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A Hooker in the Choir

Chapter 1 

Facing the row of books on gambling, those about God behind her, she looked up as the librarian sidled down the aisle wearing an anxious expression and towing a tall, good-looking guy by the hand, her other arm outstretched, bringing them together.

"Celeste Howard, I want you to meet an old high school classmate, John Colburn," but she said nothing about physics or the famous physicist. After the introduction she left them alone among the shelves.

Celeste received him graciously. She gazed up at his intense blue eyes and curly black hair. She heard history of physics in his explaining his presence there, answering her questions, then about where he worked, and the space center in Huntsville. She left, hugging an armful from the religion shelves and thinking of his graceful and angular leanness.

He returned to his search among the reference collection there in the state university catacombs at Cambridge, Mississippi, his whole being awake to possibilities, a glowing feeling of hope, this on the Friday afternoon before Easter.

Thus, his second encounter with Cambridge women began, although he still felt leery and discouraged from the first. While searching for a misplaced old document he had first seen Celeste standing between distant

stacks, gazing down into an open book in hand, slim and all golden blonde, the long, tangled curly hair, the dress intimate to skin of a hue made darker from leisurely tanning. In an intimation of early maturity, he guessed her to be thirty-six, thirty-eight, maybe, just right for his fifty, his hopes soaring again.

"Who is she?" he asked the librarian.

"Well, damn your lonesome soul, come on, I'll introduce you," said the librarian, as she impulsively took his hand and led him over to the browsing woman. This had happened so quickly, the new turn in his life so strong he could hardly believe it.

As he returned to work an air of emptiness settled in the reading room and the librarian came to his table. He looked up from the dusty open book into her gaze of grave concern and guessed she was ready to tell him things.

She asked, "So?"

"Dinner tonight," he said, dropping his pen and leaning back, getting ready to give her time.

"Then I have to tell you, a good woman, a grieving widow, everybody loved him. The funeral was mobbed; they were all the way out into the street. A real gentleman, the best of family lawyers, Jake Howard was, very kind and caring, really compassionate, and still she spends her time grieving, can't get over it, for four years now, all alone, lost, and very religious. She's in here often to get books, mostly on religion, a great comfort to her." The librarian, his age or less, appeared older, wizened, wrinkling too fast, seething a low energy of moral indignation. The keeper of the moral gates, he guessed, self-appointed in her own mind, the way things are. Life had passed her by. A spinster, bereft, she would be the first to rise and object to duplicity. He emotionally associated this bareness with absolute uprightness and reliable opinions, his hopes way up, becoming quietly eager with this reassurance.

"Well how's your History of Physics coming along?" she asked. "You've been in here scratching around in dusty books now for how long, about five years?"

"Yes, at least, but only on weekends, and I finished the research part this afternoon, the basics in everyday language from the earliest times to the present."

"I'm sure it will be a hit with the common man."

"It should help people to understand."

"Now I have something to say on another subject – your mother, Rachel, out at Golden Age nursing home. It's none of my business, but …"

"Okay."

"I have to tell you I don't like the rumors coming out of there. I hear too many old people are dying, maybe with a little help from somebody besides God."

"Really?"

"Oh yes, and what's more, injuries in the night, battered patients, cut faces, broken bones."

"Now that would need to be stopped."

"I should think so, and if you get into it, some other unexplained deaths and injuries need to be investigated."

"I'll talk to the people running the place, but we have no other choice with Rachel here in Cambridge where she wants to be. She has a daytime nurse and sitters at night."

"But others there are not so lucky or so safe. It's all due to greed, stockholders or at least one of them, wanting to get rich."

"Who?"

"Peter Mallory, the sneaky devil, owner of the biggest bank and just about everything else in town."

"I've heard talk of him."

"Yeah, but the street chatter does not get to the heart of the thing. I think he's just hiding behind the small-time stuff."

"Well, now you've piqued my interest. What's going on?"

"Okay, I guess I'm telling you this because of your position with NASA and with the government of this country, especially your involvement in advanced warfare technology, and your being accustomed to secrecy. Something bigger than anyone would expect seems to be brewing in our lovely

little town with its glittery literary façade, something I'm really frightened to talk about."

"I guess you do know something or you wouldn't be saying such things."

"Yes. They, that is to say, certain students, come in here and slip down deep in the lower levels. They stand facing each other through the stacks, one in each aisle, and whisper back and forth, the pall of Persia hanging in the air even the next day, redolent like a stack of rugs preserved in perfume, Patchouli or something similar. Occasionally, they're in the company of obvious outsiders, bringing the silent movement of robes, some wearing the turban, the frequent black beard, then after an elusive day or two never to be seen again. The students don't really think anyone could be listening. But I know where to hide."

"What do they say?"

"Most of it is in a language foreign to me, but some of our words can't be translated to theirs, like Peter Mallory, and certain other American words as well as unfamiliar names, among them Thornton Webb, Diamond Till, Tunica, and Dr. Kadsh. Sometimes five or six of them will slowly gather down here and get a book each, then come to the same table in an obscure corner. While pretending to read, they talk quietly to each other."

"So, what do you make of it?"

"Well, obviously, they are into something besides getting an education. They are very secretive, and they could not know the name Peter Mallory unless he is in some way connected to their secretiveness. They use his name too often."

"Would he be so corrupt?"

"Yes, but probably more through naivety than intent."

"Have you told anyone else?"

"Yes, but only the chancellor, Bruce Madison, personally. You know him?"

"Of course, a great friend."

"He has cautioned me to not reveal myself and asked me to continue listening."

"Which means he will take measures when appropriate."

"It means he knows something is taking place, and he knows the Muslims have an organization on this campus. As usual, he will be very careful and effective."

"Knowing him, yes. In the meantime, I'm over here every weekend, and we will be vigilant."

"Oh my, every weekend, all the way from Huntsville across Alabama to Cambridge, Mississippi. How many miles is that, John?" "And back, about four hundred."

"And during the week days what are you working on now, or can you tell me?"

"Very real and realistic robots, and a new development in laser light, and some things I'm not allowed to talk about."

"Man, you are dedicated, and you sure fooled everybody in our high school class, the drowsing genius, the only one of us to become world-famous, and now you have something not so old and moldy as the books."

"Yes, possibly, thanks to you," he said, while rising to stand. "I appreciate all your help, and I'll send you a copy of the book, if you like."

"Please do," she replied, reaching to shake his hand.

He left her smiling.




Arriving home in late afternoon, Celeste Howard rushed to her computer, pulled up Google and typed the word physics, then the name John Colburn, and clicked search, and there, a page full about him, famous, no doubt about it. She dialed her closest friend and confidant, Mary Ann Dickey, hoping to find her at home. She would very likely know more and juicier facts. They had been bunnies at the same time for Playboy and still ran together.

She answered on the first ring.

"Back safe?"

"Yeah, what's up?"

"Something heavy, maybe. Ever heard of John Colburn?"

"Yeah, why?"

"We've just met."

"I'm surprised it hasn't happened sooner."

"Never heard of him before today."

"Born and raised here in Cambridge, late blooming genius like Einstein, expert in rocketry, robots, exotic new materials, advanced weaponry, Washington's darling."

"He said nothing about all that. He just said physicist at Huntsville."

"Modest and known for it, and a tender catch. He's straight as an arrow, lonesome soul, his wife dead five years of cancer. He can't get Cambridge, Mississippi, out of his blood, tools over here every weekend tending to his farm out Yocona way, and a hundred-year-old mother in the Golden Age nursing home with that hell-raising woman, you know her, Clara Bartley, hired to ride herd."

"Well, I'll give her plenty of room. And how do you know so much?"

"Talk of the town."

"And he's into something else, also."

"What?"

"Cruising the underground stacks out at the university library, writing a history of physics, he said."

"Published a bunch of 'em already … that where you met?"

"Yeah, the librarian, bubbling do-good and matchmaking, brought him down an aisle for the introduction. And she left us alone to talk."

"You talked."

"Mostly."

"And he invited you to dinner."

"Let's put it this way, I invited him to invite me to dinner."

"Well, I hope this works, but everybody knows he's looking for the right woman and a couple of years ago he found one. It lasted less than two weeks."

"Oh, really."

"Yeah, you know her. She's now a widow, but not then, old Floyd Beazlie's wife, Sarah, when he was terminal with Alzheimer's."

"He went for that little bitch?"

"Believed everything she told him, and she betrayed his every word until Clara Bartley wised him up and he cut it off clean. He still suffers the gossip Sarah started."

"I can imagine."

"Yeah, he's a type all right, a woman's face more important than her fanny, like it's her soul he's got to see, a bit of the errant knight."

"How romantic."

"Whatever that means, but watch yourself, there's a tang of danger, like the treachery of ideals."

"Gives me room to maneuver."

"Well, so what were you doing in the library?"

"Searching the books on gambling until they headed my way and I turned to religion."

"And he never knew the difference."

"Didn't seem to notice. How was your day?"

"Oh, the usual, University-Cambridge airport at ten for Toy Boy's jet to Memphis this time, then the routine frolic, then lunch, then back to Cambridge by four thirty. I walked in the door as the phone was ringing."

"Fast."

"The jet age, twice a week now, day after tomorrow to New Orleans with him aboard, and back the same time. And by the way, his new secret apartment in downtown Memphis is gorgeous, with views of the river."

"Secret?"

"His wife won't know."

"Wonderful."

"Could be with the right man."

"Does Horace suspect?"

"Not a clue, too busy, thinks his little innocent wife is as helpless as his dumb patients, scared shitless, letting him get away with his act, Dr. Important sticking his tubes up this or that, including his smug little nurse, I'm sure. Let him sleep."

"Good luck."

"Don't worry. Leaves home every morning before daylight; I'm sleeping or supposed to be, and never home before ten p.m. We don't see each other in the same house for days at a time, which suits me just fine." "Hey, I got to rush, shampoo and the whole thing yet, meeting him at seven."

"I'll call you. We've got another foursome coming up soon to Las Vegas."

"Okay, but this time, you keep Toy Boy for yourself, no playing wife swapping with him again. I got enough toy men already."

"Don't blame you; I would like to have the coach for myself."

"Better than average, compared."

"To what, Peter Mallory?"

"You got it."

"What's he doing now?"

"Tunica mostly. He goes off and leaves me in one gambling area or another while he disappears upstairs for hours doing his thing with the powers that be without an inkling of what I really do."

"Making progress?"

"Yeah, but I'm not ready to talk about it yet."

"What about the Golden Age?"

"On hold until Monday. I'm not risking anything while John Colburn is in town. But I will find out who is doing the dirty stuff."

"You think so?"

"Somebody is killing people out there and I intend to get to the bottom of it."

"Why?"

"I want to know just where Peter Mallory stands in all this."

"Right. You wouldn't want to be a tainted Mrs. Mallory."

"Way to go on that yet."

"Besides his wife?"

"Right. In over his head, I've begun to suspect, and that could be fatal."

"Be careful."

"I shall."

"See you, babe."




As evening darkness deepened John Colburn sat in a quiet booth of a downtown restaurant, Celeste beside him. He thought she was a good woman, an honest woman, a reliable woman, and saw her as pretty and maturing. She already has told him her age, thirty nine, while describing the purity of the life she leads. At last, my God, at long last, what a find, what a treasure. She had arrived breathless, excited, animated in a wispy aura, the bright blonde hair richly resplendent down the front of her shoulders draping the tanned face, tantalizing over her chest. She appeared dreamlike in sheeny, flimsy, delicate, almost see-through clothes. In her presence he felt transported to surreal awareness. She seemed magical and out of focus, as she turned her face to him, and he caught a glimpse of something different, the face of a girl with opaque putty eyes, a beguiling little girl. He refuted the fleeting insight, and saw Celeste as beautiful.

Listening through the meal until the restaurant emptied, he heard about her life and about her husband Jake, who had been the center of her universe and still was. She has not been with another man since, and Jake had been the first and only one, and she wanted to die but God just refused to take her and she still sits at home and grieves and does not want to do anything. Stretched out on the sofa she cries herself to sleep every evening and awakens near midnight and pours herself a little glass of wine, just one, and goes upstairs to bed. But nobody has been able to break through to her and she can tell you about being been hit on by some real pros. So many friends and other people have introduced all sorts of men, but with no luck for them. They have assumed and they have tried and they one and all have been bitterly disappointed, but she is just not interested, not after having had a man like her husband. And there can never be another one,

not of his caliber. She had rather cry herself to sleep every night, alone and grieving, than to be with the wrong person.

While sitting beside her and listening he grew still with respect for, even envy of, the dead husband. He suffered a fleeting awareness of his own inferiority; he would never be able to meet her standards or expectations, he feared. He felt a loss of hope. He could never be the perfect man she lost, and he had not lived the purity she described.

She laid a hand on his arm, the long, elegant fingers gripping gently.

"Do you go to church?" she asked.

"Mostly to weddings and funerals. And you?"

"Oh, yes. I'm a devout Anglican. I must have my church. It's my great strength, and I sing in the choir. So I'm there for the services and for choir practice."

"You sing?"

"That was my major in college, music."

"Well, indeed, how nice."

"And where do you stand on Genesis?" she asked.

"As contrasted to Darwin?"

"Yes."

"The language in Genesis, of course, is poetic and couched in farreaching metaphor, and in mythology dating back thousands of pre-biblical years, and written by several authors. I certainly don't take it literally."

"Oh. That's a safe answer."

"Where do you stand?"

She turned to him and fastened her eyes toward the tip of his nose and a little bemused smile settled on her face as she said, "You know something, I've heard all the arguments, and frankly, I don't give a damn who's right and who's wrong. It serves my purpose ever so fine just like it is."

He laughed, and for a fleeting second recognized the calculating detachment of this new woman's intelligence, but chose to ignore the possibilities of its reach. He said, "And that's the frankest, most sensible comment I've heard yet on the argument, from either side."

She leaned closer and squeezed firmer on his arm, "Won't you come and hear me sing on Easter morning?"

And after a hesitation, her eyes level in his gaze, she raised him above all others at the moment with a teasing promise: "You just might prove to be my resurrection."

"I've never been in an Anglican church."

"You'll like it, John Colburn. Besides beautiful music we have lots of pageantry and ceremony."

And the evening ended.

Outside the restaurant he walked Celeste to her parked car and told her good-night. He went to his hotel in a state of euphoria, with the feeling of having taken a major step in the flow of his life.





Two days later he came to hear Celeste Howard sing in the choir of the old church he had seen at a distance since boyhood but had never entered.

Radiant in the morning light, she sang with joyous ease, her voice soaring into the vaulted heights of old St. Paul's. He watched her profile in the distant choir, facing the lectern, the hair shiny with highlights, the amber halfglasses down her nose, the songbook open in her hands. She appeared serenely devout, and brainy, and poised. He thought of angels and he thought of women. If only he could prove worthy of her, poor lonesome widow, defending herself against evil encroaching from every direction upon her purity and grief. She had described her life to him, how wariness and care and precious memories made it so easy to hold all the eager men at bay.

This was it. Safe and secure in the hushed sanctity of holy cloister, he without doubt at last had found his woman. But a little tug of caution nagged at his new happiness. Had he been sent a warning in the very church itself, he wondered vaguely, distantly? His spine still tingled from the dark surprise, the sobering incident just moments ago as he stepped out of the Easter morning sunshine into the hushed shadows of St. Paul's vestibule, glimpsing the sextant's hands as they released the dangling rope, the tolling bell still calling, and at the very pinnacle of this serene and tranquil moment an explosive and nasty eruption blew the ambience apart like splattered glass. From high in the belfry a rattling violence slithered down the tunnel, whipping the tubular walls, and flopped out of the ceiling. Dust and fibers of age and rot billowing into the still air revealed the old frayed and broken rope collapsed on the worn stone floor. His ankles tingled as he walked around the sinister coil. The bell's reverent clamoring quieted in diminishing reverberations as the choir stood to sing. He chose to ignore the supernatural possibilities, but the emotion remained. While he felt adrift in the negative wash of ethereal warning, the librarian's words came back as a bother and he wondered if he was unwittingly being pulled into the current of something maybe overwhelmingly powerful.

He watched the ceremony from the back pew. Shafts of iridescent sunlight slanted through the windows and cast down across the cavernous reaches of the nave to reflect on the heads of hair and the backs of pews.

People appeared so small beneath the architectural arms striving upward for the reach of heaven.

The icons, the white head-covers, the white gowns, the medieval weaponry of black iron, the candles, the fire flaming atop torches carried down the aisle with pomp and ceremony, altogether created a pagan flavor, archaic and heraldic, reminiscent of clansman-ship, and an astonishing contrast to his life of physics. He had found her in a world so far removed from his way of thinking, a world he had never taken seriously. Now his awareness hovered over the brink at the edge of eternal darkness and doubt where the church professed to understand the greatest of all questions. Perhaps he had missed a mystery and a beauty hidden by arid icons and empty gesticulations. He drifted in sentiment and permissiveness, the noise of the plunging rope still uneasy in memory, gravid with the inert finality of a sprung trap. Then he thought Have I been wrong to refute all this for so long? Maybe there is some good if it can harbor and nurture a Celeste, a very gracious gift at last. Perhaps he should look more carefully and get closer. From appearances it soon would become a part of his life.

She joined him in the lobby, and they went first to lunch then for a ride through the springtime countryside. In his elation, as the landscape rolled by, he looked beyond the roadside litter of the pick-up truck culture. Budding dogwoods blurred in a haze, the pink blossoms of the redbud bushes and the wild plum, and the yellow-greens of baby leaves streaked through his preoccupied awareness. In controlled excitement he talked tentatively, being the careful gentleman in the presence of an elegant, refined lady, a lady so injured by the world, so devout, so devoted to memories, a lady to be rescued and saved from smoldering grief.

"Do you come to Cambridge every weekend?" she asked as John turned back toward her car parked in the church yard.

"Most of the time, but not every one."

"For your latest book and your mother."

"And the farm, yes."

"Well, I do hope you will include me."

"Yes," he said, not really believing his good luck, "I have another reason now."

She placed a hand on his as he drove on.


Now his trust in a woman did not rest on a foundation of treachery. Of this he could be sure with Celeste and he could put his worries aside. Yet, strangely, they were there, the faraway, quiet little cautions tugging for attention. But such doubts were not necessary. This one was right; he had discovered her himself in the hushed shadows studying the shelf of books. From first sight he had thought of her in terms of wife. But he would have to wait nearly another week before seeing her again, and she had seemed so delighted with his returning on weekends.


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