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Authors: Margaret Millar

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BOOK: How Like an Angel
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“Not yet.”

“Before I go on, I'd like to make one thing clear: I can pay you, I have money. Nobody around here knows about it because we all renounce our worldly possessions when we come to the Tower. Our money, our very clothes on our backs, everything goes into the common fund.”

“But you kept something of your own in case of emer­gency?”

“Nothing of the kind,” she said sharply. “My son in Chi­cago sends me a twenty-dollar bill every Christmas with the understanding that I hold on to it for myself and not give it to the Master. My son doesn't approve of all this.” She ges­tured vaguely around the room. “He doesn't understand the satisfactions of a life of service to the Lord and His True Be­lievers. He thinks I went a little crazy when my husband died, and maybe I did. But I've found my real place in the world now, I will never leave. How can I? I am needed. Brother Tongue with his pleurisy attacks, the Master's weak stomach, Mother Pureza's heart—she is the Master's wife and very old.”

Sister Blessing got up and stood in front of the stove, rub­bing her hands together as if she'd felt the sudden chill of death in the air.

“I'm getting old myself,” she said. “Some of the days are hard to face. My soul is at peace but my body rebels. It longs for some softness, some warmth, some sweetness. Mornings when I get out of bed my spirit feels a touch of heaven, but my feet—oh, the coldness of them, and the aches in my legs. Once in a Sears catalogue I saw a picture of a pair of slippers. I often think of them, though I shouldn't. They were pink and furry and soft and warm, they were the most beautiful slippers I ever did see, but of course an indulgence of the flesh.”

“A very small one, surely?”

“They're the ones you have to watch out for. They grow, grow like weeds. You get warm slippers and pretty soon you're wanting other things.”

“Such as?”

“A hot bath in a real bathtub, with two towels. There, you see?” she said, turning to Quinn. “It's happening already.
Two
towels I asked for, when one would be plenty. It proves my point about human nature—nothing is ever enough. If I had a hot bath, I would want another, and then one a week or even one every day. And if everyone at the Tower did the same we'd all be lolling around in hot baths while the cattle starved and the garden went to weeds. No, Mr. Quinn, if you offered me a hot bath right this minute I'd have to refuse it.”

Quinn wanted to point out that he wasn't in the habit of offering hot baths to strange women but he was afraid of hurt­ing the Sister's feelings. She was as earnest and intense about the subject as if she were arguing with the devil himself.

After a time she said, “Have you heard of a place called Chicote? It's a small city in the Central Valley, a hundred miles or so from here.”

“I know where it is, Sister.”

“I would like you to go there and find a man named Patrick O'Gorman.”

“An old friend of yours? A relative?”

She didn't seem to hear the question. “I have a hundred and twenty dollars.”

“That's a lot of fuzzy pink slippers, Sister.”

Again she made no response. “It may be quite a simple job, I don't know.”

“Suppose I find O'Gorman, what then? Do I give him a message? Wish him a happy Fourth of July?”

“You do nothing at all, except come back here and tell me about it, me and only me.”

“What if he's no longer living in Chicote?”

“Find out where he went. But please don't try to contact him, no purpose would be served and mischief could be done. Will you accept the job?”

“I'm in no position to pick and choose at the moment, Sister. I must remind you, though, that you're taking quite a risk sending me away from here with a hundred and twenty dol­lars. I might not come back.”

“You might not,” she said calmly. “In which case I will have learned another lesson. But then again you might come back, so I have nothing to lose but money I can't spend any­way and can't give to the Master because of my promise to my son.”

“You have a trick of making everything seem very reason­able on first examination.”

“And on second?”

“I wonder why you're interested in O'Gorman.”

“Wonder a little. It won't do you any harm. I will tell you only that what I've asked you to do is highly important to me,”

“All right. Where's the money?”

“In a good safe place,” Sister Blessing said blandly, “until tomorrow morning.”

“Meaning you don't trust me? Or you don't trust the Broth­ers and
Sisters?”

“Meaning I'm no fool, Mr. Quinn. You'll get the money when you're sitting in that truck beside Brother Crown of Thorns at dawn tomorrow.”

“Dawn?”

“Early to bed and early to rise puts color in the cheeks and sparkle in the eyes.”

“That isn't how I heard it.”

“The Master has made certain changes in the proverbs to make them suitable for our children to learn.”

“I'm curious about the Master,” Quinn said. “I'd like to meet him.”

“He's indisposed tonight. Perhaps when you come to visit us again—”

“You seem pretty sure I'll be coming back, Sister. Maybe you don't know about gamblers.”

“I knew about gamblers,” Sister Blessing said, “long before you saw your first ace of spades.”

TWO

Quinn was awakened
, while it was still dark, by someone shaking him vigorously by the shoulder. He opened his eyes.

A short fat man, carrying a lantern, was peering down at him through thick-lensed spectacles. “My goodness gracious, I was beginning to think you were dead. You must get up now, immediately.”

“Why? What's the matter?”

“Nothing's the matter. It's time to arise and greet the new day. I am Brother of the Steady Heart. Sister Blessing told me to give you a shave and some breakfast before the others get up.”

“What time is it?”

“We have no clocks at the Tower. I'll be waiting for you in the washroom.”

Quinn soon found out how some of the Brothers had ac­quired the scars on their chins and scalps. The razor was dull, the light from the lantern feeble, and Brother of the Steady Heart near-sighted.

“My, you are a jumpy one,” Brother Heart said with amiable interest. “I guess you suffer from bad nerves, eh?”

“At times.”

“While I'm at it I could give your hair a bit of a trim.”

“No thanks. The shave's plenty. I wouldn't want to im­pose.”

“Sister Blessing said I was to make you look as much like a gentleman as possible. She's taken quite a fancy to you, seems to me. It kind of rouses my curiosity.”

“It kind of rouses mine, too, Brother.”

Brother Heart looked as though he wanted to pursue the subject but didn't dare pry into Sister Blessing's affairs or state of mind. “Well, I'll go now and make breakfast. I have the fire lit, won't take a minute to boil some eggs for the two of us.”

“Why will there just be two of us?”

Brother Heart's pudgy face turned pink. “It will be more peaceful without Sister Contrition around, she's the regular cook. Oh, but that woman's a devil in the morning. Sour, there's nothing worse than a woman gone sour.”

By the time Quinn finished dressing and went over to the dining room, Brother of the Steady Heart had breakfast wait­ing on the table, boiled eggs and bread and jam. He continued the conversation as if it hadn't been interrupted: “In my day, the ladies didn't own such sharp tongues. They were quiet-spoken and fragile, and had small, delicate feet. Have you noticed what big feet the women have around here?”

“Not particularly.”

“Alas, they have. Very large, flat feet.”

For all his barber-shop chattiness, Brother Heart seemed nervous. He barely touched his food and he kept glancing over his shoulder as if he expected someone to sneak up on him.

Quinn said, “Why the big hurry to get rid of me before the others are up?”

“Well, now. Well, I wouldn't exactly put it that way.”

“I would.”

“It has nothing to do with you personally, Mr. Quinn. It's just, well, you might call it a precautionary measure.”

“I might, if I knew what you were talking about.”

Brother Heart hesitated for a moment, biting his underlip as though it itched to talk. “I suppose there's no harm in telling you. It concerns Sister Contrition's oldest child, Karma. Last time the truck was going to the city the girl hid in the back, under some burlap sacks. Brother Crown of Thorns drove halfway to San Felice before he discovered her. The burlap made her sneeze. Karma went to school for a while, it filled her head with bad ideas. She wants to leave here and find work in the city.”

“And that's not possible?”

“Oh no, no. The child would be lost in the city. Here at least she is poor among poor.”

The sun was beginning to rise and a faint rosy glow filled the skylight. From the invisible Tower came the sound of the gong, and almost immediately Sister Blessing hurried in the door. “The truck is ready, Mr. Quinn. You mustn't keep Brother Crown of Thorns waiting. Here, let me have your coat and I'll give it a good brushing.”

Quinn had already brushed it but he gave it to her anyway. She took it outside and made a few swipes at it with her hand.

“Come along, Mr. Quinn. Brother Crown has a long day ahead of him.”

He put his coat back on and followed her down the path to the dirt road. She said nothing about either the money or O'Gorman. Quinn had an uneasy feeling that she'd forgotten what happened the previous night and that she was a little crazier than he'd thought at first.

An old Chevrolet truck, lights on and engine chugging, was parked in the middle of the road. Behind the wheel, wearing a straw hat over his shaved head, sat a man younger than the Brothers Quinn had met so far. Quinn guessed his age to be about forty. Brother Crown of Thorns acknowledged Sister Blessing's introduction with a brief smile that revealed a front tooth missing.

“At San Felice, Brother Crown will let you off wherever you wish, Mr. Quinn.”

“Thanks,” Quinn said, getting into the truck. “But about O'Gor—”

Sister Blessing looked blank. “Have a good trip. And drive carefully, Brother Crown. And don't forget, if there are temptations in the city, turn your back. If people stare, lower your eyes. If they make remarks, be deaf.”

“Amen, Sister.”

“As for you, Mr. Quinn, the most I can ask is that you be­have with discretion.”

“Sister, listen—about the money—”


Au revoir,
Mr. Quinn.”

The truck started rolling down the road. Quinn turned to look back at Sister Blessing but she had already disappeared among the trees.

He thought,
Maybe the whole thing never happened and I'm crazier than the bunch of them put together. Which is quite a bit crazy.

He said, shouting over the noise of the engine, “A fine woman, Sister Blessing.”

“What's that? Can't hear you.”

“Sister Blessing is a fine woman but she's getting old. Maybe she forgets things now and then?”

“I wish she would.”

“Perhaps just little things, occasionally?”

“Not her,” Brother Crown of Thorns said, shaking his head in reluctant admiration. “Memory like an elephant. Turn down your window, will you? God's air is fresh.”

It was also cold, but Quinn turned the window down and his collar up and put his hands in his pockets. His fingers touched the cool smoothness of money.

He looked back in the direction of the Tower and said silently,

Au revoir,
Sister. I think.”

Because of the twisting roads and the age and temperament of the truck's engine, it took more than two hours to reach San Felice, a narrow strip of land wedged between the moun­tains and the sea. It was an old, rich, and very conservative city which held itself aloof from the rest of Southern Cali­fornia. Its streets were filled with spry elderly ladies and tanned elderly men and athletic young people who looked as if they'd been born on tennis courts and beaches and golf courses. Seeing the city again Quinn realized that Doris, with her platinum hair and heavy make-up, would feel conspicuous in it, and feeling that way she would make it a point to look even more conspicuous and end up beaten. No, Doris would never fit in. She was a night person and San Felice was a city of day people. For them dawn was the beginning of a day, not the tail-end of a night, and Sister Blessing and Brother Crown, for all their strange attire, would look more at home among them than Doris.
Or me,
Quinn thought, and he felt his plans and resolutions dissolv
ing inside himself.
I don't belong here. I'm too old for tennis and skin-diving, and too young for checkers and canasta.

His fingers curled around the money in his pocket. A hun­dred and twenty dollars plus the three hundred Tom Jurgensen owed him made four hundred and twenty. If he went back to Reno and played carefully, if his luck was good—

“Where do you want to get off at?” Brother Crown said. “I'm going to Sears myself.”

“Sears will be fine.”

“You got a friend in town?”

“I had one. Maybe I've still got him.”

Brother Crown pulled into the parking lot behind Sears and braked the truck to a noisy stop. “Here you are, safe and sound, like I promised Sister Blessing. You and the Sister ever meet before?”

“No.”

“She don't always make such a how-de-do over strangers.”

“Maybe I remind her of somebody.”

“You don't remind me of nobody.” Brother Crown climbed down from the truck and started shuffling across the parking lot toward the back door of Sears.

“Thanks for the ride, Brother,” Quinn called out after him.

“Amen.”

It was nine o'clock, eighteen hours since Sister Blessing had welcomed him to the Tower as a stranger and treated him like a friend. He touched the money in his pocket again. He could feel its strings pulling at him and he wished he hadn't taken it. He thought of running after Brother Crown and giving it to him to return to Sister Blessing. Then he remembered that the possession of private money was not allowed at the Tower and handing it over now to Brother Crown would get Sister Bless­ing into trouble, perhaps of a very serious kind.

He turned and began walking quickly toward State Street.

Tom Jurgensen sold boats and marine insurance down at the foot of the breakwater. He had a tiny office whose win­dows were plastered with For Sale signs and pictures of yawls and sloops and ketches and cutters and schooners, most of them under sail.

When Quinn entered, Jurgensen was smoking a cigar and talking into the telephone which perched affectionately on his shoulder the way Brother Tongue's little bird had perched on his. “Sails by Rattsey, so what. The thing's a tub. I'm not bidding.”

He put the phone down and leaned over the desk to shake Quinn's hand. “Well, Joe Quinn himself in person. How's the old boy?”

“Older. Also broke.”

“I was hoping you wouldn't say that, Joe. Business has been lousy. This isn't a rich man's town any more. The penny-pinching middle class has moved in and they don't care about teakwood or mahogany, all they want—” Jurgensen broke off with a sigh. “You're absolutely flat?”

“Except for a little money that belongs to someone else.”

“Since when did you ever let that worry you, Joe? I'm being funny, of course, ha ha.”

“Ha ha, sure you are,” Quinn said. “I've got your I.O.U. for three hundred dollars. I want the money now.”

“I don't have it. This is damned embarrassing, old boy, but I just don't have it. If you'd settle for a boat, I've got a nice little sea mew, 300-pound keel, Watts sails, gaff rig—”

“Just what I need to get around Venice. Only I'm not going to Venice.”

“Keep your shirt on, it was just a suggestion. I suppose you already have a car?”

“Bad supposing, Tom.”

“Well, there's this crate—this dandy little' 54 Ford Victoria my wife's been driving. She'll put up a terrible squawk if I take it away from her but what can I do? It's worth at least three hundred. Two-tone blue and cream, white-walls, heater, radio.”

“I could do better than that on a' 54 Ford in Reno.”

“You're not in Reno like you're not in Venice,” Jurgensen said. “It's the best I can do for you right now. Either take the car in full payment or use it until I can scrape up your money. It will suit me better if you just borrow it. That way Helen will be a little easier to handle.”

“It's a deal. Where's the car?”

“Parked in the garage behind my house, 631 Gaviota Road. It hasn't been used for a week—Helen's visiting her mother in Denver—so you might have a little trouble starting it. Here are the keys. You going to be in town for a while, Joe?”

“In and out, I expect.”

“Call me in a couple of weeks. I may have your money then. And take care of the crate or Helen will accuse me of losing it in a poker game. She may anyway, but—” Jurgensen spread his hands and shrugged. “You're looking pretty good, Joe.”

“Early to bed and early to rise puts color in the cheeks and sparkle in the eyes. Like they say.”

“Like who says?”

“The Brothers and Sisters of the Tower of Heaven.”

Jurgensen raised his eyebrows. “You taken up religion or something?”

“Something,” Quinn said. “Thanks for the car and I'll see you later.”

Quinn had no trouble starting the car. He drove to a gas station, filled up the tank, added a quart of oil and parted with the first of Sister Blessing's twenty-dollar bills.

He asked the attendant the best way to get to Chicote.

“If it was me now, I'd follow 101 to Ventura, then cut over to 99. It's longer that way but you don't get stuck on 150, which hasn't half a mile of straightaway from one end to the other. You save trading stamps, sir?”

“I guess I could start.”

BOOK: How Like an Angel
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