Chapter 1.

 

LIKE A shaft of copper gold, the late-afternoon sun pierced the curtained windows. The plum tree that stood outside cast a feathery silhouette across the floor, as delicate and precise as one of those paintings the Chinese do on silk. Someone had turned the air-conditioning off, and with the windows sealed, the atmosphere was hot and humid, making Stanley Korski drowsy. His eyes drifted closed… only to fly wide when the stranger appeared.

Stanley had been thinking about death so frequently of late that it was almost no surprise to look up and see him standing in the doorway of the hospital room—a robed figure with a cowl that half obscured his face until he pushed it back.

Still half-asleep, Stanley said, “Only, aren’t you supposed to be carrying a scythe?”

“A scythe…?” For a second or two, the dark-robed man looked puzzled. Then he grinned, a smile that took years off his otherwise weatherworn face. “Ah, you’ve been contemplating your mortality, I suspect,” he said.

“Yes,” Stanley agreed. “Or the lack thereof. So assuming you’re not the grim reaper, you must be a monk. But why is a monk coming to visit me in the hospital?”

“I’m a friar, actually.”

“Oh, I see. And the difference is…?”

“Monks stay in their monastery. They retreat from the world. As you can see, friars get out and about.”

“Including hospital visits, it seems.”

“Sometimes.” The visitor paused, appearing to consider how best to explain his presence. “You must wonder what I’m doing here?”

“Well, I truly hope it’s not to administer the last rites.”

The friar laughed. “No, have no fears. It’s nothing of that sort.” Again, that slight hesitation. “I’m an old friend of your friend Chris. Chris Rafferty.”

Which seemed, to Stanley, a non sequitur. He screwed up his face, thinking, Chris is so very… well, so very sociable, to put it nicely. His thoughts ground to a sudden stop. Wait, Chris was a friend. One didn’t like even to think critical thoughts about a good friend. “Really? I don’t recall….”

“At one time,” the friar added.

“He never mentioned a friar.” Which was what Stanley had been puzzling over. Even Chris, who could be very “oh, that doesn’t matter” about such things, would hardly have failed to mention a man of the cloth. “I’ve heard about practically everything else over the years, but never anyone in a brown frock.”

“It was a long time ago,” the visitor said. “Before I joined the order.”

“Please tell me he didn’t drive you to it,” Stanley said with a laugh. “He can be a pill at times, no one knows that better than I, but I’ve never heard of anyone so broken up over him they would retreat to a monastery. Or a—well, what do you call your places, anyway?”

“Technically, they are friaries, but to be honest, we usually just refer to ours as a monastery.”

“Hmm. That is confusing, you know,” Stanley said, laughing to take any sting out of his remark.

This time the friar actually laughed with him. “Yes, I’m sure it is. Don’t worry, it’ll all come clear in due time. And as to Chris, no, I can’t blame him for driving me to anything. Though, yes, it was the nature of our relationship that made me turn to the order, in a manner of speaking.”

“Which is a remark surely designed, I think, to make one curious. At least, it did to me. Make me curious, I mean.” Stanley lifted an eyebrow. “I hope you’re going to elucidate.”

“I’m afraid it’s not a very original story. I was a priest, and I was gay, but I wasn’t a happy homosexual.”

“Ah.” Stanley nodded. That he could understand. “Gay does not always mean happy.”

“So very true. And I think, if truth be told, at the time I was more gay than priest. All that guilt.”

“I understand. I suppose we all go through a period of guilt. It’s part of the initiation ritual, I believe.”

“Yes, I think you’re right.” He paused briefly. “At any rate, in my case, it poisoned my relationships—even with Chris, though I did love him greatly. I was older than him. At the time, he was still quite young. And very beautiful.”

“I never knew him when he was in the cradle, but he must have been a beautiful baby,” Stanley said. “I remember a picture—with a bearskin rug—already flaunting himself, and he was no more than an infant.”

The friar’s laugh was easy and fell pleasantly on the ear. “No, he was not quite that young when I knew him, but young. In his teens. His late teens, to be honest, but still, too young for me to consider taking our relationship that next step further, though at the time, I thought he was willing.”

“She always was a hussy.”

The smile again. “I suspect his interest in me had as much to do with father fulfillment as it did with sexual attraction. But he was a lovely young man, and I was not exactly a paragon of virtue. I wanted to do more, I can confess that now, but I felt as well that it would be wrong—wrong for him, certainly.”

“Well, if it’s any consolation, he turned out a slut anyway.”

That earned him another laugh. Stanley decided he liked the laugh—and the man. “He speaks well of you too,” the friar said.

“Which means, if you can say that, then you must have stayed in touch over the years.”

“Does it?”

“If you know him to speak of me. We are longtime friends, but obviously I didn’t meet him until after your time together.”

“You are right, of course. And, yes, we have stayed in touch. Although not perhaps as much in touch as I would have liked….”

Stanley raised an eyebrow, but the father went on with only a slight pause. “But we have over the years exchanged the occasional card, and even a phone call or two.”

“Close but distant, in other words. That’s not as rare as one might suppose.”

“Exactly. So when I had a problem, I called Chris, just to get his advice. And he suggested I come see you.”

“He told you I was in the hospital?”

“No, I went to your office originally, but the girl there told me you were here, in the hospital. So….”

Which was a puzzling remark. So far as Stanley knew, his partner, Tom Danzel, was in the office. And he’d heard Tom called many things since they’d first met—had in fact given him a few choice labels himself—but no one, to the best of his knowledge, had ever called Tom a “girl.” At least not and walked away with a full set of teeth.

His visitor, however, was still speaking. “…not just any problem, mind you, but the sort of thing that couldn’t quite be resolved where I was, that needed outside eyes….”

“What kind of problem?” Stanley asked, his eyes narrowing. He’d straighten out the business about the office in due time; for now, he was too intrigued by the nature of the friar’s visit. Friars didn’t just pop in for hospital visits, not in his experience—though admittedly his experience with friars had been practically nonexistent. No doubt Chris could tell him more. “What kind of problem are we talking about, exactly?”

The friar had remained standing in the doorway, but now he came the rest of the way into the room and motioned toward the wooden chair next to Stanley’s bed. “May I?”

“Of course, Father…?”

“Brighton.”

“Like the beach.”

“Just so. My mother was English and very fond of the seaside. When she met my father—well, never mind, it’s a long story, and not really relevant to my visit here today.”

He seated himself on the chair, pushing his cowl back from his head. He was older than Stanley had at first realized. On the gray side of sixty, Stanley guessed, though still handsome. The English rose fades early, he found himself thinking, but slowly. Father Brighton’s hair was silver but full—the order, whatever it was, didn’t require tonsure, then—his sensuous mouth making Stanley think he must have been hot indeed when he was younger. Wouldn’t Chris have just had his eye on a studly priest? He was going to have a serious talk with that hussy, lusting after a man of the cloth, and he himself apparently little more than an infant at the time. Once again that image of a naked baby on a bearskin rug popped into his mind.

“Just how long ago was this—I’m not sure what to call it—this flirtation of yours?”

“Oh, quite a long while ago—and I’m not sure flirtation isn’t a bit strong. I had designs. I don’t think Chris shared them especially. And though, as I say, we have remained in touch, it’s been since then a very casual sort of thing. It took a bit of effort, to be honest, even to track him down. It turned out he had moved since I had last written him.”

“Which brings us to your visit here… and your problem….”

“I had in mind saving that for later.”

“Later? Is there going to be a later? This isn’t just a onetime visit?”

“When Chris told me you were a detective and mentioned your illness, it occurred to me that you are going to need some time to convalesce when you get out of here. An opportunity, if you will, to kill two birds with one stone.”

“I’ve been in this bed for over a week now. I don’t think I much like that simile—or is it a metaphor?”

“Certainly just a figure of speech, and you’re right, not an apt one, all things considered. What I’ve come for is to offer you the perfect place to convalesce, just down the coast a bit, near Big Sur—sea air and mountain vistas and lots of quiet.”

“Sounds lovely. Does it have a name, or am I simply to refer to it as Eden?”

That laugh again. A deep, ringing baritone that suggested all kinds of manly things to Stanley, and none of them pertinent to a priest. Or a friar, he corrected himself. Something, at any rate, which ought to negate seductive thoughts.

“Saint Marywood,” Father Brighton said. “Though I’m not sure Eden would be so awfully remiss. It is a lovely place. Except there are no apple trees.”

“Is it a monastery, this lovely Saint Marywood?”

“Yes. Or friary, if you prefer, though I’ve always thought that a bit pretentious. Anyway, friary is ordinarily used to indicate the mendicant orders, and we don’t beg for alms. We are self-sufficient. More or less so, at any rate.”

“Then I’ll stick with calling it a monastery. Where, I take it, I will be surrounded by monks. Quiet monks, presumably, since you mentioned that especially.”

“Friars. And reasonably quiet, yes, but not entirely. Meals are silent, but otherwise some of the young men are quite vocal. And, I might mention, not all of them are as old as I, if that tempts you.”

Which it did, and Stanley thought the friar rather knew that without being told, but still, he wasn’t one to give up his secrets so easily. “I have a boyfriend.”

“So I am told. Tom Danzel, your partner in that detective agency, isn’t it? That’s what Chris told me, at any rate. But surely there’s no harm in looking. Which, I should probably say, is about all that could be expected to happen anyway, notwithstanding their predilections. They do take vows.”

“Celibacy?”

Father Brighton nodded somberly.

Stanley gave an exaggerated pout. “Well, that doesn’t sound very promising. All those girls in dresses and no one allowed to kick up their heels. Or raise them, so to speak.”

“I wouldn’t want to give you a false impression. But in another sense, you could be said to have your cake and eat it too. Or feast on it with your eyes, at least. I can promise you that, certainly—a feast for the eyes, one that I myself savor often, to be perfectly honest. I gave up certain of my activities pursuant to my vows, but the predilections remain, do they not?”

“Well, I’m not dead yet, so…. Wait, what are you suggesting? Predilections? Are these monks—”

“Friars.”

“Friars, then. Are they all gay?”

Father Brighton smiled somewhat impishly and nodded. “Someone once said that queers make the best monks.”

“And friars too, it would seem. And they are all young men?”

“Most of them. The past is more likely to be an encumbrance to the young.”

“Still, monks—excuse me, friars…. I can’t help thinking it seems such an unlikely choice for a young man to make.”

“Something about the passion, I should think. And the asceticism. Mind you, as I say, there is that vow of celibacy.”

“Which is never broken?” Stanley sighed. What was the point of young men with their passions flaming like a fire on the hearth if you had no hope of employing a poker?

Father Brighton shrugged. “Some things are left up to the individual conscience. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say I think it sometimes happens. As Plutarch put it—”

“The wildest colts make the best horses,” Stanley finished for him.

Father Brighton beamed at him. “Exactly. You know your Romans.”

“Better than I know my friars, obviously. I’ve been intimately involved with one or two over the years—Romans, I mean, never a friar. So what you’re saying is that a few of the colts are still frisky?”

“Most of the brothers are still colts, certainly, young men in the prime of their lives. And while they do work in the local schools, as teachers—friars serve in their communities, you see—they are also much of the time somewhat isolated, so it’s not surprising if they sometimes stray from their vows. That’s to be expected, I should think. But I have to be honest, I also think such instances are rare.”

Stanley thought about that for a moment. “And this is why you didn’t really want to bring the police into this, whatever this problem is.”

“In part, yes. I think ideally we’d want someone of a certain sensibility. You can understand that, surely?”

“I can. But I may as well tell you, I’m done playing detective.” Stanley sighed.

Father Brighton raised one eyebrow slightly. “If you’ll pardon my saying so, you seem troubled.”

“Hmm. Not troubled so much as weary. Of… well, lots of things. It’s too long a list to go into here.”

“But not that partner you mentioned—Tom, as I recall.”

“Tom? No….” Stanley paused, thinking for a moment, and said, more emphatically, “No.”

“If you’ll forgive an old man for spouting advice, let me say, Stanley, from where you stand—”

“Lie,” Stanley corrected him. “I’ve been very much horizontal of late.”

“And it becomes you, if I might offer a comment. But what I started to say is, the road before you looks deceptively long, but it’s not. It’s far, far shorter than you could possibly imagine. If you’ve found love, cherish it. Squeeze all the happiness and love you can into every moment. They have a habit of fading away all too soon, those moments.”

“Were you saying that I look attractive horizontal? And you sound as if you’re troubled yourself.”

Father Brighton laughed again, his expression changing in an instant from somber to happy. “Yes, to the first part. As to the other—perhaps, as you put it, I am just a bit weary too.”

“And there is that problem you mentioned….”

“Which I shall not burden you with after all, I think. Since, as you say, you are no longer playing detective.”

“I don’t think it was ever really my cup of tea, and I’ve already informed Tom, my partner, that when I get out of here, I’m not going back into the business. We always seem to end up with murder on our hands, and in my experience, murder nearly always involves dead bodies. Just out of curiosity, by the way, is that the sort of problem you’re having at your friar place—a spot of murder?”

“No, no, nothing so dramatic as that.”

“And you don’t want to tell me about it while you’re here?” Stanley hated to be left in the dark, especially regarding other people’s business.

“Well, if you aren’t coming to Saint Marywood….” Father Brighton shrugged and said—perhaps a little too brightly, Stanley thought—“And really, it’s not all that pressing.”

Pressing enough to talk to Chris and, at his suggestion, drive from Big Sur—four or five hours, wasn’t it?—to make a visit here to the hospital. Despite his promises to himself that he was done with detective work, Stanley found himself mildly intrigued. He’d all but made up his mind he was through with all that. Still, he felt a slight quickening of his lately sluggish pulse.

He was about to pursue the matter a bit further, but the doctor, whose name Stanley never could remember, appeared at that moment in the doorway. He wheezed—as was his frequent habit—and looked past the friar, directly at Stanley.

“If it’s not a convenient time…,” the doctor said in a voice that indicated he thought it ought to be.

“I was just leaving.” Father Brighton got up quickly from the wooden chair, but on his way to the door, he paused to look back.

“The offer of convalescence remains, regardless of that other matter,” he said. “It’s a lovely place, really.”

And there’s still that unexplained problem, Stanley thought, more tempted than he wanted to admit to himself. “I confess, it is attractive.”

“If you change your mind,” Father Brighton said, “you are certainly welcome, for as long as you wish. And Chris will know how to reach me.”

When he had gone, the doctor walked over to Stanley’s bed. He wheezed again, glancing down at some papers in his hand and back up to Stanley. “I’m happy to say the tests have confirmed our most recent diagnosis. Not leukemia at all, just a rather atypical mononucleosis. But you did have me worried for a time.”

“Hmm, strictly speaking, I think you were puzzled,” Stanley said. “I was the worried one.”

The doctor rewarded him with an unamused smile. “Yes, well, in any case, you’ll need a few days more—”

“I was hoping to go home.”

“You will need a few more days of rest,” the doctor said emphatically. “We’ll see how things stand in a day or two.”

“Or lie. Which I’ve been doing for days, and I must say, notwithstanding that some seem to find it attractive, it does get boring.”

“Your boredom won’t kill you.”

Stanley was not quite so sure. He remembered Chris, who was a nurse, saying, “If the disease doesn’t kill you, the doctors may do the job.”

This doctor, whose name Stanley still couldn’t recall, had scarcely wheezed his way out of the room when a young woman came in. They must be selling tickets, Stanley thought. He hadn’t had more than one visitor a day since he’d been here, not counting Doctor Wheeze, and now it seemed like he was on the Gray Line tour.

“If you’re Stan, these are for you,” his newest visitor said, holding out an arrangement of yellow and white daisies in an emerald green jar.

“Stanley.” He hated being called Stan. It sounded so… well, something he wasn’t, even if he couldn’t quite put a name to it. Macho, maybe.

“Stanley,” she corrected herself with a bright smile and a generous display of teeth. “I’m Delightful.”

“Yes, I should say you must be,” Stanley said, setting the flowers on the nightstand. Or if not delightful—and that took some knowing, didn’t it?—she was, without question, comely. Lustrous auburn hair framed a perfect oval of a face—a very pretty face it was too—and fullness of bosom and hip was accentuated by a wasp-sized waist. Stanley had a vision of male heads snapping about as she passed, of shops and homes emptying as surely as they had emptied of other occupants for that Pied Piper. His partner, Tom, had been a dedicated skirt chaser until he had embarked on the as-of-yet-not-clearly-labeled relationship with Stanley. Tom would surely be salivating. And running with the rats. Probably at the head of the pack.

The potential object of salivation beamed at him, once again flashing perfect teeth. “You’re wondering about my name. Everybody does. The answer is quite simple, though, really. My parents were hard-core hippies,” she said. “So they named us accordingly. My brother is Willing.”

“I think I may have met him,” Stanley said. “Charming creature, as I recall.”

His visitor laughed. “And I was christened Delightful. But everyone calls me Dee. Dee Collins. I’m your girl Friday.”

“Leaving Saturday through Thursday unaccounted for?”

She gave him a generous grin, tossing those auburn curls this time. More men were surely abandoning the shops, or at least their hospital rooms. An intern passing the open door happened to glance in and, seeing Dee Collins, paused briefly to give her what the French call an oeillade, which Stanley had always thought sounded more elegant than a leer. To her credit, Ms. Collins did not notice—or did not show she noticed, in any case. Stanley had the impression that she did not miss much, certainly not where men were concerned.

“Well, those too,” she replied. “Or Monday through Friday, in any case. Tom hired me.” When Stanley only looked blankly at her, she added, “Tom Danzel.”

“Yes,” Stanley said, his face carefully free of expression, “I know the name. And what exactly did Mr. Danzel hire you for?”

“I told you, I’m your girl Friday. He says you aren’t coming back to the office, and he needed someone to manage things there. So”—she spread her hands wide—“I’m it.”

“Like a game of tag,” Stanley said. “And odd man out.” He knew his partner. Tom was a faithful kind of guy, but temptation when it came to him probably wore a miniskirt that barely reached past the waterline and had black-encased legs that seemed never to end. All the sorts of things Tom would be sure to notice. Oeillade, indeed. He immediately thought of one or two things he did not care to have her manage—his partner foremost among them.

He tossed the covers aside and swung his own unencased legs to the floor. “Actually, that bit about my not coming back to the office is still up in the air. Doctor Huffenpuff says I can go home today, but I will need to convalesce for a bit. If you would be so kind, Delectable, my clothes are on a hanger in that closet just behind you.”

“Delightful.” She took a hanger from the little closet and handed Stanley his sweats.

“Exactly. As it turns out, I’ve got the perfect place for resting up. We are going to spend a couple of weeks down the coast. Sea air and mountain vistas and lots of long brown skirts.”

“We?” She looked appropriately puzzled.

“Oh, I haven’t informed him yet, but Tom will be going with me. It will be like a vacation.”

“But….” Her smiling expression became one of dismay. “But what about the office?”

“That, it seems, will be in your hands—your surely competent hands, I should think.” He raised an eyebrow and gave her a mocking smile. “I’m going to put my knickers on now. No peeking.”