This was originally written for /r/WritingPrompts: “[WP] You have the ability to find lost things, hiking in on them with an internal radar. You’ve helped find lost children, helped archaeologists find lost ruins, museums find lost works of art. One day a nun approaches you and asks for help; she has lost her faith.”.
I’d just finished rereading some of the Dresden Files before writing this, and it really shows. I spent at least half this story setting up for future installments which, upon a moment’s consideration, I didn’t have any actual ideas or plans for.
I always start off with a simple question. It generally gets at least token laughs from the historians looking for lost works of antiquity, it helps narrow down some of the serious cases by giving me a place to start triangulating, and in at least one case involving a lost wedding ring, it had actually been all I needed to solve the case. (The ring was in his inner coat pocket; he’d ironically taken it off for fear of losing it when he went swimming).
Somehow, the question didn’t feel quite right here. But I asked it anyway.
“Ma’am, where did you see it last?”
“In the chapel of St. Bernadette, in the convent of Our Lady of Lourdes, two months ago.”
I blinked at this. I hadn’t actually expected an answer. And though my power’s made me a living all these years, I had no idea if I could actually do this. I’d never tried to find something nonphysical before.
“And you’re aware of my fee, right? I don’t barter with blessings, prayers, or offerings of intercession. And you all take a vow of poverty when you go in, if I recall.”
The nun (and I still hadn’t gotten her name), pulled out an envelope with a day’s fees up-front, in cash.
“Our Order raises money for our well-being, and covers the cost of treatment when we get sick. I told the Mother Superior about my crisis, and showed her your work with uncovering the workshop where the Antikythera Mechanism was built, and with rescuing the Saller twins lost at sea. She agreed that this was worth the money.”
I couldn’t stall any longer.
“Ma’am, I can’t actually promise you anything. I am good at what I do. Very good. But you’re not asking me to find an object that’s out there, somewhere. You’re asking me to find something that you don’t know still exists. Something that for all I know has never existed. There’s a good chance that what you ask is impossible.”
“I know, Mr. Cione. But it’s the only chance I have. I have to hope that you can do it.”
She still believed me. Completely. I’ll grant that my reputation’s started to spread, but she’d have to be a pretty trusting woman in general to not be shaken a little after that disclaimer. So how in the world had she lost her faith to begin with?
My internal radar had just gotten its first ping.
We spent the car ride mostly in silence. I’d asked for the address of the convent (and there was no point making her take public transit back), and she’d asked for help from St. Jude and St. Anthony of Padua. But beyond that, it was a half hour of silence. Part of it was all those film noirs I watch. I wouldn’t feel like a real detective if I come to conclusions before I even reach the scene of the crime, as it were, and I didn’t have the advantage of a jump cut to get me from my office to there without an awkward silence. It’s stupid, I know, but I grew up on those movies and you never really get past what you learned as a kid.
But the other part was trying to hone in that singular ping I’d gotten during our conversation. There aren’t many young nuns nowadays, and I’ve seen some the more liberal orders that don’t wear habits. If a woman were to join an order as old-fashioned as the Sacristines, at an age of what couldn’t be more than 25, she had to be pretty serious about it. She probably hadn’t experienced some tragedy that left her unable to trust anyone, because she’d sought me out and accepted a ride back with me without complaint. And she hadn’t simply transferred her faith to another denomination or religion, because she wouldn’t still invoke saints had she suddenly become a Buddhist or something.
So she had lost faith in God, very specifically, without any other major change.
That was getting pretty specific. In my thankfully limited experience with teenagers, I’d seen plenty who started out religious purely because their parents dragged ‘em to church, and who’d never thought much of it to begin with. They’d gone through disproofs of God’s existence online and never looked back. And the Sallers’ dad was an atheist, but when he saw his kids again he praised the Lord.
Which I was more or less ok with, so long as he didn’t send Him my bill.
But the point was that usually, this type already had made an emotional decision, and were waiting for a justification of one kind or another. I certainly couldn’t see an average Dawkins reader wanting to go back to church but not being able to. This case, though, reminded me more of a kidnapping than of a standard missing person’s case, the latter of which usually ended with the missing person in question not wanting to be found. It was as if…
“Ma’am”, I asked as we pulled in to the convent, “of all the books in the Bible, which one have you read most?”
“The Book of Job.”
We entered the chapel. The crime scene, if you want to call it that. It was empty except for us, and I put on my best funeral face and tried to more or less blend in with the metaphysical background. I needn’t have bothered. Sister Mary Francis (I’d finally gotten her name) wasn’t looking at me. She was looking more or less everywhere else. As we walked about halfway down the aisle, her eyes were darting around the pews the way I’d seen guys look for car keys.
We sat down in one of the middle pews. I was getting closer, but I was worried she wouldn’t like what she saw when we found it.
“Why that book?”
“It’s the earliest. And it’s different from the Old Testament books. The others just detail what God does. This one asks why.”
“What was the answer?”
“There were three answers. One was that God is cruel merely to be cruel, and that He cannot be called ‘good’. One was that God is powerful beyond human power, and that it is expedient to call Him good regardless of whether He is or isn’t. And the third is not an answer per se but more questions, and instead of asking why God allows evil, asks why God allows anything at all.”
“And which answer do you go with?”
She practically whispered the words. “None of them. Not anymore.”
In the pew I saw an old Bible. If the chapel was the crime scene, no doubt this was the murder weapon. Heh. A Bible being a deodand was the sort of pun I shouldn’t laugh out loud about in a church. Not while on the clock, anyway.
I took a deep breath and focused. I could hear the pinging at intervals now, and I’ve had an awful lot of practice at retracing steps. That didn’t make this any easier.
“Ma’am, have you ever met pretty reasonable people, and talked to them about their beliefs?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Have any of them ever seemed rock-solid in it? Like they had all the answers they needed, and nothing would shake them?”
“I live in a convent.”
I chuckled, politely. “And have they all agreed on every one of those answers?”
She didn’t respond.
“Ma’am, imagine one of those people. Imagine that instead of being raised Catholic she was raised somewhere else and in a different religion. Would she have eventually come to this convent, despite that different upbringing?”
“I don’t know. She might not.”
She fumbled with words for a moment. “It’s as if…it’s as if there are multiple sets of answers that all try to explain the same things. And each set fits together.”
“Ma’am, what classes do you teach?”
“I don’t teach. I don’t know any sisters who do. There aren’t many grade schools taught by nuns anymore.”
Shoot. Well, I’d already dredged up memories of seventh-grade algebra. I wasn’t going to go through that for nothing.
“But maybe you remember a little math anyway. Let’s say a southbound train leaves Boston at noon, and a northbound train on the same line leaves DC at noon thirty. Could they pass each other at three in the afternoon, in Philly?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“And what about at two thirty, in Trenton?”
“But this is a math problem, ma’am. They can’t pass each other at both times and places. So how can there be more than one possible answer?”
“Because the problem doesn’t have all the information. To know one single answer, you’d have to know how fast the trains were going.”
There was a silence. My radar had stopped pinging. I’d arrived.
“You can use logic to solve a lot of mysteries, but you can’t use logic to solve the mystery of whether or not you can use logic. If you answer ‘yes’ or you answer ‘no’ - both answers work. You have to take some fundamental idea on faith, even if it’s the idea that you can’t take any other fundamental ideas on faith. You have to make a choice as to what set of answers you think best explains the world. Even if there are too many.”
She couldn’t meet my eyes. That was just as well. I probably couldn’t have met hers.
“You’re looking at this like a philosopher, or a mathematician. I can respect that. You’re trying to solve the problem, once and for all, so that once you’ve solved it you won’t have to worry about it again. But you and I? We’re more like detectives. We don’t have all the information we want. We don’t have certainty. We have to make do with what we got to try to piece together the bigger picture.”
I got up to leave. This was around when my lunch break would be, and I even felt a little bad for taking a day’s advance already. I didn’t feel the need to press for any more cash. I’d done what I was hired to do.
“Ma’am, where those trains pass each other is where you’ll find your lost faith.”
I opened up shop for the day and as I unlocked things and settled in, I took a glance around the room and let my voicemails play. For most cases, all I had to show for them after the fact was an easier-paid electric bill the next month. Lost pets, or jewelry, or cars? They were my meat and potatoes, and they were as good a way as any of making a living, but they were just jobs.
In the cabinet, at the back of my little office, I kept mementos of the things that were more than just jobs.
Over there was a picture of the Saller twins, two of the only children ever rescued from any mid-Atlantic shipwreck. I got it in the mail about a month after they were rescued, and the picture shows them in little Halloween costumes, dressed up as Thing 1 and Thing 2 from The Cat In The Hat.
Over there was a black-and-white photo of a Dalek, signed by an ardent Classic Doctor Who fan. She was cute. I’d insisted on getting no publicity for that case, but we’d marathon-watched The Evil Of The Daleks, together, and had been the first people to see it since the 1960s. I wondered how she was doing these days.
In the back was a folded flag from a soldier who had been missing, presumed dead. The presumption was correct, but I’d brought him home to his grandchildren, and given them the letter he’d kept in his pocket all that time, yellowed with decades of aging. The letter wasn’t, technically, for them. They still cried when they read it.
And I’d just added the newest piece to my collection. A little prayer card to St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint (apparently) of finding lost things. I smiled. That was a job, I suppose, but with more of a capital letter and long ‘o’ than most. I was glad it had worked out for her.
Suddenly, my voicemail clicked to the next message, and the speaker sounded panicked.
“You gotta help me, man. They’re everywhere! I don’t know why they’re after me, but I can’t hide for much longer!”
I shot up out of my chair. This guy didn’t sound like he was looking for something at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. Was he in danger? And what could I do to help him?
“I think I’m losing my mind!”
Oh, for crying out loud.