An excerpt: SURVEILLANCE

Excerpt from SURVEILLANCE: © T. A. Moore September 25, 2021

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

The skeleton is out; Father Stephen Howard is alive. The rest of the world does not know, including my Chief.

Because I am too exhausted to attend a work meeting this evening, my Chief calls again: "Meet me in your office at noon tomorrow to explain Father Stephen's death. You are on probation.” (Last night, Stephen’s message was equally urgent: 'Come support me at my disciplinary hearing...' I like him so agreed. ‘Bring a friend in case the hearing gets stressful for you.' That was solid advice.) “Be there at noon, Moana, or else,” the boss yells down the phone.

I hate divulging secrets so I’ll be on edge until the big showdown. I should have told my friend, Lilith, about Father Stephen’s remarkable survival, earlier. I can tell her now when we meet.

As I shuffle along Lambton Quay, a bright bell rings down Cable Car Lane, spurring my sodden energy forward. 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. There Lilith is, at the 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 night in bed with a priest, I should be discreet. Besides, she is both lesbian and Internet-dating a secret man.

What a night, Lilith: I took you to the Diocesan Retreat Center beside the lake last night. We weren't supposed to attend until the morning, but we wanted to party. After finding Father Stephen’s room, we opened our first bottle of wine. Your eyes drifted to the loud party in the boat-shed. We all three strolled down to the party about 9.30pm.

You begged me, Moana: Don’t let old Archie and his evangelicals bully Father Stephen.’ There is a power struggle between the evangelical and the socialist priests loyal to the new Pope. But who could have foreseen that Father Stephen’s heart would fail? Or that the traditionalists would plot to defrock and eliminate Father Stephen?

We slept together 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 and his Department of Justice (DOJ) have me investigating her. Another damn secret. My friendship with Lilith feels secure because she has many hidden quirks that I have discovered. I won’t try to repair her quirks: wanting to diagnose a personality quirk is to want to fix it. That’s controlling. However, identifying a problem without fixing it is neglectful and immoral.

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 not an excuse to tolerate the bullying of Archie.”

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, who blames me for Stephen’s cardiac arrest. The Chief has complained about me to Human Resources (HR).”

Lilith can be philosophical: “Isn’t the conflict 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 otherwise I may be crucified if he hears about it from someone else. Why did I leave rural Waitati to work in the DOJ head office and investigate a gang of priests—to become stale-mated?”

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

I am hoping my Chief will be a mentor and not stress too much. My plan is to encourage him to allow me to make my own schedule and select my methods of surveillance. In a wealthy country like New Zealand I should be entitled to an enlightened boss. But no luck.”

Get off your pity-pot, Girl. What have you done wrong?”

Nothing... Okay, I screwed-up. The problems began when we took Father Stephen to the party. He is a suspect in my investigations so my boss holds me responsible for his welfare.”

Lilith silences me with a shush of breath and turns to wipe her nose.“My fault. I’m self-conscious about dancing until I get loaded.”

For all I know, Lilith might want to kiss me. She doesn’t because she’s tired. “Soon Naughty Girl, you and I were dancing with an erotic writhing, punctuated with the sinking of more champagne amidst Archdeacon Archie playing guitar. 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 drunk 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, not aware 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 dressed. At 9am, Archdeacon Archie rudely entered without knocking, saw us girls naked in bed either side of Father Stephen.”

A disaster, Moana. Archie is envious of Stephen’s imagined sex-life so invaded the bedroom. That was a violation of privacy. He 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 enlightens me with her observations: "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 Stephens 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 group of journalists covering the hearing, and found Stephen in the green belt. He looked like a vagrant because his suit was inside-out with seams showing and mud was smeared on his face. Stephen was informing a journalist about the scandalous death of a fugitive priest (himself) and the 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 incognito, on the run, and my boss bugs my phone so I couldn’t call you! Anyway, I knew I would have this opportunity to tell you in person. However, I must be careful because the walls have ears: The Catholic Church has the greatest intelligence system in the world 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 worse for wear, and happy that a journalist would 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?”

The issue wasn’t about sex, but about my DOJ investigation. I asked Stephen about his plans for escaping Archie. He said that we must come 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 the crisis: Father Stephen asked if I believed in God. I told him I attend church occasionally, but because of my detective job I see things that make it difficult to sustain faith. Why did he ask about God?”

Stephen probably wants to recruit you,” Lilith says.

He said he was grateful that I, a prosecutor, was a witness to how Archdeacon Archie abused him. Stephen was freaked. That made two of us freaked.”

And I make three,” Lilith says. “You identify the crimes of your prime suspect, Archie Bligh, but prefer not to bring him before a judge because you get faint whiffs of his noble side. Can you ever nail the guilty party, this century; rather than waiting to unravel a feature-movie about the intricacies of your case, at least in your own mind? Can you give-up your do-gooder role and get on with imprisoning the guilty?”

Touché, are my flaws that obvious? I walked home this morning, pondering on why I want to rescue Father Stephen. Am I a sucker for victims of religious 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 quirks resolved—we often rely on our foibles as if they are stage-props—rather than surrendering to life as the conflicted drama it is intended.”

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

No. Blessed Grace Cathedral is just a few blocks below my home, so I dropped-in on Archdeacon Archie, unscheduled. I was looking for new insights into my prime suspect. Archie was still wearing formal priestly robes. I challenged him by asking, ‘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 resurrection, implying Jesus faked his own death.”

Church 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 said, ‘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 fruit-cake. Poor Stephen… Archdeacon Archie is beyond therapy.”

It was time to get blunt. ‘I’m here to interrogate you, not to donate or worship with you,’ I said. Archie was furious, asked, ‘What makes you from another island, 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. Then it came to me: My old school motto is ‘to seek the truth.’ My purpose in life is to find the truth by overcoming my fear of the dark side.

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 have to deal with my boss alone tomorrow.

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

Hi, Ray. I remember 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 I am dating.”

Ray rambles on and on, so I have to take-over the conversation.

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 is declaring absolute rules based on simplistic observations...”

I interrupt, “The dysfunction of hierarchical organisations like DOJ is counter-productive. They should reassure their 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.”

My turn to nod affirmatively.

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, perhaps too self-aware, definitely too alive. Maybe I’ll wear my gun to the showdown?