The Moondead (L.A. Mascone)

1     A DEATH IN THE STREET

Wednesday, close to midnight, February 6

It was late and a half moon, high in the sky, offered little light to the two walking into the dark. Laughing, they shadowboxed with each other on their way home from a late shift; they were young, but talked like they were older. An overhang of olive trees carved even stranger shapes into the sidewalk; two streetlights were out. The boys hastened their steps but something was wrong up ahead; a shaft of light from the open door of San Paolo’s church revealed a struggle...two men, one fell to the ground. Ramos looked at his friend...did they want some of this? Both broke into a run when they heard Father Villa cry out.

Closer now, they could better see the assailant; the hood of a monk’s robe hiding his eyes, he bending over his victim and wielding a zip blade. They were too late...the stranger was slitting his throat. Stones scattered all over the street told of more than a knife fight. There was ritual here; in some archaic way, someone had tried to stone Father Villa to death. The two skidded to a halt and later admitted they had no idea why they froze, recalling how the stranger raised his head and, with menacing eyes glared through an unusual half mask of gold...it was elegant, shimmering, something one might see at a Mardi Gras Ball or on Dia de los Muertos, but certainly not for a killing. More sinister now, he slowly rose to his feet as if growing out of the pavement. Acting like he’d time to spare, the man wiped the blade on his sleeve then pointed at them like they were next.

Carlos backed off. “Demonio!”

“No, he’s not.” Ramos lunged at him. “Oye, vato, estas muertos!”

But the man lashed out at the boy with his knife and with almost supernatural agility, posed his victim in the form of a cross then bolted into the alley. Someone was waiting, gunning an engine; a truck spun its wheels in the gravel and sped off, but the killer clung to the door, laughing as he struggled to crawl through the window. It was Carlos who heard the hard, shrill laugh of the driver...a woman. “Bruja…ay Dios mio!” He punched in 9-1-1 on his cell, knowing too well the Fifth Precinct’s slow response in this part of town.

With no headlights on, the vehicle vanished into the dark but the boys caught sight of it under a streetlight. “That’s one tricked-out red Mercedes, damn! Who’s got wheels like that around here?” Ramos shouted into the night: “Asesinato! Ayuda! Our padre’s dead!”

But in this part of town, families heard cries like this in the night all the time. Shaken, the two stood over their priest like not so brave guardian angels. Carlos stared up at the sky and looked for the moon...a cloud had passed over it. He sank to his knees, closed the priest’s eyes; he’d seen it done in the movies. “La luna muerta...our padre’s one of them now.”

It was happening more often; talk in the street was all about them. Elders talked of things they’d only whispered about. There was no man in the moon but a woman with night eyes who watched all they did, even when it wasn’t her turn to be up there. They would soon say she was the one killing holy ones, nuns and priests in their city. Some called her a bruja looking for trouble when she dipped low over the city and lately she’d found it. People were dying under a full moon when she supposedly looked her loveliest...si, Carlos was thinking, la luna muerta. His abuela had been whispering something about the moondead, good souls, soon to be going to God violently. It had begun.

In hushed voices, old women, shucking their corn or peeling potatoes warned everyone...those who died with a moon overhead would be blessed in the next life. With the sign of the cross, they had whispered: “Beware to the rest of us....” Their spirits, they said, would walk the streets of L’Arroyo on every full moon thereafter. Still no one...Carlos again pulled out his cell; the boy called his mother. But then, from a humble casita, crept an old woman, who howled like a lobo at the moon when she saw her priest, bloodied and still. The sound of it set off the neighbors who poured from their homes and a wail rose up so loud, it drowned out the sirens. In an eerie contradiction, men stood like sentinels in a circle around the body. Though outsiders had been called on to help, they were thought to be trampling on something sacred. And there was the ever-present reality of who would be blamed and swept up in a van; this was gang turf; certain things understood.

But this time, the Fifth Precinct was rattled as well...Father Villa, well known for his wisdom and holiness here in the barrio, was down; an EMV on two wheels turned the corner with a fire truck close behind it. Those guarding the fallen priest finally stepped back when paramedics pushed through the crowd with a gurney and women whispered among themselves. Some ran to the church, the door still wide open. Father had apparently rushed from the church when someone called out his name in the street. His breviary still lay open on the communion rail and a woman kissed it then placed it on the main altar. Ramos and Carlos had followed them and silently watched from the back of the church. They’d often sat with their priest alone in the night; it had been his custom to pray through the night and remain in the church to listen to all in need. Briefly, matter-of-factly, the police had already questioned them, taking their names and half-listening, said they’d be in touch; the two were even more on edge. It was Ash Wednesday.

+++

Thursday, near two in the morning, February 7

At the convent of San Miguel in downtown L’Arroyo, a nun, unable to sleep, sat by her window, looking into the garden below. Moments ago in the shadows, she’d seen a hooded figure kneel briefly by an altar of stone; oddly, a tall cross of wood covered in thorns seemed to grow from its center. She thought it beautiful and her eyes traced the dirt path up the slope to the rear wall of the Cathedral and a moon-garden, its white blossoms glowing eerily in the night. But dearest to her were a dozen angels of marble, rising like standing stones from the lush undergrowth at their feet; one more beautiful than the other. They too silently contemplated the darkness. On the other side of the bishop’s private retreat was his imposing residence, still now, as if watching over the enclosure.

Glancing up at a waxing moon, Sister Magdalen smiled a little; new to the parish of San Miguel, she was more curious than apprehensive about the unspoken mystery here. Within days of her arrival, the enigmatic Bishop Santo Cantera had appointed her sacristan of his Cathedral. Tasked with the care of holy vessels and vestments, altars and liturgies, the sacristy would become her second home. But what a strange place this was; yesterday, she’d heard some intrigue...she liked intrigue. Her altar servers had been trading tales of urban legend and lore about an unseen L’Arroyo, a silent, shadowy network of tunnels under the city, some going nowhere, others leading from beneath the Cathedral itself to below the Plaza and beyond to the archeological museum’s storage bays for new acquisitions.

Rumor had it...an unusual shipment had arrived from Egypt; her art history students had mentioned as much only yesterday that there were several large pods from Cairo looking quite mysterious. But how would they know...these lay under the city and what, in God’s name, were they doing down there? She would learn the more adventurous were taking some chances, poking about in the tunnels at night just for the thrill of it.

Magdalen loved the night and dark places and secretly envied them but she feared for their safely and chided them. Had she not all this in Egypt? Recently she’d told them the moon tides intrigued her. They’d been discussing Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, how he’d painted it while in the asylum of Saint Remy-de-Provence; she kindly stated the man had some personal problems. “See how erratic and frenzied the brush strokes hit the canvas?”

But they had only some concern for his ear...and what about Egypt? The boys were remembering that other discussion they’d started yesterday; forget this crazy, old red haired Impressionist. The girls had hushed Ben and his cohort and said Van Gogh had been brilliant. But what about Egypt...they wanted more. Magdalen had quickly said it might bore them but they insisted and she walked to the window of her second-floor classroom overlooking the Plaza. “You’ve told me you love that obelisk in the middle of the square over there. People who started this city must have liked Egypt, too. Look at the public buildings, their architecture is magnificent...it’s Egyptian Revival, see how their surfaces are covered in scarabs and lotus. There’s a crescent moon in our painting... but the moons in Egypt were huge and full of all kinds of mystery, the night sky larger, stars brighter.” She turned to them. “You have the same here in the Sonoran.” They smiled. “The moon over the desert is stunning.” And the nun spoke more of her studies.

“Sister, what’s up with all that death and mummies and stuff?”

“Stuff. Antonio, you know better. Be more specific.” They laughed.

The boy shook his head. “I can’t. I don’t know enough. You tell us, Sister.”

“We don’t say can’t in here…give me something, anything!”

A quiet girl in the front seat raised her hand. “King Tut was young like us when he was murdered.” Others joined in with what they had learned from fourth grade and the Discovery Channel; forget freshman year and World History class.

Ben said Julie was right: “King Tut got offed, plain and simple; he was too young to die. He got punked big-time.” Some laughed.

Magdalen pushed on. Wired on carbs and not wanting to be there, the class after lunch had always proved problematic. But she’d reeled them in; Van Gogh could take second chair to King Tutankhamen at least for a day. She pointed to a topical map, places that spoke to death and dying, entombment and ritual. Mortuary archeology had brought her to Egypt for graduate studies and she spoke to them of necropolei and unusual passage tombs. It all sounded thrilling. There were actually people called Egyptologists; they all wanted to be one.

“Your English teacher, Miss Howard, told me you’re reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Berenice Bobs Her Hair.” The girls smiled, the boys didn’t. “Did you know the Egyptian Queen Berenice inspired him?”

The girls were ecstatic, the boys not so much.

Ben surprised everyone. “I’d never have left Egypt.”

Their nun had a faraway look. “Well, Ben, I almost didn’t, but life calls…you know all about that; you’re upperclassmen and know everything.” The boys hooted; Magdalen quieted them, describing how the work had consumed her, leaving her forever curious.

“About what?” someone asked.

“Things hidden. Mysteries are everywhere if you have the sight to see them.”

They glanced at each other. “You’ve come to the right place, Sister.” Ben again. “You’ve got all that here in L’Arroyo.” Some rolled their eyes, shook their heads.

Others said it was so when Danny suggested: “You got to come with us; there’s something you need to see.” Magdalen pondered all they were saying; yes, she’d need to investigate Danny’s ossuary church of Saint Rita’s; he’d called it the Church of Bones. She surmised from their description, it was a cavern of sorts, a reliquary under a now defunct church condemned by the city. She’d seen it, was curious about such a holy place left in a state of such disrepair; it had looked haunted and lost. Would she come with them? “I’d like to hear about some of your adventures.”

“No, you don’t. You don’t know Danny Bellati.” They laughed; he looked annoyed but was used to it and no, she did not know the boy, but had been keeping her eye on him.

“No matter. Danny, your Church of Bones…I’m interested. Will you take me there soon?” They all spoke at once. Danny was pleased...this was a first; a nun was taking an interest in someone like him from a family who had history with the police; his father, a local bookmaker with a reputation and betting parlor. “Make a list of what you want me to see in the city and let’s talk! But it must have something to do with the making of art, a studio or museum, a gallery, some sculpture or architecture or even a graveyard full of carved tombstones, and definitely something about the past and maybe…a mystery.”

That was a lot to cover, they said. The bell rang for change of class and they groaned...that was a first. But how curious... Ben, a boy who loved football and monster trucks, had said here in L’Arroyo, she had all the mystery she needed and Danny was warming up to her finally. There was Julie, a junior, who sat in the front of the class looking up at her everyday. “May I do a report on Queen Berenice?”

Why did the ones who had straight A’s always ask to do extra credit? Magdalen smiled…Egypt works. It was a start. Her students had sensed the same; she wondered if there would be more mystery than ministry here? It would seem she had replaced the Sahara with the Sonoran, perhaps one culture of death for another...muertos.

An unexpected and overheard conversation between two older nuns ha confirmed this when Magdalen’s curiosity was even more set afire with whispers concerning a graveyard hidden under the bishop’s residence? She needed answers now, this minute. Sister Patrice in her kitchen was always good for a chat about things not to be said. “Ay, the Garden of Gethsemane cemetery, now defunct, as they say. You’ll find out soon enough; our good Father Pena’s the one who hid it from view when he built his house over the top of it, if you can believe it. And that happened only after he tried to exorcise it of demons.” She paused in the telling and lowered her voice. “There’d been a desecration there, luv.” Sister put her finger to her lips. “Something to do with that Patti Devlin, the rich lass from Darby Hill. The dear man was never sure he’d done it, you know.” Demons, a graveyard, a rich girl...Magdalen would try to keep up.

“Done what?”

“Father was never quite certain he’d scared the bejeezus out of the Devil’s minions. He performed an exorcism, yes, he did...or tried to.” She made the sign of the cross. Minions, exorcism...what?

“And the interred?”

“Some say a few of the dead may be resting there still…” She hurried about the kitchen. “But no, I’m almost certain all were exhumed and reinterred elsewhere.” How macabre was that? “And the bishop’s family mausoleum is still intact down there; it’s a stunner, I’m told. Heard it was grand; the Canteras had it all.”

And this lay under the bishop’s house? Perhaps L’Arroyo’s first cemetery was waiting for someone to go there and listen, just listen; it had a story. Her thoughts were racing. Magdalen could do this; she liked stories. But she wondered how Bishop Cantera could live happily above such a place. It was time and a mystery to solve would suit her just fine; she’d been too long without one.

The archeologist-turned-nun could do with some convent noir.

But she’d let it go for tonight and gazed at a mist-covered moon high in the sky. Magdalen would have much to unwrap in L’Arroyo but for now, she’d let the earth go its way with her prayers.

Across the garden, a lamp still glowed in the bishop’s study, its light dusting the tops of mesquite and acacia below; but the night-blooming cereus stood poised, as if waiting. Magdalen shuttered…it was back, that seventh sense, a gift of knowing she had possessed longer than she could remember, pointing to something amiss, an unholy act.

A soft knock at the door made her jump; no one had done this before in the night.

Her visitor was pale; Sister Petra wasn’t herself. The woman was generally placid, contained, but not now. She rushed to Magdalen’s window. “Did you see it?”

Magdalen smiled a little.

Ah, good something to wonder about. “The monk, you mean?”

“Is that what I’m seeing? What do you think we have here?”

“I assumed you’d know…someone who lives at the bishop’s residence?”

“Oh, no. Only His grace and the monsignor are there. They don’t do that.”

“Do what?” Silence. ”Never mind…you’re upset; let’s put you to bed. I’ll figure it out.”

“You’ll do this for me?”

“Trust me…I love a good mystery.”

The convent director smiled weakly. “You’ve come to the right place.” Hadn’t her students said that? “May I sit?” Magdalen pointed to a chair at her table covered with books and manuscripts. Petra hesitated, glanced out the window again. “I’ve wanted to speak to you about...about things not spoken of here at San Miguel.” She had Magdalen’s attention. “You’ll understand soon enough.” Had Patrice not said as much?

“That sounds ominous…what is it?”

In a rush of words, she said all Patrice then asked: “Tell me about this gift you possess.”

Magdalen wasn’t surprised. “It goes back to Egypt but at the time, I didn’t get it.”

She described an observant professor who told her she had the gift. “He insisted I use it.”

But Petra explained she had the same sense of things she did...a gift of knowing as well, an uncanny understanding and ability to discern the human heart of an individual through what they said, the word spoken. She studied Magdalen for a moment. “You’re missing all that, I mean Egypt, your research, aren’t you, Sister.”

“Yes, but mostly no, though I admit to being restless. But truly the Life means more to me than all that.” For years, she said, she’d suffered from unusual forebodings, the knowledge of dark deeds happening at that very moment somewhere else. “I agonize over what I can’t stop and it’s more than what the Jesuits call discernment of spirits.”

“Surely you’re not responsible; don’t even think it.”

But this was no comfort. “After Cairo and a few digs in Italy, I returned to the states and worked for my uncle, a sheriff.” She described how a year before entering religious life, she’d consulted on a case; a dozen monks had been murdered. “I was a mortuary archaeologist and didn’t work random crimes but consulted on those that revealed premeditation and religious obsession...ritual.”

“And you’re thinking something as horrible as that has happened here in our city.”

“Why, yes...I believe so.” She felt powerless.

“My dear…we will see. My gift allows me to read people’s thoughts, discerning the anguish or goodness inside them. I hear other things in the words they say, the tone of their voice. I simply know things.” She was silent for a moment. “Your training however could be helpful. The Life doesn’t always give us space to run an hunch as you’ve done in the past, but I need you to do some of that here.” The archaeologist-nun assured her she was no miracle-worker. Regardless Petra lowered her voice as if they weren’t alone, proposing she play detective, without shirking her duties or neglecting her prayer. “Nothing desperate or alarming now; there’s no time tonight to share my list of intrigues but I trust you, Magdalen.” But before saying good night, Petra surprised her. “I’m so glad you’re my second assistant. God has brought you to me.”

“Sister Agnes though is your first and she is so conscientious; I’m not always that.”

They walked to the door. “Conscientious is good and so is Sister Agnes. I need her, but the dear woman thinks only in black and white. To survive San Miguel, one must perceive things in pastels with a much broader palette.” Petra had her own way of saying things. “As for me, you must know I’m not always well and still suffer some weakness from a bout of polio I endured as a child though...” And she smiled. “I made the final cut in the city ballet after high school, thank you very much.” They laughed. “I trust you will be there for me. And that other thing; investigate a bit, but only with caution.” Magdalen said that she would but...that “other thing” would allow her to snoop around a bit. “You’re here for a reason! Forgive my intrusion. But it’s to bed now.”

Magdalen returned to the window overlooking the garden. She smiled a little. Petra’s proposal had stirred a fire inside her. Her Welsh-born uncle, Sheriff Wilem John Williams, liked to call it Sherlockian, then viola! Cause and effect, dilemma, solution; all would be neatly tied in a bundle. But she sensed Petra had not told her everything. When she had asked about a former convent director, Sister Viviana, she had paled, fallen silent. Apparently some mysteries were off limits and that too was a mystery.

She seated herself at the table and set to work, arranging her papers and pens...not wanting to sleep. Finally weary, she gazed one more time at her beloved angels of stone who stood silent and watchful as if waiting for something to happen. Magdalen prayed her last prayer of the day and eyed the old altar, covered in cat’s claw and jasmine. Patrice had mentioned a door cut into the side of it, the gardener’s tool shed hidden inside it and in which another door gave access to a tunnel within the north wall. This posed a serious problem for Magdalen: where would such a passageway take the curious or someone with darker intent? Had the shadowy figure disappeared under the altar? Undoing the braid at the nape of her neck, she leaned back in her chair and considered who it might be.

There were several possibilities, most likely the bishop himself. Santo Cantera was an eccentric man, charismatic nonetheless; ah well, it’s his garden; this should be interesting.

She finally reclined on her narrow bed with the simple, brown coverlet. At least for the moment, what more did she need than this humble room with its desk and chair and old wooden bookshelf overflowing with theology books and bound studies on art history and archaeology. On a worktable by the door was her basket of Saint Brigid’s crosses; she had a talent for weaving strips of fabric and reeds together, replicating the medieval saint’s handcraft from centuries ago. The Cathedral gift shop had even taken an interest; parishioners were requesting “Magdalen’s crosses” now.

She closed her eyes content, that after years of searching, she’d chosen this uncluttered life. The nun fell asleep; but what she’d seen in the garden, would change forever the lives of the Sisters asleep in their beds.

The following day heads turned when she passed through security; a female detention officer approached. “Your students have not been charged, Sister.”

Magdalen brushed passed her. “How could this happen?” Yesterday before the last bell of the day, she’d pointed to the handcuffs the police had placed on two of her students.

“You couldn’t have waited until you were off campus?” The detective, an arrogant man, had entered her classroom with two officers and removed Carlos Guerrera and Ramos Robles; they had been hustled out to a waiting police van. Magdalen demanded the detective’s name.

“Dan Mason, at your service; Sister. I’m giving an assist to the Fifth Precinct. They’re swamped these days with this kind of kid.” This kind of what...what had he said? She wanted to pounce on his remark but with obviously no sense of boundaries, he had leered at her. The boys took offense. Ben stood up and pushed back his desk. The detective glared at him but extended his hand to Magdalen; she declined.

After he left, her students voiced their upset at his way with their nun. “We’ll kick his ass for you, Sister.” Dear Ben.

“Language please; there will be no kicking of anything...but thank you for being so gallant.” They had grinned and then rushed to the windows and stared down at their friends.  Carlos and Ramos had endeared themselves to the nun with their humor and stories, coming often to her for help with their studies. Now they were being whisked away and trying to be stoic. After school, Petra gave Magdalen the keys to the convent SUV and she was gone.

A throwback to the early fifties, the juvenile detention center was huge, dark and Dickens-like; it looked out-of place in the Sonoran and stood in sharp contrast beside the new Palm Street City Jail. The setting seemed fitting: one of her students had taken his life, ended it. Carlos Guerrera was dead.

Walking the yard, he’d suddenly bolted and thrown himself into an electric fence; Ramos, unable to stop him, had witnessed his friend’s self-execution. Believing he’d sinned at not having done enough to save the life of his priest, he was deserving of hell. The boy, urged on by his own guilt, had ended it. Sadly, neither boy knew they had been cleared and, as the officer would admit, through an administrative error, they had been placed in the yard with more hardened youth and been threatened. Word spread quickly: they’d killed a priest...even in their world there were limits. Ramos made it clear: “Gangsta’ or not, that’s something you don’t do, Sister.”

She understood and a devastated Magdalen sat down, finding some relief in the empathy of an officer overseeing the visiting area. Sgt. Jesús Marcus whispered he was even more frustrated than she, that happily this was his last day on the job; he’d been re-assigned to Lt. John Padric’s unit as if she should know who he was. She would learn later the sargeant had studied for the priesthood, attended the seminary; they would become friends over the next month.

“My name is Magdalen, Sister Magdalen. Thank you for speaking with me but when might Mrs. Guerrera see her son’s body, take him home?”

The female officer, already annoyed by the nun, retorted: “Sister Magdalen, is it?” Magdalen did not respond. “You can’t see we’re short-staffed, overcrowded? Your boys were not the only two who walked through our doors yesterday.”

“But one of my boys will never walk out.” The two women locked eyes.

###

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