Chapter One - Shades of Despair
THERE WERE OMENS FROM THE BEGINNING.
First off, I didn't want to do a job at the Mission Inn. Anywhere in the country, I would have been willing, but not the Mission Inn. And in the bridal suite, that very room, my room. Bad luck and beyond, I thought to myself.
Of course my boss, The Right Man, had no way of knowing when he gave me this assignment that the Mission Inn was where I went when I didn't want to be Lucky the Fox, when I didn't want to be his assassin.
The Mission Inn was part of that very small world in which I wore no disguise. I was simply me when I went there, six foot four, short blond hair, gray eyes--a person who looked like so many other people that he didn't look like any special person at all. I didn't even bother to wear braces to disguise my voice when I went there. I didn't even bother with the de rigueur sunglasses that shielded my identity in every other place, except the apartment and neighborhood where I lived.
I was just who I am when I went there, though who I am was nobody except the man who wore all those elaborate disguises when he did what he was told to do by The Right Man.
So the Mission Inn was mine, cipher that I was, and so was the bridal suite, called the Amistad Suite, under the dome. And now I was being told to systematically pollute it. Not for anyone else but myself, of course. I would never have done anything to harm the Mission Inn.
A giant confection and confabulation of a building in Riverside, California, it was where I often took refuge, an extravagant and engulfing place sprawling over two city blocks, and where I could pretend, for a day or two or three, that I wasn't wanted by the FBI, Interpol, or The Right Man, a place where I could lose myself and my conscience.
Europe had long ago become unsafe for me, due to the increased security at every checkpoint, and the fact that the law enforcement agencies that dreamed of trapping me had decided I was behind every single unsolved murder they had on the books.
If I wanted the atmosphere I'd loved so much in Siena or Assisi, or Vienna or Prague and all the other places I could no longer visit, I sought out the Mission Inn. It couldn't be all those places, no. Yet it gave me a unique haven and sent me back out into my sterile world a renewed spirit.
It wasn't the only place where I wasn't anybody at all, but it was the best place, and the place to which I went the most.
The Mission Inn was not far from where I "lived," if one could call it that. And I went there on impulse generally, and at any time that they could give me my suite. I liked the other rooms all right, especially the Inn keeper's Suite, but I was patient in waiting for the Amistad. And sometimes they called me on one of the many special cell phones I carried, to let me know the suite could be mine.
Sometimes I stayed as long as a week in the Mission Inn. I'd bring my lute with me, and maybe play it a little. And I always had a stack of books to read, almost always history, books on medieval times or the Dark Ages, or the Renaissance, or Ancient Rome. I'd read for hours in the Amistad, feeling uncommonly safe and secure.
There were special places I went from the Inn.
Often, undisguised, I drove over to nearby Costa Mesa to hear the Pacific Symphony. I liked it, the contrast, moving from the stucco arches and rusted bells of the Inn to the immense Plexiglas miracle of the Segerstrom Concert Hall, with the pretty Cafe Rouge on the first floor.
Behind those high clear undulating windows, the restaurant appeared to float in space. I felt, when I dined in it, that I was indeed floating in space, and in time, detached from all things ugly and evil, and sweetly alone.
I had just recently heard Stravinsky'sRite of Spring in that concert hall. Loved it. Loved the pounding madness of it. It had brought back a memory of the very first time I'd ever heard it, ten years before-- on the night when I'd met The Right Man. It had made me think of my own life, and all that had happened since then, as I'd drifted through the world waiting for those cell phone calls that always meant somebody was marked, and I had to get him.
I never killed women, but that's not to say that I hadn't before I became The Right Man's vassal or serf, or knight, depending on how one chose to view it. He called me his knight. I thought of it in far more sinister terms, and nothing during these ten years had ever accustomed me to my function.
Often I even drove from the Mission Inn to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano, south and closer to the coast, another secret place, where I felt unknown and sometimes even happy.
Now the Mission of San Juan Capistrano is a real mission. The Mission Inn is not. The Mission Inn is a tribute to the architecture and heritage of the Missions. But San Juan Capistrano is the real thing.
At Capistrano, I roamed the immense square garden, the open cloisters, and visited the narrow dim Serra Chapel--the oldest consecrated Catholic chapel in the state of California.
I loved the chapel. I loved that it was the only known sanctuary on the whole coast in which Blessed Jun�pero Serra, the great Franciscan, had actually said Mass. He might have said Mass in many another Mission chapel. In fact surely he had. But this was the only one about which everyone was certain.
There had been times in the past when I'd driven north to visit the Mission at Carmel, and look into the little cell there that they'd re-created and ascribed to Jun�pero Serra, and meditated on the simplicity of it: the chair, the narrow bed, the cross on the wall. All a saint needed.
And then there was San Juan Bautista, too, with its refectory and museum--and all the other Missions that had been so painstakingly restored. I'd wanted to be a priest for a while when I was a boy, a Dominican, in fact, and the Dominicans and the Franciscans of the California missions were mixed in my mind because they were both mendicant orders. I respected them equally, and there was a part of me that belonged to that old dream.
I still read history books about the Franciscans and the Dominicans. I had an old biography of Thomas Aquinas saved from my school days, full of old notes. Reading history always soothed me. Reading history let me sink into ages safely gone by. Same with the Missions. They were islands not of our time.
It was the Serra Chapel in San Juan Capistrano that I visited most often.
I went there not to remember the devotion I'd known as a boy. That was gone forever. Fact was, I simply wanted the blueprint of the paths that I'd traveled in those early years. Maybe I just wanted to walk the sacred ground, walk through places of pilgrimage and sanctity because I couldn't actually think about them too much.
I liked the beamed ceiling of the Serra Chapel, and its darkly painted walls. I felt calm in the quality of gloom inside it, the glimmer of the gold retablo at the far end of it--the golden framework that was behind the altar and fitted with statues and saints.