In the basement of the church, small oval roundels were painted across the long wall of a hallway.
They stood out dramatically against the white plaster. A delicate wreath of flowers defined the border of each. Within the center, a colorful scene shone in bright pigments. There were no labels, but Athena recognized each one. She and Eric walked the length of the hallway studying them intently as if they were hanging in a great museum, not the musty cellar of a church.
The first showed a colorful scene of tanned young women wrapped tightly in bright white linen and gathered around the bank of a river. One of the women, shorter than the rest and wearing jeweled bracelets and earrings, bent down over the reeds to gaze at a small basket floating on the lazy current.
"Pharaoh's daughter?" Eric asked.
The second painting was of a beautiful young girl with almond eyes that gazed out from the flat surface with watery vibrancy. She was standing in a field. Grain grew all around her, obscuring her body below the waist. She balanced a bundle of sheaths atop her head.
"Ruth," Athena pronounced almost voicelessly and moved on.
The third painting was of a dark haired woman. She sat beneath a slender palm tree and opened her mouth in song. Deborah the prophetess. A tree dominated the fourth painting as well. In contrast, it was tall and dark, twisted and gnarled by age. An older woman with a vacant expression stood before it. A veil covered the top of her head and she held a bent stick in one hand.
"Who's that?" Eric asked pointing at her. "Mary?"
"No," Athena replied. She thought for a moment and turned to Mrs. Philips who anticipated her question.
"The widow Rizpah," she replied watching Athena closely through the glasses perched high on her nose.
"Who?" Eric asked again.
"What did she do?"
Athena looked at him. "Her sons were hung from a tree, and she stood guard over their corpses, fending off birds with a stick. Second Samuel."
Eric pressed his lips together. "Charming," he mumbled as Athena studied the figure closer. She recognized the face: the angular features, the dark eyebrows that met above the nose, the loose folds of skin under the chin. Only the spectacles and row of pearls were missing. She wondered if Mrs. Phillips had recognized it as well.
The brilliant hues reappeared in the fifth painting. The Virgin stood radiant before the splendor of the Archangel Gabriel, holding up her hand modestly to shield her eyes from his luster. In the sixth painting, another Mary, with her sister Martha, entertained a placid Jesus. Martha bustled and cooked, stooped over a low cauldron. Mary, on the other hand, sat quiet and still at the feet of Jesus, staring lovingly up into his face.
Together, Athena and Eric stood before the last roundel. Immediately, Athena sensed disharmony. Within the field, Adam stood to one side, his genitals conveniently hidden by a clumsily drawn, irregularly shaped bush. Across the scene was God, painted as a bearded old man, his face deliberately copied from Michelangelo's work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Between them was Eve, modestly covering herself with her hands like an arrogant Hellenistic Venus. God was presenting her to Adam, his most precious reward or his most grievous curse, depending on who you read.
"They're all of women," Eric said aloud as the realization occurred to him for the first time. "Women from the Bible."
"It was Maria's idea," Mrs. Phillips intoned. "She wanted the little girls going to Sunday School to see them. To give them positive role-models."
Athena took a step back and looked at the series. "The last one... it wasn't painted by Maria, was it?"
A dark gleam shot through Mrs. Phillips' gaze. After a moment, she replied. "No. It was undone when she left. One of the ladies from our congregation finished it."
"It's out of order."
Mrs. Phillips stared at her. "What do you mean?"
Athena pointed at the pictures. "Genesis, Ruth, Judges, Second Samuel, the Gospels. The arrangement of texts is in canonical order, except the last. Eve should be first."
Eric looked at them as well. "I see what you mean."
Athena turned to face Mrs. Phillips. "Did Maria plan on another picture here when she started?"
"Who's left?" Eric asked. "Not many more women in the Gospels. Mary Magdalene? Saint Veronica? Veronica and her veil? Wiping the face of Jesus on the way to Calvary?"
Athena glanced over at him. "Veronica is not in the Bible." Her gaze returned to Mrs. Phillips and she saw her undisguised look of annoyed anger.
"Maybe she changed her mind," Eric offered. "Or wanted to end with Genesis as well."
"Maria was not herself the last few weeks she was with us," Mrs. Phillips replied flatly as an explanation.
Athena stood in thought for a few minutes. Finally, she turned to Eric and held out her hand, saying, "Let me have your notebook and pen. I want to make a sketch of each one."
Eric dug in his coat for the items. "Do you really think that's necessary?"
"This is what Maria was working on right before she disappeared. This was very important to her."
Eric handed over his pocket notepad and pen. "So there might be clues buried in the pictures?"
"I don't know. Maybe." Athena flipped open the cover of the notepad and found a blank page. She began to sketch Eve in the dark ink of the pen. It had been many years since Athena had tired her hand at art, but now she was purposely fumbling and exaggerating the figure's proportions.
Eric and Mrs. Phillips stood in silence and watched her. Athena could feel their eyes on her. Mrs. Philips crossed her arms over her chest and audibly sighed her impatience.
Eventually Athena cocked her head toward Eric. "Why don't you go look at where Maria's room was while I do this," she suggested. She leaned over and tilted the pad toward him so Mrs. Phillips standing behind on the steps couldn't see. "With my drawing skills, I may be some time." On the top of the page, Athena had written in large letters "GET HER OUT OF HERE!"
Eric nodded and turned to Mrs. Phillips. "Would you be kind enough to show me where Maria stayed while she was here?"
Mrs. Phillips looked at him. "There are no more of her belongings here."
"I know," Eric said in his most persuasively police way. "But I think it would help in my investigation to see what type of an environment the poor girl lived in, don't you?"
Mrs. Phillips did not answer. Instead, she rolled her eyes and led the way back up the stairs, casting an untrusting look back at Athena.
When they were gone, Athena dropped the pad on the cement floor and looked up at the lonely fluorescent light bulb that lit the hallway. She turned on the lights in an adjacent room that were much brighter, but the Eve picture was around the corner of the room's doorway and remained hidden in the dimness. Pulling open her purse, she began to dig inside to see if she had anything she could use to give her more light. A small pocket compact was nestled in the bottom of her bag. Pulling it out, she flipped it open and looked into the mirror. Then she held out the compact at arm's length, catching the refection of the bright light in its surface. Rotating her wrist, she made a saucer-sized patch of illumination roam over the surface of the roundel. She studied the details it brought out. There were not many. Seeing nothing unusual, she widened the course of the reflection, sweeping it in a large circle first around the enclosing wreath, and then on the bare plaster of the wall.
She smiled when she finally saw it- a difference in the starch whiteness. She traced it with the light, making a clumsy loop around the entire painting. Someone had re-painted over the wall only in this area, the border of the new showing up as a difference in brightness against the old. Someone had then frescoed a scene over top- over top of what Maria had done.
Athena shoved the compact in her pocket and stepped up to the wall. She put her hand up and pressed one of her fingernails into the soft blue paint of the sky. It sank in. Then she withdrew her finger and licked the tip. She rubbed it against the sky and soon produced a bright blue smear. She tried the same with Jesus' robe as he sat with Mary. The color held fast. Maria had used oil-based paint. The lady from the congregation had used water based.
She found a closet that had been transformed into a bathroom for the Sunday School children. Saturating a wad of toilet paper with water, she hurried back to the hallway and rubbing roughly, began to slowly remove the Presentation of Eve. Another scene painted in darker colors began to emerge below. Athena could even now see a few faint outlines of the heavy alkaloids that were not entirely hidden by the lighter acrylics.
Eventually she heard one pair of footsteps on the stairs and recognized the click of Eric's cane. He returned to the hallway alone. "What was that all about?" he began to ask.
Athena stepped aside and let him see her handiwork. His mouth fell open in surprise. "What have you done?" he cried.
Athena pointed at the new picture. "Maria had done a final picture. They covered it up."
Still shocked, Eric drew closer to it. He saw the front of a dark house. A heavy oaken front door was closed, refusing admittance. Sprawled out on the steps before it was a woman. She was dressed in black robes, dirtied with the dust and mud from the street. Her chin was against her chest, her face obscured under the haphazard cowl of a tattered cloak. One lone white arm rose out of the murky heap. Its hand lay against the door- a failed last attempt to gain admittance.
"Who is she?" Eric finally asked, staring at the figure.
"You mean who's she supposed to be?"
"The Concubine of Gibeah, I think."
Eric looked at her. "I don't know that one either." Then he added, "I didn't pay that much attention at Sunday School."
Athena brushed away a small spot of collected water from the woman's legs. "She went to Gibeah with the Levite of Ephraim. They were taken as strangers into the house of an old farmer. The men of the city came and demanded that the farmer break the rules of hospitality and hand the strangers over to them to kill. It's a parallel story of the men of Sodom." Athena turned and faced Eric. "The farmer gave the concubine to the crowd. They raped her until she fell down dead on the doorstep."
Eric looked back at the painting. He was silent.
"It's out of canonical order," she added. "Judges, I think. But Maria painted it."
Eric ran his fingers across his cheek. "This means..." He didn't finish his sentence.
Athena nodded as a numb chill rose under the skin of her back. "It doesn't fit in with the series. But if she changed her mind when she got here as you said, then..."
"Then she might have been trying to speak. Speak through this. To tell why she'd changed. How she felt. That's the key. That's what she wrote in a letter to Simon. Why she ran away. Who did this to her. And both Simon and Sister Gwen knew who it was."
"They read the letter." Athena leaned against Eric's shoulder. He put his arm around her as they both stared at the pathetic figure. "Mute Philomela weaving her robe," she murmured.
"Was that the concubine's name?" he asked.
Athena shook her head. "No. She didn't have one."...