|An excerpt: AARANYA
Excerpt from AARANYA: © T. A. Moore December 26, 2021
1:: Aaranya confronts her Boss, 2020::
The skeleton is out; Father Stephen Howard is alive. However, the rest of the world doesn't know, including my boss, Chief Wotton, who wants a showdown tomorrow in my closet-sized office: “Be there, Girl, or else!”
Or else... That’s heavy. His bullet eyes are glaring from my phone.
I want to fall in love with a dark gorgeous hunk, okay, any rake of a man might do, but it won’t be him… This Zoom call was unfortunately instigated by the Human Resources Division (HR,) because I’m too exhausted to physically attend a meeting this evening.
Chief Wotton is furious, he will not be stalled: “Meet me at noon and explain, Prosecutor, how our suspect, Father Stephen, died while under your surveillance? In the meantime, I’m sticking you on probation.”
Could you spare the bullying?
But I keep quiet; need the job.
Chief Wotton has generally been patient; perhaps his most redeeming feature. Something is wrong; he hates me now.
My lips are clenched tight. Bossy bastard, bossy...
“I don’t believe you care much for me, Junior Prosecutor Aaranya Duff. Certainly, your feelings toward me play no part in my own belief that I don’t know who you are except... you’re not right for the job.”
Bugger, I enjoy working at the Department of Justice (DOJ).
“Is this a good time to talk about Jesus?”
He sneers. “You evangelical fundamentalists are all the same: gay-bashers, death-spooks, damnation pushers.”
“I’m not all goody-good, Chief. I enjoy lesbian pornography. It gives me ideas on how I might dress to please my boss...”
My provocation works; he hangs up his phone. I snap my phone shut and panic; there is only tonight to prepare my defence.
Would it have been better to have told Chief Wotton about Father Stephen’s escape? I should also have told my girlfriend... I must tell her now; it is urgent because I value her friendship.
The street is littered with evening trash along this busy block.
Why do people say Hangs up the phone? It must be similar to He goes on and on like a broken record.
The DARE program at my school taught that one technique for turning down drugs is the broken record’ approach which refers to Grandpa’s old 78rpm records that would crack, and the needle would repeat the same round of the record over and over.
I don't think it's an outdated phrase. I use hang up rather than say end the call’ for instance. While we usually push a button or snap the cover to end a phone call these days rather than by putting the receiver in a cradle the way Grandma did, the phrase remains in use.
Grandma chose my Christian name: Aaranya means I am studious, independent, fearless, investigative; I am a light-bringer and exalted. My mother considered another name, ‘Aarangi,’ which means perturbed healer. My mother insisted I be at the top of any alphabetical ordering... I don’t know why unless she was thinking of the End-times.
As I continue to stride bitterly along Lambton Quay, a bright bell rings down Cable Car Lane, spurring my sodden energy toward my urgent rendezvous with Lilith Chen. Mojo Café is downtown in the ‘Olde Bank Arcade’ where the tiled walkway leads to cherry-wood double doors; has a reputation for great pasta and expensive drinks.
Father Stephen’s call the previous evening was also urgent: Come support me at my disciplinary hearing. I like him, so agreed. Bring a fri the hearing might get stressful. That seemed solid advice...
There Lilith is sitting up at the bar with her shabby coat, and her shoulder bag beside on the only vacant stool. I rush to meet her lovely lips. Oh, my. A happy shiver radiates at the sound of her voice. However, I do not kiss her; the bar might be full of spies, and after our last night in bed with a priest, we should be discreet; Father Stephen has been through enough. Besides, Lilith is secretly Internet-dating a man.
“You look gorgeous, Aaranya. But the newspaper says Father Stephen is dead.”
I blow a strand of hair from my eyes. “My job is to coach my accused clients to deal with punishment and achieve aspirations. However, I had no idea that Father Stephen’s aspirations are so radical.”
Lilith rubs my arm. She is a caring friend. “Aren’t you going to have a wine?” Is Lilith even listening?
“Evangelicals like me have been arguably at the forefront of the Christian deployment of justice and law enforcement within the western world for much of the last century, but have been largely absent as an aspirational influence until now. However, supporting Father Stephen’s radical aspirations, although an opportunity, could also be hazardous.”
“Sounds like you are self-obsessed, Aaranya. My fortune cookie says: A global catastrophe akin to the war of Armageddon is approaching according to the Biblical text of 2 Timothy 3:1-4: ‘There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient. Careful self-obsessed Girl, the end is nigh...” Lilith thinks she is an expert on self-awareness.
“I grew up in Waitati, Girl, a small seaside settlement north of Dunedin, as the sidekick of a pastor who encouraged me to write screenplays about the End times. My Pastor is offended by Five Eyes promoting an omniscient surveillance system that imitates God’s all-encompassing observation of his creation... My Pastor also complains that recent advances in Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology that translate data directly from brain activity into synthetic text invades the privacy of prayer... I use surveillance devices anyway, but am on probation until after the big showdown tomorrow.”
“Are you recording our conversation now?” Is Lilith objecting?
I order a drink. “If you don’t mind, I need to practice my surveillance… Last night was outrageous. It was a mistake to drag you to that Diocesan Retreat Center that we weren't supposed to attend until this morning but you needed to party. After finding Father Stephen’s room, remember how we rushed to open our first bottle of wine. Your eyes soon drifted to the loud party in the boat shed. We all three strolled down there about 9.30 pm, twenty-four hours ago.”
“You ordered me to act, Aaranya: Don’t let Archie Bligh and his traditionalists bully Father Stephen. There’s a power struggle between the traditionalists and the liberal priests. I was stuck in the middle.”
“Are you blaming me, Lilith? We three slept in Stephen’s bed together, and before that, you were peering at my bum for hours... But it was all my fault, I’m a hypocrite, an idiot. I did not dare make eye contact while we danced. You looked so exotic.”
Lilith’s lips are trembling. “Get off your pity-pot, Aaranya. Mocking or doubting your emotions doesn’t negate those emotions; castigating yourself for hypocrisy won’t necessarily make you less hypocritical. We all want to feel special, but always have a reason to feel shame.”
Lilith’s family are communists so she really should be cautious; my Chief has me investigating her—another damn secret. Our friendship feels secure because she has quirks that I don’t try to control. However, identifying a problem without fixing it is unchristian... Ooops. We Christians have an image problem; (the latest report card uses descriptions such as ‘arrogant,’ ‘controlling,’ and ‘judgmental,’) so we are now called upon to present a kinder more modern face.
“It’s your fault, Aaranya. You are too passive with Archie Bligh; quoting Jesus to justify your soft-touch: Turn the other cheek. That Bible quote is surely not intended as a basis for tolerating bullying.”
I tell Lilith the news: “Father Stephen is alive, but it’s our secret.”
She jumps with joy, of course, but says nothing. Maybe comprehension thrives in the silent space between words.
“No one else knows, Lilith, not even my Chief. He blames me for Stephen’s cardiac arrest. But who could have foreseen that Father Stephen would fake his death and plot an escape? Or that Archie and the oldies were planning to publicly exorcise and defrock him?”
Lilith can be philosophical: “Isn’t his escape bound to drive Archie Bligh to desperate measures?” Her brindled eyes flicker as she gives an aggressive male admirer the finger.
“I must tell my Chief tomorrow because I’ll be fired if he hears from someone else about Father Stephen’s escape from the disciplinary hearing. Why did I leave my pastor and my family down in rural Waitati just to work in the DOJ head office investigating a gang of priests?”
“What’s your plan?”
“I was raised in a marsh and, like any sacred ground, Waitati mostly kept my family’s secrets. It was wasteland bog and we bootlegged our laws—not laws carved into stone tablets or inscribed on legal tomes, but deeper ones, stamped in my genes. When cornered, my family revert to instincts that aim straight at eternity.”
“That’s not a plan.” The barman must have the hots for Lilith because he gives us another glass of wine free of charge.
“Cheers, Lilith. After confiding in Chief Wotton about the escape, tomorrow, I plan to design my schedule and select the most suitable methods of surveillance. In a modern country like New Zealand, I should be entitled to an enlightened boss. But no luck so far.”
“Think about it from a different point of view, Aaranya.”
“No... Okay, did we ruin Father Stephen’s career? The problems began when we lured him to the boat-shed party. He’s a suspect so Chief Wotton instructed me not to get personally involved with him.”
Lilith silences me with a shush of breath. “It’s my fault for drinking too much. I’m self-conscious about dancing until I get loaded.”
For all I know, Lilith might want to kiss me, except she’s tired. “Soon Naughty Girl, you and I were dancing erotic, and sinking more champagne, amidst Archdeacon Archie’s guitar action. Father Stephen left early to avoid becoming the further target of Archie’s gossip about his assumed sex life with me.”
“We partied hard last night.” Lilith looks pale, must be hung-over. “We eventually quit singing through the microphone, eh Lilith, and crashed in Father Stephen’s room—I had planned for us to walk down the hill and go home. However, we were tired and Father Stephen, (although older) was attractive enough to sleep with. He didn’t stir. We stripped off and slid silently into his bed, unaware that Archdeacon Archie Bligh would be arriving in the morning to summon Father Stephen to his disciplinary hearing.”
“I’m glad I don’t have Archie Bligh for a client.”
Lilith has missed my cue. “Here’s the time line: At 8.30 am, Father Stephen exchanged his neatly ironed pyjamas for a dress suit, (Archie had insisted that Stephen not wear priestly robes to the disciplinary hearing,) served us tea, and returned to bed fully clothed. At 9am, Archdeacon Archie rudely entered without knocking, saw us girls, naked in bed either side of suited Stephen...”
Lilith interrupts. “Archie was envious of Stephen’s imagined sex-life with you. Archie flashed his Cadre ring and upped the stakes: ‘Follow me, Father Stephen. It is time for your exorcism. Exorcism! How nasty.”
I slam my drink. “I didn’t have sex with Stephen— and we slept on either side of him, so sure as hell, you and I didn’t have sex...”
Lilith is compelled to enlighten me: "Father Stephen refused to be exorcised, of course, and insisted on staying in his room with his assumed lovers. Who wouldn’t? There was a stand-off with Archdeacon Archie wrenching on Stephen’s leg. Father Stephen’s face turned red and he suffered a heart attack or stroke. It was horrid. I wrapped a blanket and ran with Archie to call a doctor. But you stayed.”
Did I cause this crisis? Am I too much of a risk-taker? “It wasn’t my fault. I lost contact with you then, Lilith. Things happened fast: When Archie and you rushed out to call an ambulance, I went down on the priest to perform CPR. Father Stephen resuscitated so quickly that I knew he was faking. Relieved, I went to the bathroom and dressed.”
“You could have called me then...” Lilith is self-obsessed.
“When I returned, Father Stephen had escaped. I ran outside, past a coven of journalists covering the disciplinary hearing, and found Stephen in the adjacent forest. His suit was now worn inside-out, seams showing, soiled. His face was smeared with mud. Oh my. Stephen was rapping to a journalist about the scandalous death of an unfortunate priest (Stephen,) who was scheduled for a disciplinary hearing, and yapping about the suspiciously rapid removal of the corpse.”
“And why didn’t you call me then, in the interest of your much-flouted policy of transparency?”
Lilith knows that what she just said was hostile. “Stephen was on the run, and the Chief bugs my phone so I couldn’t call. Anyway, I knew I would have this opportunity to tell you in person. I must be careful because the walls have ears. And, the Catholic Church has the greatest intelligence system with the confessional booths.”
“No excuse... What then?”
“I smuggled Father Stephen from that forest, down the hill, through the botanical gardens, across the motorway, and up the fire escape to his loft in the Cathedral. He seemed none the worse for wear, and happy that a journalist would soon publish his version of his supposed death.”
“So, you relied on me to call a doctor and deal with Archie’s rage, while you escaped to a loft, alone with Stephen. Sexy! What then?” Lilith snaps her compact shut. It lands in her shoulder-bag with a violent clunk.
“Cool it, Lilith. It wasn’t about sex, but rather was about my DOJ investigation. I asked Father Stephen about his plans. He invited us to the Cathedral for lunch on the third Sunday.”
That distracts Lilith. “I’m up for lunch. Let’s go. It’ll be fun. Maybe we can sing again?”
“But back to Father Stephen: He asked if I believed in God.”
“Who believes in a God any more?” Lilith is unhelpful.
“I do. He knows that I’m a Seventh-day Adventist and so have inside information that we will all be judged immediately upon our deaths and assigned appropriate heavenly remedial classes according to the principles of natural justice—I don’t believe in revengeful punishment. So, why did Father Stephen ask about God?”
“Stephen probably wants to recruit you to Catholicism,” Lilith says.
“He did say he was grateful that I, a prosecutor, was a witness to how Archdeacon Archie had bullied him. Father Stephen was freaked.”
“That is wimp-ish, Aaranya. You identify the crimes of your prime suspect, Archie Bligh, but then don’t bring him before a judge, just because you get whiffs of his redeemable side. Can you ever nail the guilty party—rather than merely writing a screenplay about the spiritual features of your case? Can you back-off your do-gooder role and get on with imprisoning the guilty?”
I try to swallow the hurt. “Touché, are my quirks that obvious? I walked home this morning, pondering on why I want to rescue Father Stephen. Am I a sucker for victims of persecution? But my new job is demanding: I used to work at Burger King and both jobs are full-time drudges but being a prosecutor is also part-time spiritual advisor. Like many people, Father Stephen doesn't want his quirks resolved—we often rely on our quirks as if they are stage-props—rather than committing to life as the serious spiritual drama it is intended.”
“Did you go home after that, ignoring me?” Lilith asks.
Give me a break. “No. I was already at Blessed Grace Cathedral, so I dropped-in on Archdeacon Archie, unscheduled. I was looking for new insights into my prime suspect. Archie was still wearing robes but I challenged him anyway, severely: What do you have against Father Stephen? He seems innocent. Archie didn’t flinch, claimed that Father Stephen advocates for Liberation Theology where the new Pope’s liberals sell-out the Divinity of Jesus by denying his resurrection, implying Jesus faked his own death before conveniently reappearing to many witnesses as the Risen Christ.”
“Catholic politics can be the pits,” Lilith says.
I clamp my lips and lean away. “...Its more than that. I got angry with Archie, let him have it: Your accusation seems far-fetched, like a conspiracy theory. Archie got nasty: I know you want me to seduce you, Aaranya, but I’m not up for sloppy seconds. What was I to say to that?”
“Did you smack him?” Lilith reaches for my hand. “Outrageous, he’s bad… Archdeacon Archie is beyond therapy. Poor Stephen.”
I squeeze. “It was time to get blunt with Archie: I’m here to interrogate you, not to donate or worship in your church. He was furious and yelled: What makes you from a Protestant religion, a country hick, belong in this capital city? What could I say to that? From there it was uphill to my home; a home that in my bleak frame of mind was just a cheap rental of rotting timbers and soiled carpet.”
“Yes, Aaranya, you were feeling bleak and abused.”
“Exactly... Then it came to me: My old school motto is to seek the truth. My purpose in life is to help people survive the fear of the dark side, and to heal by becoming more open and transparent... That’s it!”
Lilith turns my arm and softly traces my veins. “Well done, Sweetheart. And, good luck for your Internet-date with Ray tonight, Aaranya. I better get back before I’m missed.”
Lilith is leaving me to email with a secret Internet boyfriend. I’ll have to deal with Chief Wotton alone tomorrow.
My Internet-date smiles benignly as he mounts the vacant bar-stool.
“Hi, Ray. I recognise you from somewhere. Was it a twelve-step meeting? Love Addicts Anonymous?” Some people don’t get my jokes.
“Very well, Aaranya. I have also performed background research, to discover just who it is I am dating.” He’s serious.
Ray rambles on so I have to take-over. “Listen, Ray, I don’t tell just anyone about the surveillance I’ve done at DOJ—No one knows how tense things are with my Chief. They’d think less of me for staying on the job. I’m constantly spying and making up stories to cover up. When I lie, I feel sneaky and ashamed.” Why am I sharing this with a stranger?
Ray tries to buck me, “I sense that you are a healer. Your higher power chose you to work at DOJ to heal, but you are thwarted. Management has absolute rules based on simplistic observations...”
I have to agree. “The dysfunction of hierarchical organisations like the DOJ is counter-productive. They should reassure us employees that we will not be humiliated when we speak-up or make mistakes.”
Ray nods, “Your career could be a beautiful story. In most careers, ordinary incompetence is simply a bar to promotion. However, super-competence leads to dismissal because it violates the first commandment: The hierarchy must be preserved.” Ray then asks if I’ve had training from a psychic healer. “You could heal if you overcome your shame. Need to do some work on yourself.” He’s way too serious. “Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We are under the illusion of having a self when we are in reality nobody. I think human self-awareness or consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution, a mutation of consciousness tugged us into the illusion of a self, the tragedy of the ego.”
I am obliged to debate this with Ray: “1 Timothy 4:16 says, Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this… So, self-awareness is desirable, and it is vanity rather than self-awareness that causes failures.”
Ray rambles on until 11pm, “Aaranya, you look okay, except for your donkey teeth. But you need a psychic healer. After you get your act together, email me. But not before. My wife has a support group for you. They meet at this bar on Sunday evenings.” He’s nuts, or am I?
I catch a taxi home, deep in thought. One of the issues about self-awareness is that our capacity for metacognition—thinking about ourselves in a conscious way—seems to depend on us all having similar brain machinery; And this assumed similarity is fundamental to both successful screenplay writing and insightful prosecution; is important to progressing many intellectual activities.