GLINHAVEN MONASTERY DRIPPED WITH SINISTER eeriness as bone-chilling fog rolled in from the churning North Shore sea waters. The centuries-old stone structure appeared like a hulking ghost in the mist, its walls bloated with history and unspeakable secrets. Yellow light from carriage-style lamps intensified the monastery's forbidding aura, the black-squared globes positioned in four-foot intervals on the stone walls surrounding the holy nucleus.
Daylight rendered the compound harmless, throwing light on the old stones and revealing their true purpose. Home to nearly thirty-two Benedictine monks, the edifice stood testament to centuries of quiet contemplation and selfless contributions to the community while at the same time remaining shrouded in mystery. Locals were hard-put to recall the faces of various monks in residence, or of having lengthy conversations with members of the order. The holy brothers were remote for the most part, their social interactions meagre at best.
Duncan Mochrie came to the monastery on a foggy night, his tall, spare frame appearing like a spectre on the well-worn path leading from the village. He ignored the imposing sight of the Glinhaven family mansion, which rested adjacent to the holy cloister. Instead, he passed by the front and went to the unlocked wrought-iron outer gate in the back. He then made his way to the round, wooden door that served as the rear entrance to the monastery grounds. He rapped bony knuckles on the black-hinged door, covered in a damp sheen from the fog, and waited expectantly.
Within a few seconds, the door creaked open slowly. Duncan came face-to-face with Brother Albert Michaels, a massively-built man with thinning jet-black hair, dark eyes and a full but well-clipped black beard with specks of grey. The monk's robe seemed almost out of place on his hearty frame, its pleated collar barely covering his broad shoulders.
"Mr. Mochrie," the monk acknowledged crisply, his voice low and whispery despite the deepness of its timbre.
"Brother Albert," Duncan replied affably. "Is it permissible to pay a visit tonight?"
The monk hesitated briefly, but then opened the door wider. "Come in, Mr. Mochrie."
"I won't stay long," Duncan promised.
"Follow me," Brother Albert said demurely.
The inner courtyard of the monastery held stone benches and patches of well-kept lawn, as well as a small gazebo and water fountain. Duncan spied a pair of cats, two of the many who occupied the monastery. They appeared like shadows in the courtyard, although he thought he detected the glowing yellow eyes of one. For as long as he could remember, cats had wandered in and out of the premises. Most of them were Scottish Folds, cared for by the resident monks. About a half dozen heated structures lined the wall, which resembled miniature dog houses. There were rubber flaps in the front to allow the cats ease of access, where they could keep warm and dry during inclement weather.
The courtyard seemed murky and indiscernible in the dark at various points, but the monk was sure-footed as he led the way.
Within a few minutes they came to the back door of the main building, which opened into the vast yet simple kitchen. Duncan welcomed the warmth that filled the cavernous room, most of which emanated from the wood-burning cook stove and tall, jutting-stone fireplace, along with the fragrant but cooling bread ovens that filled an entire wall to the left.
He inhaled deeply. "It smells like freshly-baked bread."
The monk nodded. "Brother Sebastian baked nearly all day to get ready for the farmer's market." He glanced at Duncan. "Would you like a cup of tea before we go upstairs?"
"Please," Duncan seemed relieved by the offer of refreshment.
Brother Albert made his way to the cook stove, where he removed a simmering kettle from the heat. He reached into a cabinet to the left, removing a white teacup from the shelf. As he prepared the tea, Duncan turned to warm his hands in front of the fireplace.
As in the courtyard, cats seemed to have free reign in the kitchen. Duncan saw a big grey Scottish Fold curled up on a chair by the cook stove, its sleepy yellow eyes regarding him with benign interest. Duncan knew the feline as Magda. She had been at the monastery for more than a decade, ruling the roost in the feline world where none of the other cats dared to confront her. Her son, a black fold named Milo, had fathered Duncan's cat Sith, who resided at his curio shop in the village.
A companionable silence filled the kitchen. The only sounds Duncan heard were of Brother Albert pouring water into the teacup, and then a spoon clinking against the porcelain as he stirred in a measure of sugar.
The monk was suddenly at Duncan's side, handing him the steaming cup filled with hot tea.
"Thank you," he said gratefully, taking a quick sip. He enjoyed the feel of the hot brew on his tongue, savouring the taste. "Wonderful as usual, Brother Albert."
"It seems to nourish the soul as well as the body," the monk said quietly.
Duncan drained the cup, even enjoying the bitter aftertaste. "I'm ready," he remarked pointedly.
Brother Albert took the empty teacup, placing it on the sink near the stove. "Let's be on our way then."
A long hallway led from the kitchen to the main foyer, where the entrances to other rooms in the monastery were also located, including a well-stocked library, the Abbot's office and the refectory. Despite dim light in the foyer, loving care was evident in shiny wood floors and paneled walls. A wide staircase dominated the vestibule, the top steps cloaked in darkness. From previous visits, Duncan knew the stairs led to the second floor of the monastery and to the lofty attic above, where most of the monks slept two to a room. They paused in the foyer, where Duncan heard the muffled sounds of Gregorian chants coming from the indoor chapel, which was located down another hallway to the left of the staircase. As their last pious act of the day, most resident monks gathered in the chapel at eight o'clock sharp every night, where they sang Compline before seeking their beds in the great silence.
"I'm sorry to interrupt your schedule," Duncan whispered in the foyer, his glance going to Brother Albert. "I know how much you enjoy the final rites of the night."
The monk shrugged, as if to dismiss the obvious inconvenience of Duncan's visit. "The earth will not come to an end if I miss a night or two during the month." He pointed to the staircase. "Shall we?"
They climbed the steps quickly. Duncan followed Brother Albert, gripping the balustrade as he paced his gait to the monk's hurried progress. While imposing in stature and seemingly fit, Brother Albert suffered from arthritis of the knee, a condition which caused him great pain but didn't stop him from moving swiftly when he felt the need. Duncan felt a flash of guilt, realizing he was fuelling the monk's physical discomfort with an extra trip up and down the stairs.
The second floor of the monastery contained one long hallway that forked to the left and right. Brother Albert veered to the right, walking halfway down the corridor before coming to a stop in front of a closed door. "You go ahead," the monk said. "I'll wait here."
Duncan touched the man's shoulder. "Thank you for your trouble, Brother Albert. As promised, I won't stay very long."
The monk stared at him. "I'm not sure why you continue these visits, Mr. Mochrie. Your friend cannot speak, and he doesn't recognize you. Physically he's healthy, yes, but his mind is gone."