The Rule of Sebastian
Published By: Dreamspinner Press
Published: Nov 12, 2012
ISBN # 9781623801298
Available in: Epub, Mobipocket (.mobi), Adobe Acrobat
Click here for the print version
Desperate to conceal the crime from outsiders, Mt. Ouray’s abbot, Father Paolo Cabral, asks Sebastian to help solve the mystery. With Casey assisting, Sebastian plunges deeper into the investigation. But working with Casey threatens Sebastian’s self-control until his desires erupt, along with the dreaded past he has tried so desperately to put behind him. As Sebastian closes in on the killer, Father Paolo intervenes—not just in Sebastian’s search for the truth but in his pursuit of Casey’s heart.
“HURRY! Come help! Come help!”
Sebastian sprinted from his cell, where he had been engaged in lectio divina, to see what the commotion was about. He found Brother Casey sitting on the wood floor in the entrance foyer, replacing his sandals with a pair of the common work boots stowed under the bench. Beneath his tunic, he wore snow pants. Casey stopped tying the bootlaces long enough to look up at him. His brown eyes grew wide, frozen ponds caught in a sudden spray of the overhead lights.
“What is it, Casey?” Sebastian asked. “Are you all right? Did you hurt yourself?”
“I’m fine,” Casey said, refocused on tying the boots, “but there’s someone—I think a man—lying outside in this blizzard. He appears unconscious. I don’t think it’s one of our brothers. My eyes didn’t deceive me. Can you pull on some snow gear and follow me outside?”
Skeptical but alarmed, Sebastian wasted no time minding the latest of the monastery’s postulants. He sat on the bench next to him and pulled on socks, snow pants, and sturdy boots. Minutes later, clad in their parkas with their scapular hoods pulled over their heads to ward off the blowing snow, they dashed outside into the storm. Sebastian drew his hood back enough for a clearer view, jerking his head from one angle to the next to avoid the hard-driven snow stinging his cheeks, but he had no idea what he searched for.
Casey pointed to one of the library’s arched windows, where light cast a dull yellow over a snowbank. “I was seated in the library for lectio divina when I noticed something in the snow,” he shouted above the wind. “At first I thought it was a mound of sheets that might have blown from an open window in Brother Giles’s cell. You know how forgetful he can be. But then I was certain it had a man’s shape.”
Up to their knees in snow, they circled around where Casey claimed he had spotted the man. Rushing wind swept a patch of the fast-accumulating snow, and in a flash Sebastian discerned the same mound of color. He motioned with his head for Casey to follow. “I see him, come on!”
They dropped to their haunches by the lifeless figure and cleared the snow around him with their bare hands, exhaling thick, vaporous breath. The more they dug, the more Sebastian was certain they would uncover a dead man. Two more brothers wrapped in parkas and secured in boots scurried outside.
“May God have mercy on his soul. Is he dead?” Brother George hollered from the buried footpath, where the blowing snow iced his thick eyeglasses.
Sebastian removed his fingertips from the man’s carotid artery. “He’s alive,” he shouted above his own pounding heart, “but barely.”
“Who is he?” Brother Eusebius asked, standing beside them and looking on with deep lines marring his forehead.
“I’ve never seen him before,” Sebastian said. “We’ll have to find out later. Let’s get him inside before he freezes to death.”
“I’ll go fetch the abbot.” Brother Eusebius dashed along their boot tracks, already smoothed into a subtle groove from the relentless wind and snowfall.
Sebastian gathered the unconscious man in his arms and carried him inside the warmth of the abbey while Casey and Brother George shielded him from the elements. Six of the abbey’s twelve brothers were already waiting by the front door, pelting them with questions. But Sebastian had no answers, and his main objective was to hurry the man to the infirmary and get him beneath several layers of bedcovers. He shouted for someone to get Brother Jerome and shouldered his way through the brothers.
Once inside the infirmary, Sebastian and the others rushed to undress the stranger and dry him with soft cotton towels. The brothers’ palpable interest in the man did not surprise Sebastian. He caught the flush that blemished their faces when he slid off the stranger’s wet jeans and underwear. And he detected a puckering of their lips when the first trace of body odor reached their nostrils before they tucked him into bed and cocooned him in woolen blankets.
Firm muscles now lay underneath those three sturdy blankets, which were tucked around him snugger than a baby in swaddling. His breath came in short gasps, lifting the blankets every fifteen to twenty seconds. Sebastian worried that the young man, perhaps twenty-one or twenty-two—about the same age as Casey and Brother Rodel—might not make it.
Lying in bed, he appeared almost surreal, a dark Adonis poised for death after his mysterious ascent along southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Color had returned to his cheeks. Ruddiness accentuated the subtle brown of his skin. But he was still out cold.
The brothers pushed against the bed to the point that Sebastian had little room to turn. He couldn’t help but notice a high energy emanating from them. Excitement had replaced their humdrum abbey lives.
“What was he doing in the middle of the snowstorm?” Brother Lucien asked in his typical quirky English lilt, stealing the thoughts straight from Sebastian’s head.
“It’s a perfectly good question,” Sebastian said. “I’m unsure how or why he’s come to us. Had anyone witnessed him hiking up?”
“I was in my cell studying Scripture, and the few times I glanced outside I saw nothing,” Brother Hubert said, adjusting his black-framed glasses over his rosacea-coated nose. “But with all this blowing snow, how could I?”
“Yes, I know. I was in my cell as well,” Sebastian said, almost disgusted with himself for having failed to see the man. “But I hadn’t noticed a thing.”
The others said they’d spent their rest periods in other parts of the abbey and hadn’t noticed anything either.
“Do you think he’ll survive?” Casey directed the question to Sebastian, flexing his fingers from the cold that probably still stung them.
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Sebastian said, providing the handsome young brother one of his stealthy signature winks to reassure him.
“I hope he lives. I really hope he does,” Brother George said, rolling his chubby hands in front of his scapular. “I want to see him with opened eyes. They must be brown, I’m sure.”
“Could he have gotten lost while skiing?” Brother Rodel asked in his typical whispery voice. He was as reserved as a turtle, yet with the stealth of a cat. So many times the five-foot-two brother had sidled close to Sebastian without his realizing until he’d spoken.
“He wasn’t dressed for skiing,” Sebastian said. “He had no skis, no poles or ski boots, unless he’d left them elsewhere.”
“This is a pickle,” said Brother Giles, who, at seventy-two, showed signs of reverting to a childlike emotional detachment from the abbey, a trait Sebastian had grown to envy. Even the gout that had confined him to a wheelchair failed to dispirit Brother Giles. He wheeled closer to the bed, the squeak of the chair punctuating the awed silence, and nudged aside Brothers Lucien and George. “Certainly is a pickle, I’ll say.” He rubbed his grizzled beard. “Maybe he’s one of those nature hikers.”
“What person goes hiking in the mountains in the dead of winter without proper attire?” Brother Micah said, scratching at his expanding forehead and curling his thin upper lip. “Don’t you think so, Brother Sebastian?” He softened his sour tone and gazed at Sebastian with ardent blue eyes. “Don’t you think he couldn’t possibly be a nature hiker?”
“Yes, I agree.” Brother Sebastian patronized Brother Micah, as he often did. “I don’t think he’s your typical rugged outdoorsman. He was wearing only those worthless hiking sneakers, and I didn’t see any snowshoes. Even if he was dressed properly, it’s unlikely he’d be joy hiking in this snowstorm. I think he’s come to the abbey on purpose.”
“But what for?” Brother Lucien asked.
“Maybe he’s come to us out of desperation, to find solace from a tragedy,” Brother Hubert said.
“He reminds me of the Lord our Savior, napping in the stern of the boat as he and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee,” Brother Giles said with a grin. “Look how he lies so helpless and peaceful.”
The brothers gazed at the sleeping figure in silence until Brother Eusebius rushed into the room with Father Paolo following close on the hem of his tunic. The abbot parted the band of brothers with a sweep of his flowing sleeve. Sebastian noted the hint of smoldering juniper wafting off his garments from the incense he liked to burn in his private office. Father Paolo leaned into the unconscious figure, his breath inches from the young man’s nose.
A smile twisted one side of the venerable sixty-year-old’s pale face. According to Brother Hubert, who seemed to have the abbey secrets whispered to him by the finches that clustered in the cloister garden even in winter (did he know Sebastian’s dark secrets too, and the reason why he’d come to Mt. Ouray?), the abbot had retreated to the abbey more than twenty years ago to escape the pressures of parish life. Ten years later, resident brothers had elected him abbot.
Accepting Father Paolo’s complete authority at Mt. Ouray was perhaps the most difficult transition for Sebastian. A stoic man used to leading (or as his father used to say, “Stubborn as an old dog, like a good Irishman should be, a Harkin through and through”), Sebastian had found himself biting his tongue more often than not whenever facing the abbot’s leadership.
Leaving his worldly goods back in Philadelphia had come easy—he’d had few worldly goods to sacrifice (two hundred seventy thousand in savings had gone straight into the abbey’s purse)—but renouncing his inclination to command had proved more painful.
Once he’d committed to the idea of professing his vows after he’d arrived at Mt. Ouray four years ago, he’d learned to take the abbot’s orders silently and with deference. Although the abbot often relied on him as his second in command, for Sebastian stood tall and strong and the others naturally looked to him for guidance, a fresh, pestering resentment had begun to nag Sebastian.
He gulped down his rising angst and waited for the abbot to comment, anticipating his characteristic Portuguese accent that always sounded as if he held a mouthful of marbles.
The father stood erect and adjusted his wire-framed glasses, eyes still focused on the stranger. “Any idea how he came to us?”
“No one saw him hiking up,” Brother Micah said.
“It’s as if he fell out of the sky,” Brother Hubert said.
“Like an angel,” Brother George breathed.
“There’s no identification on him,” Sebastian added, his voice resonating in his ears, more forceful than he’d intended. “He was carrying only one small knapsack, that yellow pack over there on the table,” he said in a softer tone. “Inside we found two protein bars, a frozen bottle of water, nothing else. No wallet or anything. Not even a cell phone.”
He explained how they’d discovered him wearing only hiking sneakers, a thin parka, and day clothes, absent of any other outdoor gear, and how they’d undressed him and packed his clothes in a bag for Brother Hubert to launder. “I turned the pockets of his jeans inside out,” he said. “Shook the knapsack upside down. No clues, not even a stub from an airline ticket or motel receipts.”
“You can tell by his battered feet that he hiked a long ways,” Casey said. “We cleaned him as best we could.”
“We’ve refrained from administering any first aid until Brother Jerome gets here,” Sebastian said.
“Has he been notified?”
“He was in lectio divina when I went to call for him.” Brother George twisted his head toward the door. “Praise be to God, here he comes now.”
Old, weathered Brother Jerome, suffering from osteoarthritis, lumbered toward the brothers. He had once been a physician in lay life and, according to Brother Hubert, was widowed, with three sons. His medical skills had proved invaluable to the secluded abbey, nestled nine thousand feet in the Rockies, fifteen miles from the closest village, and cut off from civilization in winter. Unable to keep up with the seasonal snowfall, the forest service closed the road that passed Mt. Ouray from November to April. No one could come or go until snowmelt. Or so Sebastian thought.
Brother Jerome fumbled in a drawer and removed a pocket flashlight, stethoscope, and blood pressure meter. He stepped up to the bed, pulled open each of the stranger’s eyelids, and peered at the pupils with the flashlight.
Brother George stood on his toes. “See, I told you he had brown eyes. I told you.”
Next, Brother Jerome exposed the stranger’s midsection to the subdued gasps of many of the brothers, and listened through the stethoscope while everyone held a collective breath. He moved slowly, careful not to raise his arms above his shoulders, since this caused him great pain.
While he took the stranger’s blood pressure, Brother Jerome uncorked the instrument from his cartilage-shattered ears and began to feel around the man’s ribcage and stomach. Then he removed the sphygmomanometer and secured the covers around him. He next examined his hands and feet. Some of the monks flinched when Brother Jerome uncovered the blisters and blue swelling at the toes and fingertips.
Sighing, Brother Jerome tucked in the man’s hands and feet and stood straight with a pained expression. “Feet and hands have some frostbite. Nothing too horrible. Mild hypothermia, from the looks of his pupils. We’ll have to keep him good and warm.”
“Will he survive?” Father Paolo asked.
“I’m unsure. Breathing is labored, but his heart sounds strong. Blood pressure isn’t bad. Doesn’t seem to have any visible signs of internal injuries, which is a blessing.”
“How long do you think he was out there?” Sebastian asked.
“From the looks of him, maybe no more than a handful of hours. He must be a strong boy to have gotten this far without more serious injuries.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Sebastian said.
“Ideally, he should be taken to a hospital for tests,” Brother Jerome stated with a wince. “But there’s little hope for a helicopter or even a snowmobile to make it through this storm. We’ll have to wait for it to clear. There’s not much to do but keep watch over him and pray he awakens. And even then, I’m afraid, it might get worse.”
“Get worse?” Brother George’s dark eyes widened behind his thick glasses.
“He could suffer cardiac arrest.”
“We’ll pray for him,” Brother Hubert said. “He’ll need divine help.”
“I think he’s already had much of that just by reaching us,” Brother Eusebius said. At more than six foot, the middle-aged monk towered over the others, save for Sebastian. The light fixtures hanging above reflected off his golden sphere of a shaved head.
Many of the brothers followed the abbot’s lead and made the sign of the cross over their black scapulars. Sebastian peered at the dark figure. His chest rose and fell slowly and methodically. The interim between breaths seemed to have shortened. A good sign.
“God must have had a hand in bringing him to us,” Brother George said. “Why else would he have come here? I do hope he makes it.”
“He’s young and strong looking,” Brother Jerome said. “That’s his best chance for a full recovery.”
“That and prayer,” Brother Hubert said.
“There’s still the question of where he came from,” Brother Eusebius said.
“Maybe he’s from Monfrere,” Brother Lucien said. “A villager seeking our divine help.”
Sebastian shook his head. “Monfrere has only one hundred residents. We’d recognize him if he came from there. He’s a stranger. A young man in search of something.”
“You already said that,” Brother Lucien said with his usual sneering tone. “Searching for what?”
“I have no idea,” Sebastian murmured.
“Desperate men resort to desperate actions,” Brother Eusebius said.
“You think he’s a criminal?” Brother Rodel’s dark eyes grew wide. “He’s come here to escape prosecution. That’s why he risked his life to reach us. He seeks asylum.”
“A criminal?” Brother George’s jaw dropped.
When they’d undressed him, Sebastian had noted that no tattoos marked his flesh, unusual for a young man of his generation. If he were a criminal, the way Brother Rodel worried—the way Sebastian had also considered—he’d most likely have been branded as a member of the Trinitarios or a dozen other street gangs Sebastian knew to exist. His hair was not too long, not too short, and he had a heart-cut diamond earring piercing his left earlobe. Sebastian doubted he was AWOL from the military. The closest military post was in Colorado Springs, three hundred miles away. And he was circumcised, which meant he’d most likely been born in the United States.
“Shouldn’t we inform the police?” Brother Micah said.
“No need to notify the authorities,” Father Paolo said with a deepening of his voice. “If he has come for asylum, St. Benedict instructs that we provide him with comfort and protection, regardless of what he’s done. All guests who present themselves to the abbey are to be welcomed as Christ.”
“Never in the near twenty years that I’ve lived at Mt. Ouray has anyone visited the abbey in the dead of winter,” Brother Hubert said. “It’s impossible.”
“Whatever brought him here, he not only wanted to find us, but he needed to find us,” Brother Eusebius said. “Determination and God’s helping hand allowed him to travel this far and survive.”
“Do you think someone dropped him off in a snowmobile?” Brother George darted his eyes from one brother to the next. “Maybe someone else is out there lost?”
“It’s unlikely he has any companions,” Sebastian said. “Nonetheless, even a snowmobile or ATV would’ve proved near impossible in this weather.”
Brother Micah shook his head. “Unless… Unless….”
“Unless what, Brother Micah?” Brother Eusebius said.
Brother Micah flushed. “Oh, never mind any of that. I’m thinking of silly legends.”
“He might die. We have to accept that,” Brother Lucien added from alongside the abbot, spewing his English drawl with a glorified emphasis, which Sebastian noticed he did whenever he wished the brothers to judge his intelligence above anyone else’s. Twenty-five years in the United States had probably taught him that Americans stereotyped the British by their accents as brighter than average.
“Praise God, he survives.” Brother George made the sign of the cross with marked fastidiousness. “How horrible it would be if he’d traveled this far only to die in our very own infirmary.”
“He will not die,” Brother Giles said, yanking on his beard. “I have a feeling in my old bones he’ll make it. God has not brought him to us without a reason. He will survive and live here among us. He will become a brother.”
Brother Giles’s optimism silenced the brothers. Many trembled in anticipation, and some, Sebastian suspected, with uncertainty. Brother Eusebius’s shoulders rose to his ears. Brother George rubbed his hands, mirroring Bother Giles’s childlike expectation. Casey gazed toward the stranger, dreamlike, lost.
“Do you think he might really want to become a brother?” Brother Micah asked.
A soft, peculiar grin formed on the side of Father Paolo’s face. “We’re jumping to conclusions,” he said. “Before we have him profess, if and when he awakens, we must learn what his intentions are for coming here.”
“I hope he’s not a criminal,” Brother George said. “That would be horrible.”
“He’s a mystery, indeed.” Sebastian surprised himself that his words had come out as a whisper rather than remain inside his mind as the mere reflection he’d intended.
Casey jerked his head to Sebastian. He caught the apprehension in the young postulant’s chestnut eyes. For some reason, Sebastian believed Casey needed assurance—the way Brother Micah often did. He shook himself from his reverie, smiled, and gave him one of his stealthy winks. Casey flushed with a smile and spun back to the stranger.
Imitating a mother goose gathering her goslings with her wings, Father Paolo ushered the brothers toward the doorway. “Let’s give the patient some peace and quiet,” he said. “We’ll have Brother Jerome watch after him, with Brother Rodel assisting. Come along. We can ask God to have mercy on the stranger while we fulfill our responsibilities to the abbey. Make sure you stay clear of the infirmary. No wandering over to sneak a peek. Curiosity will hinder your duties and the stranger’s recovery. Remember our mission, Opus Dei.”
The brothers shuffled for the corridor, glimpsing over their shoulders at the unconscious figure with wonder and dejection pinned in their eyes. Father Paolo held Sebastian back and waited for the others to fade away. “Are you certain you have no idea where this man might have come from, Brother Sebastian?”
“I’m afraid I am,” he said. “The snow had covered his tracks, and I couldn’t tell which direction he might have traveled from.”
The recessed lighting glinted off Father Paolo’s wire-framed glasses. “Very odd. Very odd.”
Sebastian was glad to take leave of the abbot. While walking to his winter workstation, he pondered more about the young man lying unconscious in the infirmary. Brother George had been right.
The stranger seemed to have fallen from Heaven.