The woman took off her glasses and gently rubbed her eyes.
"My daughter has a drug problem. It’s all connected and I was too afraid to even look at it until a few months ago. I miss my husband deeply since his sudden death. When I’m at Mass, it’s as if he’s there in the communion of saints watching over me and saying, ‘have courage, bring the truth into the light.’ I have to do that," Agnes said to her guests.
With her daughter in college, now was the best time to have her friends staying. What Agnes asked of them was confidentiality in what she was about to say. That would also be their protection.
The following morning began with early Mass, and time before the Blessed Sacrament. Agnes, Rebekah and Rose arrived at the church. Agnes looked tired. The dark rings under her eyes told the story of recent months as the sun’s rays filtered through the stained glass window onto her face.
A petite woman and a heavyweight man in a tracksuit appeared through the sacristy doorway. The husband sat in the empty seat behind the visitors while his wife went into the front pew carrying a Bible. She smiled at her children as they walked to the altar to serve at Mass.
A creepy feeling moved up the back of Rebekah’s neck. As the congregation sang the entrance hymn, she found herself turning around to meet the stare of the man in the navy blue tracksuit. Strands of greyish blond hair were pulled in greasy straps across his head. His bloodshot eyes reverted to the hymn sheet.
The young girl in the white serving vestment sat down beside her brother to the side of the altar, as the readings of the day began. She kept looking down at her parents with a mixture of fear and fatigue in her expression. Sophia’s brother turned sideways in his seat with his back to the tabernacle, making strange humming sounds as he pulled at his long alb. His agitation grew as he sat there, his feet swinging back and forth.
Ten year old Sophia moved as if she was sleep walking, her thin body taking slow steps around the altar. She looked like she had not had any sleep all night. A righteous anger welled up in Rebekah as she shot a furious look to the mother. Agnes gave a slight cough, reminding her visitors to stay cool.
Sophia's younger brother ran across the church car park towards his father’s car. Rebekah stopped in front of him.
"Hi,” he replied, kicking the loose pebbles around him.
"Did I see you looking at the statue of Our Lady during Mass with a little question on your heart and an anxious frown on your wee forehead?" Rebekah asked, walking alongside him.
"Mom said I'm not supposed to ask questions or talk to anyone, especially strangers."
"Okay. Let’s see. Tell you what, if you want to tell me a secret, I can't tell anyone unless I have your permission, because a secret is a promise between only a few, right?” She waited.
"Do you want my permission?" The young dark haired child asked wide eyed.
"Sure. If you tell me a secret about a question or a worry you have, I could then ask you if I can tell the secret to my two friends, only if I think they should be told. But they have to keep it a secret. That way I don’t break the promise if I have your permission. What do you think?” Rebekah asked, putting a finger to her lips.
He looked around to see if his parents had come out of the church yet.
“I'll tell you why I was looking at Our Lady's statue,” he whispered, putting his finger to his lips in imitation, as he glanced towards the sacristy door.
“We have a small statue of Our Lady in our house. One night I couldn’t sleep and went downstairs to my mom. There were other adults upstairs.” His fear-filled eyes grew wider as his voice went even lower.
“She had friends in the living room. It was real late. They were standing around the statue and it was on fire. I cried and mom told me it was a party and to go back to bed, that they were putting out the fire. My mom and dad told me not to tell anyone, if I did I would be punished. It is the same as the statue in the church, only the church one is real big, so I was afraid that would go on fire too."
The nervous child clutched his right hand with his left, and stood back a few steps, watching for the stranger’s reaction.
Rebekah hunkered down to meet the child’s height.
"Do you think I could tell my two friends so they can keep an eye on it? That way I know it will be perfectly safe, even at night, because I’m only here on holidays?" Agnes’ guest asked gently.
Shaking hands in an agreed deal, she put her index finger to her lips again. The child responded in like manner, giving the sweetest smile. He ran across the tarmacadam. At the car door he turned around and looked back at the lady with the funny accent. He shook his head slowly from side to side, rolling his eyes towards his father as he appeared from the sacristy door.
"The couple who walked out from the sacristy are Greta and Malcolm Liveston, that’s the heavy guy in the tracksuit who sat behind us,” Agnes said as they walked into the house.
“Does Greta Liveston have the keys to the church?” Rebekah enquired, as they prepared breakfast.
“She is the sacristan, so yes,” Agnes answered. “They have taken over several ministries. Even cleaning the priest’s house is part of it, with Greta Liveston’s sister stepping in there. Shelly McCabe is her name. She lives in an apartment on her own just down the street from the church. She also brings over cooked lunches to the new priest, in her tight jeans and low top.”
“Tell us about Damien. We saw you chatting outside,” Agnes asked Rebekah, as they sat down to a pancake breakfast. As the child’s secret was confided, her worst fears were realised.
“We moved into this neighbourhood fifteen years ago,” Agnes continued with her story. “The next day Greta Liveston arrived over to introduce herself. She offered to baby-sit my four year old daughter while my husband and I attended Mass or if we wanted to go out for an evening. The reason I was taken in with them is because the husband has a theology degree which he acquired from online distance learning. He set up a prayer group in the parish. She is sacristan and Eucharistic minister.
I have been involved in pro-life work for a long time, as you know. So when they said they also were involved, I thought it was great. They even have Our Lady of Guadelupe stickers on the back windows of their cars and a large image in their house.
I deeply regret leaving my daughter with that couple. My husband was very uneasy about it and I ignored his unease. But how could I have seen through such smooth operators?”
Agnes took a deep breath.
“New neighbours moved in next door a short while ago. They took their child to the local playschool. That’s the premises adjoining the parish church rented by friends of the Livestons. Louise took her baby out after five days as the child cried and didn’t want to go back. I don’t think the mom is happy. I think she’s feeling something is amiss.”
"Does the priest know about the Livestons and friends, or is he a friend of theirs?" Rose asked.
"No, as far as I know, he is new to the parish. He only arrived a few weeks ago.”
Night set in. Agnes was restless.
"I need to go for a drive, anyone else?" Agnes asked. Rose picked up her sweater and cell phone.
Rebekah declined. She wanted to watch the documentary on tattoos and their connection with the occult and ritualism. She took her coffee over to the couch and switched on the DVD. She couldn't shake off the feeling that they were in a neighbourhood which held very dark secrets. Her thoughts returned to the sweet child Damien, and the way his eyes directed her to danger.
"It was unbelievable, just unbelievable!" Rose exclaimed, as she took two coffee mugs from the wooden rack.
"Tell me!” Rebekah asked, sitting up on the couch and looking over at Agnes.
"I was driving down the road, when suddenly I had this great desire to do a U-turn, and head back towards the parish church. I parked the car across the road in the cul-de-sac, directly opposite the church entrance, reversing a little until the car was unseen from the main road."
"So?” Rebekah waited as Agnes took off her jacket.
“We just sat in the car with our eyes fixed on the church. About ten minutes later, just coming up to 10 o’clock, a white van appeared. We slipped down in our seats as the driver indicated left into the church driveway. He drove straight through to the back car park.”
"Did the driver see you?"
"No. The car lights were off. I needed to see what was going on. So we jumped out and ran across the road. We went in through the garden to the other side of the parish house. To our astonishment, as we peeped around the wall, we saw him opening the garage door with a key and then unloading boxes. We ran back to the car and got out of there as quick as lighting before he drove out.”
“I think I’ll go lie down and put a damp cloth on my forehead,” Rose half joked.
The next morning at Mass, Rebekah slipped out of the pew and asked the sacristan if she could use the bathroom. While washing her hands, the visitor looked out the window to see a white van pulling up outside. She went out through the side entrance and took the man by surprise.
"Good morning. Do you need assistance?" Rebekah asked, looking over his shoulder at the rows of boxes stacked inside the garage door.
The man was in his mid-forties. A tattoo decorated his upper left arm. Loud heavy rock music screeched out from the open window of his van.
"No thanks.” He replied coolly, looking her up and down.
“I'm just taking some DVDs here for our shop on the high street. We don't have enough storage space there, so we asked Father Don if we could store them here."
“Did you see where the boxes were from or anything written on them?” Agnes asked Rebekah as she drove out of the car park.
“The top box on the stack nearest me had a foreign name and address on a sticker label with a black rose also on it.”
How could I have been so blind, or so proud?” Agnes cried, sitting down on the couch. “My husband felt something was wrong. I didn’t believe him. He thought Greta Liveston a strange and disturbing woman when he met her. He felt the same with her sister and their friends.”
“What about the prayer group that you mentioned?” Rose asked.
“The husband runs it. They have a healing service. The wife and her sister are part of it as well with the couple who own the video store."
“Let me guess,” Rebekah spoke. “They avoid praying the rosary with people by recommending novenas instead. When they turn up for Adoration, which would not be regularly, it’s with some kind of prayer book or note book.”
"So the sacristan, Greta Liveston, who is also a Eucharistic minister, has access to the consecrated hosts?” Do they have the meetings in private houses?” Rose looked at Agnes.
After discussing it with Agnes and Rebekah, Rose made some calls to friends around the globe asking for intercessory prayer for a private matter that was very grave.
Faithful priests of the Lord in the inner sanctuaries offered Masses, religious sisters living their vows, knelt in prayer. Laity kept vigil before Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and met with Mary in the rosary through the ongoing intercessory petition of prayer. It would happen when least expected.
It was on a Monday afternoon when Agnes was driving by and saw two cars parked either side of the parish grounds. One man was standing beside his car, speaking on a cell phone. Agnes got out of her car and walked over to him.
"What are you doing here? Who are you?"
"We are private investigators, m'am. Are you in this parish?"
Agnes turned over in her sleep. In the dream a group of people had gathered in a familiar living room while the neighbourhood slept. It was Malcolm Liveston’s house. Agnes cried out at what she saw going on in the room, and trembled. Her eyes shot open. She sat up and checked the time. It was 2:30 am. Her friends were sleeping soundly in the rooms next to hers.
The next morning Rebekah checked everything was in her suitcase before closing it. "Are you sure you will be okay?" She looked at Agnes.
"Would I let you leave if I didn’t think you should go? Psalm 27 gives me strength and comfort,” her brave friend replied. "Rose isn't too far away, she'll be back."
Agnes locked the front door of her house and leaned back against the heavy wood for a few moments. Rose had left two hours earlier. It was right not to have mentioned the frightening dream that had woken her up. It was enough to know Rebekah and Rose had to leave immediately. Once safely home, she would call and tell them. There was no knowing what would happen next.
She took a coffee into the garden, her small peaceful sanctuary where she could think. Agnes sat beneath the willow tree where her husband had sat each evening reading the Psalms. The wide gracious branches swayed slowly with the summer breeze, like a heavenly fan soothing her anxious heart. The air was fresh and clean. Looking around at her new flowers in bloom, Agnes felt a new chapter was also opening up in her life.
Tears streamed down her cheeks as she spoke with her daughter on the cell phone. They had a lot to catch up on. A new friendship had begun between mother and daughter. After the call she let out a peaceful sigh and whispered to her beloved departed, “everything’s going to be fine now, Mark, just fine.”