In which Claire leaves a candle burning at church
Shit, Claire thought. Shit shit shit shit shit. It was just after midnight on Saturday night and she was on the verge of falling asleep when suddenly she remembered she hadn’t blown out the candle in the prayer chapel.
-It will be fine. Bill Carr would have taken care of it.
-But Bill wasn’t scheduled to work. She would burn down the church.
-It will be fine.
-I can hear the sirens already.
Claire knew there was no use in trying to go back to sleep. She got up, threw on her yoga pants and a jacket, slipped into her clogs, and went upstairs. “Emma?” she said softly.
Emma’s light was still on, and Rex was curled up against her as she read. “Yeah, Mom?”
“Honey, I have to run back to church and blow out a candle. Will you be okay here?”
“Yes, Morag, I’ll be fine.”
Claire made her way downstairs. “Hey Mom – do you want to take Rex with you? His bark is pretty ferocious!”
“Thanks, honey, but I’ll be fine.”
Claire hated going into church at night by herself. She started thinking about zombies coming through the tunnels beyond the boiler room. Get a grip. This is God’s house. Zombies wouldn’t step near this place. But she was happy to see there were no flames shooting out the roof.
She let herself in and headed toward the prayer room. Still no flames or even smoke. She did notice the office lights were on, and took a detour. She must have forgotten to turn those off, too.
As she unlocked the door, she heard a familiar voice call out, “Is that you, Bill? I just recycled the bulletins. Do you have the new ones?”
Claire came around the corner and their stood Alice Weston.
“What are you doing here?”
“Why are you wearing pants?”
The two stood there, dumbfounded. Claire’s heart started to race and her head started to swim.
“Alice? Where are you? I’ve got the bulletins.” Bill Carr came into the office. “Oh no,” he said.
“Oh no, indeed,” Claire said. “Would one of you like to tell me what is going on?”
“Claire, it’s not what it looks like.”
“What it looks like is that the sexton and the church lady are in cahoots to mess up Sunday morning. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“Partly,” Alice said. “Let’s go sit down somewhere and talk. How about the prayer room.”
“I think this situation calls for more than prayer, Alice. Except, Bill, could you blow out the candle I left burning there?”
He smiled. “Already did.”
The three went to Claire’s office. She sat behind the desk, wanting to appear as authoritative as possible while wearing yoga pants and no bra.
“Where should we begin?” Alice asked.
“I do not even know. How about with the bulletins.”
“Every so often we redo the bulletins.”
“And why do you redo the bulletins?”
“Because we need to send a message.”
“A message, a code.”
“Alice, I think we need to start a little earlier. You’re awfully quiet over there, Bill, and yes, your job is in jeopardy. I have a mind to call an emergency meeting of the personnel committee right after worship tomorrow.”
“Hear Alice out, Claire, and then decide. Okay?”
And so Alice began.
“In 1905 the Word Exposition came to town.”
“Excuse me, Alice, but we need to go all the way back to 1905 to understand why you two are sabotaging the bulletins?”
“Dear, this is a long story that will only get longer if you keep interrupting.”
“Fine. But let me tell Emma I’ll be later than I thought.” She shot Emma a quick text saying that there was a little leak she needed to take care of and she was fine and to turn off the light by 1.
“The city population was only about 120,000 in the early 1900’s, but in the course of the four-month fair, over a million visitors came, some from all over the world. At that time, our founding pastor, Dr. Horatio Francis Bouvier, was the assistant minister over at First Church. During the expo, a visitor to church asked to meet with him the next week.
“The tale the visitor told was incredible, and at the heart of the story I am telling you. The world was between upheavals – our own Civil War was two generations past, Japan and Russia were just beginning tensions, we were practicing the last dregs of Manifest Destiny. Advances in science were exciting and threatening. But during the last century, a group of people saw the terrible toll that war and famine and poverty had taken, not only in our own nation but throughout the world. They decided to do something about it.
“These people weren’t soldiers or politicians; they weren’t robber barons or royals. They were ordinary folk – farmers, teachers, bank tellers, store owners, nurses, parents, pastors. They started a network; you might call it a network of angels. Each of them vowed to seek out places where hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness, or sadness seemed to be taking over.”
Those words rang a bell with Claire, but her mind was so muddled she couldn’t think of why.
“The visitor asked Dr. Bouvier if he would like to be a part of this network. Being a man of God committed to the welfare of his people, he said yes. The first few years he was an apprentice of sorts, staying in the city, going to neighborhoods where the outcasts lived. In 1909 he was called to start a new church, and was given free rein in its creation.
“Among the founding fathers of the church were two other members of the network, and together they got their way in naming the place St. Rahab’s, after the prostitute in the book of Joshua who helps the Israelite spies. The church would become a hub for the angel spies. When Dr. Bouvier worked with architect on the building, he insisted they build tunnels. Dr. Bouvier said it was to supply heat to the neighbors, but the tunnels were never actually used for that. Really, the tunnels were there so that the angel spies could get in and out of church without being noticed. Many of them came from other countries, and simply the color of their skin, their dress, and their accents would make them stand out.”
“So you are trying to tell me that St. Rahab’s is a spy church? Am I to believe this?”
Bill Carr spoke up. “’Spy church’ lacks nuance, Claire.”
“Forgive me, Bill, but having just found out that my sexton is James Bond and the church matriarch is Emma Peel has prevented me from finding the right vocabulary to describe a church that is a clandestine meeting place for angels of mercy.”
“Fair enough. Keep going, Alice.”
“Yes, by all means, keep going, Alice. But just a thought. It’s now 12:45 and if I’m not back here in eight hours Bill Hill will have my head. Maybe I could just tell him that I discovered that the church is a cover-up for an angel spy network. That would help explain the bulletins.” She turned to Bill Carr. “That’s why you and Trystene are so wary of each other. She thinks you sabotage her bulletins. And you do. And you’re worried she’ll find out why.”
“Something like that, yes.”
“Claire dear, I know this is a lot to take in and I do appreciate that it’s late. Could we call a truce? We have a meeting after church tomorrow. You can join us.”
Claire didn’t know what to say. She wanted to hear the story, but she really wanted to be home in her pajamas with her kid and her dog. She knew she probably wouldn’t sleep but she was also sure she couldn’t take one more thing tonight.
“Okay. But Bill, don’t think for one moment that I might not fire you on Monday.”
“So when and where is this meeting?”
“Well, the first hymn on the new bulletin is 101, so we will meet at 1:01 pm. And we have special room where we meet.”
“And in what hidden hallway would I find that room – oh no, wait. I know. The tunnels.”
“Yes dear. Just go into the boiler and open the door to the tunnels. You’ll see.”
“I suppose I can leave you two to lock up and turn off the lights?”
“We always do.”
“Good night, Claire. I promise it will all make more sense tomorrow.”
Claire doubted that.
As soon as Rex heard her open the door he came bounding downstairs. “Oh, Rex, I really do wish that happiness were a warm puppy. Good boy. Now go back upstairs to Emma.”
Claire went upstairs. “It’s time for lights out, honey. It’s Sunday tomorrow.”
“I know. I just wanted to wait till you got home. Are you okay? You look a little weird.”
“I’m fine. Just a little tired, that’s all. Sweet dreams, love.”
“Sweet dreams. Morag.”
That night Claire’s dreams were not sweet; they were non-existent. She got in her pajamas and under the covers and turned out the light, but her racing mind would not let sleep. At one point she turned the light on and made a list. That usually made her feel better. But this was a problem she had never before imagined or encountered. A spy church? Alice in pants? The sexton at the center of it all? And it existed at the church for almost a hundred years and only a few knew about it?
And those words – hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness, sadness. They weren’t random words but she wasn’t going to figure out how she knew them.
But the big question was the most troubling: could she stay at St. Rahab’s and keep the secret? That felt wrong, somehow. But she and Emma had nowhere else to go.