This featured fiction is brought to you courtesy of writer Lawrence Buentello.
“Those who consider the Devil to be a partisan of Evil and angels to be warriors of Good accept the demagogy of the angels. Things are clearly more complicated.”
“Do you believe in God, Mr. Louis?”
Elizabeth Harris avoided glancing over to her husband, Martin, who was surely gazing on her disquietedly. So be it; she wouldn’t be distracted by the expectation of good manners. She’d set the dinner table and cooked the food thereon—if Martin thought the direction of their conversation was solely his purview he’d soon be disappointed. She was a woman of years, and of experience, and couldn’t be deceived so easily.
Mr. Louis regarded her with small, shining eyes, eyes deeply black and set in a thin, angular face. His rich black hair betrayed its youthful appearance with white patches at the temples, and when he smiled, as he did now, small lines around his eyes and lips suggested his true age.
“Of course I do, Mrs. Harris,” he said. He set his fork on his plate and assumed a strange pose, his slender hand poised before him like an actor’s. “I believe in all things spiritual. This world would prove to be unconscionably pointless without a spark of the divine within all living things.”
She nodded, but didn’t look away. She felt if she kept her attention focused on his handsome face he might betray some interior psychology her own husband couldn’t, or wouldn’t acknowledge.
“But you don’t belong to one of our local churches?”
She felt her husband’s hand fall over her own.
“Letty,” he said, “we shouldn’t bother Mr. Louis with such personal questions.”
“But I take no offense at personal questions,” Mr. Louis said, smiling jovially. “I try to take as little offense as possible to anything asked of me. I feel there are no burdens of the soul that would keep me from being honest with others.”
This, this was the obsequious persona that moved her suspicions, and kept moving them to a very dark conclusion. She had read many books on psychology and something in his demeanor, his personal interactions with their neighbors, told her that he wasn’t the man he seemed. Oh, certainly Martin had his own interpretation of her feelings, something along the lines of that old green-eyed monster—
“But you don’t belong to any church?” she persisted, despite the pressure increasing over her hand.
“No, I’m afraid I don’t,” Mr. Louis said. “It’s not that I dismiss the beliefs of others, I just feel that spirituality isn’t confined to organized religion. I feel that if I live my life according to certain values I’m fulfilling the requirements of the divine spirit within me.”
“That would account for your many charitable works.”
Mr. Louis smiled, beautifully, and she was almost swayed by the sincerity of it; he was proud of these accomplishments, it was obvious. Would she be so proud? Or more humble?
“I like to think of my contributions as merely the due I owe my fellow men and women,” he said. “I do find great joy in philanthropic ventures.”
“You’re a boon to this community,” her husband said, and rather loudly. She turned briefly and stared at him; the statement had been sincerely offered, she was certain. But the perspiration on his bald pate and his half-closed eyes announced his discomfort.
Her husband greatly respected the man, perhaps even adored him, for all she knew. And that was the reason he’d invited Mr. Louis to dinner. It’s the least we could do for a man who’s done so much for our friends and neighbors, he’d said. She’d heard all the stories of his charitable works, of course, the time he’d spent tutoring students, making repairs to the homes of the elderly, delivering meals, counseling neighbors, and being what her husband described as ‘the warmest, most positive and generous man I’ve ever known’.
And for that he was much praised, not only by her husband but, it seemed, by every other person who’d ever met the man.
Except for Elizabeth Harris.
When she first met Mr. Louis she was just as pleased with his presence in their neighborhood as anyone else—until she caught a special light in his eyes, a hint of something more than a purely generous soul. Such perceptions could easily be dismissed as a mistaken impression, but she prided herself on her ability to read a person’s character, and often deeply, with the merest glance.
She’d tried to convince Martin to cancel the dinner, but he insisted. And because he insisted, she was determined to explore Mr. Louis’ psychology as deeply as possible in the event that he shared, accidentally or otherwise, some quality revealing him as something more than a wonderful Samaritan.
“I thank you of the compliment,” Mr. Louis said, “but I’m really undeserving. I simply live the kind of life I feel all people should live, an ordinary life based on service rather than reward. You might say that my service to my fellow human beings is my reward.”
“But you’re not speaking of hubris, are you?” she asked.
“Of course not,” her husband said quickly. “He’s speaking of generosity, aren’t you, Mr. Louis? A commodity that the world is in very short supply of these days.”
“I have to admit,” Mr. Louis said, “that I do take some delight in the response I receive from those I assist. But I don’t believe it is hubris, Mrs. Harris.”
“What is it, then?” she asked.
“Joy, you might say,” he said, “a joy experienced only through the commission of pure acts, acts reflecting the best incarnation of divinity. No, I don’t belong to a specific church, but I do believe in the divine, and I believe that manifesting the divine is the best possible state for any being espousing its virtues, if only for a moment of time.”
Mr. Louis sat back then and laughed, a soft, infectious laugh conscripting her husband’s own deep chuckle. Mrs. Harris didn’t join in the laughter, however; she felt it quite diversionary, a tactic to manipulate an emotional response in others, nothing more.
He was very good at disguising his ulterior motives, she had to admit. But the evening wasn’t yet over, and she was determined to find the basis of the deceptive light she’d witnessed.
“Why don’t we have coffee in the front room?” she asked pleasantly enough. She didn’t want to seem predatory in her inquiry. Then he would know that she knew. She would have to be more subtle.
“A wonderful idea,” her husband said, already rising to help clear the table.
“Do you mind if I step outside to smoke before we do?” Mr. Louis said. “I’m afraid it’s my one bad habit. I know it’s a terrible addiction, but it’s one I’ve yet to break. Do you mind?”
“Certainly not,” she said. “By the time you’re finished the coffee will be ready to serve.”
She watched him through parted curtains, studying his thin silhouette as he blew clouds of smoke into the porch light. He held the cigarette with his palm upturned in the European style, which was very odd for a man supposedly from the Midwest. When someone passed on the sidewalk before the house he waved good-naturedly, receiving a good-natured salutation in return. He seemed content in this role, which belied the impression he’d given her earlier.
“What on earth are you doing?”
She turned away from the window. Martin stood in the middle of the front room, a large tray in his hands containing the beautiful coffee service his mother had given them at their wedding.
“Nothing,” she said defensively.
“Are you spying on our guest?”
“No, of course not.”
Her husband set down the service. “Then what were you doing?”
“Martin,” she said, “don’t you find Mr. Louis a bit suspicious?”
He beetled his brow and huffed as he always did when dismissing her opinion. She hated the gesture. He wasn’t a deeply perceptive man; he was all too willing to believe the best of everyone, until reality gave him correction.
“In what way?” he said.
“He’s just a little too helpful, don’t you think?”
“Letty, you could find fault with St. Francis himself. Now, Mr. Louis is a good man. He’s helped a lot of people in the short time he’s lived in this neighborhood. Why in the world would you be suspicious about a man who finds value in offering his charity to people?”
“That’s just it. I’ve never known anyone who was so willing to give to others. It’s as if it’s his profession or something.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Most charitable people give of themselves as they can. Mr. Louis seems to give all the time, which leads me to believe he’s compensating for something else in his life.”
“I don’t think so. He’s certainly hiding something.”
“Well, when he comes back inside I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t badger the man. He’s supposed to be receiving the benefit of our generosity, for goodness sake.”
She nodded, but had no intention of ‘playing charades’ with Mr. Louis.
While her husband waxed eloquent over Mr. Louis’ good works, Mrs. Harris sat quietly sipping her coffee waiting for an opportunity to turn the conversation her way. From where she sat, though, across the coffee table from her neighbor, she could see he was in full command of his posture, gesticulations, inflection; he knew exactly the effect his mannerisms had on those observing him. He was a graceful man in a beautiful suit, with immaculate hygiene and impeccable manners. But a man possessing so calculated a persona must be hiding many things.
“But you haven’t told us about your history, Mr. Louis,” she said, setting her cup on the saucer on the table. “Where are you from?”
“The Midwest, as I’ve said,” Mr. Louis replied, setting down his own cup. “Evanston, actually. But I haven’t been there for many years.”
“Where have you been living?”
“I’m something of a world traveler, Mrs. Harris. I’ve been everywhere you could possibly imagine.”
“Well, certainly everywhere in this country,” he said, touching the tips of his fingers as he spoke. “Europe, Asia, India, South America. In fact, I do believe I’ve traveled to every continent on Earth. I have quite a love of new experiences.”
“And yet you’re living in our quiet little neighborhood. Is there some special reason?”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her husband’s posture stiffen in response to her line of questioning, but she ignored it.
Mr. Louis didn’t hesitate in the least.
“The grandeur of the world is wonderful to experience,” he said, “but a person does get weary and needs to rest. I find life in a quiet neighborhood quite innervating. And how can one possibly feel as if he is part of a community when he never settles down? No, I’ve enjoyed my time here, Mrs. Harris.”
“But you have no wife, no children?” she asked lightly. “No relatives at all?”
“Now, Letty,” her husband said evenly, “you shouldn’t interrogate Mr. Louis about his personal life.”
“I don’t mind, really,” Mr. Louis said with a smile. “No, I don’t have a wife, and I have no children. And certainly no relatives in this part of the world, so wherever I settle is just as much a home to me as any other place.”
“But what sort of business are you in, Mr. Louis?” she said, refusing to abandon her inquisition.
“I’m retired,” he said. “But before I retired I worked almost exclusively as a consultant.”
“In what area?”
“Human resources, you might say.”
“That explains a great deal,” her husband said, now smiling. “You see, Letty, Mr. Louis has spent his life fostering good will with the people in his charge. And I’m sure it’s a reflection of natural talent.”
“You flatter me, Mr. Harris.”
“You deserve the compliment.”
“Though one could say just the opposite,” she interjected, averting her eyes as she reached for her cup. “One could say that a man who goes out of his way to perform good deeds is compensating for some error of his past.”
A silence fell in the room. For the first time Mr. Louis failed to respond in a timely manner. Mr. Harris, staring wide-eyed at his wife, could only produce a strange note in his throat, amplified by his open mouth.
Finally, Mr. Harris said, “Of course we’re not saying that’s the case in your circumstance, Mr. Louis. Are we, Letty?”
Mrs. Harris said nothing, she only sipped her coffee. But this was the moment she’d been waiting for, the moment of disclosure! She stared into Mr. Louis’ small, dark eyes, and for the first time that evening sensed the same light, one flickering with hidden mania. Surely he might lose his composure now, lose the self-control that was his only barrier between the man he actually was and the man he wished everyone to believe him to be—
“I think that’s very true,” Mr. Louis said, though not jovially. He wove his fingers together calmly and placed them on his knee. “Compensation for a troubled spirit, as it were. There is grace in being a good man, and being perceived as a good man.”
“She certainly wasn’t speaking of you,” Mr. Harris said, imploring his wife to confirm this observation as he shook his head.
She ignored her husband; Mr. Louis’ attitude informed her that she’d found a sensitive aspect of his persona, so she persisted.
“Then is that not simply the sin of pride?” she asked, sensing her triumph at hand—
He laughed then, a strange, painful laugh that frightened her. She glanced at her husband, but Mr. Harris sat speechless.
When his laughter subsided, Mr. Louis said, “Perhaps so, Mrs. Harris. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, I guess. But even Satan was once an angel of the Heavenly Choir. Can you imagine existing in such grace, and then losing it? Why shouldn’t the Devil himself seek out that same grace from time to time, if it offers even a small connection to that grace he left behind? We all aspire to embrace our nobler selves, don’t we? Why shouldn’t I, Mrs. Harris?”
She couldn’t look away from his eyes; something in them held her, spoke to her of other realities—the Devil himself. For some reason these words lingered in her mind, but they didn’t feel like thoughts of her own—
“Yes, yes, of course,” Mr. Harris said, though without conviction. “But I would never describe you in such a way, Mr. Louis.”
“No, I’m afraid I’m no one so complicated.” Mr. Louis finally looked away from her to Mr. Harris, and once again smiled pleasantly.
“Could I bother you for another cup of coffee?” he asked in the friendliest tone.
“Certainly,” Mr. Harris said, turning to his wife. “Letty? Would you please?”
Mrs. Harris rose quietly from the sofa, glanced quickly at Mr. Louis and then away, before picking up the carafe from the service and walking to the kitchen.
Behind her, Mr. Louis was telling her husband of the fence he intended to repair for old Mrs. Handelman, and of the clothes he’d collected for the school drive, and of the wonderful time he always had bringing meals to the homeless people who slept in the parks downtown—
When she returned, the carafe trembling faintly in her hand, she tried to think of something more to say, to dismiss the words still echoing in her thoughts; but the evening was over for her, the evening had been ruined.