest of a handsome, rich landowner in Mexico until discovering he was already married—just like in the telenovelas—or maybe she was a foreign spy between assignments, awaiting instructions before jetting off to another exotic destination to seduce and poison a diplomat who had learned too much. Despite the careful way about her, the woman seemed entirely sure of herself. Maria wondered if there was a pistol in the handbag. She hoped so.
Presently her eyes wandered again to the woman’s body, coming to rest on the dimpled hollows at the top of the firmly mounded, athletic buttocks. She reached around her own waist to touch the base of her own back, wondering if she looked the same there: she had a similar build, similar frame. But Maria had never seen her own naked backside. She certainly would never lounge about in the nude. It was a marvel to her that any woman could be so comfortable allowing a stranger to see her that way. She herself would have been much too ashamed. It was the way she was raised, she supposed.
The woman opened her eyes—she was staring directly at Maria, studying her with a piercing intensity.
Maria flushed. Fighting her reflex to look away, she stood straighter, taller, feeling naked herself under a scrutiny that seemed to see through her clothes, through the fabric of her very thoughts—but she had nothing to hide. Nothing. Finally, the stare softened into what appeared to be a pained melancholy, as if Maria perhaps reminded her of someone. The woman smiled faintly, almost apologetically, and rolled over languidly to expose her front to the sun. By the time she closed her eyes again, the smile was gone.
Maria hurriedly finished making the bed, her heart racing. She gave a final fluff to the pillows and wheeled the cart out of the room, her thoughts still tumbling. Before closing the door, she stole a last, lingering look.
She was pushing the cart down the hall toward the next suite when she recalled that she hadn’t been to confession in months. She wasn’t sure when she would go again, but she was sure that when she did—if she did—she wouldn’t tell the priest about the woman in Suite 117. There were just some things a girl wanted to keep for herself.
* * *
The world outside was visible only through the mesh screen covering the face of the sweltering black burqa. She was struggling to work her way through a crowd of thick-bearded men and wild-eyed boys shouting and gesticulating in righteous anger, many with stones in their hands as they pushed forward for a clear shot at their target, a short, writhing object set in a clearing in the mob’s midst. At first impression, the living thing appeared to be a stunted animal with no legs—but it was a fully formed teenage girl, buried to her waist, her legs encased beneath the ground, her hands and arms bound tightly about her exposed torso. A thin sheet had been tied around the top half of her body, but the cloth had been partially ripped away by the sharp stones and the girl’s struggles. Blood poured from gashes on her face, head, and shoulders. The side of her skull was already partially caved where a large rock had smashed against it, an eye hanging partially out of its socket, the cheek beneath the eye torn through from mouth to jaw. The girl was wailing, pleading for mercy as she weaved and ducked vainly to dodge the hurled missiles. But the stones continued to land in dull, unremitting thuds against her clothing and hair, in wet smacks against her skin and bones.
There was no way to reach the girl, no matter how hard she tried. Despite her efforts, she couldn’t force her way through the men. They pushed her back roughly, threatening her with the same fate as the girl’s if she persisted. She tried to speak, to scream, to beg them to stop and let her help the girl, but no sound would come from her mouth. The other women of the village were standing well back, their black, shapeless forms clustered on street corners and in darkened doorways. Not one would come to the girl’s assistance.
Suddenly the crowd dispersed.
The victim was motionless, her eyes still open, a slumped, human gravestone tilted askew in a field of strewn rocks and bloodied chunks of concrete.
She ran and knelt next to the silent body, cradling death in her arms, rocking the girl, trying to shush away the cries of confusion and terror that lingered in the air, sounds she could still hear in the silence, sounds she would always hear, sounds the girl would never make again.
“Shh . . . shh . . . it’s over now, it’s all over . . . it’s okay now . . .”
But then there was more screaming in the distance, and she got up and ran toward the girls’ school, as she always did. The school was on fire, as it always was, surrounded by the cordon of religious enforcers holding the hysterical, pleading mothers at bay, proclaiming censoriously that the girls’ heads were not properly covered, that they couldn’t be allowed to exit, they couldn’t be allowed to be seen in public in such a state—the law stated it clearly. A man standing nearby shouted angrily that the girls were not supposed to be going to school anyway, that they properly belonged at home, that the fire was Allah’s punishment for the sin of seeking knowledge instead of obedience. The girls pressed desperately against the padlocked gates and windows, screaming to be let out as the smoke and flames took them one by one.
She pushed through the cordon and ran to the gate, where she tugged, tore and twisted at the padlocked chain with her bare hands. An enforcer on horseback was bearing down on her from behind. The girls begged her, clutching at the sleeves of her burqa through the gate, screaming as the flames grew unbearably hot and the scorching chain blistered her hands. She could hear the steaming, snorting breath of the horse behind her as she begged for someone, anyone, for help—but there was no one, no one to stop the evil, no one to stop the horror, the injustice, the insanity. . . .
She awoke in a panic, her eyes flickering open, squinting at the hot orb above. Anxiously, without moving, she closed them again, trying to remember where she was, what had happened to her, trying to identify, to assess—
My name is Paige Keller. I’m an American. I’m at a resort, on a hillside. The hill is on the north end of a valley, a valley in northeastern Nevada. I am safe here. I’m back in America—I’m no longer in danger. No longer in danger . . .
Yet the sound of the horse’s wet snorting had been too real. She couldn’t shake it. She focused on relaxing her mind, slowing her breathing.
How long had she slept? How long had it been since the maid left?
The frequency of the nightmares, which nearly always played out the same, had begun to abate somewhat. It had been four or five days since the last episode—but here they were again today, in the middle of the afternoon. She wondered if they would ever let her be, or if they would plague her for the rest of her life. The enforcer on horseback was a new element though—and she realized that her internal antenna, acutely attuned to danger, was still crackling ominously.
She heard the horse’s snorting again.
Without raising her head, she determined that the sound had come from the far end of the lawn. Feigning being asleep still, she shifted her head slowly, just enough that she could see, between her lashes, the hedge at the lawn’s end, while in her mind’s eye she measured the distance to her purse in the nightstand by the bed.
A movement through the hedge’s upper leaves revealed, beneath a black, round-rimmed parson’s hat, the face of a young man. His eyes were dark. He had a short, squared-off beard with no mustache. To his left, visible through the leaves, the head of his horse shifted nervously. The man’s eyes were flitting along Paige’s naked body, his expression torn between lust and loathing.
Without covering herself, she sat up abruptly and stared back at him. The flash of guilt on his face settled into a sneer—he spurred his horse and rode away noisily.
She rose, walked unhurriedly back inside and locked the doors behind her. After showering under hot water, then cold, she sat on the bed and tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate.
Though the hedge was less than four feet high on the lawn side, the maintenance path running along the outside, lower on the slope of the hill, was a good nine feet below the hedge’s crown. If the man had seen her by accident, he could have ridden on. But this one hadn’t. The fact that he hadn’t ridden on wouldn’t have bothered her so much except that, upon being caught, he hadn’t shown even a modicum of appreciation for what he was seeing. His response had been quite the opposite. And there had been something else, something in the sanctimonious censure of his expression that reminded her too much of the behavior of other men in other places.
She shook it off. An hour earlier than usual, she dressed for dinner. To her customary, casual ensemble she added a pair of modest freshwater-pearl earrings and a simple, matching neck chain, its single pearl resting at the base of her throat.
* * *
Her regular and preferred bartender was coming on duty, swapping out cash drawers with the day-shift bartender, the latter an unflappably staid and well-mannered gentleman, graying at the temples, immaculately groomed. The young woman replacing him was in her mid-twenties, tattooed and pierced, her body art mostly hidden by the long sleeves and starched white collar of her black-vested uniform. Save for the small silver ring in her eyebrow and the discrete silver stud in her nose, her numerous piercings had been left unfilled, an acceptable compromise, presumably, with her employer’s standards for appearance. Her close-cropped, ink-black hair was highlighted with a subtle but unapologetic purple streak through the left side, a contrarian gel-tipped bang swept low across her forehead. Belying her edgy externalities, her face was unlined and innocent, her almond eyes as calm as a lullaby.
Without looking, Sandal had already found her a tumbler and, in the same motion, had scooped it full of ice before adding a liberal shot of top-shelf vodka retrieved with her other hand. While the day-shift bartender minded his bar with the dependable decorum of a butler’s pocket watch, Sandal ran her bar with the efficient precision of an experienced assassin. She and Paige had exchanged no more than brief pleasantries over the term of their relationship, but Paige was already convinced that if she were ever in a fight, she would be more than comfortable with Sandal having her back, or her side, or her front.
“How was your day?” Sandal asked.
“Fine, until about an hour ago.”
Sandal frowned, capping the tumbler and shaking it. “What happened?”
“While I was sunning, I had a visit from a gentleman on horseback, peeking through the hedge. I might not have minded except that, by the look on his face, the creep apparently didn’t approve of what he was seeing. And it wasn’t that he didn’t like my body type. Actually, I think he did—and he disapproved nonetheless, or maybe even because he liked it.”
“By chance was he wearing black, with a black rimmed hat?
“Yes—you know him?”
“Maybe,” Sandal frowned again as she poured the vodka into a martini glass, adding a splash of olive juice and two speared olives. “It could have been any one of them.”
“Any one of whom?” Paige asked.
“Of whom?” Sandal gave her customer a raised eyebrow and a sidelong grin. “Another clue to the mysterious lady’s identity. But if you were a copy editor or an English professor, you couldn’t afford to languish so long in my gilded grotto.” She set the martini in front of Paige, turning it just so, leaving the olive spear pointing exactly to two-o’clock.
“And if you ever open your own bar,” Paige retorted, “you could call it Alliterative Libations.”
Sandal smiled broadly. “Maybe, but not in this town.”
“So, I’m to assume there’s a whole pack of peeping Toms on horseback roaming these parts?”
“It’s worse than that, unfortunately.”
Paige took a sip from the martini, which was perfect as usual. “Do tell,” she urged.
“They’re kind of hard to describe. It’s complicated. But really, you shouldn’t be worrying your lovely head over it. I’ll inform management of the incident, and you can be sure that you won’t be bothered again. You’re here at The Sophia to relax, and we’re here to make sure you can do so. I’m sorry you had to experience that today.”
“It wasn’t a big deal, it’s just that I . . . that he . . .” she trailed off, but didn’t care to discuss it further, calming herself with another sip of her drink.
“Please don’t dwell on it a second longer, hun,” Sandal said, her eyes soft and kind. “If the bastard comes around again, I’ll take care of him personally.”
Paige looked at her askance. Sandal gave her a wink.
“I believe you would,” Paige said. “But if you do, you have to promise to let me help.”
Sandal only smiled and went about wiping down the bar.
“Thank you, Sandal.”
“You’re welcome, Paige.”
Paige glanced at the copy of the novel she’d brought, a murder mystery set in South Africa. It was a well-told tale and she was well into it, but for the first time in weeks, she found herself reluctant to bury herself in a book again at the first opportunity.
“Are you ready for something to eat?” Sandal asked. “Maybe an appetizer?”
Paige nodded, finding herself suddenly hungry.
“Would you like to see the menu?”
“I’ll trust you.”
After setting flatware and a napkin for her guest, Sandal disappeared into the kitchen and returned a few minutes later carrying a small china bowl on her fingertips. She set the steaming, artfully presented fare before Paige with a playfully servile flourish and a nod.
“Would mademoiselle trust me with selecting a wine as well?”
“Yes, that would be lovely, but—” Paige breathed in the aroma—“what is this?”
Paige did. “Oh . . . my . . . god . . . this is . . .” Her body was melting from her tongue to her toes. “Okay, tell me,” she insisted, taking a second bite.
“It’s a little something the chef created this afternoon. I thought you might like it. It’s a ricotta and chickpea ravioli in a parmesan wild-mushroom and truffle broth.” She poured a glass of a silky, soft-hued red wine—“Try this with it.”
“Ah . . . oh . . . yes . . . thank you. That works perfectly. A Burgundy . . . A Givry, or a Gevrey-Chambertin?”
“The latter. Very good!”
“I’m never leaving here,” Paige said between bites. “Ever. And you have to work here forever. This will be our routine every evening. You will feed me and pair the wine, and we’ll have witty conversation, and the rest of the world can rot.”
“As delightful as that sounds, I’ll agree to it only if, in turn, you’ll wait on me hand and foot every day at lunch.”
“Sorry, can’t do it. I’m afraid that would cut into my sunning and reading schedule.”
“I suppose you’ll just have to keep tipping me damned well at dinner then, won’t you?”
Paige couldn’t help but smile, her first of the evening, her first in too long.
“Ah, there it is. . . .” Sandal smiled and winked, pleased with her accomplishment.
Paige wanted to launch a retort and thought of several, but she was too busy enjoying the ravioli, the wine, and the company. She could feel the warmth of the room caressing her—the richness and solidity of the mahogany, the comfort of the barstool cushion, the warming and soothing atmosphere—the fire in the fireplace, the soft music in the background. It had taken three weeks, but in this place she was healing. From the very walls around her, from the moment she had arrived, she had felt the embrace of a benevolent, gracious hospitality, as though she herself were the sole beneficiary of the intent that had designed and created the retreat that was The Sophia, as though it were all just for her.
She and her new friend made small talk about the food, the wine, the cute waiter who kept finding excuses to pass through, the spring weather. At the high-desert elevation, the days were typically toasty warm, the nights refreshingly cool. The flowering plants around the property were in bloom—Sandal could hardly believe that Paige had yet to get outside and tour the resort’s gardens. She made her guest promise to do so.
For Paige it was good to talk again, and at a normal, unreserved volume, to be conversing unreservedly in English with a native speaker with whom she could cut loose with any American idiom that might spill off her tongue. And so she talked, hearing herself chirping away about everything and nothing, like a lovesick teenage girl. It was good to be home. It was good to be eating so well. From room service, she had been ordering simple sandwiches and salads as her system readjusted to Western fare. Her previous meals off the menu had been quite good, but this evening’s offering from the chef’s own hand, with Sandal’s wine pairing, was from a higher, exalted realm.
Sandal had brought out a second course—braised short ribs with a Cabernet Sauvignon reduction on a bed of trumpet-mushroom risotto, accompanied by haricots verts sautéed with almonds and capers, paired with a single-vineyard estate Cabernet. Paige could only nod wordlessly, humming her appreciation. It was minutes before she spoke again, between bites.
“So—where did you learn wine?”
“My father used to keep a few racks of mysterious, dusty bottles in the basement. We were accustomed to having wine at dinner growing up. He taught me the basics. I think my parents were into it because they thought it was very European. The wine almost made up for being raised vegetarian.”
Sandal laughed. “It’s okay. I can still make a vegetarian lasagna that would make you never want to go back. I learned more about wine in the restaurant I worked in prior to coming to The Sophia. The chef here has taught me the rest. I’m always learning.”
Dessert was a dark chocolate pot de crème with beurre noisette and warm beignets. An elderly gentleman and several couples had ventured into the restaurant proper for dinner, but Sandal and Paige were still alone at the bar.
“Well, you’ve thoroughly spoiled me tonight,” Paige said, adding real cream to the coffee Sandal had French-pressed for her.
“I think you needed it.”
“If you only knew. . . .” Pleasantly sated, she felt the most relaxed she had been in years. “You know, I think I’m ready to stretch my legs a little. Is there anything in town worth seeing?”
“I’d show you around myself, but I’m not off until eleven-thirty. You can take the lane out through the front gate and walk down a few blocks through Old Town—the gardens around the Victorians are pretty this time of year. You’ll end up at the plaza, our town square. It’s early—most of the shops will still be open.”
“It’s safe then?”
“You could say that. In Aurelia, if you left your purse sitting on a plaza bench it would probably still be there three hours later, that is unless someone had it in hand, trying to track you down to return it to you.”
“It seems an unusually nice place.”
Sandal shrugged. “If that’s what you’re into.” At Paige’s questioning look she changed the subject. “I’ll talk to management about your visitor today. Be assured it won’t happen again.” She smiled convincingly but seemed to have cooled a degree, as if in retreat from a line inadvertently crossed.
Paige added a healthy tip to the check and signed it to her room. She rose to leave, feeling a momentary, urgent desire to go to the girl behind the bar and to embrace her, and even more urgently, to be embraced in turn. How long had it been since—? In a crushing flash, she recalled that the last human she had embraced had been dead. She pushed the memory down and stayed on her side of the bar.
They exchanged warm, polite farewells. Paige left her book with Sandal for safekeeping. Crossing the lobby to The Sophia’s front doors, she realized that, despite it all, she was beginning to feel—normal. And normal was good.
* * *
Sandal watched her guest walk out of her bar and back into the world. She picked up the bar phone and pressed the top button.
“Mrs. Hale, it’s Sandal. Do you have a moment?”
“I’m in the garden. Do you need for me to come in?”
“No, ma’am, but one of the guests had a problem today.”
Her phone in one hand, pruning shears in the other, Sophia Hale listened while continuing the careful snipping of her roses. As her bartender related the incident, emphasizing the rider’s apparel, the shears’ blades paused mid-air. “It was an Angel then?”
“It must have been, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Sandal. I’ll take care of it.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”
Sophia ended the call, sighing in consternation.
Hearing her tone, the Great Pyrenees lying at her feet raised his big white head alertly, scanning the property, a low growl in his throat.
“It’s okay, Jax,” she said, scratching him between the ears. “I’ve got this one. Thank you, though.”
The dog lay down again, keeping an eye on her with lingering concern.
The gardeners maintained the grounds in pristine condition, but they weren’t allowed to touch her prized tea roses, the more delicate varieties of which she had brought out of the greenhouse only a few days ago, now that the danger of late spring frosts had passed. She had been looking forward to her quiet time in the garden, but Sandal had been right to call her.
A tall, slender woman with silvery blond hair, Sophia Hale carried herself with a poise and carriage more often associated with ballet schools and society ballrooms. Strangers often mistook her gentility for aloofness and her magnanimity for weakness, but her friends knew her to be entirely unpretentious. Those who crossed her learned that she could be as tough as gunmetal if necessary. Before her parents had sent her to private school in the East, she had birthed lambs in the dark hours, mended barbed-wire fences in the middle of thunderstorms, and on the distant reaches of her family’s ranch, shot mountain lions from horseback without hesitation or regret. As a fourteen-year-old, she had single-handedly chased off a gang of cattle rustlers, firing shots over their heads and at their feet, leaving holes in the tailgate of their truck for good measure.
After marrying into the Hale empire, she had helped design and oversee the building of the eponymously named resort, and from the property’s first year, The Sophia was consistently rated second to none west of the Mississippi. Though still classified as a boutique hotel, over the years its occupancy had doubled in size, with the addition of the third floor of suites, the spa, and the cottages around the garden. The golf course, wrapping around the lower west side of the hill and spanning the river gorge, had been completed the autumn prior; over the past months the company had broken ground on a dozen luxury villa sites above the course on the eastern side.
At fifty-eight, Sophia felt as though she were still in her prime. While her husband managed the balance of the Hale family’s properties and business concerns, holdings that were now six generations in the making, she still loved managing the resort herself, working six days a week when not traveling. On paper, it was true, she was an exceptionally wealthy woman—from the day she married she was neither required nor expected to lift a finger—but having worked the high-desert plateaus of the ranch in her youth, she had spent more than one night huddled under a blanket in a freezing rain, hungry, knowing what it was to want nothing more than a warm, comfortable bed, a hot meal and a dry roof over her head. Few of her wealthy guests had ever known with such immediate clarity what it was to want the simple comforts, but every one of them benefitted from Sophia Hale never having forgotten. She thrived on being the consummate hostess to appreciative guests, providing the ultimate in comfort, peace, well-being and—security.
She snipped another rose stem at a clean angle, holstered the shears in her gardening-apron pocket and placed a call to her security captain.
“Jim, to your knowledge have there been any Angels on the property lately?”
“Yes, ma’am. One of the night guards thought he saw an Angel riding up around the new construction last week, but whoever it was took off before we could be sure. Then yesterday, one of the fellows was riding a big roan right through the valet parking lot like he owned the place. He left the property when I confronted him, but not before giving me a cold stare and a quote of scripture.”
“Do you remember the verse?”
“Yes, ma’am. I jotted it down.” She could hear him shuffling through notes. “Here it is: ‘How hard is it for those who trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God.’”
“I see. Well, unfortunately one of the Angels, perhaps the same gentleman, was peeping through the hedge at one of our female guests in ones of the Valley View suites this afternoon.”
The security captain swore under his breath. “I’m very sorry, ma’am. I’ll adjust our procedures and increase the rounds. With your permission, I may need to hire one or two more guards and install a few more cameras.”
“Do what you need to do, Jim, but see to it that it doesn’t happen again. I’ll be making another call to the Church. Please keep me apprised of any future incidents. The Angels are not allowed on the property. No exceptions.”
She disconnected and placed a second call. A secretary answered.
“Brother Lundquist’s office.”
“Good evening. This is Sophia Hale. Is Reverend Lundquist in?”
“Brother Lundquist is preparing the Sunday sermon, ma’am. He cannot be disturbed. May I take a message?”
“Please let him know that it’s Sophia Hale. He’ll take my call.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but he can’t be interrupted.”
“Young lady, may I ask your name please?”
There was a hesitation. “This is Sister Tina, ma’am.”
“Sister Tina—I appreciate that you’re doing your job, and I’m sure that you do it very well, but Reverend Lundquist is going to be quite upset if he learns that I called and you refused to put me through. Now please do as I requested.”
Sophia walked up the stone path toward the gazebo, Jax following. She wondered what interest the Angels could possibly have in the new construction and how they might have accessed the area. The road to the villa sites—the lower, paved portion of the old mining road leading to the top of the hill—was accessible only through the golf course gate, which was always shut and locked at night. There was the lane and the path between the golf course and the resort proper, but while the resort’s front gate was open through the evenings, it was well monitored. All other accessible segments of the property’s perimeter were fenced. The fencing along the front of the golf course, though, was low enough that someone on horseback might—
“Mrs. Hale, it’s so very nice to hear from you today. To what do I owe the pleasure?” The deep timbre of the pastor’s voice never failed to excite a small tremor in Sophia, quite against her wishes.
“Reverend Lundquist, I would like to—”
“Please, Mrs. Hale, if you won’t call me Brother Lundquist, please call me Brother Cole—or, really, just Cole. I’m the last man on earth who should be revered by anyone. Only our Lord and Savior above is deserving of reverence.”
“Reverend Lundquist, I believe we had a conversation last autumn about the presence of Angels on the resort property.”
“Why, of course, Mrs. Hale. I hope that they haven’t been inconveniencing you again.”
“It’s not a matter of inconvenience, Reverend, but of respect for private property. I trust that you haven’t been encouraging the congregation to commit trespass.”
“But of course not, ma’am—”
“This afternoon, one of your Angels was seen looking into a private suite here, and either the same gentleman or another was confronted yesterday riding through the valet parking lot. There may have been other, less blatant incidents over the last months, but this seems to be an escalation, and it’s unacceptable. I hope that we won’t need to get the sheriff involved.”
“Oh, of course not, Mrs. Hale, and I am so sorry. I can assure you that breaking Man’s law is the last thing the Angels want to be doing. As we discussed before, the Angels do have their own ways, and as you know, they’re tasked with helping keep our sacred valley safe—I’m sure they’re simply trying to help keep an eye on things—”
“And as we discussed before, we have our own security, and we’re perfectly capable of calling the sheriff’s office when and as necessary. I trust that I won’t have to mention it again.”
“No, no, of course not, ma’am. I was completely unaware that they’ve been on the property again, and I ask your forgiveness. You know, the younger lads can err out of zealous dedication to the mission from time to time, but I know that their hearts are in the right place. I’ll see to it that they stay off the property in the future.”
“You’re so very welcome, ma’am. I hope we can still look forward to seeing you in church again Sunday morning? You were quite lovely in your blue dress last Sunday. It is new, yes? I don’t believe I’ve seen you wear that one before.”
“If you have the same music group perform again this Sunday as last, I’m afraid I’ll have to pass. My ears could barely tolerate it.”
“Oh, yes—Thorny Crown. Well, they were a bit of an experiment, you know, and just between you and me, those kids aren’t to my particular taste either, but today’s young people seem to respond to that kind of music style, and we’re always trying to find a balance, you know, to inspire the youth to praise God in whatever musical language they know and are comfortable with, particularly to draw in the kids who aren’t already Flock. I believe the group was to be on the program again this Sunday but—now that you mention it—I think you’re entirely right, Mrs. Hale, and I thank you for bringing it up. Perhaps we should save the more contemporary music for Friday night youth services.”
“I think that that would be a wise choice. I’ll look forward to your sermon on Sunday. I hope it’s as inspiring as last Sunday’s.”
“I’m so glad that you enjoyed it, ma’am. All credit and praise to God, of course. I am humbled whenever He chooses to speak through me to His flock.”
“Until Sunday, then, Reverend.”
“Yes, ma’am, and—if I may, one more thing, ma’am—and I’m really sorry to bother you with this, Mrs. Hale, but I was meeting with our attorneys this morning, and they mentioned that we haven’t yet received a signature on the authorization for access through the property for the Passion Procession next Friday. I know the document is just a formality, and I’m sure it’s entirely unnecessary after all these years, but still, attorneys being attorneys, they insist that we should keep dotting our i’s. . . .”
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t have received it yet, Reverend, but I suggest re-contacting our legal department to see if the document has perhaps been mislaid or overlooked. My husband usually takes care of that kind of thing.”
“Of course, of course—we just want to continue to be completely respectful of the family’s wishes, and we were just hoping—well, I assume that there isn’t any problem. . . .”
“Not that I’m aware of, Reverend, though we haven’t discussed it.”
“Okay, well—we’ll check again in the morning then. Thank you, Mrs. Hale. God bless, and I’m delighted we’ll be seeing you again Sunday.”
“Good evening, Reverend.”
Sophia was never quite sure how much of Cole Lundquist’s solicitousness was genuine kindness and how much was due to the substantial donations she made to various church projects. She had been happy to help fund the Church’s community health clinic, the food bank, and several foreign mission schools. It was only of secondary benefit that her generosity gave the family influence in matters such as the Angels’ activities and with local government departments and commissions, in which there were nearly always church members in positions of influence, right up to the city council. It was leverage the family used sparingly and tactfully, but as necessary.
She paused in the gazebo to watch the sunset. The edges of the brushed cirrus clouds were turning violet. The sun itself had disappeared behind the Garnet Range, where the snow in the northerly crevices of the upper reaches would remain well into July. The mountains’ long shadows were marching slowly across the valley floor, swallowing the curves of the river that snaked through city, absorbing the grids of homes that extended southward towards the reservoir. The glass-faceted jewel that was the church cathedral was already darkened, save for the top of its towering spire and cross. Ahead of the shadows, the sunrays reflected in fiery orange bursts from the windows of the taller buildings and the houses dotting the eastern hills, and for a few short minutes, from the panes of the Hale mansion itself, set in the grove of pinyon pine on its own private hill. Except for the staff, the house would be empty now, with her husband still at the office and her son not due to return until tomorrow. She was in no hurry to leave for home.
She hardly considered herself a convert to the church’s brand of religion—her parents had been staid Episcopalians, and she herself was not attached to any particular denomination or creed—but admittedly, she found comfort and uplift in the sermons and in the sense of community and extended family amongst the congregation. There were times in one’s life when one needed comfort and uplift. Above all, with rare exception such as during last Sunday’s service, she did enjoy the music, which could be rapturous, especially when the choir sang. Especially when the soloist was Skye Emberly.
She stood in the gazebo until the sun shone its last, reflected from the tip of the cathedral’s cross.
* * *
Cole Lundquist composed a text on his phone: The Sophia property is off limits for now. Will discuss at morning meeting. Bathem.
He sent the message and waited for confirmation.
“Bathem,” came the immediate reply.
Blessed are the meek . . . B-a-the-m . . . Among members of the Flock, Bathem was the good morning and the good night, the hello and the goodbye, the call to worship and the command to obey. Bathem! The benediction and the banner—
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
The pastor had finished composing the Sunday sermon an hour before Mrs. Hale had called. He was particularly proud of his latest script, a sustaining call to hope in deeply uncertain times, with the promise of a new dawn after even the darkest of nights. With some fleshing out and reworking, it would make for a good chapter in his next book.
When the secretary had interrupted with the call, he had been perusing a magazine interview to which he now returned his full attention.
The subject, Denver Fleming, was the leader of the valley’s clique of environmentalists. In the interview he alluded obliquely to the imminent launch of another legal battle in the valley, though he wouldn’t divulge his target or any additional details.
Fleming and his cohorts had been a thorn in the side of the Church for nearly two decades, first over water rights for the Flock’s residential developments on the south end, then over the alleged negative effects the new Bible college would have on local resources and infrastructure, then over the construction of the new cathedral itself.
Fleming had claimed initially that the site for the cathedral—though it was squarely in the heart of the Church’s campus, where several outbuildings had been in use for over a century—was located on what was claimed, with only scant anecdotal evidence, to be an old Indian burial ground. A further protest was lodged that the cathedral’s considerable height would block or interrupt too much of the community’s views of the Garnets, with a threatened suit against the city if it granted a variance to zoning height restrictions. Fleming’s efforts had cost the Church two years of legal and political jockeying prior to the cathedral’s construction and several millions of dollars in the purchase of adjacent view-blocked properties. Then there was the considerable time and money spent for the anthropological excavation, which had turned up only a few broken arrowheads, some gnawed antelope bones and part of a rotted woven basket. The Church’s board of deacons speculated that Fleming and his cohorts were likely gearing up to contest the construction of the additional Bible college dorms. The building site was on previously undeveloped land near the river; it was rumored that Fleming’s group had managed to discover a rare species of salamander that existed solely along the valley’s riverbanks.
Cole’s long fingers drummed the edge of his desk in a slow, deliberate march. When he let the magazine drop into the wastepaper basket, it fell with the photo of Denver Fleming, wearing his signature fringed buckskin jacket and bolo tie, lying face up.
“Dear Lord, may Thine enemies be brought to their knees before the bright light of Thy glory. . . .”
He unfolded his limbs from the high-backed leather chair. Being unusually tall, standing was less an act for him than a process. As a teenager, his physique had been considerably awkward, but he had grown into being an eagle of a man, with dark, angular features and a commanding presence before which women swooned and men faltered.
From the northerly window of the parsonage office, he looked toward The Sophia. His eyes lifted to the hill rising above and behind it, the prominence dominating Aurum Valley like a throne at the head of a great royal hall. In contrast to the lushly green, irrigated grounds of the resort and the golf course, the hill’s upper two thousand feet were a waste of stone, sand, boulders, loose scree and smatterings of clinging, scruffy sagebrush. An old dirt road climbed and crossed the face like a long bootlace, rising in a long slow grades and tight hairpin turns, winding to the barren plateau of the peak.
To Cole, who had dreamt the most vivid dreams of the wondrous beauties promised in Heaven above, the barren hill at the head of the valley was the most beautiful sight on Earth below. For it was the Prophet Obadiah’s hill. It was God’s hill.
A verse from the sacred hymn began to flow from his lips, his voice a deep, lustrous baritone—
As the Prophet has prophesied, so shall it be,
When His Flock is humbled and on bended knee,
When His Cross is raised upon yon mountain high,
The Age of Christ’s Reign upon Earth will be nigh.
“Soon, dear Lord,” he whispered prayerfully, “let it be soon. The lambs of Your Flock cry out to prostrate themselves before the majesty of Your glory. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Bathem.”
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