The night was dark as pitch, the moon and stars erased by a thick cloud cover that gave those wandering outdoors the feeling that they were in the midst of a cavernous mine.
It was after nine o'clock, considered late by most Dorsetville standards. Still, the members of Saint Cecilia's parish council lingered, attributable to both Mrs. Norris's apple-cranberry pie and the icy patches that only hours ago had been soft pools of water under the March thaw. Folks huddled over hot cups of coffee, reluctant to brave the brisk wind, the icy interiors of their cars, or the dark drive home.
Father James watched George Benson cut his fourth wedge of pie and a slice of Vermont cheddar. At this rate, there wouldn't be any leftovers, a problem he had never encountered before George was elected to the parish council.
"Pass the cream," George said, refilling his coffee mug.
Harry Clifford had brought a large thermos of coffee from the Country Kettle. This, too, George had nearly depleted. Father James passed the cream and harnessed a growing sense of resentment.
George wolfed down a sizable wedge of cheese, licked his fingers, then belched. His manners were about as uncouth as his appearance--greasy overalls, oil-stained fingers. This newest council member owned a heating and air-conditioning business and didn't feel it necessary to wash or change for meetings, which accounted for the strategic seating arrangements. George sat alone on one side of the ten-foot table. Ethel Johnson, Harriet Bedford, Sam Rosenberg (who had driven Harriet), Mary Pritchett, Harry Clifford, Mike Gallagher, and Father James were crowded along the opposite side. Ethel's golden retriever, Honey, lay underneath.
"I heard that you and your wife have been looking to buy some real estate down south," George told Harry Clifford, scraping the last bit of pastry off his plate with his thumb.
"How'd you hear that?" Harry wanted to know.
"Esther Fitzsimons told me. I was fixing her toilet the other day. You wouldn't believe what was stuffed down there. It looked like--"
"George!" Father James interrupted forcefully. "We really don't need to know the details."
"Are you and Nellie thinking about buying a vacation home?" Harriet asked.
"We considered it."
"They're moving down there. Permanently. They're retiring," George stated emphatically.
"Retiring?" Father James said with a gasp, splashing coffee down the front of his shirt.
"Now wait a minute--" Harry began.
"That's what Esther told me," George said, plowing right over Harry's protestations. "She said that Nellie came into school last week complaining about the cold and said that they were moving someplace warm."
"Moving?" Ethel said, sinking back in her chair. Honey, sensing something was deeply wrong, leaned heavily against her lap.
For several seconds folks sat in stunned silence. Harry's retirement had never occurred to any of them. Harry owned the Country Kettle, and Dorsetville without the Country Kettle was . . . well . . . unimaginable.
Where would Mike Gallagher take his ten-year-old twin boys for malteds after their hockey games; or Father James go for home fries, golden brown with crispy laced edges; or the seniors for their morning toast and coffee after mass?
"Now, listen everyone. Nellie and I have no intention--" Harry began, trying to set things straight, but George cut him off.
"That's not what Esther said," George piped in, leaning back in his chair. "She said Nellie told her that you were moving."
Harry shook his head in exasperation. "We are not moving, George."
"Then why would Esther say you were?"
"I don't know. Maybe Nellie mentioned that we had been talking about it . . . ," he said, hedging.
"See, I told you!" George smiled, feeling he had been vindicated.
"You know how it is this time of year," Harry explained. "By mid-March, we've all had enough of the ice and snow. Nellie and I just got up one morning last week and starting talking about how nice it would be to live someplace where you didn't have to tunnel your way out to the car each morning. But that's all it was. Honest. Just talk."
Everyone gave a collective sigh of relief. Everyone, that is, except George.
"You know, it's not half a bad idea for you two to start thinking about retiring." George was like a dog with a bone. He was not letting this go. "You're no spring chickens anymore."Retirement?
Why the devil would George want to put that idea in Harry's head? Father James wondered. Blast the man! He ran a finger around his collar, which suddenly seemed rather tight.
"Nellie and I just turned fifty," Harry said, a little put off. "We've got a few years left before we reach our 'golden years.' "
Father James relaxed.
"I think you're foolish. Why, if I had your kind of money, come the first snowfall, I'd be on a plane to the Bahamas."
"You make us sound as though our middle name is Midas."
"You got a restaurant, a bakery, plus Nellie's salary. I'd say you're doing pretty well."
"Now listen here, George. Our finances are not up for discussion."
"You can't take it with you, Harry," George said sagely. "You might as well spend it if you got it, so why not spend it wintering in a place where it's warm? Why, just look at the weather tonight. It's cold enough to freeze the tits off Platt's cows."
"George Benson!" Harriet chastised. "Mind your manners. You're in the basement of Lord's house."
"What did I say?" he asked with absolute innocence.
Mary Pritchett could see that a change in subject matter was desperately needed and so she offered, "Wasn't the weather lovely last weekend?"
"Felt almost like spring," Father James quickly answered, happy to get away from all the talk about Harry retiring or wintering down south. If he ever discovered who had voted George Benson onto the parish council, he might strongly suggest they seek absolution.
"I took my Girl Scout troop on a field trip over to Fenn's Pond," Mary continued. "The crocus is in bloom. They're just lovely."
Harriet, who owned the local nursery, had donated a hundred bulbs last fall to the Garden Club's annual beautification project.
"I heard one of the girls fell in," Ethel chuckled.
Mary rolled her eyes. "That would be Leah Kilbourne. I told her to stay off the ice, but Leah had to test it out. Luckily, she fell in at the edge, not in the deep end."
"Speaking of water," George interjected. "Did anyone notice the large water stain behind Saint Anthony's statue?"
"I was going to ask you about that," Father James said.
"It's coming from the pipe chase that runs down behind the wall," George explained. Taking a checkered handkerchief from his back pocket, he blew his nose, gave it a hard swipe, and stuffed the handkerchief back into his pants pocket, then concluded, "In order to fix it, that back section of the wall will have to be torn down. It's the only way I can get to the leak."
"How long will it take to repair?" asked Harry, who was president of the parish council.
"Depends on what I find," George said, pushing back his chair. "Now, if no one is going to eat this last piece of pie, I think I'll finish it off."
The meeting broke up a little after ten o'clock. Deputy Hill watched from across the street as council members navigated their way along the icy asphalt pathway under Father James's admonitions to be careful.
He buried his hands inside his thermo-lined jacket and shivered, figuring that if he made it through tonight's shift without getting frostbite, it would be a miracle.
The row of arched streetlamps cast small pools of yellow light onto the sidewalks, revealing patches of ice and crusted snow. He glanced over at the large wrought-iron clock stationed near the entryway to the town park and felt his heart sink. There were still two and a half hours to go.
Stuffing his hands deeper into his pockets, he plodded on. His hopes of ever restoring his place with the sheriff were as empty as the starless sky. Night patrol was his punishment for having totaled the department's new police cruiser and taking Sam Rosenberg's Plymouth Duster along with it. Fortunately for Sam, a group of friends had restored his car; however, Hill doubted if anyone could restore his standing with the sheriff. This was the third vehicle that had met its demise while under his care.
A tabby cat dashed out from behind a cluster of bushes and crossed the street. Hill watched it disappear beneath Valerie Kilbourne's front porch. Poor thing, out on a night like this, he thought. Maybe he should knock on a few doors and try to find out where it belonged. Just then Valerie stuck her head out the front door and called, "Rufus." The cat leaped onto the porch and disappeared like liquid mercury through the open doorway.
Hill stamped his feet, which had frozen into solid blocks of ice, as a sharp wind lashed across his face, adding to his discomfort. If he didn't find a place to get warm soon, he'd die from hypothermia. He searched the quiet avenue for a light, someone who might invite him in for a hot cup of cocoa, and perhaps a word or two of sympathy, but it seemed as though everyone had gone to bed. The homes on the west side of the street slumbered quietly, and directly across the avenue, Saint Cecilia's rectory now lay quiet. Even the porch light had been turned off. Of course, he could always go back to the station and warm up, but he didn't want to risk being accused of shirking his patrol. He was in enough trouble. Better to stay out here and freeze.
For just a moment Hill felt a strange sense of foreboding, and he quickly tried to assess its origins. To the natural eye, the lane appeared quiet, yet he felt an undercurrent of movement in the air, a feeling of expectancy as though beneath the cover of darkness something had begun to stir to life. A sliver of fear snaked its way up his spine. He wasn't accustomed to these kinds of fanciful thoughts, and he tried to shake them off as a dog would water from a swim in the pond. Still, they lingered.
Then his eyes came to rest on Saint Cecilia's Church, a misshapen mass of stone and mortar of indiscernible architectural style, sitting like a paperweight on the northern side of the green. A small orb of light flickered, reflecting through a stained-glass window, and he wandered over in hopes he might find the church unlocked.
He felt a heavy sigh of relief as the solid oak doors gave way easily under his weight. Once he was inside, the warm air enveloped him like a down comforter, and for just a fleeting second he thought about staying here until his shift ended. Who would know?
As he made his way inside, he felt a familiar sense of peace. What was it about a church that produced serenity? he wondered, gazing out over the pews. It didn't matter which one he stepped into, they all made him feel the same.
Toward the right of the altar, a single candle burned underneath the statue of Saint Anthony, and Hill found himself following its light like a lost ship sailing toward a lighthouse.
By the time he had reached the front of the church, feeling had returned to his limbs. He peeled off his gloves and stood staring up at the life-size statue.
It was the most beautiful statue he had ever seen. The finely chiseled stone appeared almost lifelike, especially around the eyes, which carried a deep, soulful look of compassion. Without conscious thought, he reached out and touched the friar's robes, a part of him half expecting to feel the soft folds of fabric beneath his fingers, and he was faintly surprised when he connected with the cold, hard touch of unyielding stone.
As a member of the Salvation Army, Hill knew little about Catholic saints, but suddenly he found himself mesmerized by this strangely compelling statue. Saint Anthony was slightly bent over the infant Jesus, whom he held in his arms. His eyes were filled with adoration; his lips curved in a gentle smile. Most intriguing was the way the artist had captured the special bond between the saint and the child. The love they shared was almost palpable.
He gazed quietly up into the saint's gentle face, wondering why this simple form had seemed to touch him so deeply.
A prayer card was lying at the saint's feet. He picked it up and began to read.O holy Saint Anthony, gentlest of saints, your love for God and charity for his creatures made you worthy, when on earth, to possess miraculous powers. Miracles waited on your word, which you were ever ready to speak for those in trouble or anxiety. Encouraged by this thought, I implore you to obtain for me my request.
The answer to my prayer may require a miracle; even so, you are the saint of miracles.
O gentle and loving Saint Anthony, whose heart was ever full of human sympathy, whisper my petition into the ears of the sweet infant Jesus, who loved to be folded in your arms, and the gratitude of my heart will ever be yours.
Maybe it was the hushed quiet in the sanctuary, or the strange connection that he suddenly felt to this saint, but something propelled him to reach for a taper and light a candle of his own. A small yellow flame slowly danced to life, bringing with it a warm sense of peace.
Hill lived in a small furnished apartment on top of John Moran's real estate office, on Main Street, six doors down from Town Hall. It consisted of three small rooms. The kitchen was the size of a broom closet but good enough for a bachelor who ate most of his meals at the Country Kettle. He hadn't used the living room since moving here, mostly because the couch, a castoff from John's lake house, smelled of mold. A small bathroom was wedged in between the living room and kitchen, tiled in institutional pea green, with a claw-foot tub.
Hill spent most of his time in the tiny bedroom that fronted Main Street, watching the twenty-four-inch Samsung color television that sat on top of his dresser; or, when weather permitted, leaning out the front window and waving to folks as they passed by. Hill felt it gave citizens a sense of comfort, knowing that a member of the Dorsetville Police Department was keeping a keen eye on things around town.
Tonight he entered the apartment numb from the cold and longing for a hot bath and a cup of tea. The thermostat was in the kitchen, and he pumped it up to the max before turning the jet on underneath the teapot. Not bothering to take off his coat, he foraged for a tea bag in the cabinet above the sink and plopped it into a recently acquired Starbucks mug before heading toward his bedroom.
Excerpted from On a Wing and a Prayer by Katherine Valentine. Copyright © 2005 by Katherine Valentine. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.