An excerpt: SURVEILLANCE

Excerpt from SURVEILLANCE: © T. A. Moore November 15, 2021

1:: Moana Duff, Monday, March 16, 2020

The skeleton is out; Father Stephen Howard is alive. However, the rest of the world does not know, including my Chief, who is demanding a showdown in my closet of an office at noon tomorrow.

“Be there, Girl, or else!” he says.

This evening’s conference call was instigated by the Human Resources Division because I was too exhausted to attend a meeting in-person, and Chief Wotton would not be stalled: Come and explain, Prosecutor Moana Duff, how our suspect, Father Stephen, died while under your surveillance? In the meantime, I’m sticking you on probation.”

Bugger. I mostly enjoy working at the Department of Justice (DOJ). Chief, is this a good time to talk about Jesus?”

You fundamentalist evangelicals are all the same: gay-bashers, death-spooks, hellfire and damnation pushers.

I’m not all goody-good, Sir. I enjoy watching lesbian pornography.”

F**ck off.”

My provocation works; he finally hangs-up.

Is it my fault? I should also have told my girlfriend, Lilith; about Father Stephen’s remarkable resurrection. I can finally tell her now, twelve hours late. This is urgent because I value her friendship.

As I shuffle along Lambton Quay, a bright bell rings down Cable Car Lane, spurring my sodden energy toward our rendezvous. Mojo Café is downtown in the ‘Olde Bank Arcade’ where the tiled walkway leads to cherry-wood double doors. It has a reputation for excellent food 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 friend in case the hearing gets stressful.' That was solid advice...

There Lilith is, at the rendezvous bar. Her shabby coat and handbag sit atop the only vacant stool. I rush to meet her lovely lips. Oh, my. I get a happy shiver at the sound of her voice. However, the bar might be full of spies for all I know, and after our last night in bed with a priest, I should be discreet. Besides, she is both lesbian and Internet-dating a secret man.

You look gorgeous, Moana. We didn’t get much sleep last night, you know. The newspaper says that Father Stephen is dead.”

While working my career as a junior prosecutor, I welcome opportunities to provide my accused clients with tips on how to deal with personal trauma and achieve aspirations. However, I had no idea of Father Stephen’s aspirations for liberation from the Church: We evangelicals 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. To suddenly support Stephen’s aspirations could be hazardous, but this woman loves danger: I grew up as a missionary girl, pastor's sidekick, judgement day alarmist, merchant of hell, you name it. I was let go by my local pastor on account of my weird sense of humour; sent into purgatory to evangelize to the cops and lawyers in the DOJ head-office up north. However, I hate confrontation and divulging secrets so am on edge, at least until after my Chief’s big showdown tomorrow.

I order a drink. Last night was outrageous, Lilith: It was a mistake to drag you to the Diocesan Retreat Center; we weren't supposed to attend until this morning, but you needed to party last night. After finding Father Stephen’s room, remember that we immediately opened our first bottle of wine. Your eyes soon drifted to the loud party in the boat-shed. We all three strolled down there about 9.30pm, twenty-four hours ago.

You begged me, Moana: ‘Don’t let Archdeacon Archie and his traditionalists bully Father Stephen.’ There is a power struggle between those older traditionalists and the socialist priests. But who could have foreseen that Father Stephen would plot an escape? Or that Archie and the oldies were planning to defrock Father Stephen?

We three slept in Stephen’s bed,” I say, “after you peered at my bum for hours." (We did not dare make eye contact while dancing.)

Lilith’s family are communists so she should be cautious; my Chief has me investigating her also. Another damn secret. Our friendship feels secure because she has quirks that I don’t try to change; but diagnosing a personality is to want to fix it. That’s controlling. However, identifying a problem without fixing it is unchristian... Ooops. We Christians have an image problem; (the latest report card uses descriptions like ‘arrogant,’ ‘insensitive,’ and ‘judgmental,’) so we are now called upon to present a new face.

You look gorgeous, Moana,” Lilith says, “even though we didn’t sleep much last night. The newspaper says that Father Stephen is dead. It’s your fault. You are too passive with Archie; quoting Jesus to justify your soft-touch: ‘Turn the other cheek.’ That Bible quote is surely not intended as a basis to tolerate bullying.”

I rush to tell Lilith the news: “Stephen is still alive, but it’s got to be our secret.”

She is shocked, of course.

No one else knows, not even my Chief. He would blame me for Stephen’s cardiac arrest and his escape. The Chief has already complained about me to Human Resources (HR).”

Lilith can be philosophical: “Isn’t the escape bound to drive someone to desperate measures? What are you planning to do?” Her brindled eyes flicker as she gives an aggressive male admirer the finger.

I must tell my Chief tomorrow, otherwise I may be fired immediately if he hears about Stephen’s miraculous escape from someone else. Why did I leave my Seventh-day Adventist family in rural Waitati to work in the DOJ head office investigating a gang of priests—only to become stale-mated?”

The barman must also have the hots for Lilith because he gives us a glass of wine free of charge.

After informing my Chief of the dramatic escape, I am hoping he will become a mentor and not stress too much. My plan is to encourage him to allow me to make my own schedule and select the most suitable methods of surveillance. In a wealthy country like New Zealand I should be entitled to an enlightened boss. But no luck so far.”

Get off your pity-pot, Girl. Think about what you’ve done wrong?”

Nothing... Okay, I screwed-up. The problems began when we brought Father Stephen along to the party. He is a suspect in my investigations so my boss instructed me not to get personally involved with him.”

Lilith silences me with a shush of breath. “It is definitely my fault for drinking too much. I’m self-conscious about dancing until I get loaded.”

For all I know, Lilith might want to grope me now, except she’s tired. “Soon Naughty Girl, you and I were dancing with an erotic writhing, punctuated with the sinking of more champagne amidst Archdeacon Archies guitar action. 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, remember,” Lilith says.

We eventually gave-up on singing through the microphone 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. Father Stephen did not stir. We stripped off and slid silently into his bed, unaware that Archdeacon Archie would be arriving in the morning to summon Father Stephen to his disciplinary hearing.

At 8.30am, Father Stephen exchanged his neatly ironed pyjamas for suit trousers and jacket, 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 Father Stephen.”

A disaster, Moana. I know Archie is envious of Stephen’s imagined sex-life so invaded the bedroom, violating our privacy. Archie flashed his Cadre ring and upped the stakes: ‘Follow me, Father Stephen. It is time to administer your exorcism.’ Exorcism! How nasty,” Lilith says.

I slam my next free 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. It was all innocent.”

Lilith smiles while enlightening me with her insights: "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. It was horrid. I wrapped a blanket around myself and ran with Archie to call a doctor. You stayed behind with Stephen.”

Did I cause the crisis? “It wasn’t my fault. I lost contact with you then, Lilith. Things happened fast: When Archie and you rushed out to call a doctor and an ambulance, I went down on the priest to perform CPR; am always practical in a crisis. Father Stephen was resuscitated so quickly that I knew he was faking his cardiac arrest. Relieved, I went to the bathroom and dressed. When I returned, Father Stephen had disappeared. I ran outside, past a coven of journalists covering the disciplinary hearing, and found Stephen concealed in the green belt. 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 that unfortunate priest who was scheduled for a disciplinary hearing,’ (Stephen himself,) and about the suspiciously rapid removal of the corpse.”

And why didn’t you call me right then, in the interest of your much-flouted policy of transparency?” Lilith demands.

Stephen was on the run, and the Chief bugs my phone so I couldn’t call you. Anyway, I knew I would have this opportunity to tell you in person. I must be careful because the walls have ears: The Catholic Church has the greatest intelligence system with it’s confessional booths.”

What then?”

I smuggled Father Stephen from that bush, 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 wiser 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?”

It wasn’t about sex, but rather was about my DOJ investigation. I asked Stephen about his plans for further escaping Archie. He invited us to the Cathedral for lunch on the third Sunday, to discuss the future.”

That distracts Lilith, “I’m up for lunch. Let’s go. It’ll be fun. Maybe we can sing again?”

Okay, but back to Father Stephen. He asked if I believed in God. Im a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and so know that we will all be judged generously immediately upon our deaths; in order to assign us to appropriate remedial classes. This is the ‘Particular’ Judgment. 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 abused him. Stephen was freaked.”

You identify the crimes of your prime suspect, Archie Bligh, but you also prefer not to bring him before a judge yet because you get whiffs of his redeemable side. Can you ever nail the guilty one in this century? Rather than waiting to unravel a feature-movie about the spiritual intricacies of your case, at least in your own remediating mind? Can you give-up your do-gooder role and get on with imprisoning the guilty?”

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? My job is demanding. I used to work at Burger King. Both jobs are full-time drudges. Being a prosecutor is also part-time spiritual advisor. Like many people, Stephen doesn't want his personality resolved—we often rely on our foibles as if they are stage-props—rather than committing to life as the serious drama it is intended.”

Did you go home after that, ignoring me?” Lilith asks.

No. Blessed Grace Cathedral is close to my home, so I dropped-in on Archdeacon Archie, unscheduled. I was looking for new insights into my prime suspect. Archie was still wearing robes. I challenged him: ‘What do you have against Father Stephen? He seems innocent.’

Archie didn’t flinch, claimed that Father Stephen advocates for Liberation Theology, including the Vatican II Council’s proclamation that has the new Pope’s liberals selling-out the Divinity of Jesus by denying the bodily resurrection, implying Jesus faked his own death to reappear to many witnesses of the Risen Christ.”

Catholic politics can be the pits,” Lilith says.

Archie got me angry. ‘How can you believe that, Mr Archdeacon? Your accusation seems far-fetched, like a conspiracy theory,’ I said.”

Archie got nasty, ‘I know you want me to seduce you, Moana, 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 a bad-boy… Archdeacon Archie is beyond therapy. Poor Stephen.”

It was time to get blunt. ‘I’m here to interrogate you, not to donate or worship in your church,’ I said. Archie was furious and asked, ‘What makes you from a Protestant religion, a 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. Then it came to me: My old school motto is ‘to seek the truth.’ My purpose in life is to help people deal with the pain of living and the fear of the dark side by becoming more open.

Lilith turns my arm and softly traces my veins. “Well done, Sweetheart. And, good luck for your Internet-date with Ray tonight, Moana. I better get back before I’m missed.”

Lilith is leaving in order to Zoom with a secret Internet boyfriend. I’ll have to deal with my boss alone tomorrow.

My Internet-date slides onto the bar-stool beside mine.

Hi, Ray. I recognise your face from somewhere. Was it a twelve-step meeting? Love Addicts Anonymous?” Some people don’t get my jokes.

Very well, Moana. I have also performed background research, to discover just who it is I am dating.”

Ray rambles on and 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.”

Ray tries to buck me up, “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 interrupt, “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 serious promotion. However, super-competence leads to dismissal because it violates the first commandment: The hierarchy must be preserved.” Ray 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.”

Ray continues on like this until 11pm, “Moana, 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.”

I catch a taxi home, deep in thought. Evangelism is a responsibility inherited from my family, but in my vocation it’s rude to talk about religion because you never know who you’re about to offend.