The Money Lender (#6)
To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
The Money Lender
by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)
If you haven’t read the previous issues:
Part 21: Tim
First there are the problems of chaos which must be understood, and then there is the hard work of converting chaos to cosmos… order.
Had the problems that confronted Tim Murphy affected only himself, or had they been able to stand separately and be examined and gauged relative to the others, he might have tried to prioritize them. But there were so many problems of such complicated natures that he could not get beyond his initial bewilderment. He was cognizant, too, of the effects that his actions had and were continuing to have on his relationship with Charlene Cottone. If she had told her parents about her affections for him and they then learned that he was blamed for a $30,000 theft, they would insist that she sever her relationship with him. They’d use the incident as proof that they, not she, were better qualified to choose her marriage partner, and she’d be forced to marry within her extended family.
He needed to organize his life but he could find no stating point, that one loop in the knot that when tugged, will free an end point and allow for the unraveling process. His parents had supported him so faithfully, that he went along with their solutions. They, of course, in their generosity only made him feel worse. Now he was indebted to the bank and to them, as well. His mother’s unlicensed sewing business began to show a tiny profit. His father became a handyman who not only trimmed an occasional tree, but went from store to store with a bucket and squeegees and window cleaning liquid and began to earn even more than his mother did. During the day Tim made all the pickups and deliveries, and each evening he and his dad collected discarded aluminum cans. They did not venture into the rabbit business. There was just too much work involved.
Charlene would call and he would arrange to meet her briefly in a place they felt secure… in the park or outside a church neither attended. The meetings were brief and he could never hold her and kiss her. He’d see her walking towards him and all he wanted to do was cry, first for joy and then for the misery of his life that kept them apart.
Charlene understood how frustrating if was for him to be innocent of a crime and not be able to associate openly with her because he feared that his “guilt” would rub off on her. She decided to discuss the matter with her parents, to get them to see that he had been wrongly accused. They listened but did not seem to hear what she was trying to tell them. Both agreed that while they were not averse to having an Irish son-in-law, they certainly did not want a thief in the family. “We’ve had enough of that,” her mother said with unmistakable finality.
“But he’s not a thief, Momma!” Charlene protested. “He’s innocent. He was framed.”
“They’re all innocent,” her father retorted. “Take a poll of jailbirds. Nobody’s guilty. Stay away from him. That’s final.”
It was not until Tim and his parents made the second monthly payment that their efforts began to organize themselves into a routine. They no longer had to canvass health clubs for made-to-order yoga clothing. His mother had taken the measurements of each customer and kept the information in a file. A weight-loss was celebrated by Mrs. Murphy making a personal visit to the health club to get the new, smaller measurements of the lucky loser. To celebrate the diminishing size, she would go to the market, buy a stalk of celery, trim it, and then pass the tray of clean fresh celery around instead of cake. A woman who happened to be a commercial artist was so pleased by this that she designed a logo for the yoga brand: a celery stalk. Mrs. Murphy’s new sewing machine had an embroidery function and she began to embroider the celery logo onto the breast pocket along with the purchaser’s monogram, if requested… at no charge. The garments could be worn on the street, and many women purchased half a dozen outfits. Tim steam-ironed and bagged each outfit.
Merchants and professionals who had large windows, knew that on a given day in the week, Mr. Murphy would appear, give a thumb’s up sign and raise his eyebrows, and wait to be given either a thumb’s down “not this week” which he’d acknowledge with a smile and a wave, or receive a thumb’s up that indicated he should proceed with the window washing. He began to acquire clients who would drive him to their homes where he would do the entire house, providing the owner supplied an extension ladder wherever one was needed.
For nearly two months, each day had seen an improvement in Tim’s health and attitude and a concomitant increase in his determination to discover who had framed him. He had done nothing about the problem since, before he could investigate the source of his trouble, he had to deal with treating its symptoms. Once, however, the second payment was made, he began in earnest to investigate the source of the problem.
He knew that the letter that had been sent to David Lonigan had been written on parchment paper and that there was a blue cross superimposed on a white one in the logo of the sender. He had searched the internet for Roman Catholic orders and found a “minor” order or “ministry”: the Knights of the Blue Cross who operated a home of some kind called Saint Steven’s Retreat. They had only one address: just west of Las Vegas, Nevada, close to the California State Line. Two months into his troubles, he finally had the time and mental strength to visit the Retreat.
People are quick to size up a stranger. A man who appears to be weak is likely to arouse an aggressive attitude, the opposed ranks of supplicant and benefactor. However wrong that first impression might be, Tim decided to eliminate the possibility of contention. He would not appear to be weak or needy. For several weeks, he ate a quart of extremely rich ice cream as he sat with his parents in the living room watching TV. He quickly gained a few pounds and developed a more substantial look.
Things were running smoothly. The downstairs of the house became a mini-factory. The dining room table had extensions which, when installed, enabled Mrs. Murphy to use it as a cutting board. Her business was beginning to pay off. She also got several athletic uniform contracts. Mr. Murphy and Tim did the fabric pre-washing, drying, cooking and cleaning and all the driving for supplies and deliveries. The strain showed on both of his parents, but Tim was now in possession of a plan. He was going to “dress for success” and visit the Retreat.
He purchased quality casual clothing – slacks, shoes, and shirt – bought new sun glasses and had the barber style his hair differently and shave off his mustache. He dyed his hair light brown. He inspected himself in the mirror and agreed with his image that he did not appear to be the kind of man who could easily be pushed around. There was always the possibility that he’d run into Joshua. He set out for Saint Steven’s Retreat.
As he approached the brick hospital-like building and pulled into one of the visitor’s parking places, he noticed that the wall around the building was extremely high and had buttressing columns every six feet or so. A gurney, with restraining straps hanging from its sides, had been pushed against the entrance room’s wall. As Tim went farther into the building and approached the only desk that could serve as a reception desk, he read the name-plaque on it, “Rev. Fr. Joseph Pulaski, M.G.” Tim could see that along with his computer, the wall behind him held a shelf that contained a scanner, printer, fax machine, and several metal file separators that had color coded labels. This, Tim told himself, was probably the guy who typed the letter.
As Father Pulaski looked up and smiled and said, “Good Morning. How can I help you?” An ambulance that did not have its siren on pulled into the space immediately in front of the entrance. Pulaski’s phone rang. Someone inside the ambulance was calling him. Tim could hear distinctly both sides of the brief conversation. “We’ve got a wild one in here. We got stuck on the 110 and in the wait his Haldol injection wore off. Can you send Big Brother Herman out to help us?”
Father Joseph answered, “Sure, I’ll have to go look for him. He’s in the back garden. Be patient.” He ended the call. He stood and lay his iPhone on his desk, “Could you give me a minute,” he said to Tim. “We’ve got a medical emergency.” He then hurried through a door that apparently led to the building’s rear. Tim picked up his phone and flipped through his call history. He read Chuan Yi’s name and number which meant nothing to him except its peculiarity. He then read Jy Shao’s name and number and this also was merely odd. A little farther down the list he read Rick Dubrovsky and that name meant something to him, but he did not recall what it meant. Hearing Father Pulaski talking to someone as he approached, Tim returned the phone to the desk.
As Father Pulaski hurried past him with a burly man who was still wiping potting soil from his hands. Tim called, “I can see you’re busy. I’ll return again tomorrow if that’s all right with you.” As the psychotic old man was being forced out of the ambulance and onto the gurney, Tim went to his car and drove away. Who was Rick Dubrovsky?
At home he did a net search on Rick Dubrovsky which netted him no information except his street address. Finally, he hazarded a call to Charlene. They did not exchange pleasantries. He simply asked if the name Dubrovsky meant anything to her. “Not really,” she said, “All day long we hear people’s names. Pretty soon they all just become mush,” she said. “Did you know that after all that bragging about going into a Catholic seminary, Joshua rather quietly went into a Buddhist monastery?”
“Buddhist? Not Catholic? That’s weird. Which monastery?”
“I don’t know. It’s local. Remember how upset he was when that letter came? Well, he left FNN right after that. I only just heard about it when the auditors asked about a $2000 payout Lonigan had given him. I squeezed out a little information and learned that those Knights wanted him to test himself about living like a monk for a few months or year in the Zen Center of Sandyville. I think the auditors had something to say about it too. They didn’t want him leaving town. From what I’m told, he still has to attend Mass every week and take Communion. Funny arrangement. He can’t participate in Buddhist rituals, either. Meditation but not services. He gave them a lot of money so I guess he’s a paying guest not a novice. Lonigan gave him the few thousand extra that he needed to be admitted.”
“Charlene, I’m gonna prove my innocence. See what you can learn about Rick Dubrovsky. I miss you so much.”
“Ditto. Double ditto. I’ll see what I can find out. Are you eating better?”
“Yes. Pretty soon I’ll look like a Sumo wrestler. Just for you.”
Charlene spoke to him in a soft voice. “More to love.” She heard someone coming. “Gotta go.”
He looked at his phone. “You are the chink in the wall. We’re like Pyramus and Thisbe.” Then he thought about the end of Pyramus and Thisbe and shuddered.
This was an important clue: Joshua was living in a Buddhist monastery in the vicinity. But which one? Tim had found Rick’s home address but he could never see any activity in the house whenever he drove past it. Charlene had said that Joshua was a guest and had to go to Mass on Sundays. So did he, of course. He had never seen Joshua in or around church on Sundays, but he assumed Joshua attended another church – if he went to church at all.
The Buddhist temple problem was more easily solved. He got a list of temples and monasteries in the area and was shocked to see the number of them. Buddhists of every nationality seemed to have their own temple. The Zen Center in Sandyville was the absolute last number in the list. “Z for Zen,” he said aloud as he called the number. The receptionist monk regretted that neither guests nor monks could receive telephone calls unless the call constituted an emergency. “Well,” Tim said softly, “It’s an illness that might become grave. If if does become an emergency, when is the best time, or conversely, when is a bad time, to call Brother Joshua?”
“His name around here is Fa Hui. And I guess the mealtimes… 6 to 7 a.m.; noon to 1 p.m.; and 6 to 7 p.m. would be the best times. You can’t disturb him in the meditation hall. The free time that the monks have is staggered so I can’t tell you when he’d otherwise be free. But try mealtimes.” He stopped to amend his information. “Oh, he leaves the monastery before dinner on Saturday afternoon and doesn’t get back until Sunday noon. He helps some theologian do research.”
Tim Murphy drove to Sandyville. “So this is your hideout!” he said aloud, looking at the building. He could see Joshua’s Toyota which had been moved into the shade of a cottonwood tree. “Come next Saturday, I’ll be outside,” he growled, “waiting for you to leave for Confession and Mass. Let’s see where you go then.”
Part 22 Joshua
During successive Saturday nights Rick assumed the role of the fictional Professor Reynard and taught Joshua some of the background of the old Buddhist scriptures. “The trick in deciphering this garbled baloney is to learn the glossary and to recognize and then delete repetitions. The verses are best understood if you take them out of poetic form. Remember: in order for a thing to be true and real, it must be true here, there, today, yesterday, tomorrow. No doubt this business about being and non-being was hot shit in its day. The Law of the Conservation of Matter and/or Energy covers the subject completely. Relativity to them was mere comparison, a subjective observation – provable no doubt by consensus for their needs, but jejune and sophomoric by any standard today. This nonsense is kept alive because people who have been stupid and unwise enough to study philosophy, have nothing else to write about except, of course, their own opinions about wisdom and the stupidity of those who disagree with them. One writes a book that calumniates a few other philosophers, so they naturally write books in rebuttal. That’s what keeps their names in print. They write commentaries on each other’s bullshit.”
“What is the real truth?” Joshu asked, turning on his digital recorder.
“Real truth? Careful, my boy… next thing you’ll be spouting tautologies. First recognize that like cuisine, religion depends upon location to a great extent. If we don’t find a Plato in the jungles of New Guinea, the problem is not with the intelligence of the people of New Guinea, it’s with the jungles of New Guinea. Geography allows for riparian cities in which ideas are exchanged, arts and crafts are learned, trade is facilitated, and the climate and natural predators can be controlled to some degree. In the jungle, food is so scarce that people live in small groups. Travel is difficult and venomous creatures and predators are daily problems. Surviving is a full time occupation. Yet they have religion, and many beliefs which make us uncomfortable in their sophistication.
“People find ways to record things. You can dig up a block of caliche – that’s limestone in its thick mud-clay state before the air dries it into stone – and with your thumb nail carve a perfect Mayan glyph. They had ink and a version of paper, too. They needed to write and record trade and astronomical dada, just as the Egyptians did. But whether literate or illiterate there is always a search for the Real World. Priests, shamans, medicine men all sought knowledge of mystical truth. They sought the transcendental realm, the ultimate truth, and were not content with navigating this toublesome material world with all its egomaniacal conceits.”
“But what about the societies around these seekers? They had their rain gods.”
“Sure, rain gods and wind gods were for those who could not see beyond the Material World illusions – notice I did not say delusions. Many people did see the Real World. Plato certainly did. What’s more, people who have been in the Real World have seen the identical Real World, no matter where they live. Jung discovered that. Nirvana encompasses this world. It is another world entirely.
“There are those tho insist that the material world is everything. Obviously there is no room in it for a place called Nirvana. So they cultivate the asinine idea that Nirvana is the emptiness that remains when the material world is obliterated. They strive – sometimes for hours a day – to eradicate all thoughts – and when they succeed in this self-hypnosis, they think they are enlightened. They fail to understand that you cannot desire not to desire.”
“Were you ever in the Real World?”
“You ask too many questions.”
Page 23 Aaron & Paul
While Harold went to a special physical therapy center to help restore use of his right arm and leg, Paul Oteiza drove U.S. 80, the northern interstate route, to Philadelphia. Harold had gotten Paul a new pickup truck with a long bed and a camper shell cover so that he could sleep in it anytime that he wanted. He drove through Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Des Moines, Cleveland, and finally Philadelphia. He had the keys to the house and called Aaron to report on its condition.
“It needs yardwork like you wouldn’t believe,” Paul said. “Ain’t nobody mowed this grass since it was sold. I can do some landscaping for ya’ if you want to invest in a mower and some pretty plant life. It could also use exterior paint.”
“Buy whatever you need,” Harold said. “And hire anyone you need. Surprise me with the results.”
Paul sent him photographs of the “before” state of the property. “I’ll keep you posted as we progress,” he said, and added, “By the way, someone in the neighborhood must have notified Mr. Blumenthal because I got a pic of him sittin’ in his car across the street watchin’ me.”
“Are you sure it’s him?” Harold asked.
“I saw him in the hospital,” Paul said. “I know he recognized me. I waved to him but he didn’t wave back. Maybe he thinks you’re going to come back here to live.”
“Don’t answer anybody’s questions,” Harold advised. “They may want to burn the place down.”
“Do you have fire insurance on it?” Paul asked.
“Of course,” Harold said. “Do you think I’d trust them around my property without it?”
Paul engaged a first rate painting company and as expected the painting was done quickly and well. The garish blue grim had been tamed to a pearl grey, and trim that had not been given a contrasting color, in this case dark grey, was now tastefully restored to what the architect, no doubt, had intended. The rye grass, fed and watered, returned to a lush thick green; and the numerous chrysanthemum and marigold fully-flowering plants that he placed inside the brick circles he made around each tree, added a degree of beauty that exceeded neighborhood standards. Harold commented that it was almost beautiful enough to make him want to return to Philadelphia. They understood “almost.”
August can be a miserably rainy month in Philadelphia. Hurricanes will roar up the eastern seaboard and ruin roofs and vacation plans, and even when the wind is not blowing or the rain not coming down in sheets, the city is humid and hot. Unlike in the desert, where a sweaty armpit is never seen because the dryness of the air evaporates any moisture it can suck into its vacuum. Coming from the lightness of the desert, the easily breathed air, the unwrinkled collars and sweat-free underwear, Harold deplaned and immediately felt the skin beneath his arm and foot casts began to itch with dripping perspiration. He had taken the red-eye out of Las Vegas to Philadelphia to accommodate the time-zone differences. Paul met him at the airport and together they went directly to the escrow office.
Waiting outside the title company’s office stood the Blumenthals, held in check by two uniformed security guards. Mr. Blumenthal had wanted to get inside the building, but Harold had called ahead, insisting that security be called to prevent him from disturbing the proceedings.
By noon, when all the papers were finally signed, the checks written, and the hands shaken, the negotiation was finished. As Paul began to push Harold’s wheelchair, the real estate agent stopped him and called him aside to tell him that the improvements he had made to the house were “nothing short of amazing.” He wanted to hire Paul on a permanent basis. Paul gracefully declined and then notified Harold that the deal was “almost” good enough to make him want to accept it.
Harold had actually made twenty-two thousand dollars on the transaction.
“Ready to head home?” Paul asked.
“No… I’ve got a couple of errands to run.”
“Ah, Caroline’s house?”
“I was gonna say, ‘First take me to Saints Peter and Paul’s Cathedral.’ You had to mention Caroline. Ok. Let’s drive past her place.” He gave Paul the directions, but the blinds were still lowered and closed as they had been when she went to Europe. “Well, we tried,” Harold said, “now we can go to Saints Peter and Paul’s Cathedral.”
Now that the cast had been removed from Harold’s foot, he could walk short distances, providing he supported his foot with tape and used an old fashioned crutch – it was the only kind that would fit comfortably into his right armpit. He could put no weight on his right hand and had to move the crutch forward by pressing his arm cast against it and swinging his body and arm. He walked then, in a kind of scalloped manner.
Paul sat in the rear of the church as Harold hobbled his way to the front. The choir was practicing Mozart’s Requiem and Harold, feeling dizzy, tried to lower himself in a pew. A priest who was crossing the nave, saw him and came quickly to assist him. The two sat together and listened to the music and when the Requiem had ended and the organist and choir master began to bicker about fine points in the performance, they talked about the peculiar events of the past summer. The priest introduced himself as Father Pete and then pensively spoke to Harold. “I personally believe that no baptism is as spiritually effective as one between a loving stranger and a soul that’s looking into the abyss of death. Don’t get me wrong. It’s always nice especially when the baby doesn’t yell its head off or knock the oil cruet over or spit up on your new orarium – its’s a beautiful sacrament. But yours had the hand of Christ in it. I can just tell. I don’t know why it was so special. But it seems that you received more than just a Baptism.”
“He’s sitting in the back row…. the man who baptized me. But the person who really saved my life was an Indian woman named Stella. She took a big syringe used for cattle and drew a pint of blood from her own arm and injected it into mine. I think she had to do it eight times. Her elbow joint looked like a pin cushion”
“And they were really strangers?”
“Yes. I was frying in the desert with a bunch of broken bones. Gave me water and blood and a trip to the ambulance.”
“So our Blessed Mother was with you, too. Are you going to stay with the new faith?
“Oh, yes. I’m learning the catechism every day. A priest comes and tutors me. I’m supposed to take my First Holy Communion on September 13th, in Nevada.” He paused to assume the supplicant’s role. “Father,is it possible to ask you to dedicate a Mass to Stella Buchanan… who stood in for our Virgin Mother and Paul Oteiza who seems to be God’s right hand.”
“Of course. He took out a tiny tablet and wrote their names. When he finished and was about to put his pen away, Harold asked him for it. He wrote a check for Twenty-two thousand dollars and gave it to the priest.
“I thank you for your donation, but it costs nothing to offer a Mass in special recognition of saintly people.” Then the priest noticed the amount. He raised his eyebrows. “Very saintly people.”
“Make it a good one,” Harold smiled and asked the priest to help him to stand. “You know,” Harold said, “this is my first visit to a Catholic Church.”
“It would have cost you less to spend the day at the Four Seasons.”
They were still smiling when they reached the rear of the church.
He stopped at his mother’s apartment to pick up a few books and personal items. His mother was at work and he missed saying goodbye to her. “Let’s roll past the shoe store she works in.”
As he hobbled up to the store front he could see his mother inside, kneeling on the floor trying a white satin pump on a girl. She happened to look up at the dark shape in the window and cried out, “Aaron!” when she saw him. She ran to the door, opened it, and tried to hug him without knocking him over. “You’re on your feet. Oh, I knew you’d be fine again.”
“I’m going back to Nevada to live, Mom. You can visit me whenever you want.” She began to cry, saying how much she’d miss him. He pressed a check for $250,000 in her hand and said, “Quit your job and sublet the duplex and find a little place in Florida – where all your friends go. And when you feel like it, come out and visit me in Nevada. Just don’t let it be known that I gave you any money. You’ll get more trouble than you bargained for.”
Paul and Harold left Philadelphia that afternoon.
Part 24 Tim
A few weeks after the second payment was made, Tim’s father had a heart attack while washing a window. The store owner called 9-1-1 and Tim and his mother went to the morgue to identify the body. Mrs. Murphy decided to wait in the hall.
The Medical Examiner spoke to Tim as he showed him the body. “Your dad kept the business card of his cardiologist, Irwin Baker, M.D., in his wallet. I spoke to Dr. Baker. He’s already been here.”
The M.E. looked at Mr. Murphy and sighed. “He died a noble death. You can tell, you know. His shirt collar is a bit frayed but starched and it’s already been turned. You don’t see that done any more today. It takes a woman’s love to do that. His clothes and his body were immaculate. Baker said he was livin’ on borrowed time, this good man. I understand that he’s to be cremated.”
“Cremated?” Tim was shocked. “But we have a family plot!”
“No more you don’t. He told Dr. Baker that he sold the plot to pay off some family debts.”
Tim’s mother had been listening in the hall just outside the doors. She stepped into the lab. “God forgive me,” she said. “Your father feared that he would pass and that funerals were terribly expensive. I agreed. We really needed the money, Timmy. When I go you can put our ashes together.” Tim nodded; but it was as if she had said, “You’ve reached the bottom.”
Grief had entered its robotic phase. Tim moved in all the right directions and said all the right things and soon there was an urn sitting on the mantlepiece. His mother had not missed a day of sewing. She had contracts to meet and, as long as she did not have to prepare for a service or a wake, it was a simple matter of choosing a crematorium and then to ask Tim to pick up the ashes. “God made life hard for him. People come for the food and drink. As the Irish say, ‘They took the ice right off the corpse and put it on the beer.’ Your dad was not a drinking man. I’d have gone crazy with a bunch of maudlin drunks who apparently didn’t know him well enough to offer him a dime when we were in such trouble.”
During this entire period, from death to cremation, Tim had not tried to contact Charlene. He did not want to talk about his father’s death. Still in an emotionless state, Tim continued to make the pickups and deliveries. He continued to collect aluminum cans. It was a good way to spend the evenings without Charlene. He did not, however, wash anyone’s windows. And then two weeks after his father’s death, during one dinner time, his mother reverted to habit and said, “Tell your dad dinner’s ready.” Tim looked at his mother and began to bang his head against the table and then, finally, he began to sob hysterically as he repeated his father’s name. He called “Daddy… Daddy…” a few dozen times and then finally he raised his head and looked at his mother’s agonized face. “Because of me he worked himself to death,” he said.
“No, son,” she whispered, “because of some evil person who was seized by the devil to torment you… to disguise himself to look like you and then bear false witness. You are not to blame. He is the one that God will have to deal with. Your father died a happy man… happy to help you. It’s a wonderful thing to help a good person who needs help.”
Tim’s mother stood by his chair and he locked his arms around her and continued to cry. “I miss him so much,” he said, ending his grieving episode with a several long shuddering gasps. “I’m tryin’ to find Joshua, the guy who framed me, but, Momma, what’s the point? Suppose he stands there and laughs in my face. The law doesn’t even know it was broken. And if I spilled everything and it went to trial, they still have all the evidence against me. I lost my father because of Joshua’s greed. I’ve got no life with Charlene because of his greed, and if I object to the frame-up, your life and mine wouldn’t be worth a nickel… not with these people.” He shed a few more tears of frustration, and then, it was as if the answer to what he must do had been written on his heart but was illegible under a covering of dirty ice. The hot salty tears melted the covering, letting him read the message. “Joshua must die.” He snuffled and went into the bathroom to wash his face. When he returned to the table, he ate his meatloaf and mashed potatoes, as thoughts, plans, schemes, came from out of the stratosphere to crash into his mind. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. He was on the right path, now. He told his mother what a good meal she had made and then he collected the dishes to wash them in the sink. There were so many ways to dispose of an evil human being!
At 7 p.m. on Saturday, assuming that Joshua would not be there, he called the Zen Center and asked if he could speak to Joshua. He corrected himself, “to Fa Hui.” The receptionist replied, “Oh, No. He’s gone on his weekly research assignment. May I leave him a message? Is this some kind of emergency?”
“No. Not really. Well, maybe not for him, but for me. I’m getting ready to go into a hospital in Colorado. I’ve got multiple sclerosis and can’t surf anymore. I wondered if he wanted my board and gear. If you talk to him tell him Brad Brenner from Malibu called. I’m sorry but I don’t have a phone anymore for him to reach me.”
“He’s in Las Vegas. I don’t know where he does his research. He gets back at noon tomorrow. After that, he goes to the meditation hall and you can’t talk to him until his free time and I don’t know when that will be scheduled. The best I can advise is to just call whenever you can and maybe you’ll get lucky.”
“Good idea. I might have more time than I figure, but when they get a bed for me, I’ve got to be there within forty-eight hours or somebody else will be given my bed. Ok. I’ll keep trying. What about next Saturday?”
“Not tonight, or next Saturday, but the one after that he’ll be here for a big dinner the abbot has… a special dinner about the Dharma. Maybe he could get free to come out and talk to you.”
“Oh… that’s two weeks. Well, maybe I’ll drop by just to see your monastery and maybe I’ll catch him. I understand the garden is very beautiful. I’d like to see it before I go. But I can only use my sister’s car on weekends.”
The reception monk was moved. “You come by at any time. It may do you good to sit out there in the meditation garden. And I will certainly tell Fa Hui that Brad Brenner from Malibu has called and wants very much to speak to him.”
When Tim disconnected the call he had learned several things. Rick was still picking Joshua up and taking him home. He also knew that he needed to effect a disguise of some sort. He had not decided on which specific way he’d take his revenge on Joshua, but he could get things started. He needed to find an abandoned building out in the desert. The old railroad spurs that picked up ore from the silver mines had small well-built station houses that were still standing. He also knew the location of abandoned mine shafts.
During Confession, a gossipy woman admitted her sin of not having told Father Leon sooner that Mr. Murphy had been cremated. “When I think of all the comfort you could have given his poor widow during these past few days, I am so ashamed for not doing my Christian duty. I should have informed you of this sinful breach right away.” She continued to confess a variety of sins, none of which surpassed the venial level, at least not that he heard. Father Leon was busy deciding when he could find the time in his busy schedule to call upon the Widow Murphy.
It was on Sunday evening that he rang the Murphy’s doorbell. Tim answered the door, invited him in, and with a clenched jaw, made tea for him. The priest knew a hostile attitude when he encountered one, and Tim’s was definitely hostile.
“Why didn’t you notify the Church when your father died?” Father Leon asked.
“Did you think we didn’t have enough debt?” Tim replied. “Did you want us to pay for a funeral service, and the organist, and the tip for the altar boys, and to buy the flowers and the casket and the Mass cards? My father died because he worked so hard to pay a debt that we did not owe. And you want to know why we didn’t increase the debt.”
Tim did not allow the priest to interrupt his narrative. “Maybe you’re angling for my mother’s body. Look around you. The whole downstairs has been converted into her factory. You can hear her sewing machine going from dawn to dusk back in the kitchen where the light is best. At the rate she’s going, ‘carrying the burden of her faith’ as you put it, she’ll soon drop over dead like my father. Do you want me to get her now and take her away from her work. It’s piece work. She’ll have to work harder to make up the time she’ll lose entertaining you with your guilt trip about my father’s cremation and your sleazy attempt to get her to make preparations now for her own funeral service. Yes, hurry… get the contract signed before she collapses from over-work.”
“Timothy! Don’t talk like that! You’re angry. You want revenge. You told me about the way you were blamed for something you didn’t do. I know the experience was cruel and unjust. You have my sympathy.”
“And what am I to do with your sympathy? Can I spend it like the food stamps that people put in donation plates? What I need is revenge.”
“God says that vengeance is his alone to take.”
“No. Not in every case. When the injured party is innocent and has no legal redress; and the evil one remains free to harm again and again, then the doctrine of Nemo me impune lacessit applies. A man is permitted to say, ‘No man cuts me with impunity’ and then to take whatever revenge is necessary.'”
“Only God knows the evil or the good that is in a man’s soul! Right off the bat Genesis enjoins us from making such judgments. We may not touch the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The judgment of what is in a man’s soul and the reward or punishment that follows upon that judgment, are God’s alone to make.” Father Leon grew angry. “You, my boy, may not usurp God’s prerogatives. Vengeance is God’s exclusive right!”
Tim grinned. “Ah, Father Leon, God has permitted revenge to be taken many times. Not only may a man touch that Tree, but he can take a small branch from it and make a wreath for his head. If his cause is just and his record is clean and no legal recourse is available, God will allow him to take vengeance.”
“And you consider yourself to be without sin? To be clean enough to usurp God’s authority? And you haven’t been to church in weeks.”
Timothy laughed. “Only a priest would equate goodness with church attendance.” Then his attitude softened. “Father, when I say, ‘Nobody cuts me and gets away with it,’ it isn’t a bully’s swashbuckling boast. While my dad was fighting for his country, he got a heart virus. And he couldn’t even get help from the V.A. hospital. So I went to work and helped to pay the family bills and lived a righteous life until clever people used my innocence against me. Now, I who have never stolen, am considered a thief. And my father, instead of being able to take it easy in retirement had to work himself to death trying to pay off a fraudulent debt. He needed your help but you were too busy helping those who won’t – or say they can’t – help themselves.” Tim stopped talking because one of the rules in taking vengeance was stealth. He certainly could not let the priest know or suspect the plan he had in mind.
Father Leon put down his unfinished cup of tea and left the house.
Tim still needed to think through his revenge. It would have to be one in which he did not get caught. No innocent person could suffer as a result of the revenge he took. “Either I strike him down or else I have to share the guilt the next time he victimizes another innocent person. The judgment is clear. If I’m wrong about this let God damn me to hell as he lifts him to heaven.”
Each night he lay upon his bed and considered and then rejected a hundred different ways to take revenge on Joshua and still not get caught.
It occurred to him that if Joshua could masquerade as Tim, why couldn’t Tim masquerade as someone else? The idea that had first inspired him to pretend to be a buddy of Joshua’s from Malibu was like a string that led out of a maze. He was going backwards, filling the plan in after he had initiated it. By taking the first step, the second would occur and then the third and soon he would be led back to a starting point. When Joshua was dead, then there would be a new beginning. He went to a tanning salon. He got his ears pierced and acquired a tattoo that said “Pe’ahi.” He bought several Hawaiian shirts and a puka bead necklace.
On Saturday afternoon, he parked outside the Zen Center and recognized Rick’s Jaguar enter the driveway and pull up to the administration office. He had seen Rick before, but now, standing amidst the blooming oleander bushes, he got a good look at him. Joshua soon exited the building and got into the car. The little dog he had seen Rick take for walks through the neighborhood was in the car. About twenty minutes after they had driven away, he entered the building and spoke to the reception monk.
When Tim introduced himself as Brad Brenner, the reception monk treated him as an old friend. “From Malibu!” And he lamented that Fa Hui had just gone out and wouldn’t be back until noon the following day. “Is there a emergency of some kind, Brad?” he asked.
He feigned reluctance, and let the plan unfold. “Like I said, I got some bad medical news. Can’t surf anymore. But here’s the thing. I had just bought a new board not two weeks before I got my diagnosis. It’s a $1500 board. I’m not trying to sell it. My sister wanted to give my board and some other gear to her brother-in-law, but – I don’t want to sound petty so please forgive me if I do – the guy’s an alcoholic and he’d just sell the stuff and spend the money on booze. I remembered that Joshua lived in Las Vegas, so on the spur of the moment I told her I had promised to give it to Josh – Fa Hui – in return for a big favor he had done me in Malibu. I’ve been out of the country – endless summer stuff. I’m staying with her until my bed’s ready. I called Josh’s office and they told me where he was. He’s a righteous dude… a fine surfer. So if he wants to sell it, fine. Would you just tell him that it’s a Donald Takayama Model T longboard. I can try to get the car again next Saturday. Maybe next Saturday night?”
“Oh, dear. Next Saturday night is that big dinner celebration here I mentioned. I asked our assistant abbot about letting Joshua leave the table and he said, ‘No way!'” He lowered his voice, “Dinner for eight. It’s a special affair – the winner of a theological debate is announced.”
“Wow. So Josh is not only a fine surfer, he’s an intellectual, too. I never knew that about the guy!”
“Team would be more like it. It’s to announce the winning team. He’s just on a team.”
“Oh, I see. Still… ”
“Yes, on one team is our abbot, vice-abbot, and one scholar – that’s Fa Hui; and on the other team is the Monseigneur of Saint Steven’s Retreat and his assistant and a scholar, and then two Philosophy professors who judge the winner of the written commentary. Twice a year they have a good natured debate and the winner is chosen after the dinner.” He lowered his voice, “It’s always held here because our food is superior to the food at Saint Steven’s – the other place.”
Tim smiled coyly. “What does the winner get?”
The reception monk laughed. “The winner gets to keep a cheap little bust of Beethoven. It was the only figure they could both display without anyone asking questions.”
Tim pretended to be a little dizzy. “Say, I’m a little tired right now. I get tired quick. Would you mind if I sat in your back yard? I sure would like to see that famous garden.”
“Sure,” the monk said as he opened a french door that led onto the veranda. “Enjoy.”
Tim noticed a string of “dream catchers” strung along the eaves of the building. “What are these for?” he asked.
The monk smiled. “It’s our little defense against ghosts. They’re authentic Navajo or Hopi – I can never remember which – dream catchers. The place is supposed to be haunted. A lot of us get nightmares and see strange and mysterious things.”
“Do the ‘dream catchers’ work?” Tim asked.
“Who can tell? Without them things could get worse. Nobody wants to take the chance,” he added, laughing.
“If you feel up to it, take a slow walk through the meditation garden. At sundown it begins to cool off around here.”
Tim walked to the side of the courtyard and climbed a couple of steps that perhaps had been made to buttress the wall. A stool had been placed on the top step that was nearly enclosed by a jasmine bower, and so many vine shoots and tendrils curled around the legs of the stool that Tim wondered if he was doing something wrong by sitting there. Apparently, he reasoned, nobody takes advantage of the view or the coolness of the little jasmine grotto. The cloying scent of jasmine was strong and despite the coolness of the bower, he didn’t think he’d stay seated there much longer. But he was about four feet above ground level and he had a nice view of the court yard. He saw several monks doing the slow walking meditation through the garden sculpted with stela type rocks, portulaca, ice plants, and sweet william that grew along the pathway edges. A weeping willow tree of some sort stood in the middle of the rock garden. Tim imagined that its drooping branches would sway in the wind. It seemed so serene. How, Tim wondered, could a snake like Joshua reside in such a place.
Most of the courtyard was planted with herbs and vegetables for the chef. Tim noticed rows of parsley and dill and other rows of spinach, carrots, tomatoes, scallions, and other plants he could not identify. He studied the 500 gallon sausage-shaped propane tank and saw two shoddy wooden doors in the cinderblock wall opposite him. Ruts in the dirt path ran from the doors to the tank and left no doubt that this was the refilling truck’s route. He noticed that two hose lines led from the tank – one went directly to the kitchen, the other to the dormitory. The desert gets cold at night and Tim rightly reasoned that the dormitory used a propane heating system. He guessed that the abbot’s bedroom probably had its own small electric heater.
As he continued to survey Joshua’s refuge, he noticed that something seemed wrong with the tall chimney that rose from kitchen at the point that it connected to the exhaust pipe from the dormitory. The junction was surrounded by aluminum foil in a sloppy way. It was therefore difficult for Tim to determine whether the angle of connection it formed was 90 or 100 degrees, but in either case was far too horizontal. The guide wires that held the kitchen chimney upright were slack. Quite possibly the main exhaust pipe had slipped down and this affected the angle of the other pipe’s insertion. This, he reasoned, was probably the cause of the nightmares and hallucinations. The system didn’t have to be clogged – though it might be – for enough of the exhaust to back up into the dormitory. The monks were suffering from chronic low-grade carbon monoxide poisoning. Killing by CO poisoning at the monastery! Now that was an idea. But he rejected it because of the high collateral damage. Then he thought about Rick Dubrovsky.
As he sat there, useless information he had acquired, became relevant. He thought about something Joshua had told him on a coffee break: a surfing friend in Malibu had once worked in a tuna packaging plant in Hawaii. The company would put a cut of tuna in a package, vacuum out the air, and then give the tuna package a jolt of carbon monoxide and then seal it. The gas kept the tuna bright in color. In fact, long after the tuna’s normal “shelf life” had expired and the fish was unfit to eat, it would still look appetizing. Joshua said a person was a fool for eating packaged meat and fish, and that his friend had confided that after a few months on the job a worker would have nightmares and would have to be moved to another department.
It had been a vague intention of Tim’s to lure Joshua outside the monastery with the irresistible gift of a Donald Takayama surfboard. He’d spend time at the monastery so that Joshua would believe that Brad Brenner really existed and was truly sick, and then he’d leave word for Joshua to meet him at a place in the desert… he had several in mind… deserted places where he could say he kept his board hidden so that his brother-in-law couldn’t find it. He could the kill him and dump his body down a mine shaft. It would have been a stupid idea to anyone, but when it came to surfing, Joshua couldn’t think rationally. Carbon monoxide. Hmmm. Alternatively, he could find a way to pump CO into Rick’s bedroom when the two of them were together. Rick would not exactly be collateral damage. Joshua, on the other hand, absolutely needed killing – and by Tim’s hand, too.
Was the gas available? He would check the internet. The gas had a commercial use in the meat and fish packaging business. Surely he could buy a canister of CO gas, but how could he get it to do its lethal work?
Why not Rick’s bedroom” Telephone and cable lines had no doubt been drilled into the stucco wall. A rubber tube could easily be inserted. An easy death for such a treacherous pair. He could set things up while they were at the big dinner. But suppose Joshua didn’t return to Rick’s house after the dinner? There was that dog to worry about. And the gas tank would have to be collected afterwards. What about an appliance that malfunctioned? Something would have to account for the presence of the gas. But wait a minute! With Rick and Joshua dead, how would he clear himself of the $40,000 debt?
Tim needed to think. Killing someone was easy. Getting away with it was not.