THE SAINT OF LOST HOPE
The place was called Santo Xavitos. It was located just north of the Mexican border in the Sonoran Desert yet in the shadow of a nebulous mountain range. Well, nebulous as far as Terrella Gilmartin was concerned.
Wherever a town with San, Santa or Santo in the name surfaced, there should be a mission, she felt. If there wasn’t a mission, Father Kino’s team had fallen down on the job.
“Excuse me,” she called to the frumpy woman finicking with the arrangement of things on a shelf in the Santo Xavitos Public Library.
When the woman didn’t immediately turn to her, or answer, Terrella raised her voice. “I’m looking for a book on local history. Something that includes a map, if possible. I’m interested in visiting the old mission.”
The books seemed to absorb her voice, hushing it to an old-fashioned library whisper. There were far more than the exterior of the building seemed capable of housing. Rows and rows of shelves marched toward an unseen back wall and up far beyond the reach of even an extremely tall patron. A fanciful person might suspect the involvement of hocus pocus.
Terrella hadn’t a fanciful bone in her body. Facts were her meat, vegetables, and alcoholic beverage of choice. Science was in her DNA. Or so she told people more imaginative than herself. Particularly when she wanted them to bug off.
The book tender turned, head cocked at a curious angle. “The old mission?”
“Yes,” Terrella said, her voice culled to an unintended whisper again. “I haven’t been able to find anything about it, or where it stood. Not in any histories of early Jesuit incursion in the Americas, nor on the Internet or any of the sites linked to historical places in this area. I attempted to contact someone at both the Chamber of Commerce and the historical society, but no one at either answered my emails, the phone, or the door. The history department at your university branch insists it’s a legend, not an actual place. But considering the city’s name, there must be a mission here somewhere. You’re my last resort.” And only her last resort because what academic in their right mind headed to the local public library when in search of viable research materials? None as far as Terrella was concerned.
As though intrigued, the librarian bustled toward where Terrella stood at the end of the aisle. “That is disturbing about the historical society and Chamber of Commerce,” the bookseller said, “but they are both housed in a very disturbed building.”
Terrella blinked. “The building?”
But the older woman had moved on. “I doubt anyone has gone looking for the mission in well over a hundred years. Are you an aficionado of missions?”
“I’m an archaeo-historian looking for what appears to be a lost one,” Terrella explained. There was no need to mention how newly minted her Ph.D. was. Nor that she had yet to land a post that offered tenure, although with her interests split between history and archaeology, she’d thought the academic world would scramble to add her to their faculty. As they hadn’t, she was in search of a project that would up her ante, deliver a real whizzbang, make a name for herself and give her a glowing reputation in one stroke. Do what others rarely managed to pull off. The old Schliemann trick of finding something no one else believed existed.
“While we do carry books and pamphlets about Santo Xavitos’ history, I’m afraid nothing mentions a mission,” the librarian admitted as though apologizing. “However, I can direct you to the man most likely to know everything about early European settlement in Santo Xavitos.”
Terrella nearly wilted in relief. Finally, a glint of hope. If the guy had nothing but rumors related to the mission – which considering it appeared lost, was what any stories were more likely to be – she’d really be back in Schliemann’s shoes, sorting chaff from the hearsay. But if he had documents, or knew where to find them, and a specific location, then there was a chance to redeem this project.
The book tender slipped behind the circulation counter, temporarily vanishing from sight as she bent to retrieve something, then surfaced with an ancient and well-thumbed telephone book. How old school of them. Or perhaps, how typical of this community. A quick glance at the titles of things on the “New Books” shelf showed the latest James Patterson thriller but also tomes on topics taken straight from the tabloids considering celebrity tell-alls were also included.
“Ah, here he is,” the librarian declared, marking a name with her finger. “Father Sebastian Relic.”
Terrella eyed the age of the directory in distrust. “You’re sure he’ll still be at the same address?”
The older woman beamed, obviously pleased to have found a way to offer assistance.
“Absolutely. Even the pope can’t budge Sebastian from his parish. It’s been closed for years now due to a lack of parishioners, but he’s still there. Have you got a pen and notebook? The way there is tricky.”
“I have GPS on my phone. I’ll just feed it in–”
“You’ll never find it that way,” the librarian interrupted, a touch of amusement as well as kindness in her voice. “We have a few neighborhoods that prefer to keep to themselves, and you’ll be passing through at least two of them to reach Father Relic’s church. Perhaps I should mark the route on a map for you.”
“If I have the address, I’m sure I’ll–”
“I’m afraid you won’t,” the woman countered. Fortunately, the library had official Chamber of Commerce maps of Santo Xavitos for distribution and within a short time Terrella was left to find her way via a path leading from the library to Father Relic’s church. It had been highlighted with a red marker. When she’d commented on the color choice, her helpful guide gave a weak smile. “The town has many dangerous neighborhoods, dear. Red is a very appropriate shade for the journey you take.”
Terrella sighed. It was a good thing she was a historian and thus accustomed to working with antiquated documents. It was the 21st century and she was stuck using a TripTik like those stored in her grandmother’s attic. Well, perhaps it was fitting. This was sort of a treasure hunt and a large red X did mark her destination. If there was something that equated to treasure at the end of this quest, it would be worth the trouble. Still, after feeding the address into the GPS system, she tossed the map aside on the passenger seat in her car.
An hour later, she threw the phone into the backseat in frustration and reclaimed the map. There must be some sort of geologic anomaly in the area because GPS appeared to think she wanted to leave the area. It had attempted to direct her toward the nearest border crossing once and toward the mountain range at least twice. None of which were in the direction she needed to go. The map, at least, kept her within Santo Xavitos proper.
It also took her down roads that jogged left when the map indicated they swung to the right. Sure that she’d taken another wrong turn, Terrella pulled over to the curb and hailed a man engaged in trimming a wild riot of roses in his front yard.
“Excuse me. Sir? I think I’m lost. Could you tell me where I might have gone wrong?”
The fellow turned with a smile, then hastily batted what looked more like tree trimmers than garden shears at a leggy stalk filled with pink flowers. The rose bush appeared to dodge the attack on its tentacle, but that was asinine, Terrella knew. She’d gone too long without food or was dehydrated thanks to the desert heat.
The man eluded the bush and moved to the curb. He bent to peer in the open passenger’s side window. “People get lost in Santo Xavitos more often than not,” he said. “Where are you headed?”
“To–” Terrella suddenly realized she had no idea what the name of the church was. “Well, I’m not sure what the place is called but a Father Sebastian Relic lives there.”
The gardener chuckled. “No wonder you’re having difficulty finding your way. The Church of Lost Hope eludes many. Just a minute.” He turned back to the house and yelled for a woman Terrella supposed was his wife. At least a very wifely looking person peered out the front window then opened the door. She could have walked off the set of a 1950s sit-com. A flowered apron covered a full skirted dress and the woman had completed the look with two-inch high heeled pumps. Her brown hair was neatly coiffed in the same period style though there was a luminescent cast to her locks, reminiscent of dragonfly wings.
Yep, Terrella decided. She’d definitely gone too long without hydrating. Her eyes were determined to flip caprices of light into the onset of phantasmal daymares.
“Honey,” the man said. “Lady here is headed to see old Relic but is having trouble with the way. Do we have something for the poor box to counter the problem?”
The poor box? How was that supposed to help her find the church? Terrella wondered.
“Of course, dear,” the woman answered and slipped back into their home. When she returned there was a 12-roll package of toilet paper in her hands. “Here. This should cure the problem,” she said and thrust the item through the car window where it nestled on the seat atop the map with the scarlet line. “Tell Father that Gildethe and Tristame send their regards.”
Terrella stared at the package she was to deliver to the poor box. “Okay,” she drawled in disbelief. Were all the residents in Santo Xavitos a bit left of center?
“If you get confused again further along, just ask anyone you see for a donation to Lost Hope,” the man said. “You’re on the right path but be sure to contribute to the poor box yourself when you get there. For now, your way lays straight ahead.” He pointed with the tree trimmer shears to his right as though she might not know which way was straight ahead.
“Er…thanks.” Terrella hit the control to roll the window back up then pulled back onto the street. By the time a church steeple came in view, she’d stopped enough times to acquire more items from helpful locals: a family size can of pork and beans, a bag of off-brand corn chips, a bottle of dish washing soap, a bag of lemons hastily picked from the tree in someone’s yard, three avocados, and a six-pack of beer. Well, a five-pack considering they’d come fresh from the family’s refrigerator, and she was thirsty. She doubted the poor would miss one bottle.
There was nothing about the Church of Lost Hope to set it apart from thousands of other houses of worship built in the southwest. It looked like adobe, but she figured it was faux adobe, the façade slapped over cement block probably. It had a bell tower complete with required bell. It had stained glass windows. There was also a graveyard in place of a parking lot, most of the stones canted every which way rather than remain upright, though the grounds between them were well manicured. A sign out front identified it merely as Lost Hope.
Terrella certainly hoped her quest didn’t merit that description.
She snagged the five-pack of beer and her backpack and left her car parked at the curb. Sun filtered through old growth trees in the churchyard, dappling the path that led to the entrance. Twelve-foot-tall twin doors with elaborate carvings guarded the way but an old-fashioned bell pull hung just to the right. Terrella gave it a yank. Rather than the jingle of a small call bell getting the attention of someone inside, the large bell in the tower pealed, announcing to the neighborhood that Lost Hope had a visitor.
She heard heavy footsteps move closer to the door and wondered whether they echoed in the nave. Then a tall man in a frayed cassock swung the door to her left open. “What?” he snapped, then noticed the partial offering of beer in her hand. “Ah,” he added, and took them into his keeping.
Terrella shoved her foot in the gap when he started to swing the door shut again. “Father Relic? Sebastian Relic?”
The man scowled at her. “I suppose you need to give me the name of the contributor,” he snarled.
“I’m hoping you can supply answers to questions I have about the lost Santo Xavitos Mission,” Terrella said. Faintly, from inside the church proper, she thought she heard the ping of a single note played on…possibly a xylophone or triangle? “A woman at the library gave me your name.”
He sighed deeply, letting a gust of air stir the gray hair tumbling over his brow. “Did she send this offering for the poor box?” he demanded holding the cardboard carrier of beer aloft.
“No, that was Humphrey. I have other items donated by–”
Relic held his unencumbered sun browned hand up to stop her. There was grime around his nails and in the creases of his knuckles. Terrella wondered whether he’d acquired it working in his own garden but couldn’t help picturing him hollowing out a grave, digging it with his bare hands. There was something creepy about the old coot. Well, about everyone she’d spoken to since arriving in Santo Xavitos. He fit right in. “What did the librarian send?”
“Er…me, I suppose,” Terrella said.
The old man laughed but there was no amusement in the sound. “You brought more than this?” He waved the beer at her again.
“Yes,” she admitted. “I left the other donations in my car.”
Relic pushed the church door wide open and stepped outside. Despite his age, he had the bearing of a soldier, shoulders squared rather than sloping, his spine stiff rather than bending. “Offerings first, contributors names second, then answers, if I find your questions worthy of any.”
At the car, he considered each of the grocery items she’d had thrust upon her for the poor box separately, evaluating the gift choices, then asked the name of the giver. He sniffed the lemons, squeezed the avocados, hefted the can of pork and beans, smiled ruefully at the liquid dish washing soap, chuckled over the toilet paper, and tore the bag of chips open to sample one. Then he piled everything but the beer and chips in her arms. When he barreled back to the church, Terrella was speechless over his assumption that she was there to act as a porter. But, if he indeed had the sort of information she needed, she’d put up with the misogynistic treatment temporarily.
“Dump everything there,” he directed with a tilt of his chin toward a table in the vestibule. A wooden box with a slot in the top, labeled poor box, sat next to a pile of dusty, battered hymnals.
She dropped the package of toilet paper to the floor, and carefully set the other items in what little space was free. Relic watched her in silence. Cleared his throat. Glanced from her to the poor box and back to her.
Good grief! He expected her to make an offering as well?
Two dollars were all she had in the pocket of her jeans. Grabbing them, she shoved the bills through the slot.
Relic cleared his throat again.
Oh, hell! She dug a ten from the zippered pocket of her backpack and added it to the box.
This time his mouth quirked, pulling to one side. Not a smile, but an acknowledgement of his win. She wasn’t the least surprised when he opened the poor box, removed her money and the few coins someone else had left and, pushing his cassock aside, shoved the money in his trouser pocket.
“You’re interested in the mission, are you?” he said.
Finally! “Yes. I’m considering it as–”
He stopped her. “There’s a reason it’s lost.”
“Because it fell into disuse and–”
“That’s what someone would say if the clerics failed to convert the local tribe,” Terrella said. “It’s the spin the Church used to put on things that weren’t successful enterprises.”
Relic leaned back against the end of a pew. “Doesn’t mean it’s not cursed in truth.”
Terrella gritted her teeth. “Cut the malarkey. I deal in facts and the fact is that missions were built all over the Southwest by the Jesuits before they fell from favor and the Franciscans took over the job. All the Santa, San and Santo cities began as missions, ergo there has to be a Santo Xavitos mission. The Spanish took their crushing of local belief systems seriously.”
The old man chuckled. “That they did, but it has nothing to do with our mission. I’ll bet you never heard of Saint Xavitos before you decided there was a mission dedicated to him.”
“I’m not the religious sort, and I don’t delve deeply into Church history. As nothing else appears to be named after him, he falls into that obscure category. Known in his era but not pulling off enough spectacular miracles to keep in the limelight.”
Relic pushed off the pew. “Come with me,” he ordered. “And bring the beer.”
Terrella felt she’d need another one soon. And once she left, something a lot stronger.
Snagging the carrier, she followed him down the center nave toward the altar.
Relic didn’t make the entire trip, but jogged to the side, taking a short cut along the length of a set of pews. Their destination was a shadowed niche where a time worn wooden statue stood. Nothing set it apart from a million other statues in RC churches around the globe. The male form was depicted in the long black robe of a Jesuit priest, the cowl drawn forward to further shadow the face. Even when fresh from the carver’s hands, this icon hadn’t possessed a pleasing visage. The artist had given the image sunken cheeks, sunken eye sockets, and a chin so pointed, Terrella fancied it did double duty as a weapon. Time had pockmarked the face, chipped away at the robe, and split the drying wood so that the arm raised in typical blessing form was slowly separating from the body.
“Meet Don Xavitos de Arrazolla, the self-styled saint of Lost Hope,” Relic said.
“He was a real man then?”
“Of course, he was,” the old priest said. “Why would you think he wasn’t?”
“Because he’s a saint.” Duh. “They are nearly all made up.”
“Nearly,” he echoed.
“All of them can’t be documented historically,” Terrella insisted. “And, frankly, those that can were more interesting before they found religion and went off the rails.”
Relic shrugged. “I think you can say that about most people. And it isn’t always religion that sends them off the rails. The pursuit of something better does.”
“And that’s religion?”
“For some. For others it’s love, beauty, wealth. Success.” The old man grinned but it wasn’t in amusement. “You’d get along well with Xavitos.”
Yep, the crazies were everywhere. Maybe there was something in the air. Maybe there were hallucinogens in the aquifers. Terrella made a mental note not to eat anything locally grown or drink tap water.
“I’m more interested in the mission. The one that should exist but is hidden from the rest of the world,” she said. “The librarian seemed to think you’d know everything about the early years of the area.”
Relic plucked a beer from the carrier, twisted the cap off, and guzzled like a frat boy. He’d downed half the bottle before he was ready to talk.
Terrella helped herself to a second one. It was that kind of day.
“You only want to know about the mission,” he declared, making it a statement rather than a question.
She nodded. “Only about the mission. Where it was, why no one has heard of it, what happened to it.”
“The local tribe wiped it out, of course,” Relic said. “End of story.”
“Why did they destroy the mission?” Terrella persisted.
The priest’s smirk was back. “Different tastes in architecture?”
She realized the flip answer was given to play her. “You know where it was located.”
He shrugged. “Everyone who needs to know knows where it was. Just because none of them has written a book or a pamphlet of lies to tell tourists, doesn’t mean they don’t know about it.”
Terrella took a sip of beer. “I’m not writing a pamphlet of tall tales. My research is serious and follows strict academic guidelines.”
“Says the woman who went looking for a nonexistent mission simply because an obscure town near nothing of interest in the Sonoran desert was named Santo Xavitos.” He laughed. “It’s right here, of course. Why do you think all those people you asked directions of gave you something for the poor box?”
Because they were too lazy to bring it along themselves and had taken her for a sucker. Which, since she’d delivered every item, seemed to prove them right. Terrella ground her teeth.
“You tell me,” she demanded. “All I want to know is–”
“Everything about the mission,” Relic said. “Believe me, you don’t really want to know.”
“Yes, I do,” Terrella insisted.
The old man sighed. “Then stop interrupting,” he snapped and gestured toward the dilapidated statue. “It all begins with Don Xavitos de Arrazolla.”
“Fine,” she said and dropped disgustedly onto the unforgiving once polished wood of the pew. “You said he was the self-styled saint of Lost Hope. I rather thought another saint had grabbed that title.”
“You’re thinking of St. Jude. He’s more lost causes,” Relic said. “Xavitos, on the other hand, had personal experience of losing hope and he was never a saint.”
“Don’t tell me he was a rogue, a womanizer, and a politician in his time,” Terrella pleaded sarcastically. “I don’t think I could stomach the clichédness of it all.”
Relic helped himself to another beer. “He was a dreamer. Only dreamers are hopeful of things that don’t come to pass. They hope they find the perfect mate, the perfect profession, have the perfect family, the perfect life. Only dreamers can lose hope when whatever they pursue fails. Xavitos’s last hope was to have his name go down in history. It had nothing to do with being a successful missionary for the Church, though that was a perfect cover for his scheme. The Church was the last hope of anyone who hadn’t found success or joy in their life. It was full of men and women cloistering themselves away to praise God because nothing else had worked out. Imagine their disappointment when St. Peter didn’t have their names in his admissions books either.”
“So, you don’t think Xavitos got into heaven. Whoop-dee-do,” Terrella said. “Welcome to reality. Let’s speed this up a bit. There are documents I hope you’ll show me.”
Somewhere in the echoing emptiness of the choir loft something chimed again.
“There are documents, aren’t there?” Terrella pressed.
The priest shrugged. “As long as you can read poorly written Renaissance Spanish.”
“Then continue with your soliloquy,” she urged.
“Considering how often you interrupt, I doubt that’s the word for it,” he countered.
Terrella gestured that he pick up the pace.
Relic sighed. “You millennials expect instant gratification. What you want can’t be achieved that fast. Get back in your car. Go back down the road. There’s a restaurant, a small place called The Last Supper. Get a table. Order your favorite meal.”
“My favorite meal? What does that mean?”
“Think of it as what you’d order the night before your execution,” he said.
Terrella snorted inelegantly. “The chance of them having it is as likely as you giving me a straight answer, Relic.”
“I’ll bet you’ll find it’s today’s special. And, for the record, all I’ve given you are straight answers. Go eat. See a movie. Sit in a bar, choose a local Romeo and have a quickie.”
“Have a what?”
He ignored the interruption. “Come back here five minutes before midnight and what you hope to find will be here.”
The smirk was riding his mouth again. “I though burning the midnight oil would appeal to you. It’s so…historical.”
“Funny,” Terrella snapped. “Unless you’re telling me I have to read the data by oil lamp.”
“Lost Hope doesn’t run on electricity. It burns dreams for fuel.”
“You should go on a talent show with malarkey like that, Relic.”
He’d dismissed her for now, she realized, for he swept up the remaining beers and…
~ ~ ~
There’d been a door hidden in the shadows, Terrella told herself. People didn’t disappear. Relic liked playing those who arrived at his door. His talk of curses and intimate knowledge of the old church were part of the patter and misdirection he’d borrowed from a stage illusionist’s tricks.
Incredibly, the Last Supper’s special of the day was the meal she’d enjoyed only once and dreamed of since: a savory Roquefort tart with caramelized onion, a heavenly lobster bisque followed by a sinful cognac shrimp. Dessert was a dark chocolate and banana filled crepe. All items she would have expected to find at an upscale boutique restaurant in a major city, not in a place where chimichangas held sway with other diners. A complimentary bottle of fine wine was included and yet, when it arrived, her tab was for less than twenty-five dollars,
Rather than trawl for a local Lothario as the old priest had suggested, Terrella used the Wi-Fi connection at The Last Supper to run a search on Xavitos de Arrazolla. Nothing surfaced. She tried Sebastian Relic next and found zip. When she altered the search to the Church of Lost Hope, the cyber world claimed it, too, lacked a data trail.
She found no mention under historic buildings, parochial properties, church closings or cemeteries. A search through the archives of the local newspapers was equally bare. She could understand a lone Jesuit from the 16th or 17th century vanishing from historic records, but not a priest and parish that had supposedly been active until the closures began in the 21st century.
The restaurant staff did their cleanup chores around Terrella but looked relieved to lock the door behind her as midnight approached. Outside, the wind had picked up, scouring the perfume of householders’ flower gardens from the air. Overhead, clouds began veiling the stars. Terrella sighed. Just what she needed. A stormy night trapped in a shadowed old mausoleum-like church with antique lighting and the company of a crochety, forgotten priest. If she was lucky, Relic would just point her to what documents were available, possibly some artifacts beyond the creepy statue of the self-styled saint and leave her alone to work.
She was mentally tallying the order in which she’d do things as she hurried back up the path to the church’s porch. Terrella knocked on the door rather than pull the bell rope. Not only would the neighbors appreciate the quiet, she really didn’t need the hollow toll of a weighty bell adding to the evening’s atmosphere.
The bell knelled on its own as the door opened. This time Relic pulled both massive panels open, a dramatic gesture she could have done without. “Determined to test your luck, professor?” he asked.
“You can stop with the dramatics,” Terrella growled, pushing past him into the stale air of the church. He’d left an old oil lamp burning on the table next to the poor box. The flame danced briefly as a draft from outside teased it. The earlier offerings had been moved elsewhere. Probably to his personal lair, she decided.
“How was your last supper?” he asked. “Up to standard?”
“Oddly enough, yes. It was delicious as well as surprising in various ways,” she admitted, then noticed he no longer wore the age weary cassock. That his hair was no longer gray. That he appeared decades younger and had dressed for a costume party where guests thought they were extras on a set for a new historically incorrect Zorro movie for a 17th century sheathed sword swung from the belt of his garrison togs. He wore riding boots as well. “What’s with the soldier getup?”
“Merely dressed for the occasion,” he said reacquiring the oil lamp. “Leave your things next to the poor box.”
“I need my laptop.”
“Pen, ink and paper are all you need, and they await your pleasure.”
“I take it you’ll want me to wear gloves to keep the documents from picking up skin oils. I brought some with me.”
“Leave them behind,” he ordered. “The only 21st century import allowed is you yourself.”
Before she could argue for the preservation of whatever materials there were, Relic strode down the aisle toward the altar again. “It’s nearly midnight. Chop, chop, grasshopper. You don’t want to be late.”
Terrella hastily left her backpack by the poor box and ran a few steps to catch him up. “What is so important about the time?”
“You’ll see,” he promised.
Without the lighted screen of her phone to highlight the hour, she wondered how they’d know when midnight struck. She hadn’t noticed whether he wore a watch on his wrist but doubted he did. He’d give her that well-rehearsed smirk if she suggested such an anachronistic touch was a logical addition to his presidio gear.
Then the bell in the tower boomed again. The sound seemed to shake the air around her. It wavered like heat rising from baked pavement. The scent in the air was no longer of dust and neglect but of animals and people, neither cared for, hygienically speaking. A rabble of sound engulfed her as the church disappeared, replaced by a compound of hard, dry soil and a handful of shelters. A merciless sun beat down from a cloud free sky. A paddock created from Saguaro spines corralled a couple bucolic cows. Pigs and chickens had the right of way. A couple disinterested cats and sleeping dogs lie in doorways. What people there were looked weak, downtrodden, spiritless. From their facial features and skin tones, she identified them as natives, though all trace of tribal distinction had been erased through the expedient issuance of shapeless, dust colored clothing. The men wore loose shirts and pants that didn’t reach their ankles. The women’s robes fell a like distance and were belted with lengths of rope. The younger children were naked. Everyone was barefoot.
Except for hard faced soldiers and the bustling middle-aged man in a black robe. They all wore European style boots.
Unlike his statue in the church, Xavitos de Arrazolla hadn’t pulled the cowl up to protect him from the sun. His hair wasn’t tonsured. He hadn’t shaved. But, like the statue, his face was pockmarked and all sharp angles.
“What’s this?” he demanded in irritation.
“Another damned seeker of truth,” Relic said.
“Trust you to notice.” Relic turned slightly. Gave her a sweeping glance from head to foot and worked his way back up more slowly. “I believe you’re right, Xavitos. Imagine me missing a thing like that.”
Terrella wondered what drug had been slipped into her food at The Last Supper. Movie makers, cable channel executives, trite genre novelists, and delusional physicists might think a time distillation had occurred, but she wasn’t buying into that. The two men hadn’t spoken English, but a Spanish dialect unlike any she’d learned though it sounded archaic to her ear. She had understood them though the only thing that rang true was the sarcastic edge in Relic’s reply. However, the illusion was created, it was draped in enough corporeal detail to convince those who longed to be convinced that this was the real thing. Terrella wasn’t buying it.
“What am I to do with her, colonel?” the sharp faced priest demanded, clearly irritated to be lumbered with a guest.
“What you do with the other women, I suppose,” Relic drawled then glanced at the sky. “I doubt there’s time though. The destruction begins soon,” he said then turned to Terrella and switched to English. “This way to the scriptorium. If you hurry, you can get a glimpse of those damn documents you jawed on about.”
“A glimpse! I hope it’s more than that.”
Again, the sound of what might have been a lightly tapped musical triangle flitted through the air. Terrella smiled to herself. Ah, their illusion had cracks. They weren’t far from the church, though the building at her back looked nothing like it. Should she play along, appear to be convinced that she and Relic had time traveled to when Xavitos built the mission? No, she decided. That was not only asinine, she doubted she could pull off a believable performance. Relic already knew she’d be a hard sell.
“My meal was drugged, wasn’t it? The effects kicked in at midnight. That’s what was so important about the time,” she said.
“You weren’t drugged. We stepped through a regularly occurring gap. You’re the one who triggered it, by the way, arriving at my door with your own Lost Hope crying out to become reality,” Relic insisted as he led her to a one-story building of wattle and daub construction. Rather than a door, a tanned length of animal hide draped the entrance. Relic had to stoop to avoid the low lintel.
Terrella followed him. The building was a one room office. A rough, broad topped table held center stage. An oil lamp that belonged in a museum was placed so that light would fall on the journal opened to a blank page, though as daylight streamed through a window cut in the wall it wasn’t lit. A bowl of what appeared to be homemade ink was bracketed by long tailfeathers, the tips trimmed for duty as pen nibs. Other journals were stacked on the right-hand corner of the desk.
Relic rested a hand on the pile of books. “Voila! The documents you requested. Have at it while you’ve still got time.”
Unable to stop herself, Terrella grabbed the topmost volume and opened it. It took only a minute or two for her to discern the vagaries of the handwriting, but it appeared to be ramblings rather than a coherent document.
“This is gibberish, Relic. Oh, it looks authentic but there’s no structure,” she insisted. “I was hoping for more.”
And there it was again. That trill of a single note struck.
The younger version of Relic settled a hip against the desk. “This is all there is, senorita. The old man’s never been in his right mind. I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version of his ramblings. We were travelers together, fleeing the plagues and famines in Spain. And the Inquisition. Apparently Xavitos had a Moorish ancestor and I had a penchant for Protestants.”
“A penchant,” Terrella echoed.
“Pretty skirted ones,” Relic admitted. “Mexico City was Xavitos and my destination, so the trip was long and tedious. He welcomed an audience and I was bored enough to supply it. I was a mercenary looking for a new patron and he seemed likely material based on the music his purse made. But he wanted more than wealth. He wanted his name to be remembered through time and felt he’d found the perfect solution. With an armed guard of men, he’d make his way north and pass himself off as a Jesuit on a mission to care for and convert the local heathens, though that was never what he planned to do. And so we came here to Lost Hope. It’s where Xavitos got what he wished but not in the way he had hoped.”
Terrella slammed the journal closed. “You tell a good tale, Relic, but that’s all it is.”
This time his laugh was full bodied and rang with amusement rather than vituperation. “Do I look like the same man you crossed words with earlier today, poca lengua de vibora?”
“No, but any makeup artist can hide a man’s age,” she snarled.
“How would I have known you would arrive at my door?” he countered.
“The librarian could have called to warn you.”
“The Church of Lost Hope has not had a phone since it was stricken from the dioceses rolls and I have not the income to afford even a cheap disposable cell,” Relic said.
“Then that was the real you and the transformation occurred between the time you sent me away and I returned.”
“Both are the real me, senorita, because I am one of Xavitos’s cursed, though in a different capacity that his sentence. You see, I was beyond the shaman’s sight when he damned de Arrazolla to relive this day for eternity. It was only when I swung aboard my horse to collect that ridiculous statue he commissioned that the hechicero saw me. As I hadn’t been the one whipping him to death, but Xavitos’s companion-in-arms, he condemned me to lifetimes upon lifetimes of sentinel duty to this Hell.”
Terrella slammed the useless journal back on the desk. “Oh, stop with the storytelling, Relic. I’m not buying it.”
“You don’t have to. The Santo Xavitos Mission already heard your call and marked you as its own, professor.” He pushed off the desk, turned toward the door. “It’s time for me to leave. Enjoy the limited research time left to you.”
“What are you talking about?” Terrella demanded.
“Ah, bruja dulce, you’ve said the magic word. It can’t be unspoken. Words have power, you know, and on these grounds this one is souped up with poison,” Relic said.
“You’ve said it four times. Surely you heard the count. A sweet crystalline ring?”
“No. That was a confederate of yours playing a triangle in the church. The fact that it reached us here as well means this is a set connected to the church building and all these people are actors or extras,” she insisted.
Relic glanced past the leather curtain at events in the open square. Although the sound was muted by distance or the building itself, Terrella thought she heard cries of pain, of people weeping.
“All those past parishioners who gave you something for the poor box,” the currently younger man said. “They each hoped for something during mass. Gildethe that she’d be what she envisioned the perfect wife to be. Unfortunately, she pictured what the archaic Hollywood version was in an old movie and that’s what the curse gave her. Tristame hoped to have a rose garden unlike any other. He got his wish, though his roses are carnivores and have wills of their own. Everyone who hopes for something on the grounds gets their wish, just not in the manner they intended. Xavitos himself isn’t remembered but his name was borrowed by the city. You hoped to find primary sources for your research, and here they are. Just not what you wanted them to be.”
Terrella stared at him, her mouth open in shock as at long last – and too late – she recognized the reality of her situation.
Relic checked events in the center of the mission’s patio area again. “My time is up, senorita. Perhaps the next time I am forced to visit we can continue this useless conversation. Enjoy the documents while you can. For now, adios.”
“But–” Terrella cried, at last finding her voice. She rushed to the doorway to catch him, delay him, but Relic was gone. In the open square, a man cursed all those who came to the Santo Xavitos Mission and hoped for what he would deny them.
And then the downtrodden natives, overran everyone not of their tribe.
~ ~ ~
“You haven’t changed,” Terrella said to the man in the doorway. He was as young as the day he’d left her there. She doubted she looked as appealing as she had back then.
“Have you found what you hoped to find in Xavitos’s grand plan for fame?” Relic asked.
“Of course not. But you always knew I wouldn’t.”
“It’s part of the curse, senorita.”
Terrella sighed. “As I’ve come to learn. Do you know how many times I’ve died here?”
“Not nearly as many as you will,” he said.
“I’m rewriting the material. It may sound like claptrap to the next scholar to make the same connections I did, but perhaps they’ll get away. Won’t say the magic word as often as I did.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Relic warned. “I brought you a gift.”
“A package of rollerball pens? I’d kill for one much less a dozen.”
Relic’s mouth twitched. “Something better,” he said. “They’ve opened a new shop I thought you’d enjoy if you could visit.”
“Which I can’t considering I’m doomed to this particular niche in Hell.”
“True,” he murmured, and took a tall steaming cup of cappuccino from behind his back.
Terrella smiled when she saw the grated dark chocolate melting on top.
The Saint of Lost Hope © 2020 Beth Daniels / J.B. Dane
Cover design by Beth Daniels
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying, recording, or file sharing, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without written permission from the author. All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.