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(Sample Chapters)

Prologue

The retreating taxi spewed dust and gravel, leaving her in the middle of the unpaved road with no ready means of escape. Her Louis Vuitton carry-on slipped from her shoulder and glided slow-motion down her arm. Settling into the rusty dirt, it looked out of place, the useless remnant of a life and culture left behind. Having planted her feet again on her native soil, she felt them sprout roots and bind her to the land.

She had woven her long hair into a swirled bun and secured it behind her head, allowing the early coastal sun to warm her neck and shoulders. Nothing, however, convinced her unsteady limbs and queasy stomach that she had made the right decision.

Brushing flecks of sand from her faded jeans and neutral cotton safari shirt, she stared at the orange iron gate that exceeded by several feet her own above-average height. From the other side, high-pitched squeals of children at play skipped the wall and tugged at irretrievable images locked in her memory. Like Lot’s wife peeking at the destruction of her native city, she became a pillar of salt.

They say you can’t go home again? Too late, Natty. It’s too late for that.

EIGHTEEN MONTHS EARLIER

May 3

In a final check of her room, Natalia’s gaze fell upon the letter from the night before. Untouched. Unopened. Resting on the table where she’d discarded it. What the hell! She grabbed the envelope which bore her name scripted in florid serifed loops and stuffed it in the outside pocket of her purse.

With a boring, cross-desert drive ahead of her, she stopped in the lobby for coffee to go. Plucking a banana nut muffin from a pyramid of warm baked goods, she wrapped it in a napkin for later munching. Valet parking delivered her BMW convertible to the shaded main entrance, top open, engine idling, driver’s door swung open like an eagle’s wing.

After a solicitous bellhop loaded her bags into the trunk and thanked her for the tip, all she had to do was aim the bumper toward L.A. and set the automatic pilot.

Natalia’s days and nights had been filled with people, some of whom she actually knew, as she fulfilled three of her annual twelve-day obligation to Maybelline. Hours in the makeup chair, followed by more hours of waiting while her favorite lens man, Arlo Edgerly, obsessed about the tricky lighting at the outdoor shoot. Each change of clothes required a new hair style. They began at dawn and worked until the late-falling sun told them it was time to collect the day’s product and think about tomorrow.

On the road to L.A. she’d be alone with her thoughts, not the best company in her present state of exhaustion. The letter jutted from Natalia’s purse which she’d dropped into the soft leather passenger seat. “Read it,” a woman’s voice whispered. She ignored the intrusion and drove a few yards from the main entrance. As if someone had wrested control of the wheel, she veered suddenly into an open space where she wouldn’t obstruct the hotel driveway. With the engine still running, she lowered the convertible top. Then, ripping away the envelope flap, she removed the crisp, single sheet of hotel stationery.

May 2

My Dear Señorita Natalia,

Forgive my poor English. I hoped to speak to you in person tonight. I regret we cannot meet. I understand. I return to Peru in the early morning . . . .

 * * *

“Ms . . . Natalia?”

“What is it?”  Her voice had bit with impatience at the caller’s fumbling attempt at her name. Most people felt they had no right to call her by her first name, but stuttered over using it as a surname.

“This is John at the front desk.” At the end of the sentence, the caller’s voice slid up the vocal scale. “There’s someone here who wishes to speak to you.”

“Who is it?” Natalia exercised a celebrity’s caution when approached by strangers. Anyone with a legitimate claim on her time would have offered a name right off.

“She says you don’t know her, but it’s really important that she see you.”

At least it wasn’t some guy who’d made it his goal in life to father her children. Crazy woman? A possibility. “I’m not seeing anyone tonight. Please don’t disturb me again.” She backed off the sharpness in her tone. “I’d appreciate it, John. Thank you.”

“One moment please,” he said. In the muffled conversation that followed she heard her rejection being repeated.

“The lady would like to know if she can send up a letter.” The clerk sounded apologetic.

“Only if she writes it in your presence and you seal the envelope and deliver it to me yourself.” Natalia wasn’t in a mood to get her hand blown off by some right-wing fanatic’s letter bomb.

More muffled conversation.

“She’ll do it.” John sounded as if he’d just negotiated settlement of a hostage crisis. “I’ll bring it up when she’s done.”

Fifteen minutes later, a confident rap on the door startled her. “Desk clerk, Ms. Natalia. I have the letter you requested.”

She had already forgotten about the woman downstairs. “Okay.” She removed a five-dollar bill from her wallet and opened the door. The clerk wore a hotel-issue burgundy blazer bearing the crest of the Scottsdale Regency. He handed her a number ten envelope. “Thanks again, John. I appreciate the way you handled that.”

With a smile bigger than his face and a story he’d tell to his children and grandchildren, he slipped the tip into his jacket pocket. “Thank you.”

She discarded the letter, tossing it on the writing table near the window.

* * *

I am from Lima, Peru. I work for Hilton Hotels but I am here in Arizona for training. Your photograph is in the newspaper today. The article says you are born in Peru. It also says you stay at the Regency. I do not wish to intrude your life.

Which life? Name-my-price fashion model? Or woman having no one to share an ice cream cone with, if my diet ever allowed it? Having asked the renegade question, she offered her stock answer. You’ve got money, baby. What’s more important? You can walk into any Baskin-Robbins and buy out all thirty-one flavors and the franchise. With cash to spare in your pocket!

Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a day. Not bad for a few hours in front of the lens, times three for the length of the photo shoot. She’d never actually see the money. Not directly, at least. After a couple of electronic transfers and commission deductions, the funds ended up in an investment account consisting of a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds managed by her Wall Street broker. Out of a money market checking account she’d draw pocket cash as needed, eight to ten thousand a month, minimum. All expenses of her trip to Phoenix, down to the muffin she had yet to eat, she’d put on Maybelline’s tab.

Declining Arlo’s invitation to “do Scottsdale” last night, she had chosen an early night and room service. Ruggedly good looking in the mold of a Sam Shepard–slightly receding hairline, craggy lines descending like desert ravines from each ear to his jaw. Arlo had been with her from her first breakthrough assignment that landed her on the cover of Seventeen. In addition to his being the best photographer in the business, she valued him as a friend and her most trusted personal advisor. Like a wise and revered older brother, he had guided her safely through piranha-filled swamps of the American and European fashion capitals. From the end of her teens and into her mid-twenties, he had been there at that perilous time when most girls were poorly equipped to handle the demanding workload and daily obsession with their bodies–and the money–without slipping into eating disorders and drugs, whether prescription or contraband. In that time she, in turn, had offered him the meager benefit of her inexperienced good will through a painful divorce, one he hadn’t wanted and didn’t deserve. With no children “to carve up and screw up,” as he put it, it had been a clean break, if one ignored a few dirty financial tricks on the part of his ex’s lawyer.

Although twenty years Natalia’s senior, Arlo cautiously admitted to nurturing the hope of becoming more than her occasional photographer and ever-available confidant. “Look at Celine and René,” he said one night when he felt brave enough to drop the mask of friend-advisor. “It works for them.”

Arlo’s step across the threshold of romantic love had surprised her into silence. She owed him the courtesy of a discussion, but not a single word in the Oxford English dictionary surfaced to rescue her.

He thrust his hands palm forward to ward off a defensive response. “Don’t say anything.”

“Okay.”

“I’m sorry. I should’ve kept my mouth shut.”

She captured his retreating wrists and held them. “Don’t be sorry, Arlo.” The thought of escalating her relationship with this special man who meant more to her than anyone outside her close-knit family had never surfaced to a conscious level. “I– I never thought of us like that.” You know you could do a lot worse, lady, and no one better has come crooning down your street. Still, when Mr. Right finally did arrive on her doorstep she doubted he’d bear the name of her number one friend and photographer. Until that certainty consumed her heart, she’d remain unattached and open to possibi­lities.

In Arlo’s favor was the fact that he treated her like an ordinary person, the one she experienced within her own self-consciousness. Every other man seeking access to her life wanted only that part of her that beckoned from TV commercials and magazine covers. Arlo had seen her at her worst, no makeup, unruly hair, sporting a bitchy disposition. While never letting her trample on his feelings or tell him how to do his job, he tolerated her mood swings and loved her nonetheless.

* * *

I could be mistaken, but I believe I know your mother–your real mother. I prefer not to use her name. She knows nothing of what I am doing. It is better for you to contact me first. When I look at your foto, I see the face and eyes of my good friend. If you are her daughter, I can assure you your mother has not forgotten you. I am taking your picture to her. Diós le bendiga. — Eugenia Flores

Natalia’s eyes darted to “real mother.” How dare you? Evelyn McCrory is my real mother. With tears stinging the corners of her eyes, she flung the letter onto the seat like a wartime bride rejecting word of a husband killed or missing in action. She sped from the hotel parking lot, tires squealing from the effort to clutch asphalt and bind her vehicle to the road.

From Scottsdale she drove west through Phoenix in search of I-10 and its cross-desert path to Los Angeles. When the freeway offered the alternate choice of I-17 North to Flagstaff, she skipped across two lanes of traffic and slid, angry horns blaring at her, onto the ramp heading in a direction that made no sense to her. The final words of Eugenia Flores’s letter buzzed inside her head.

PS: If you wish, write to me at Avenida de las Jacarandas 308, Lima, Peru.

* * *

Flashes of fractured images darted from the cracked mirror as Rosaria Colomé applied a blood-red layer of lip gloss, the final touch on her morning makeup routine. Distant, indistinct scenes, the remains of a vanishing dream, played hide-and-seek among more pressing thoughts of the workday ahead. She rummaged for images to accompany the feeling that something had occurred in her dream that deserved recall. The sensations became stronger and more frustrating when she slid a tortoise-shell comb into her swept-up hair only recently revealing first hints of gray.

Throughout the day, going about her duties as assistant manager of housekeeping at a tourist hotel in downtown Lima, details darted about the edges of her consciousness.

It wasn’t until her homeward-bound bus made the wide loop around a traffic circle and onto her street that a series of images rushed in all at once, leaving her to sort them out as she walked from the bus stop to her building and up five flights of stairs to her apartment.

She recalled a circle. What did it mean? She explored symbolic connections. Unity? Her sole claim to unity was lifelong singleness. Abandoned at the age of one and never having married, she had difficulty relating to the concept of community, especially within the context of a family of her own flesh and blood.

Wholeness? Not close. There had been a time. In the blush and bloom of emerging womanhood, she had experienced for a time a sense of having connected the disparate pieces of her self. She fell in love, but it had proved an il­lusion. There could have been no life for her with that man, no matter how many times he assured her that he would love her forever.

Integrity? Yes. At least, Rosaria hoped so. She acknowledged her many wrong deeds. “Bless me, Father, I have sinned,” she’d begin her weekly confessions to Father Elisario. The aging priest had served as her spiritual guide since her youth at Hogar de Niños Ángel Guardián, the American-run orphanage in which she had grown up. Except, that is, during the years of her affair and pregnancy when she saw no way to reconcile the exquisite experience of human love with the age-old teachings of her Church. Even now, she always concluded her confessions with, “…and in my past life I committed adultery, Father. Too many times to count.” To his credit, the priest never probed for details, but ended his blessing with, “Jesus understands, my dear. He understands.” He uttered the words with the prolonged sigh of a man who hoped the same divine mercy applied to his failings.

Once she ended the affair, Rosaria rededicated her life to God, forsaking marriage to live a nun’s life in the world. She had considered entering the convent and making formal vows, but taking refuge in the serenity and safety of religious life seemed too easy a penance to make up for that period of her life when she’d had no use for God.

Over two decades had passed since she made love to the only man she cared enough about to risk everything. She had relinquished the child born of that union to the Franciscan Sisters of the Child Jesus at Ángel Guardián for adoption. Her only consolation, meager to be sure, was the knowledge that her daughter had found love and safety in a happy home. Having brought into the world a life she could not support, Rosaria had traded her own happiness for her daughter’s. A fair exchange. The child’s innocent role in an adulterous relationship gave her priority. Rosaria had surrendered her virginity to the man who had fathered the baby. In consequence, she lost the opportunity to mother her child. As an act of penance, she made a private vow in the presence of her confessor to live the remainder of her life as a spiritual virgin.

A circle. With the suddenness of a camera flash, a light flicked on in Rosaria’s brain. A maze. In her dream, she had wandered aimlessly among oval rows of tall evergreen hedges. Terrified, she had called out, “Won’t you come and find me?” Had she entered the maze with someone now lost among its dead-end passageways?

In bed that night, she prayed, “Dearest God, let the dream continue. Show me the way out of the maze.” But the dream didn’t reprise. No Act Two. No denouement. No satisfying ending followed by a dramatic curtain drop.

In the morning, Rosaria’s daily routine demanded all her attention. She let go of the dream and the dilemma of the maze.

* * *

Feeling more like passenger than driver, Natalia let her convertible fly along I-17 past places she’d never heard of. New River. Rock Springs. After Black Canyon City, the terrain rose from two thousand feet to three around Rim Rock. On the radio, a nasal country singer twanged a traveler’s blessing, “May all your lights be green, your potholes few and far between.”

The Junction 179 Sedona sign snapped her to attention. She read it aloud. Why that town stuck in her mind, she didn’t know, but whoever controlled her grab-bag itinerary veered the car sharply off the interstate and onto the state road. Two hours after leaving Scottsdale, Natalia gazed in awe at towering magenta cliffs, at bell-shaped and cathedral-spired formations she had seen in travel photos but for which she had no specific reference until today. Green pine dots spread at the feet of high-desert rock faces. Local spring wildflowers and blooming cactuses whose names she neither knew nor cared to added hypnotic scents to the fresh spring air. A short time later, she rolled into Sedona proper.

Not knowing why she had come over a hundred miles out of her way or what she was doing in Northern Arizona, she stopped at a red light at Junction 89A. Turning south, she said to her unseen tour guide, “I don’t know who you are or why the hell you brought me here but now get me to a hotel.” She’d start for L.A.–again–in the morning. At the top of her to-do list was plotting a new course after forsaking I-10’s straight shot across the desert from Phoenix to her ocean-view condominium in Santa Monica.

A sign read, St. John Vianney Catholic Church .2 mi. A black arrow nudged her to turn right at Soldiers Pass Road. Taped to the same pole flapped a thin cardboard poster announcing an upcoming Psychic Expo complete with aura photos, clairvoyants, and past life regression.

The church property consisted of a cluster of flat-roofed adobe buildings. The tallest formed a square that housed the bell tower, topped by a large cross. She stopped in front of the building designated Parish House and rolled down the windows. She felt cold, despite the ninety-degree temperature, and frightened by the paralysis creeping along her limbs.

What now?

With no reason for being in this place, she had no questions to ask that wouldn’t make her look like a lost soul or a bumbling tourist eager to photograph anything that didn’t move. Neither image fit her.

“May I help you, Señorita?” The accent was heavily lilted Hispanic, with the “you” sounding like “jew.”

Natalia turned, grateful to see a diminutive older gentleman dressed in work clothes and pushing a hand truck on which he’d stacked three empty trash barrels. “I could use a ladies’ room,” she said in a little-girl voice.

“The closest one is in the Parish House. Father won’t mind if I let you in.”

“You don’t know how much I appreciate it.”

“Oh, Señorita, I think I do,” he said with a wink.

Minutes later, she returned to her car feeling relieved of at least her physical burden.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” the caretaker said.

Natalia recalled channel surfing three times through the TV menu last night before settling on a video tour of the Sedona region. One stop was El Retiro de Cristo Rey, a Roman Catholic spiritual growth center, founded in the Seventies. During a brief interview, El Retiro’s founder caught Natalia’s attention. At first it was the full beard and tall, slim body. Then she surprised herself by listening to his words.

“Our doors are always open to welcome people of any faith seeking peace at the core of their being.” A direct, soft-spoken voice accompanied the intense gaze of a modern-day ascetic who had found his own center and dedicated his life to guiding others to theirs. Natalia envied him and experienced one of those rare moments when she wondered what he might discover at the core of her being, or if she even had one.

“I saw a priest on TV,” she said. “He was from a retreat house in this area. Deep-set eyes, a beard. Looked a little wild, now that I think about it. Do you know of such a place?”

The caretaker took a defensive step back. The purple circles in which his eyes were set deepened yet another shade. The sunny hospitality with which he had greeted Natalia receded into a guarded tone of voice and a need to choose his words carefully. “That would be . . . Retiro de Cristo Rey.”

“The very the one.”

“The priest. He must have been Padre Martindale. Some call him a saint.” The man looked over his shoulder as if linking Martindale’s name with holiness constituted a desecration of parish property. “Our pastor believes he does more harm than good.”

The caretaker’s change of behavior heightened her curiosity about El Retiro and its anathema priest. “How?”

“My faith is simple, Señorita. I believe in Dios el Padre, his son Jesucristo, and el Espíritu Santo.” He crossed himself and kissed his thumb in beat with the words. “And nuestra madre María. I don’ understand this modern stuff Sedona is full of these days.”

“And Father Martindale?”

“A heretic, our pastor says.” He crossed himself again. “Father warns us to stay away from El Retiro.”

“I’m Catholic but not very religious myself.” Exposure to the midday sun had turned Natalia’s black silk blouse into a magnet for the rising heat. She extended her hand. “My name is Natalia McCrory. What is yours?”

“Osvaldo. Osvaldo Alejo. A sus órdenes.” He lowered his eyes and a rush of confusion darkened his skin even more. “You speak Spanish?”

“Not much.” She always felt a twinge of shame and exposure when forced to admit that she hadn’t bothered to learn what would have, under other circumstances, been her native language.

“You look like you should. I see Indian heritage in the shape of your eyes and cheekbones.”

“Good guess. I was born in Peru. I left when I was a baby.” No need to reveal more.

“Ahh. I am thinking something like that,” Osvaldo said. “You should learn your language, you know.”

“I know. Thank you for letting me use the–” She pointed in the direction of the parish house.

“Was nothing.”

She broke into a soft giggle. “It wasn’t ‘nothing,’ Señor Alejo.”

“Osvaldo.”

“Osvaldo, if I wanted to find El Retiro de Cristo Rey, where would I go?” She said it in the off-hand manner of a wandering tourist eager to visit a site having none other than scenic interest.

He gave directions which she wrote on a dusty notepad fished from her glove compartment.

“Be careful,” he warned.

“I promise.” She winked and extended her hand again which he held this time a bit longer than a normal handshake required.

*  *  *

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