I’ve just completed the first draft of In Vino, a sequel to The Wise and the Mad. And it was one hell of a tough slog. Blood everywhere. But failing a scathing report from my “alpha reader,” it will soon be available at Amazon.
Anyway, I’m too exhausted to write something pithy and relevant at the moment – completing a novel does that to me – so here’s a teaser. It first appeared at the old Blogger-based Liberty’s Torch site, so some of you will have seen it before. Enjoy.
Sunday, June 23, 2030
“Gerry, my lord, Miss Trish, Father Monti, Father Ray,” Fountain said, “dinner is ready.”
Five persons, all of them dazed by the extraordinary aromas that had permeated the pope’s study for the preceding hour, turned immediately toward the young futa. She set a large platter on the pope’s conference table. It was filled to the brim with orzo, shrimp and bite-sized chunks of chicken, tomatoes, diced peppers, onions, and celery, bathed in a pale, delicate sauce. She essayed a half-bow and took the seat between Larry and Trish Sokoloff.
Gerard Seamus Patrick O’Rourke, better known to the world as His Holiness Pope Clement XV, spoke in a voice that trembled with longing.
“Domenico, would you please say grace for us? But in English, please.”
Father Domenico Monti, Clement’s personal secretary, nodded once. He steepled his hands and bowed his head. The others did the same.
“God our Father,” Monti said hoarsely, “we thank thee for this gift from thy bounty, and pray that we will ever be grateful for your generosity, mercy, and love. In Christ our Lord, Amen.”
“Amen,” the others chorused.
Clement rose as four sets of hands darted toward the serving implements. Trish Sokoloff won the race. As she shoveled a mound of Fountain’s creation onto her plate, Clement took up the decanter of red wine and circled the table filling glasses. He started with his own.
Being Supreme Pontiff has to come with some privileges.
When he reached Fountain’s place, he found the futa sitting back with her hands in her lap, waiting patiently for her turn to serve herself. She smiled at him as he stopped beside her.
“Do you drink wine, Fountain?” he said.
“I have not yet had wine, Gerry,” she said.
“Ah. I noticed that you didn’t have any earlier,” he said. “Is it permitted, Larry, Trish?”
“I can’t see why not,” Larry said. “She just hasn’t encountered it yet. We’re not wine drinkers at home.”
“Fountain hasn’t had anything alcoholic yet,” Trish said. “We figured she’s still a bit young for it.”
“What’s your domestic tipple?” Clement said.
“I don’t drink anymore,” Trish said.
“I don’t drink much,” Sokoloff said. “When I do, it’s usually just a little bourbon.”
“And a shot of Bailey’s in your coffee on Sunday,” Trish said.
Her husband smirked. “Well, yeah, but it’s in place of cream and sugar.”
Clement chuckled. “An excellent substitute. The alcohol cuts through the fat. It’s the body’s version of a plumber’s auger. Fountain, would you like a glass of wine? I’m sure it won’t harm you in any way.”
“I would like to try it, Gerry,” Fountain said. “I am always interested in exploring new foods and flavors.”
“Very well.” He poured a small amount of Chianti into her glass, set down the decanter, and returned to his seat. As the others were plainly waiting for him to be first to try the dish, he served himself a modest portion and spooned up a bite.
Fountain’s creation hit him like a speeding truck. The cavalcade of flavors and textures was both overwhelming and exquisite, a gustatory delight of unprecedented magnitude and variety. It seized him immediately and irresistibly. He had to thrust his chair back from the table to avert a most un-Pontiff-like action.
“Is something wrong, Holiness?” Father Monti said.
“Uh, nothing…nothing, Domenico.” Clement’s heart had gone into overdrive. His whole body quivered with pleasure. None of his non-mystical experiences could compare with the rush from that single mouthful of Fountain’s concoction. He closed his eyes, tipped back his head, breathed deeply through his nose, and emitted a long sigh. When he’d steadied, he panned a huge smile around the table.
“Glory be to God!”
Larry was grinning like a fool. His wife Trish giggled, one hand pressed to her lips. Ray Altomare and Domenico Monti were staring at their plates looking thunderstruck. It seemed their encounter with Fountain’s cuisine had paralleled Clement’s.
Fountain was staring fixedly into her wine glass.
“What’s the matter, dear?” Clement said. “Don’t you like it?”
Fountain didn’t reply at once. Clement became alarmed.
“It speaks,” she whispered. “It speaks so much.”
She slowly drained the glass and turned a face that glowed with the unique joy of discovery toward Clement.
“Thank you, Gerry,” she whispered. “This is special.”
“A new thing, Fountain?” he said.
“Something you’d like to experiment with?” Larry said.
She nodded, eyes wide and sparkling with excitement.
Clement reached for the decanter and refilled her glass.
It was not long afterward that the members of the little dinner party, having scraped the serving platter completely food-free, sat back from the table to digest. There were many groans. Some were of pleasure, some were of rue, and some compounded the two.
Fountain alone was silent. She appeared to Clement to be deep in thought.
“Holiness,” Monti croaked.
“Really, Domenico,” Clement murmured, “can’t you bring yourself to call me Gerry for the span of a dinner party?”
“Apologies, Holiness,” the Piedmontese priest said, “but I fear not. The capacity for such informality was beaten out of me long, long ago.”
Clement shook his head. “A pity, though I suppose I’ll manage to cope. What was it you were about to say?”
“I think…” Monti faltered. “I think it was wise that you should dine thus, with your present company and without the members of the Curia.” He brightened. “And I thank you from the bottom of my heart for including me.”
Clement smiled. “Thanks are not necessary, Domenico. You serve the papacy with such devotion that I felt it would be unjust to exclude you.” He chuckled. “Also, I’d been told that I was about to experience an extraordinary event, and I wanted to have at least as many clergy present as laymen. To act as witnesses, you understand.” He turned to Fountain. “Does that dish have a name, Fountain?”
“It does not, Gerry,” she said. “I composed it only today, from what I found in your pantry. Would you like to name it?”
“I’m not sure that I’m up to the task, Fountain,” Clement said. “It was something like a jambalaya without sausage, but subtler. Considerably subtler. It did not overwhelm with pepper as jambalaya often does. May I have a few days to think about a name, dear?”
“Of course, Gerry.”
“Fountain does this sort of thing all the time,” Larry Sokoloff said. “Dishes we’ve never seen before, recipes concocted on the spot, sometimes with ingredients she’s never used before.”
“But this good?” Clement said.
“Always this good, Gerry,” Trish said. “No matter what she makes, Fountain’s cooking is guaranteed to ring all your bells.”
“It is in the food,” Fountain said.
Clement peered at her curiously. “What do you mean, dear?”
She met his gaze with eyes of the purest innocence.
“Food speaks, Gerry,” she said. “It is powerful, and it knows its power. It wants not merely to nourish, but to please, to be cherished–to be loved. Upon the instant my lord and Miss Trish introduced me to food, I knew it could do wonders.”
“You hadn’t had…food before that?”
Her eyes darkened. She shook her head. “No, Gerry. A—a sludge to keep us alive. It had a foul odor. It was bitter, slimy, hard to swallow…vile. Except for an occasional glass of milk, it was all we were given. Until my lord made me his, I was unaware that there was anything else.”
The study filled with a silence of expectant yet reverent quality. It brought a sense of immanence, the special tension that speaks of an event—or a Person—that has breached the wall of Time and is waiting to be recognized. Clement had experienced such a state before, but always at prayer or during meditation.
This is something the world needs to know.
This young woman was created from stolen tissue by an evil method and trained for the basest sort of slavery. A will-less, rightless existence her owner could terminate whenever he pleased. An absolute dependence that could never be broken.
She could be the most important mortal to come into the world of men since the Blessed Virgin.
“Did the wine speak to you that way, Fountain?”
“Oh yes!” The futa’s face filled with excitement and possibility. “I must learn all there is to know about wine. It has great power. It could protect the health. It could relieve many sorrows. It could…could…” Her eyes lost focus and her gaze drifted into the infinite.
A new prospect formed in his mind’s eye.
Could the old saw be true after all?
“Fountain,” Clement murmured, “could wine be used to elicit…truth? To encourage someone to speak his mind plainly and without any pretense?”
Her focus returned, and she smiled.
“I do not yet know, Gerry. It is possible. Its powers seem unbounded. I must study it thoroughly.”
Trish sucked in a noisy breath. Larry took her hand and squeezed it. Ray Altomare and Domenico Monti stared at the futa as if mesmerized.
“Possible,” Clement said. “Not certain.”
Fountain canted her head and looked away. Her smile spoke of an adventure eagerly anticipated.
“I will know soon enough.”
The evening wore on. Dessert was gelato and cannoli, hand-made by the Vatican’s own kitchen staff. Servants brought coffee for the Sokoloffs, brandy for Ray and Monti, and wine for Clement and Fountain. There were stories, and japes, and copious merriment. It was an interval of a sort few popes have enjoyed and fewer still have allowed to become public knowledge.
Clement encouraged Fountain to try sips of several kinds of wine. He asked her opinion of each and how they differed.
“The red wines speak more sternly,” she said. “The white wines beckon more subtly.”
“I’m not sure what you mean, dear,” Clement said.
She frowned delicately. “As with all voices, the voices of food have both volume and tone. The red wine is brusque and assertive. It demands my attention. It would not accept going unheard. I must listen. Yet it says nothing the white wine does not. The white wine demands nothing. It invites, beckons…”
“Yes, or seduces.” Her forehead wrinkled. “I failed at first to hear it, and it did not raise but lowered its voice. Whether or not to listen is at my option.” Her eyes twinkled. “Miss Holly might say that the red wine is ‘full of itself.’”
“Who is Miss Holly?” Clement said.
“Holly Martinowski. One of my other parishioners,” Ray supplied. “A very nice young, ah, woman who writes romance novels.”
“Excellent romance novels,” Trish added.
“My, my. Onteora is home to all sorts of Catholics.” Clement drained his brandy and sat back. “The variety must be refreshing.” He snorted. “All I get to deal with are sour-faced cardinals with pretensions to importance.”
“Holiness!” Monti looked mournful.
Clement chuckled. “All right, Domenico, I’ll admit there are a few pleasant exceptions. Larry, Trish? I assume you’ve booked accommodations for tonight and a flight back to New York tomorrow?”
“Yes to both,” Larry said.
“Remember to send a copy of the hotel bill to Domenico. He’ll see to it that you’re reimbursed.” Clement rose, marveling afresh at his painlessness and ease of motion. “This has been one of the very best days I’ve had since I was first ordained a priest of Christ.” He spread his arms in unabashed invitation, and each of the Sokoloffs hugged him in turn. “Thank you, most sincerely, for indulging my curiosity about you and Fountain.” He turned to Fountain, took her hands, bowed over them and kissed them. “And thank you, dear girl, for the greatest experience I’ve ever had at the dinner table.”
The futa smiled. “You’re quite welcome, Gerry.”
“Ray?” Clement said. “Unless you absolutely must be off, I’d appreciate it if you’d stay in a Vatican guest suite tonight. I’d like for us to celebrate Mass together tomorrow morning.”
Ray Altomare’s visage lit from within.
“Gerry,” he said, “I can imagine no greater honor.”
“Excellent. Let’s bid our other guests a good night.”
When Father Monti had closed the study door behind him, Clement turned to Ray and waved him back to his seat. “More brandy, Ray?”
“No thank you, Gerry,” he said. “I have a feeling I should keep what remains of my wits for what you’re about to tell me.”
Clement chuckled. “You’ve got the right idea. I realized when Fountain and I were chatting that even though her, ah, parents are devout, she’s got no idea about the Faith.”
Ray nodded. “Larry didn’t want to be the one to educate her. She thinks too much of him to doubt anything he says. Trish just feels unequipped.”
“Hm. Well, that might be for the best,” Clement said. “You, on the other hand…?”
He fought back an urge to cringe.
Oh boy. I should have known that was coming.
“I suppose it is my job, isn’t it?” he muttered.
“Well,” Clement drawled, “you are the pastor of Onteora parish, aren’t you, Father?”
“Yeah.” Ray shook himself and straightened up. “I know it’s my job. But it’s going to be a tough one.”
“All the more reason I’m glad it will be you who takes it on,” Clement said. “Fountain is special. May God be forever praised, she gives new meaning to the word ‘special.’ And I can trust you to know how to introduce her to the Testaments, and our theology, and the Church’s doctrines about a life well lived without oppressing her, bruising her innocence, or damaging what makes her unique.”
He trusts me more than I trust myself. God, be with me. I’m going to need You.
“I hope you’re right about that.” Ray sighed. “She won’t be my first special catechumen, but she’s likely to be the most difficult. You’ve noticed how literal she is?”
“I most certainly have.”
“And that she takes nothing for granted?”
“Yes again,” Clement said. “And neither should you. I think…” He paused and looked away briefly. “I think she has a significant part to play in the dramas of our time. If she accepts and embraces the Faith—and there are no guarantees about that, despite my most fervent hopes—she could serve the Christian world as no one has done since Aquinas.”
Ray’s awareness surged to a painful acuity.
What kind of service is he thinking of? The Christian world is in desperate need of several different kinds.
“Gerry, I sense that there’s meaning in that statement that I’m unable to thresh out.”
“For the moment,” Clement said, “that is as it must be. But I don’t think it will be much longer before my meaning is as clear to you as it is to me, so be careful with her. Supremely careful.”
Ray bowed his head. “I will, Gerry.”
“I’m sure.” Clement rose. “Now let’s get some shut-eye. I’d say we’ve earned it.”
“He is impossible.”
“He demeans us. To exclude us yet dine with his secretary, a parish priest, a lay couple, and that creature…”
“You did not vote for him.”
“Nor did you. But nearly three fourths of the Conclave did. And I will never understand it. I’d have thought it was understood that an American would be unacceptable.”
“I certainly understood it. Even so, he was chosen. He has been elevated. What now?”
“It is clear that he must be removed.”
“By what means? I have studied his record. It is without blemish.”
“If so, that was yet another reason not to choose him!”
“What can we do?”
“I must think on it, as should you.”
“I shall. But we must not take too long. The damage is already mounting to a catastrophic level.”
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