By Katharine Galgano
(See chapter 1,2,3 Here)
Dyson White regarded his wife stoically as she moved among the pots on their rooftop terrace. It was an early spring morning in the Eternal City, and Michelle Orsini White was in a good mood. An avid gardener, his diminutive, dark-haired wife had managed through sheer persistence to interest her husband in the tomato vines growing up through her trestles, and the pots of mint and basil interspersed between her glowing spring flowers. Every morning, he knelt by her side, carefully weeding, watering and re-potting. The fresh smell of the earth and the herbs rose from the pots; spring sunlight glinted off the cloudy green Tiber far below.
It was critical that Dyson take an interest in something, to Michelle’s mind. Since his release from a US federal penitentiary in Texas two years before, the tall, laconic 57-year old ex media and publishing tycoon hadn’t reacted much to anything except for a rather desultory concern with high papal politics. Nothing else about his business empire interested him; he was resolved to stay in Rome and ‘keep an eye’ on the Papacy. One thing was certain, however. He’d sworn never to set foot in America again. The Whites were staying in Rome as expatriate employees of his British media arm.
This was unfortunate because it meant that they couldn’t see their daughter Sophia, now Sister Mary Benedicta of the Boston Order. Sophia had practically flown into the convent after graduating from Christendom College, a small Catholic school in Virginia renowned for its orthodoxy. There, her roommates had sustained the girl throughout her father’s ordeal at the hands of a Washington, DC federal prosecutor, who had filed 30 counts against him alleging everything from racketeering to conspiracy, insider trading, fraud and obstruction of justice.
In the end, it cost Dyson five years of legal maneuvering and tens of millions in legal fees to get 28 of the 30 counts dismissed. Michelle, who had no head for legal technicalities, couldn’t understand why her husband of 30 years had to serve a four-year prison sentence.
“What did you do wrong?” she asked for about the hundredth time on the night before he was to report to prison. This turned out to not be a very easy question to answer, even for the normally adroit, articulate Dyson. He had to admit that his wife’s Brooklyn characterization of the legal assault as a ‘shakedown’ was apt; what was clear was that the charges were politically motivated.
America was on shaky ground in 2009, threatened by a near-collapse of her banking system and debilitated by a war against terror on two fronts. A radical new Administration had swept into power, borne on the enthusiasm of young people fueled by social media–based promises of a peaceful, progressive new era. In reality, a few opportunistic businessmen with a net worth north of a billion dollars had paid for the new President’s ascent from obscurity. The very last thing they wanted was another media voice in the United States raising questions about how this President had been elected, or what tactics his Party was using to stay in power.
Hence, the lawsuit. Though White’s lawyers had appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, it declined to review the two counts that remained against him. A few days later, Dyson White entered the American underworld of a federal penitentiary.
Michelle moved into an apartment in nearby Dallas, and twice a week rose at dawn to visit her husband in his purgatory. She was immensely gratified when his four-year sentence was commuted to two years on the basis of his exemplary behavior, and the day he was released found them both on a corporate jet winging its way to Fiumicino airport outside Rome.
White wanted to go to Mass, he told his wife, at St. Peter’s Basilica.
But first he was going to Confession.
There was no line. Tourists were scarce in this part of St Peter’s; only the faithful were interested in the quaint old Sacrament. Michelle watched her husband emerge from the Baroque wooden confessional in the gloom and walk slowly over to the pew where she was saying her own penance.
She’d told the priest about her sins – her fury at the mistreatment of her husband, her temptation to follow her wealthy women friends’ taste for the occult, her secret wish that something terrible would happen to the vile prosecutor who had persecuted Dyson. But when her longtime friend, now deeply involved in New Age practices, suggested that an ‘accident’ might ‘be arranged’ if Michelle could be persuaded to work hard to visualize this, Michelle had been taken aback.
“Y-you’re kidding, right?” she had replied, nonplussed. “Y-you want me to put a hex on this guy — kinda like my grandmother and the ‘evil eye’?”
Her friend had been condescending.
“You have to assert control,” she had said, severely. “The universe will respond to your will, but only if you take control of this.”
As desperate as she had been, Michelle had declined the offer. When she had later jokingly told Dyson about it, he’d turned unexpectedly grim.
“Devil worship,” he had snapped. “Stay the hell away from it. And stay the hell away from that person, if you know what’s good for you – and us.”
If she hadn’t just lived through the last horrendous months of Dyson’s trial, Michelle knew she would have bristled at his suggestion. In all their years together, Dyson had known better than to comment on Michelle’s choices – on anything, really.
In truth, up until the charges had been filed, Michelle’s world had been a cozy, secure one, centered on their parish school in their affluent suburb. Michelle was Catholic because she was born and raised that way. There had been no ‘choice’ involved; likewise, she had no interest in proselytizing. The Faith had always been there, part of her family’s way of life, and she saw no need to explore it, or to deepen her attachment.
But that was before the months and months of agony had pried open Michelle’s closed world. Once she disclosed her agony, she found that her friends either made themselves scarce — or shared their own. That was how Michelle learned about the cancers –physical and spiritual – that were eating away at the fabric of life all around her.
There were the living widows. That’s how she thought of the wealthy women whose husbands had deserted them for porn habits, prostitutes and other lovers, both male and female. Both sides stayed in the marriage for fear of the ruinous consequences of divorce, at least for a time, rendering their elegant homes a living hell. Then there were the children lost to cults, strange sexual proclivities or lonely lives lived on the internet, with dogs and cats as their offspring. And everywhere, there were the drugs – the recreational drugs, plus the prescriptions handed out like candy to a population that was trained to ask for them for every possible reason, real or imagined.
And as the stress of this life ramped up, so did the cancer rates. She had been attempting to counsel yet another woman friend with a breast cancer diagnosis when the news appeared abruptly over her cellphone.
The text was brief: Dyson had been convicted. Game over.
The night he’d left for prison, she’d taken her rosary beads outside into her garden. As the dusk gathered, she’d sat on the lawn, knees drawn up to her chin, telling the beads and trying to regulate her too-rapid breathing.
That night, she’d brought out her grandmother’s crucifix with the candles and the holy water. She had lit the candles, and opening the plastic bottle filled with holy water, had proceeded to methodically sprinkle the water, murmuring a blessing, on every single object in her bedroom. It took her about twenty minutes to accomplish this, during which time a small part of her stood apart and wondered at what she was doing.
Once it was done, she lay on her bed and presently fell into a deep slumber. The very next morning, she enrolled in an online catechism course. Before long, she had found an orthodox Catholic priest to be her spiritual director.
When she’d moved to be closer to Dyson, the priest had recommended a good Catholic parish in Dallas. There, in that unassuming church filled with families speaking with an unfamiliar Texas drawl, she had heard the first Latin Mass since her youth. Entranced, she became a regular figure in the pews, for devotions, for benedictions, for a constant 54 day novena to our Lady of Pompeii that she recited, begging for her husband’s early release and for protection for her family.
This was how Michelle survived Dyson’s imprisonment.
Now that the ordeal was over, Michelle’s tears had splashed onto her knees on the hard wooden kneeler in the confessional at St. Peter’s. The priest had responded with deep sympathy. “Coraggio, signora. Coraggio.”
Later, as she knelt saying her penance, Michelle basked in the emotional release — a cleansing, really – that she’d experienced by opening her heart to a humble priest as an anonymous sinner. She actually felt she could trust his judgment, unlike shrinks or friends or even family, for whom she was always the tycoon’s wife.
People were funny about rich people, she had learned long ago. Mostly, they told Michelle what they thought she wanted to hear. It had a coruscating effect on her opinion of other human beings, leaving her wary of the motivations of basically everyone. Except Dyson and her children, of course.
In addition to Sister Mary Benedicta, there was their eldest daughter Stacey, married to a senior intelligence officer stationed in East Anglia. Their youngest was Patrick Edward, who like his father had early on shown signs of a maverick’s distaste for boarding school education amid the privileged lives of America’s elite. Unfortunately, this phase of Patrick’s life had coincided with his father’ public humiliation at the hands of the Washington prosecutor. Though most of his school friends were blissfully ignorant of the goings-on outside the confines of their co-ed school in verdant New England, a few were not. Of these, most remained staunchly supportive of Pat.
One or two, however, were members of a student political group which had recently morphed from a radical Marxist to a Sexual Left position. It was their leader, a girl whose mother was the most prominent breast cancer surgeon in America, who decided to mock Pat in public for his father’s predicament.
The contemptuous words ‘fascist pig’ were barely spat out of her mouth before Pat lost control of himself, lunging for the girl in a blind fury – and this in full view of horrified teachers and students. In the resulting melee, Michelle was told, her son had accused the girl’s mother of being a ‘ghoul, profiting from the hapless victims of Big Pharma’ and called the girl herself names that Michelle was sure were not normally bandied about in those elite environs.
Net, net, Pat had been expelled. When he arrived in Dallas, Michelle was too overwhelmed to argue with her son about finding another private school.
For his part, he’d had it, Pat said grimly. Returning home, he’d immersed himself in a Catholic homeschooling program which concentrated on the Great Books and refused to listen to his mother’s arguments in favor of more conventional schooling.
He could do this schoolwork anywhere, he’d argued, pointing out with some justification that their luxury apartment residence in Dallas was a temporary one. But he’d been unable to bring himself to visit his father in the prison, despite his mother’s entreaties. It made him too angry, he told her.
Dyson soothed her distress about this when they met at the prison in a bare room outfitted for a ‘conjugal visit.’ On her first visit, Michelle had stared in disbelief at the queen-sized bed made up with prison-issued regulation linens. Dyson watched her face register shock and comprehension.
“Is that what I think it’s for?” she stage-whispered as a guard with a carefully-composed expression took his leave of them.
Dyson nodded soberly.
“Are they outta their minds?” she spoke her question aloud without thinking. Dyson grinned at her and after a moment, they both laughed. It was the first time that Michelle had any inkling that they might actually survive this ordeal.
She placed the books she’d brought Dyson on the bedside table. The guards hadn’t registered any emotion as they checked through them: St Augustine’s The City of God and his Confessions, and a collection of the Lives of the Western Fathers edited by Christopher Dawson. As a low-risk prisoner with no history of violence, Dyson was permitted plenty of leeway, including religious reading material.
“I’ll bet you’re the only one reading,” she’d said slyly, handing him the Confessions.
“You’d be surprised,” her husband responded shortly, leafing through the second-hand copy. “The Koran is widely read here.”
It was all part of his education, he told her in the days and weeks following his release, as they trekked through Rome, searching for an apartment. Two years spent among what he called ‘America’s walking dead’ had given him a lot of time to think about where the West was headed.
“If the greatest democracy the world has ever known can fall this far in just a few short years,” he told her suddenly the night before as they sat on their terrace drinking Orvieto Classico, “just what is next?”
Michelle didn’t know, but it was clear that somehow Dyson felt that Rome was central to the drama now unfolding before their eyes.
The two prelates faced each other across the long table. This same table had hosted decades of Board of Directors meetings for a once-mighty American airline, now defunct. The Community had acquired the property in suburban Boston fifteen years before, announcing their intention to use it as a seminary.
That was, however, before the swirling tropical storm of the US sex abuse cases had swept through, unfortunately first exploding into the headlines in the Diocese that was hosting them. Suddenly Catholic families with impressionable teenaged boys became deeply suspicious of the intentions of an Order which featured glamorous Latin American priests, handsome and perfectly coiffed, driving shiny German cars.
As such, the plans for the seminary were quietly shelved but the Community hung on to the property as it continued to serve very well for its original intended purpose of money laundering for the drug cartel which underwrote its existence. And when the Community’s founder came under deep suspicion brought about by a global outcry against the Community’s well-documented predatory homosexual environment, his ‘suicide’ was quietly arranged for by the cartel. (As an old poisoner, the Founder should have been more careful about what he ingested, Community insiders pointed out.)
For its part, the Vatican issued press releases about the need for the Community’s accounting procedures to be reformed and dismissed its senior level of prelates. Within hours the world media had moved on to juicier stories.
Now, there was a new Cardinal in the Diocese. This was a concern to Father Pilar, who had maintained a cordial relationship with his predecessor, a smooth-talking Redemptorist brought in to calm the city after the news broke that his predecessor had aided and abetted sex abusers. Together, they had worked to quell the rumors, stoked to a fever-pitch by law firms scenting blood in the water.
When it was all over, the Archdiocese had paid out more than $40 million in what many termed ‘hush money’ to the ‘victims’ on the law firms’ class action complainants lists. The Redemptorist was not dismayed, however.
It was all merely a stepping-stone to the One True World Church, he explained in confidence to a skeptical Pilar. His years in Germany had shown him this – it was all part of God’s plan to bring all Christians together, regardless of sect. The most important thing was that the Gospel was preached.
And the Catholic Church’s obsession with sexual sin had to be made a thing of the past. What right had the Church to limit the God-given right to sexual pleasure to a small minority of married, heterosexual Christians? Perhaps these lawsuits would finally bring the Church around, he sighed.
To his credit, Pilar refrained from succumbing to outright laughter in the face of the American prelate. Why were these norteamericanos so obsessed with ideology, he wondered for the umpteenth time. For some reason, they had to throw themselves into torments of justification for what seemed to Pilar were very simple, elementary facts of life. Sex was sex. Business was business. Beyond this, Pilar was not prepared to venture.
Nevertheless, he smiled agreeably at the Cardinal and arranged for the agreed-upon reward for his cooperation. Once the Cardinal retired to his unprepossessing house with excellent security in Belize paid for by the Community, life went on quietly for Father Pilar.
Unfortunately, the Cardinal’s replacement was one of the tiresome new crop of prelates with ‘orthodox’ views, made even more toxic by his status as a convert from Protestantism. The man had read the early Church Fathers, it seemed, and following in the footsteps of John Cardinal Newman, the 19th century Anglican who had created such a fuss in England, had ‘crossed the Tiber.’
Father Pilar sighed. If there was anything worse than a liberal churchman twisting himself into knots to justify his tastes, it was an intelligent bishop who actually believed.
Across from him, Alexander Cardinal Portland smiled. He had deliberately chosen to meet the Community on its own grounds, waving aside their offer to pay a ceremonial call at his Residence shortly after his appointment to the Boston See.
He had been curious to see what they were doing with the 1970’s facility sprawling along the side of Interstate; in the event it seemed the answer was just about nothing. Groundskeepers kept the place neat, of course, but there were few cars in the parking lot. The interior of the old corporate complex was sparsely furnished in what he recognized as rented business furniture, though the private offices of the priests were sleek and modern. Clearly, only the best would do for these men’s personal use.
“So good of you to come to visit us,” Father Pilar began in his cultivated Brazilian accent, somewhat faded after fifteen years in New England. His thin face was wreathed in smiles. “You must be horribly busy.”
The Cardinal nodded, returning the smile politely. “I’m just getting the lay of the land, Father.”
He was a tall man with a somewhat reserved manner. His Midwestern frankness reminded Pilar of the manner of some of the older, patrician investment managers with whom he’d had to deal on questions of which bond funds the Community was interested in. These norteamericanos with their over-sized suits and bland faces were such dunderheads, really.
“Ah, yes, it’s such a learning curve at first, isn’t it?” Father Pilar remembered to be solicitous.
They spent the next thirty minutes engaged in small talk, followed by a short tour of the facilities. The Cardinal asked some polite questions, but Father Pilar was not at his ease as he stood watching his visitor drive off in his unremarkable, mid-size Japanese sedan. It had been barely an hour’s visit.
Pilar was a product of the Community, of course, which had been always careful to maintain its façade of complete orthodoxy and faithfulness to the Church’s precepts. At the same time, they were absolutely modern in their beliefs and liturgical practices. In this way, they stayed above the fray generated by the traditionalists and modernists in their global cat-and-mouse game; in contrast, the Community engaged in an elaborate dance carefully choreographed to deflect any untoward curiosity. After all, religious politics was a relatively unserious pastime. From their perspective, there were far more important concerns to focus on.
The new Cardinal, however, was playing his cards close to his chest. As he watched the sedan disappearing down the long corporate driveway, Father Pilar was sure of it.
Stacey White Toffler sighed, and leaned back in her airplane seat. A petite blonde, at 33 she was the mother of two young children, well cared-for by the military’s elaborate benefits for senior officers on foreign assignments. The RAF base they were assigned to was nestled in East Anglia’s low, flat lands across the Channel from the Netherlands.
Every day, outside the window of her Grade A-listed, rented home, the enormous US Air Force tankers and AWACS would suddenly appear, dropping out of the cloudy English skies like machines from a science fiction future. The contrast with the environs of the 17th century village in which they lived couldn’t be more pronounced.
Stacey loved her village. She loved walking the children in their double ‘pram’ into town on sunny days. She loved browsing in the English shops, and having tea and cakes with the other officer’s wives. She loved Philip, too. They had been married for almost ten years now, and she was proud of him and his career — most of the time, that is.
In the last two or three years, however, a change had come over Philip. He was increasingly irritable, she noticed. Little things began to bother him: the babies’ crying, dinner being late to the table. In truth, he treated her with growing impatience, and after a while it seemed like she was always walking on eggshells. He spoke to her only rarely, and when he did his voice was edged with impatience, verging on contempt.
At the same time, his sexual demands seemed to ramp up significantly. At first, she responded, hoping that a few exotic sexual moves would satisfy him. But these only seemed to heighten his desire for more sex, so much so that she struggled to contain her feeling of growing resentment. She kept her counsel, however, not wanting to exacerbate the situation.
It all came to a head when she miscarried their third child. Phil didn’t even leave her in peace for a month after the D&C; the minute he could, he was demanding that she give him sex. For the first time in their marriage, she told him no.
Stacey was a patient woman by nature, but she honestly didn’t know which way to turn when Philip’s biting sarcasm and little cruelties began to accelerate even more in the weeks after the miscarriage. One day, she found herself sobbing in the office of the military chaplain, a young Polish priest assigned to the intelligence community.
“I-I can’t stand it any longer,” she told the priest. Her eyes were rubbed raw from crying, and she kept twisting a Kleenex in her hands.
He nodded soberly. He knew that Stacey was a cradle Catholic who had rediscovered her faith upon the birth of her children. She was a daily communicant, normally quite cheerful, with an ironic sense of humor.
She told him everything then, and he nodded again. These military officers could sometimes be cold and unfeeling toward their wives, so absorbed were they in their responsibilities. Perhaps she should consider a short vacation – a visit with her family?
Stacey considered the idea. Her parents and little brother were in Rome these days; she had flown there to greet them when Dyson had been released from prison, but had not returned since. Perhaps a couple of weeks there with the children would be a good thing; time with the grandparents would benefit all the generations, and the Roman sunshine would no doubt improve her mood and her health. Perhaps when she returned things would be better with Philip.
Phillip shrugged indifferently when she told him about the idea. He really didn’t have much to say, in fact. The next morning, he was suddenly called away early for a meeting, and so it was that she stumbled upon the horrible video he’d forgotten to erase from the computer’s history. The thing had morphed far beyond sex, she shuddered, as hooded naked figures inflicted violent debasement on each other.
Shaken to her core, Stacey didn’t trust herself to confront her husband. Instead, she steadied herself by making hasty travel plans; when she called, her parents were delighted that they were coming. The next day, Philip left for work as usual. She drove herself and the kids to Stanstead Airport, and left the car in long-term parking.
As she settled the excited children into their seats, her mobile rang. It was Philip.
“I found your note,” she heard him say in a flat voice. “I would have liked to have said goodbye to my own children.”
Stacey fought wildly to suppress her biting retort, and managed to whisper a weak, “yes, sorry there was no time” into the phone.
“But this trip will be good for the kids,” he continued, unconcerned.
She wondered if he was trying to be conciliatory.
“Yes it will,” she replied quietly, and waited.
“Any idea when you’ll be back?”
“Not right now,” she said, forcing herself to keep her tone light. “Well, we’re getting ready to take off, so I gotta go now.”
As the Airbus 320 lifted off into the sunny afternoon skies and circled over the green fields surrounding London, she closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. It would be so good to get away from him.
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