The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain
"Blackwood, I need a favor."
Sean Cronin, Cardinal Priest of the Holy Roman Church and by the Grace of God and heroic patience of the Apostolic See, Archbishop of Chicago, leaned casually against my doorjamb.
I was instantly wary. Cardinals don't need to ask for favors. Something was afoot, something more serious than Sherlock Holmes's "the game."
"I cannot recall that there is a marker on the table," I said cautiously.
I was appealing to the Chicago School of economics, not that made famous by all the Nobel folk over at The University but by Chicago politicians: its premise was that you can ask for a favor from someone who owes you one for a previous favor (a "marker"). I owed Milord Cronin no favors, not that it mattered.
"I want you to go to Paris," he said, ignoring my appeal to proper procedure.
"Paris, Illinois?" I asked, blinking my eyes in feigned surprise.
"Paris, France!" he said impatiently as he strode to the cabinet where I stored various liquid refreshments. "You've been there, of course."
He poured for himself a more than adequate amount of John Jameson's Twelve Year Special Reserve (now at least a quarter century old). In the reform of life imposed on him by his twice-widowedsister-in-law, Nora Cronin, he was permitted one of those a day and two cups of coffee. It was early in the afternoon for him to fill his quota.
"As you know, we Ryans travel only in cases of utmost necessity. The journey to Grand Beach, Michigan, represents the outer limit of our travels, save for an occasional venture to the Golden Dome to cheer in vain for the fighting Black Baptists."
This was surely the case. We risked going beyond that limit only for reasons of business or love, new or renewed. Neither of these issues impacted on my life.
We never, of course, drove to Milwaukee.
"You have to visit Paris, the City of Light."
"The city where they kill cardinals and bishops in front of your good friend Victor Hugo's cathedral."
"That was a long time ago," he noted, removing a stack of computer output from my easy chair and sinking wearily into it.
If he wanted me to go to Paris, then I would go to Paris. However, it was necessary that we act out the scenario.
"Nonetheless, the French do it periodically."
"I owe a lot to Nora," he said.
"Patently your health, arguably your life."
"So, I want to take her to Paris for her birthday."
"A virtuous intent."
"And I want you along to add an air of legitimacy to the trip."
Aha! So that was the nature of the game!
"My abilities as a chaperone are even more modest than my other abilities."
"All you have to do is to be around."
"Patently, I am quite unnecessary. While arguably your virtue might appear under suspicion to someamong the uninformed, the virtue of your admirable sister-in-law is beyond question."
Foster sister and sister-in-law to be precise since Nora had been adopted by the Cronins as a child and later in life married her late foster brother Paul Cronin. 1
"If an auxiliary bishop is in tow, no one will be suspicious."
An auxiliary bishop plays a role not unlike that of Harvey Keitel in the film Pulp Fiction: he sweeps up messes. This was a somewhat new extension of that role.
"The uninformed trust me less than you."
"Nora deserves this trip."
He was actually pleading with me, indirectly and circumspectly as befitted his role.
"This is a busy time in the parish."
All times in the parish are busy.
"One of your young guys can take care of it for a week."
In fact, any one of them could take care of it better than I could.
"Besides, Blackwood, the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris has an interesting little problem. He hasn't asked for your help, because he doesn't know about you, but he needs your help just the same."
This was the bait, the double chocolate malted milk on the table.
"It would seem that one of his most talented young priests has disappeared from the face of the earth."
"Into thin air, so to speak." He swilled the whiskey around in its Waterford goblet. "Do you want a drink? It's your whiskey, after all."
"What sort of thin air?"
"Third-century Gallo-Roman thin air!"
"Yeah, a famous TV priest, young, good-looking, great preacher, a little too right-wing maybe for your tastes, name of Jean-Claude Chrétien."
"The Church in France seriously needs right-wing TV preachers if it is to succeed in its efforts to bring back the Bourbon monarchy. Whether such a preacher will speak to the needs of the twenty-five percent of young people in that country who are unemployed is perhaps an open question."
Milord Cronin peered at me over the rim of his drink.
"Like I always say, Blackwood, I'm glad you're on my side ... In any event this young man has, or perhaps I should say had, some training in archaeology. He was showing a couple of TV producers through the excavations under Notre-Dame in preparation for a program about the continuity of the Church in France."
"Doubtless he intended to make clear that the original Parisi were Celts."
"Doubtless, Blackwood. Anyway, he vanished. Turned a corner and when the producers caught up with him, he wasn't there anymore."
"Arguably," Milord Cronin agreed, stealing my favorite word.
"I would be correct if I assumed that there is only one access to these ruins?"
"Yep. And people at the cashier's desk whorecognized him from his TV program swore he never left ... . So the assumption is that he jumped into a house they had unearthed in the ruins and returned to the third century."
"Arguably where he belonged."
"I suppose that there are more rational explanations. However, no one has ever found him."
I could think of some obvious ones. However, assuming that the Paris police still worked in the tradition of C. August Dupin and Inspector Maigret, they would have thought of them too. The disappearance could be conveniently accounted for perhaps. But the motive was another matter altogether. Murder? Perhaps. Fleeing from the priesthood? Arguably. Or something more sinister and cynical? The basic principle of disappearance was easy enough. You needed a few forged credentials, some credit cards and bank accounts under a new name, a place to come to earth and stay until the police gave up and stopped lookingeither because they figured you were dead or had made up your mind not to be found. If, however, you were a celebritylike a prominent TV priestit was much more difficult to come to ground where you would not be known. More difficult, but not impossible so long as you had a loyal team of coconspirators and lots of money.
The Church might take the position, especially if there were no ransom demands, that you were dead and that Communists or radicals had killed you. At that point the Church would quietly stop hoping that you'd turn up and begin to hope that you would not.
"So"-Sean Cardinal Cronin bounced from my easy chair, neglecting to replace the pile of computer output which represented the parish schedule for the next six months-"when we get there and you're not busy withyour chaperone duties, you can see to it, Blackwood!"
He thereupon departed my study with his best maniacal laugh, a crimson guided missile going into orbit.
On the whole, as Holmes would say, it was a matter not without some interesting points.
"Punk, you really have to go to Paris with Sean and Nora," insisted my sister, Mary Kathleen Ryan Murphy, who was on the phone almost as soon as Milord Cronin left the room. "You owe it to him."
"Ah," I said. "I am unaware of what that debt might be."
I had already committed myself, more or less, to the venture. Family scenarios however, had to be preserved.
"You should stay at the Abbey where Joe and I stayed when we went over with Red Kane and Eileen."
Eileen Ryan Kane, a judge in the Federal Appellate Court, was the number two matriarch in our family.
"The Abbey," I replied, "is in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin."
"No, I mean the one in the Saint Germain district, near the Sour Bean."
My virtuous sister is perhaps the finest woman psychiatrist in Chicago, which is to say the finest of any. However, her geography leaves something to be desired.
"St-Germain-des-Prés,"I said, "across the Luxembourg Gardens from the Sorbonne."
"Whatever"-she dismissed my cavils as irrelevant"it's an eleventh-century convent."
If it were it would be a precious museum. Seventeenth century more likely.
"I don't like convents."
"Don't be ridiculous, it's darling. Right near the Saint Surplus metro stop."
"St-Sulpice," I said.
"Whatever ... Well, I've told Nora about it."
I did not tell her that l'abbaye St-Germain was right around the corner from the Institut Catholiquethe Catholic presence near the Latin Quarter after theology had been forced out of the Sorbonne, St. Thomas Aquinas's university. That information was utterly irrelevant. Besides, what did I know?
So the matter had been settled. The family had once again made sure that I would act right, despite my proclivities not to do so. In fact, I would accompany Sean Cronin to the ends of the earth. I had no doubt that he could get to the aforementioned outer limits without my help, but he would not be able to return unless I were along for the ride.
The phone rang again. Crystal Lane, our resident mystic and youth minister, who answered phones until the Megan (four porter persons with the same name) appeared after school.
"Senator Cronin, Bishop Blackie."
"Thank you, Crystal."
"I'll pray for you while you're away on the trip."
That would not be an innovation. Crystal prayed all the time for everyone. Even she knew about the ill-advised journey. Even before I did.
"Thank you, Crystal," I said with my heavy West-of-Ireland sigh. "I'm sure I'll need the prayers."
"Blackwood, you're a dear," Nora Cronin began.
"Poor Sean needs time away from Chicago."
The word "poor" on the lips of an Irishwoman indicated high praise.
"And so do you."
This was simply not true. I never need to be away from Chicago. Even in the winter.
"It's very sweet of you to come. I'm sure we'll have a wonderful time. You know everything about Paris."
The Lady Nora thought I was adorable.
"It will do as a city," I admitted.
They had been lovers long ago, adulterous and sacrilegious lovers. Passions like that never really go away. I would accompany them so that they would be reassured that the passions would not escape from the currents in which they had been controlled for decades. I knew well that nothing like that could ever happen. But they didn't.
I had been to the City of Lights despite my pretense that I had not. It had a terrible, blood-soaked history. I knew too much of that history to enjoy my visit. I am not psychic like my friend and colleague Nuala Anne McGrail, but there were too many ghosts-of peasants and queens, of saints and sinners, of innocents and monsters-wandering about. However, the French, with the exception of their politicians, their intellectuals and their clergy, were nice people-just like every other people, though patently not as nice as the Irish.
Truth to tell, I liked sparring with the haughty French hierarchs I had encountered. I looked forward with considerable interest to this delightful amusement.
There was, of course, the interesting matter of the TV priest who had leaped back into the third century.
Copyright © 2001 by Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises, Ltd.