ON THE ALBINO FARM – AFTERWORD: The Maker of This Book Takes His Leave (Canterbury Tales, Ch. 54)

Now, finally,  do I pray all who hear this little treatise or read it, that, if there be within it anything that pleases them, they thank Our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom proceeds all understanding and all goodness.  And if there be anything that displeases them, I pray them, also, that they impute it to the fault of my ignorance and not to my intention, which would no doubt have been better said if I had but more knowledge.  For our Book says, “All that is written is written for our instruction,” and that was my intention.  Wherefore I beseech you that for the sake of God’s mercy you pray for me that Christ have mercy upon me, and forgive me my trespasses, and especially for my opinions too proud, and my lustful pleasure in the writing of these worldly vanities.

-Geoffrey Chaucer

– the end –

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ON THE ALBINO FARM – EPILOGUE:

CONVICTED KILLER IN PRISON SUICIDE (AP-Indian City) 

Michael Calvin Hutchence, who pled guilty last year in the murder of Theresa Header, was found hanged in his cell at Indian City Penitentiary on Friday evening.  Mr. Hutchence had been sentenced to 30 years in the brutal slaying of the young prostitute.  Warden Herbert Janus also announced that a grand jury would meet to investigate the circumstances of Mr. Hutchence’s death as required by state law whenever an inmate dies while in state custody.    

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 39

            I don’t have too much more to say. 

I would like to get back to my martini.  Ed’s giving me free booze today.  You remember Ed, my gay cellmate from the Indian City prison who opened the very Bohemian bar called “David’s.”  I don’t know why he’s pouring on the house, exactly.  I hope it’s not because of what I did.  That certainly deserves no reward.

            I won’t bore you with another one of my omnipotent narrations concerning events at Infant of Prague Church after the shootings.  Police came and did what police do.  A meat wagon came for the bodies.  Cleaning crews spent the rest of that week re-sanitizing the sanctuary.  The Archbishop scheduled a new consecration so that the evil could be expunged.  All that happened, I’m sure.  I didn’t see it.  I didn’t care.

            Liz Nice, of course, covered the “…house of worship turned into a house of horror…”  She also announced a week later the renaming of the new “Catholic Appeal Building” as “The Leo Shuldik Building.”  Poor people everywhere rejoiced.  “The Shuldik” would save them — “The Guilty One.”   Few would ever suspect the irony.

            Vandy was cleared in the shooting of James Redlands.  He got the finding from the investigative board that said “Justifiable Homicide”  the same day his retirement went through.  Vandy had to shoot Redlands.  Nobody blamed him him for it – except himself.  Vandy’s a mean S.O.B., but he doesn’t like killing.  He wouldn’t be my friend if he did.

I do know that Vandy was, maybe still is, very angry at me.  He suspected what I had done right under his nose and what I’d put him in position to do.  I think, in the end, he understood why.  But we never talk about it.  That’s for the best.

            Funny, almost.  I like to think of myself as a guy who can always see the angles — an unconventional thinker.  But I’d picked up a cliché and run with it – damned near straight into disaster.  I’d figured it was the traditional pedophile priest story, when all the time it was the traditional corrupt rich guy saga instead.  I wonder if Shuldik felt funny covering up the crimes of a layman.  It must have been a refreshing twist of fate.

            Kennsington was a creature of favor.  He would fund all of the Church’s work — so long as the family name showed up on a plaque.  He would make sure all the legal and legislative needs of the Diocese were taken care of.   His needs would be taken care of as well.  A symbiotic relationship that gave the Church money and the DA power.  And the Monsignor would be grateful for the money and for the ginger-scented Tabarone cologne – impossible to find in Tirawa, but oh so available in London.   It was a simple matter of the political balance sheet — a matter of pragmatic calculation. 

            I’m not sure that Shuldik knew what Kensington did to Doug Hunter back in his Assumption days.  I can’t even be sure when the Monsignor found out about Torey and the other boys.  The timing isn’t important.  What I know is that when faced with the disgrace and the loss of his biggest cash cow, he came to Kensington’s rescue.

            Kensington had used Doug Hunter for years.  The pattern had been established at the seminary when the college man would visit the high school dorm.  The rapist and his slave.  Doug was a hollow man, and he became Kensington’s servant, like so many before and after.  Terri falling in love with Doug was an accident; finding the tapes was another.   When she discovered that the drugs she thought she was supplying to Kensington were being used on little boys, she was horrified.  Terri had a plan – a great idea.  Terri was going to pull a “Tools.”

She’d manipulate the Monsignor.  She’d blackmail him the way Kensington had blackmailed her.  Terri would lay out the evidence – the tapes and the drugs.  When the holy man from the Chancellery realized the peril the Church was in, he’d pay them off and let them go.  She’d use Mikey as her muscle.  Terri expected the Monsignor would stop Kensington’s abuse of little boys.  Mikey bailed out on her, and when Shuldik showed up with Kensington, it was all over.  I will always be grateful that she saved Torey before she died.  The poor girl.  She had always been so innocent — even when she was pulling tricks.  You know how that works.  That’s why I loved her.

            The mixed up colors on the set at Pies house – that lead to a lot of trouble.  Torey solved that without knowing it.  Two hundred screaming monitors at Best Buy had already given me a quick, but clear enough glimpse and the fear that I’d blown it all — a momentary flash of two hundred purple stones.  I really had to scramble then.  Adjusting the cop’s TV took all of five minutes.  I brought along the dubbed tape I’d hidden under Milton’s poems to make sure the red was a very ruby-red indeed.

I didn’t want Redlands shooting Kensington.  “Slow Joe” was all mine.   Besides there was one other reason I needed Redlands in that church with that mad look in his eyes, and it’s the most important reason of all – the real reason I did everything I did.

You’re thinking it was vengeance.  Kensington had raped my son.  Torey’s fragile soul had been ripped for his pleasure.  And there were other boys – other souls.  Shuldik had been his accomplice, his enabler, and ulimately a murderer.  Shuldik killed Terri.  He would have killed Torey if the poor girl hadn’t stepped between them. They had dumped Terri’s dead body under a lilac bush, leaving her to be discovered by a drunken teenager while he took a piss.  Yes, there were plenty of reasons  to want vengeance.  But I couldn’t afford that motivation.

Revenge blinds a man.  I needed all my wits.  You have to realize that the danger and the evil was not something that existed in the past.  It was not a cold memory.  Kensington was a man who would do anything to protect himself.  Shuldik would take whatever steps he had to in order to keep the Church’s secrets.  And Redlands – Redlands would do what he was told – so long as he was on the side of the Almighty.

I was in danger.  That peril I might have been willing to live with.  Val was a target.  God help me, I didn’t want that.  But if I had to choose between her life and Torey’s – I don’t want to think about that.  Torey was my son  There could be no waiting.  There could be no running away.  Torey’s life was in the balance.  Kensington, Shuldik, and Redlands had to die.

Redlands had to be in the church.  He had to kill the Monsignor, and whether he ever forgives me or not, Vandy had to be there to put down the faithful hound.

Everything I did, I did to protect Torey.

I gave my son two notes that Sunday morning in front of Infant of Prague.  One was for Shuldik.  Torey put it right under the host so that when the Monsignor started to pick it up during the consecration he could see it.  In simple block letters it said: “He is coming for you!”  That was all it said.  It was just one more banderilla stuck in the bull’s back — one more bit of tension.  I had to make sure Shuldik was off-balance.  I wanted him overcome by the moment.  I wanted him frozen when Redlands stepped up to the communion rail.

Which brings me to the second note I gave Torey on Sunday outside the church.  It wasn’t anything eloquent, or emotional, and it wasn’t very long: 

“Torey,  Thanks for adjusting Val’s old TV.  The picture was clearer and the right colors made all the difference.  The ring wasn’t red; it was purple.  I know that Joe Kensington is the guy who abused you.  Shuldik was the cover-up man, and he killed Terri.  None of it was your fault.  I want you to know that I have already killed Joe Kensington.  I will protect you from Shuldik.  Take my hand when I tell you.  – Dad”

I wasn’t lying – legally speaking.  I had already killed Kensington — the night before. There was “Slow Joe” next to a panic attack, and there I was with ten ounces of booze suitably dosed.  He might not have been dead when I handed Torey the note, but I’d already killed him.  It was true.

Now to people who have never been raped, it may be impossible to understand  how such a few sentences could change things for Torey.  Anyone who’s been put through that hell understands.  Any explanation to the uninitiated would be a waste of time.  But, to put it simply, Torey just didn’t feel alone anymore when he realized that I knew the real secret.  As soon as he realized that I knew the truth, too, and that I had already killed to protect him, he could trust me.  He could finally feel safe.  Dad knew.  My Dad’s bigger than your Dad.  Feeling safe is everything to a kid who’s been raped, or beaten, or starved, or any number of evils that the world can turn on its children.

            Yes, I’m a smart ass.  I make everything a joke.  Thalia, the muse of comedy, is my mask.  That’s where I hid.  It was getting harder to laugh, so I moved from Thalia to thallium.  That’s almost funny, isn’t it?  I told you, I had read that Agatha Christie book.

            Sometimes murders are exotic things like Agatha would enjoy — Brown Hugulu Spider venom,  magnetic plastic explosive booby trap on the electric toothbrush, neutron pulse to the unwary victim’s brain from the snack room microwave, occasionally the fatal poke with an umbrella on a London bridge, a Manchurian Candidate cop in a church, ten grams of thallium in a gin and tonic – all wonderfully complex, and all the exception to the rule.  Ask any killer, murder is always best when it’s face-to-face. 

I had been face-to-face with the Monsignor that day in the church.  I had been face to face with Kensington as he downed the fatal cocktail.  It was murder, pure and simple.  I’m not a coward. 

They did an autopsy on Kensington, of course.  They must have discovered the true cause of death.  But there was never any screaming headline.  Mattie told me later that Kensington’s wife had found some more of his video collection when she cleaned out the study.  No one made a threat.  No one phoned or sent an extortion note. 

Mrs. Kensington made it known that he would be buried in a big tomb, everything would be buried.  She placed a huge marble slab over his grave to discourage exhumation.  The local news called it a heart attack.  The newspaper played it very low key.  “Natural causes” was the phrase used in all the page-six stories that followed.  I won’t officially contradict our citiy’s fine journalists.

            Mikey is still in prison.  He was sentenced to thirty years to life for Terri’s murder.  There was really no way to save him.  I didn’t want Torey testifying at some silly appeal, and the lawyers didn’t want me on the stand.  I saw no reason for such a futile gesture. 

They’ve appealed anyway, of course, but there’s really very little hope of winning, and just a drunk lawyer’s hope of the bill being paid.  After all, the State has the DNA on Terri’s blouse.  The vaginal swab results that would have implicated Father Doug Hunter got lost somehow.  There was a rumor that Shuldik’s replacement had something to do with that.  Another tough break for my brother. 

Besides the evidence, the poor legal representation, and his bad fashion sense in court, the fact remained that Mikey had pled guilty.  That’s hard to take back in the real world.  Even Barry Schect from OJ’s dream team couldn’t help Mr. Hutchence now.

            Besides, in a way, it’s justice.  I saw the wreck that was Lonnie hanging from those branches.  I saw what Mikey’s meth had done to him with a little help from “Jesus.”  I had watched the junk almost do the same to Terri.  How many others were there?  And I’ve never forgotten where the drugs Kensington used on my son came from.  Maybe that was my one bit of vengeance, pure and simple.  Thirty years seemed about right to me.  Sometimes, more times than you might think, other guys end up like Mikey — in the right place for the wrong crime.

            I’m worried about Torey.  He’s been hurt pretty bad.  Whether or not I could have had done more to keep the kid away from the crime scene — I’ll let the therapists argue about that.  I only know that I wish the guy who raped me had died at my feet.  I think it might have made a difference, I don’t know.  I can never know that.  I didn’t want Torey around when Shuldik died, but he was.  And looking back, it seems right to me now.  

“Nothing happens by accident.”  I heard that at an AA meeting once.  I was drunk at the time, so I didn’t argue, but at the time I thought it was a load of pig shit.  Now, I’m not so sure.

            I’ve been paying for Torey to see this one lady.  She seems nice, and she looks a little like Valerie, and she has some diplomas, so I trust her.  I have to steal quite a bit to pay her every month, but I manage. 

I did well on that little side deal at Dr. Robinson’s house — Mattie’s ex-husband.  She even gave me the keys so it hardly seemed fair.  And just for grins I hit the Chancellor’s apartment before they could clear it out.  He had some very expensive jewelry besides the ruby they buried with him.  I’ve never felt better about a burglary in my whole Hall of Fame career.

            As for being a dad, I see Torey twice a week.  I don’t try to be more than I am.  Sometimes we play video games.  One time we went fishing; I impaled my thumb.  I never drink around him.  I’m as clean as I can be on those days. 

            I’m going to go back to the bar now and sit with my friends.  My old Indian City cellmate, Ed, runs a nice joint.  Sally loves this place; it’s a gay bar after all.  Vandy’s a little uncomfortable, but he’s down twenty-five bucks losing at darts to one of the cute waiters, so he’s not leaving for awhile.  We’ve been spending almost every night at David’s lately. 

            That’s about it.  I told you the whole story as I saw it.  Now it’s yours.  I don’t want to carry it around anymore.  My friends and I never talk about any of this.  But don’t fool yourself, me telling you all this doesn’t mean I want to start up anything like a relationship – friendly or otherwise.  You just looked like somebody I used to know a long time ago  Maybe I just wanted to go to confession and you’re the closest thing to a priest I care to go near right now.  Hey, you’d look good in black I’ll bet.  Besides, I’ve always trusted whores.

That’s all the truth I’ve got.  Take it.  Roll it around in your head.  Take your time, feel the heft of it.  You decide what you think of this whole thing.  After you’ve made up your mind you can leave David’s, or you can come up and drink with us for awhile.  It’s up to you.

            I know, it’s unusual for Valerie to accompany me when I imbibe. She wants to monitor my drinking; I think that’s why she’s here.  I almost don’t mind having her around.  She’s very interesting and very good-looking. 

I keep the Milton poems on her shelf, next to her books.  I don’t sleep on her couch as much as I used to.  I spend most nights in the inner sanctum, unless I get too drunk, or say something stupid, or smell funny, or pick the wrong night, or belch in front of her, or steal something when we shop together at Home Depot, or do any of the countless wrong things I am capable of.

            Sometimes I don’t know what I might be capable of, and it scares me.  I haven’t slept that well, lately.  Once I had a dream about the time Val told me she loved me.  When I woke up next to her, I stayed awake all the rest of the night hoping she would say it out loud.  She hasn’t told me again since that night on the Albino Farm.

            So that’s about all I have to tell you, except to risk boring you one more time with a quote from John Milton.  I knew another whore who liked poetry, so maybe you’ll like it.  It was in that leather-bound and gold gilt book I took from St. Philomena’s rectory the night Doug Hunter died.  It helps me for some reason to hear it.

                                                “Where can I run, where can I hide?

                                                The sight of that so horrid spectacle

                                                Which I saw so short a time ago

                                                And see so freshly even now,

                                                Pursues me towards hell.

                                                But providence or instinct of nature,

                                                Or my reason, though disturbed

                                                And scarce consulted, seems

                                                To have guided me to safety.

                                                I know not how.”

            If you look it up, you’ll find I modernized the language a little.  Milton’s dead, what’s he going to do about it?  They are still his ideas.  I just updated it slightly.  I haven’t sold that book yet.  Doug’s name is on the inside cover.  But I think I’m keeping it as an investment.  What do you expect? 

            I’m a really smart guy.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 38

            The flavor of a good gin should never be masked.

            That’s why I love gin so much.  It’s so honest.  Even a classless rube would not drink it with cola.  Only the ignorant mix it with 7-Up.  It doesn’t belong in orange juice or tomato.  It should only be combined with the moisture of the human mouth.

            Joseph Francis Kensington had liked it with tonic.  Skip, the bartender at the party, had told me.  If you’re nice to a bartender, they will never let you down.  Skip never forgot a good tipper like me, or an asshole like Kensington.  I mean, what kind of jerk grabs and chugs a complete stranger’s drink?  You’d think he would have had more class than that.  I’d seen Kensington grab Mattie’s drink at the Dreamy Fish.  He had lapped up Val’s champagne  at one uncomfortable point on their dinner date.

            That was the key; discomfort.  When Kensington was in the company of women, the slightest awkward moment, embarassment, or episode of excessive anxiety, and he grabbed drinks.  It wasn’t rude.  After all, he was rich.  Kensington grabbed the nearest booze as a reflex.  The girls’ little Viagra tease at the banquet had been quite enough to trigger him.  I just made sure I had his favorite drink within his reach at the proper moment.

            When the D.A. woke up that Sunday morning after the party he felt terrible.  It was the worst hangover he had ever had.  He forced himself to sit up on the edge of his bed.  His wife had a separate bedroom.  She wasn’t there to comfort him.  Though I doubt she would have, even had she been there.

            Kensington looked at his pillow.  He ran his hands through his hair.  It was falling out in large clumps.  The headache was getting worse.  He felt like he needed to throw up.  He lurched to his feet.

            The pain in his legs hit like a sledgehammer.  He dropped onto the antique Persian rug, and his bowels let go when he hit the floor.  There was a fire inside him.  He could hardly breathe.  It was worse than fire.  He knew he was covered with his own feces, and he was angry.  He was going to be Governor.  He was going to be Governor.  He was going to be… he was scared.  His mind was looping, and the pain was napalm and scorpions.  His mind was going.  Kensington was flat on his back.  He couldn’t move his legs.  They were tucked under him, twisted like Terri’s had been when they found her.  He felt urine leaking across his belly and flowing down towards his chest.

            Joseph Kensington was not in the best of physical shape.  He had let himself go after his days as an Assumption College football star.  He had high blood pressure.  His bad cholesterol level was off the charts, and he was on a medicine cabinet full of medications way beyond Viagra.  He was dying there, and all he could think of was endlessly repeating inside his burning brain.  “I am on a rug.  I am on a rug.  I am…”

            If I regret anything, it’s that Joseph Kensington probably never knew why he was dying.  Knowing what I know about him, he didn’t think about all the naked little boys.  They were just amusements.  If they turned into problems, the families could be dealt with.  Terri was just a whore who threatened his orderly ascension to power by dabbling in places where her kind was not allowed – a whore that he never touched. 

Terri was a useful employee – a model for his pretentious art, a connection.  She could supply the drugs Kensington needed after the Dr. Robinson Ativan pipeline dried up.  Mattie had told me all about her husband’s theft and the dust-up that followed.

Did Kensington feel the wall of his stomach as it dissolved?  I wonder what kind of pain that must have caused.  Was the feeling anything like the fear Terri felt when Kensington held the old drug charge over her head?  An old indictment in the Manila envelope that the very cute lesbian tried to deliver to Sally at Val’s showed me what weapon Kensington had used to control Terri.  She’d gotten him the drugs.  She didn’t know how he used them.

In the end, she was just a bit of trash for his people to dispose.  He thought Redlands was his “employee” to be used as he thought fit, Shuldik a glorified chaplain of his vast personal chapel.  If Torey had to be killed to recover the tape, unfortunate, but the bigger picture had to be considered.  All those other lives were simply trivial details.

I’ve been told by people who should know, that the brain does not have any pain nerves.  They have described to me how, after a skull is drilled through and the plug of bone is removed, it’s possible to stick a screwdriver into the warm, gray, gelatin that is the brain and stir it up like an old stale cup of vanilla pudding without the patient feeling the slightest twinge of discomfort – other than his receding memories, personality, and self awareness, that is. 

Is that what Kensington was feeling?

Or thallium, being the type of chemical that it is, seeping into synapses and scrambling all the signals, might it not mimic the pain of an amputation in the primitive, dragon brainstem where real sensations are received and analyzed?  Just maybe, Kensington’s brain thought its legs were being cut off, its eyes punctured, its genitals being cauterized by a fire hotter than phosphorus.  Maybe.

            I wish all the boys he hurt over the years could have somehow known how he was suffering at that moment.  Torey and the others at St. Philomena – and still more boys I would never know of.  I did know about the boy at Kensington’s high school.  Sally’s cute friend had delivered that sealed record as well.  It was all there — the boy that Kensington sodomized with a broom handle — the trouble that sent him to Assumption, and into Doug Hunter’s life.  By the time I read the file, I had already killed Kensington.  I didn’t need the confirmation.  I’m not a policeman.  I didn’t have to prove anything.

            If portions of his life flashed in front of his cloudy eyes, I’m sad to say that most of them were probably pleasant – at first.  The taste of a fine wine, perhaps.  A sunny day on the boat.  The feel of a calves-leather chair.  The sound of the Mozart Requiem in St. Martin-of-the-Fields.  London.  Shopping.  A fine cologne.

            His bowels were emptying their fluids onto the floor of his beadroom.  His stomach spasmed and projectile vomit splashed onto the moldings at the base of his bedroom wall.  The smell of it all would be quite upsetting to whoever discovered his pain-tangled corpse.  In his brain, only the most primitive of olfactory signals were still weakly sparking across the scorched synapses.  But odor speaks with the strongest voice in the memory, and Kensington must have been tortured by the fetid smell.

            In his addled conciousness he remembered  — the stench of incense in a church built with his family’s accumulated money, the overpowering reek of molasses, the sour musk of all the whores he had created, sweat in a college locker room, dust in an old dormitory hallway, the stink of a young boy’s fear – all the perfumes of his sins.

            He must have wanted to escape all the rich fragrances of his dying.  He must have remembered the bottle on his bathroom dressing table — such a stylish crystal bottle.  Tabarone Cologne, by Creed.  Ironic, Creed.  Tabarone, an exclusive scent.  Kensington had used it all of his life.  It was, according to the advertisements, “The first choice of the Power Elite.”   He even gave it as gifts to his most treasured servants.  The manufacturer describes the cologne as a very sensual fragrance with the rich notes of young tobacco leaves, green tea, bergamot, and ginger.  Ginger.  Ginger snaps.  Fresh cookies in the oven.  Ginger.  Ginger.  Ginger.  Did Kensington smell the ginger at the end?  I hope he smelled his own shit.

            I would have shouted Doug Hunter’s name in his ear if I had been there.  I would have screamed Torey’s name out until my throat was raw.  But it was impossible.  I was in church, holding my son’s hand.  A gun was going off at the exact moment that Kensington’s throat finally swelled enough to cut off the last of the stinking air around him.  His chest heaved, but there was not enough strength left in his diaphram to push through the blockage.

            His hands had closed — the tendons shrinking and curling his fingers painfully tight across the palms of his hands, with all the pressure of iron bands.  The big purple star garnet ring was cutting through the skin of his distorted finger.  There was just a hint of red blood on his whitening flesh. 

            As Joseph Francis Kensington started to convulse, his eyes surely could have seen the painting across from his bed — a monstrosity of distorted breasts, psuedo-cubist legs, and a book clutched in a woman’s hands labeled “Canterbury Tales.”  It would be the last thing he saw.  His obscene rendering of Theresa Header looked down on him.  The only thing he got right about her were the eyes.  She stared into his rapidly clouding consciousness.  A shudder and a final gasp bubbled out of his gaping mouth.  Perhaps he read the title as he died.  The bronze plaque was engraved:  “Nude with Chaucer.”

I never really knew the man personally.  But I am familiar with Kensington’s bedroom, and his bathroom — very familiar.  I needed to see the place it would happen.  I needed to know.  I went there the day I borrowed the thallium from the Amalgamated Lead Refinery; the factory once owned by the Kensington family.  It had poisoned Vaporville.  Karma can be funny sometimes.

            Is that actually how it all happened?  In my head, yes.  That’s what happened in my world.  Those are the images I choose to “remember.”  I’ll stick to that story.  That’s how I want it to have been.

            Was it justice?  That’s a stupid question.  Monsignor Leo Shuldik was laying in a pool of his own brains on a church’s cold marble floor.  Officer James Redlands was draped over a communion rail with a hole in his chest.  Joseph Francis Kensington was a half-dissolved mass of twisted flesh and fat on a very nice carpet.  Whether or not the equitable and fair laws established by the people and government of Tirawa, the state, or the nation could have been brought to bear on those men is utterly irrelevant to me.

            I am sorry that Lonnie got caught up in the horror.  I accept my responsibility for putting Father Corleone in a position where he might have been slaughtered as well.  I am sorry that what I needed to do became more important than proving Mikey innocent.  I am ashamed that I abandoned my brother.  I regret having lied to Val and having hidden my intentions from her and Vandy.  I love them both.  I betrayed them all in one manner or another.  I used them.  No one should be surprised.

            That’s what I do.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 37

            On the seventh day, I rested.

            There was no more real work for me to do.  The thallium was beyond my control.  It would do what it would do.  I’d kicked all the rocks.  The avalanche would come on its own, or not.

            The alarm buzzed me awake at seven.  I would have slept longer, but I had to go to ten o’clock mass.  After all, the commandment reads, “Thou shalt keep holy the day of the Lord.”  I was up early.  You know how I hated Valerie’s couch.  She was punishing me because I had punished myself at the party.  It wasn’t my fault.  Skip made a very good martini.

            I had skipped the meal at the fundraiser.  Not because I was afraid the serving staff would scramble up the plates and deliver the dosed items to random members of the crowd.  My dose had been accurately delivered way before the meal.  It was a toxic smart bomb.  I didn’t eat because I just hate banquet food.  Besides, I wanted to get drunk, and food doesn’t mix with that ambition.  I needed the booze because I hate banquet speeches even more than the food.  I vaguely remember watching the dignitaries eat.  I raised my glass to the ship of fools.

            I hadn’t used any thallium on the head table.  That had never been the real plan, only a wet dream of vengence that gave me the illusion of control when I most needed it, face-to-face with Shuldik.  I needed to be cool when I spoke to him.  Knowing I had the power of that poison in my pocket gave me the edge I needed to pull off the bluff.  I had considered doing it.  I stood by the plates with the other three thallium packets and thought about ad-libbing.  But that hadn’t been my choice.  Besides, I had decided to become a murderer, not a mass murderer.  I didn’t want this honest little shot of justice diluted.  Justice was coming for Shuldik et al, not the rich in general.  I’m no Bolshevik.

            Truth is, though, I’ve always got a new scheme flapping around, trying to find a perch in this sociopathic head of mine.  So, even if I’ve got one plan in motion, I always consider alternatives.  When I was running this alternate plot through my head on Friday, I had gone over all the factors of the homicidal fantasy.  If I was going to poison someone,  I would need to isolate the dose.  It would have to be placed in something only my target would consume.  I would have to be there to make sure he consumed it completely.  I do like to be in control.  Everything I had envisioned had come together so far.  When Father Corleone told me about his transfer and how the Monsignor would announce it at Mass on Sunday, I knew how his end could be arranged.  It all seemed so perfect.  Like I said once, all I needed was a weapon.  I always had a surplus of plans.

            During the Mass, the priest who is celebrating uses a large host for the consecration.  He breaks it as Jesus broke the bread at that other Last Supper.  Then the celebrant, all by his lonesome, places that large broken host in his mouth.  “Take you this, and eat.”  To deliver a large dose of thallium, all I needed was access to the host they would use; the host the altar boy would set up the day of the mass.  Torey was an altar boy.  That part wasn’t my doing, but I could exploit it so easily. The plan satisfied my need for a showy and symbolic piece of divine retribution.  So many choices.

            Father Kenneth Corleone had, in his last act as Pastor of Infant of Prague, tried to disuade Kim from letting the boy serve the Monsignor’s Mass, but her opinion of Kenny had been trashed by Shuldik.  She would barely speak to him.  That Sunday morning, I picked up the phone and called her, hoping against hope, that I could change her mind.

            “Don’t let Torey do it, Kim.”

            “You don’t know him, Marty.  You’ve never been his father.  You’ve never been involved.”

            “You didn’t want me involved.”

            “You never argued with that decision.”  Kim was telling the truth about that. 

I couldn’t say anything to defend my callous and selfish behaviors.  I could only manage a weak,  “I should have.”

“Torey loves being an altar boy.”

“Kim, don’t you understand what he’s been through?  He’s been raped…”

“Don’t say that.  It’s all in the past.  He’s doing much better today.  Besides, he loves serving Mass.”

“But it’s with him, with the Monsignor.” 

“For once in your life, be practical, Marty.  Think of someone besides yourself.  He’ll be the next Bishop, Marty.  He’s a very important man.  He can get Torey into the Prep School.” 

“Let me talk to Torey.”

“He won’t listen to you.  He doesn’t trust you.”

“How do you know?”

“He told me, Marty.  He cried himself to sleep.  He kept saying that you didn’t understand.  That you didn’t know what had really happened.  He just wants to forget about all of this.  We have to move on, Marty.  Admit it.  You don’t know what happened.”

“Kim, listen…”

She hung up.  She was so blind.  She had convinced herself that Mikey had been the molester.  Thanks to Liz Nice, so had most of the city.  Kim would never even ask Torey.  I knew her.  “That’s all in the past now,” she’d say.  Even if she did ask, Torey was not about to tell his mom anything.  He was just like me.  He was in secrets mode.  God, forgive me.  Torey was going to serve the Mass.

            Kim was wrong.  Torey was wrong.  I did know the truth.  In fact, after Kim hung up, I wrote it all down.  A simple little note.  It was my last chance to save my son.  There was only the slimmest of chances it would work, but I had to try.  I folded the paper in half and put it in my pocket right next to another little something I’d prepared for dear Leo Shuldik.  Then I went into fantasy mode.  That’s where I would stay until it was all over.   I didn’t feel any guilt at all.  It was just a question of how cold I could be.  Could I ask Torey to do it?  A simple thing to ask a son to do – be my accomplice.   I had decided I could kill.  We could kill.  Of course the way to do it, really do it, had been irrevocably set in motion.  There were other visions at work.

            Thursday, after I’d finally found Torey, after I saw the ring, Best Buy, and knowing Redlands was sure to show up at Val’s, the plan had crystallized like thallium nitrate.  My nerves burnt with the thought of it.  I was about to commit the greatest sin a man could commit.  I cut myself off from God.  It was the only way I could do this.  I knew then, it was the only way.  I knew exactly what I was doing.  I hoped no one else — especially Vandy — caught on.  If you feel like I’m hiding, or lying to you, I’m sorry.  I’m just trying to tell you what I was thinking at the time.  I had my mask on.

            Valerie and Sally were up and dressed in plenty of time as I paced back and forth in the kitchen.  Val wanted to come to the church to keep an eye on me.  She knew me too well.  Sally had to come along to keep an eye on Val.  Sally knew me too well.  Vandy had frisked me six times before we got on our way.  Vandy knew me way too well.  Vandy was too good, too suspicious, to mess around with.  He had a talent for seeing criminal intent when it flickered in my eyes.  Those were Vandy’s strengths, and I played off them.

            The last time Vandy patted me down was just as we were getting in the car.  This time he found something in the cigarette pocket of my sportcoat.

            “What’s this?”  He held up two little plastic packets full of fine white crystal.

            “Ah, oh that’s just sweetener for my coffee, Vandy.”  My eyes couldn’t have flickered more.

            “Bullshit.”  Vandy shook his head.  “You were going to poison the son-of-a-bitch, weren’t you?  Dose him with…”  He sniffed at the packets.  “What is this stuff?”

            “Ah, just sweetener, Vandy.  But don’t sniff it.  And please, go wash your hands.”

            He literally ran inside the apartment. Not easy for a man his size with such overstressed knees.   When he emerged, his nose still had some soap suds on it.  “You asshole.”

            “Sorry, Vandy.  But I had to try.”

            He thought about that for a second, sighed, and pushed me into the car.  “You’re lucky I was waiting for some kind of move like this, Tools.  I saved your ass.  I understand what you feel.  But you’ve got to let the police do the work.  You can’t be a vigilante.  I can’t let you do your own remake of ‘Monte Cristo,’ or any cheap Clint Eastwood imitation.”

            “Yeah, Vandy.  You’re right.”  He was right.

            “What did he try now?” asked Sally from the driver’s seat.

            “Nothing,” Vandy said.  “Just get us to the church on time, huh?”  He gave me one of his protective looks.  Vandy could relax now.  He’d foiled my plot.  I liked Vandy when he was relaxed.  It’s a fact that when you want to sneak something by a guy like Vandy, a sharp guy, make sure he finds something you’re trying to sneak by him.  Make sense?

            As Val got in the car, I grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze.  “Val, I know you’re coming along to support me in this, my hour of need.  Just don’t embarrass me.  It’s a Catholic Church and…”

            “And what?” Val asked.

            “You look very Jewish.”

            “Shut up.”

            The drive out to the church was a blur to me.  As we arrived, I saw Kim and Torey.  I hopped out and went to Torey.  I hugged him.  He held his body back.  Hugs were uncomfortable for him.  I didn’t press.  I spoke to him and him alone.

            “Are you all right?  Can you do this?”

            He avoided eye contact.  “Yeah, I’ve served Mass before.”  He was flat, passive.

            “He won’t hurt you.”

            “You gonna’ protect me, Dad?”  Torey had a blade for a tongue.

            I grabbed him by the shoulders, maybe a little rougher than I should have.  “Yes, Torey I will protect you.”

            His eyes teared up – just slightly.  “I’m scared, Tools.” 

            “I’m scared, too, Torey.  Trust me.  Trust me just one time today.”

            “You’ll protect me?”  The sarcasm was almost gone.

            “I will.  And I need you to promise me something.”

            “What?”

            “Take my hand when I ask you to.”

            Torey hesitated.  “That’s all?”

            “That’s it.  Just hold my hand when the time comes.”

            “You’ll be there when I need you?”

            “I promise, Torey.  I’ll be there.”

            “You better not be lying, Tools.”  He wouldn’t call me Dad, and it had to be all right with me.  It was.

            “Can you make sure the Monsignor gets this?”  I held up a little folded piece of paper.  “Put it on the consecration host.”

            “I don’t know…” 

            “I’ll take you out for some fun.”

            “O.K..”  Still no expression in his voice.  “Maybe.  I’ll do it.”

            “Are you sure?”  I slipped the folded paper into his sport coat pocket.  “You can do that?”  Torey nodded.  He wasn’t making eye contact.  He was lying.  I only had one chance left to convince him. “This is for you.”  I handed him a little note.  “Read it.”

            He held it in his hand, and as he took in the words, his hand started to shake.  At first he looked shocked, and I thought he might cry.  Then he smiled a little.  He looked up at me.“You do know what happened?”

            “I know, Torey.  I know what happened.  It wasn’t your fault.”

            “You know what happened.”  He looked relieved.  Like he was a real kid again – a real kid with a dad who would protect him.  With the last secret gone, he trusted me a little – all because I did know.  “O.K.”   He looked at the folded paper meant to go on the host.  “I’ll do it.”  This time he meant it.  “And then you’re taking me to Gizmo’s Arcade next week?”  I’m ashamed, but, yes, I had added another little bribe, a father son trip to electronic game heaven.  I’m always hesitant to trust the truth.  It doesn’t always work.

            “Sure, Torey, sure.  We’ll go to the arcade.”  Torey gave me a curious look.  I’m still not sure what it was, pity or pride.  I just couldn’t tell.  I watched as my son headed in the sacristy door.  He looked back at me.  He was still holding my note in his hand.  He almost looked like he loved me.  What would he feel when he walked out of that door after…?  I rejoined the rest of the Fearsome Foursome, and we went in the church.

            I had cased it the night before, as you no doubt recall – on the way to the party when we stopped to say goodbye to Father Corleone and his mom.  I had to see it.  The entire script had to play out.  I needed access to the consecration hosts.   So that all of it could flicker in my eyes.  Every scene had to be acted out in full.  I had to be able to imagine it happening there.  I told you at the beginning of this whole thing, I have a good imagination.

            The sanctuary seemed smaller that morning when it was full of people.  We sat about halfway up.  I never sat in front.  Today, I especially didn’t want to be too close to God.  Besides, he makes me nervous when he’s indoors.  I heard that in a movie once. I thought of it again as we sat down in the pew.  This would be my first Mass since God let the Cubs lose the ‘84 playoffs.  It would be my last.  I swore.  Unless the Northside boys made it to a World Series game seven.  Yeah, I was thinking about baseball.  I didn’t want any giveaway to show on my face.

            I sat next to Val.  Sally sat to her right, protectively.  Vandy was on the aisle.  He was going to make sure I didn’t make any rash moves towards the Monsignor, but he was pretty sure he’d nipped my plot right in the baggie.  I kept my eyes to the front.  I didn’t look at anyone.  I didn’t want to know who was there.

            The place was filling quickly.  There was a low buzz in the sanctuary.  The word had gotten around that Father Corleone had been transferred.  Rumors were everywhere.  The Monsignor was here.  Something big was going to happen.  The congregation was split between sadness and “it’s about time.”  The organist began to play.  It was the Mozart Mass.  I love Mozart, and the Mass was his masterpiece.  Was it to be my masterpiece, too?  For good or ill, I was the composer of this piece.

            Torey led as the two altar boys entered from stage left.  Behind them stepped the Very Reverend Monsignor Leo Shuldik, clad in a deep red chasuble, the cross in back, ornamented by stones and two gold-threaded, embroidered, sacrificial lambs holding crooks topped with the legend INRI, Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judaeorum; in English, Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.  By tradition, it had been painted on a board and nailed to the cross above Jesus’ head to mock him.  I almost nudged Valerie to comment on it, but I didn’t.  I wasn’t feeling like a smart ass now that the pageant had started.

            Shuldik wore red because it was the Feast of the Four Crowned Martyrs.  They were four Roman stone carvers who had refused the Emperor Diocletian’s order to carve a statue of a Roman deity.  Had he asked them to carve a bust of Thalia?  I don’t know.  Red was for martyrs.  I regretted that, but it was beyond my control.  I had set this in motion, but it was all beyond my control now.  The pew seemed hard and uncomfortable.  I remembered some chairs in an auditorium where Doug Hunter and I had watched “Hatari.”

            The music was beautiful.  The ritual was well underway.  The Introit,  “I will come unto the altar of my youth.”  The Kyrie, where the classic Greek words praise the Christ.  The reading was from Paul.  I don’t like Paul.  He was an organization man.  He had the heart of a consultant.  He had warped the gentle message of the Nazarene.  Sorry, that’s how I feel, and I’m trying, I have been trying, not to hold back anything.  I want to tell you everything.  You will be the final judge here.

            The Gospel was read by a deacon with a long gray face.  It was from Luke.  I don’t want to bore you, but listen, it is important that you understand.  It is the story of a dishonest servant and ends with an instruction from Jesus’ own mouth. 

            He says, “…Whoever is faithful in very little, is faithful also in much.  And whoever is dishonest in very little, is dishonest also in much…No slave can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and serve wealth.” 

            If the Monsignor did not understand, I did.  If the good priest did not feel shame, I did.  The message was for us both.  But I could change nothing now, nor could he.  The stone was rolling downhill.  It was all gravity now.  The man had stepped off the cliff.

            The robed apparition, which is how he seemed to me at that point, mounted to the pulpit and began his sermon.  He spoke of the unfortunate falling away of Father Corleone and asked the parishioners to remember the misguided in their prayers.  And then he quoted from Ezekiel.

            “Says the Lord God.  I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.  Turn back from your wicked ways… and say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not save them when they transgress…in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die…”  He spoke on.  I was grieving and heard little else.  I hoped I would be forgiven.  But I could not ask for forgiveness on that Sunday.  When he finished, half the congregation stood to applaud.  I did not join them.  I kept my eyes fixed on Shuldik.

            At the Offertory, the host and the wine are carried to the front by two members of the congregation.  This Sunday two little boys, about ten, in navy blue sweaters, solemnly marched down the center aisle carrying the bread and wine of this communal meal.  The celebrant stood, flanked by the servers, and accepted the gifts.

            Torey seemed impassive.  Shuldik had probably been pleased to see him when he had entered the sacristy before Mass.  He had probably taken it, after his initial nervousness, as a confirmation of the deal he was about to make.  I had no choice but to hope he would.  There was money on the table, and Shuldik knew how to deal with money.  He saw my demand for the three million dollars as a sign of weakness.  The Monsignor saw me as a victim of greed.  He was used to exploiting such weaknesses.  Now there was no hesitation, no lack of certain confidence in the man.  He was robed in red and gold.  No wind could blow him away.

            At the altar, the ritual meal reached its center.  Shuldik was about to perform the transubstantiation.  He would bring Christ himself back to earth in the bread and wine.  I couldn’t be sure from where I sat that the Monsignor had noticed what was on the host.  But there was a short pause, and it looked almost like he flicked at something with his right hand.  Through the wireless microphone he was wearing, the entire church could hear a shakey deep breath. 

He recovered quickly and spoke the words, “On the night he was betrayed, he took the bread into his hands and said… This is my body…”  He raised the large host in his two hands above his head.  The Monsignor offered the gift to God himself…  Torey rang the sweet bells.  “This is my blood…”  He raised the chalice and Torey called us all to witness with his bells.  It was all so right and wrong at the same time.  I knew I would go to hell for what I had done.

            The ceremony moved on inexorably.

            “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…”

            Shuldik invited the congregation to exchange the Peace of Christ.  He clasped the hands of the Deacon.  He took Torey’s hand…. I shuddered.

            The people in the pews, turning this way and that way, exchanged the greeting.  It was formal and without real human feeling.  I took Val’s hand and our eyes met.  “The Peace of Christ.” 

            Shuldik was chanting the Agnus Dei.  “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…  Lord, I am not worthy…”

            Facing us, Monsignor Leo Shuldik placed the consecration host in his mouth.  He paused reverentially as it dissolved on his tongue.  He swallowed and closed his eyes, meditating on this, the holiest of moments.  God’s son slipped down his gullet.  The divine judgment was now within him.

            Carl Vandy looked at me.  He realized then what I had intended to do with the packets of thallium.  He shook his head and wiped his fingers on his pant legs unconciously.  Then he looked at Shuldik.  Was the man’s face flushed?  No.  Vandy looked back at me.   I nodded at him.  “No, Vandy,” I mouthed. 

            Vandy’s face was puzzled.  He was trying to figure out why I had taken my defeat so well.  He was trying to figure out what he had missed. 

            Shuldik drank of the Saviour’s blood, and he invited all to join him.  His face was the face of death to me.  Was I the only one to see it?  Vandy looked over at me.  Did he suspect?  Probably he felt some disturbance in the Force, but no, he had no idea what was to happen.  Valerie did not know.  Sally did not know.  Torey did not know.  As for me, I was so afraid that I did.

            As the music opened the church to heaven itself, ushers began directing people into the aisle.  One row at a time, they filed to the communion railing.  Shuldik met them there holding the ciborium, a gold cup full of small, consecrated hosts.  Torey stood beside him holding the gold dish, the patin.  He would follow under the priest’s hand as he extended the small breads.  The worshipers would either accept them in their hands, or, more traditionally, on their outstretched tongues.  Torey would remember their tongues as I had.

            One row at a time, the ushers gravely admitted the people to the central aisle.  With downcast eyes and folded hands, they slowly but steadily approached, received, and returned to their pews by the side aisles.  The music was beautiful as the organ traced Mozart’s mathematically constructed praise in the air of the church.

            It was our pew’s turn.  I motioned for the others to remain seated.  They could not join in this meal.  The Catholic Church does not invite outsiders to partake of this feast.  Vandy wanted to follow me.  He might have seen something on my face that worried him.  He was too late.  I slipped sideways down the row past their feet and stepped onto the path that led to my son and his monster.  Vandy did a quick frisk on me as I brushed past him.  There was nothing to find.  My eyes were on the red carpet that led us forward.  I took small steps.  Where was God’s judgment?  My hands were folded together at my waist.  I moved closer to the railing.  I could hear Shuldik.

            “Body of Christ.”

            The communicant replied, “Amen.”

            “Body of Christ.”

            “Amen.”

            I moved closer. And then I could smell another presence.  It was the smell of tea made with oak leaves.  I could feel his breath behind me, as he moved the air, behind me.  We started to synchronize.  You may think I am crazy, but we did, and I felt it.  Our pulses were one.

            I stepped up to the Chancellor.  He recognized me.  His pupils dilated.  I noticed.  I was deep in his eyes.  I could feel Torey to his right.  I didn’t want to look at my son at that moment.

            “Body of Christ.”

            My hands were cupped in front of me, my tongue extended itself.  What bargain would the Monsignor make?  What difference would it make?  The lots had been cast at the foot of the cross.  The robe would not be divided.  I would kill.  I’d promised.  I held my hand a little forward and bent my head.  Shuldik picked out a host with his thumb and forefinger.  The Monsignor’s ruby ring sparked blood red.  He reached out and was about to place it on my tongue.  As he let go of it I pulled back.

            Shuldik was startled.

            The host dropped as if in slow motion.  It tumbled down and landed in the middle of the golden paten.  Torey had made the catch.  The Monsignor was suddenly confused.  He remembered what I had said the night before.

            “If the host is not on my tongue, you will die.”

            The Monsignor could feel there was something very wrong.  He felt it in every nerve. His face showed all of his fear. 

I looked down at Torey and smiled.  He smiled back.  The moment had come.  I held out my hand.   Torey dropped the golden paten, and it clattered on the marble.  The body of Christ was on the floor.  And then he took my hand.

“Let’s go, son.”

“Yes, Dad.”  We walked away across the front aisle towards the side door of the church.  “Don’t look back, son.”  He didn’t.  Maybe he knew the tale of Lot’s wife.  Heavenly fire was about to rain down on the corrupt.  I didn’t see what happened next.  I didn’t have to.  It wasn’t meant for my eyes.  It wasn’t  meant for Torey’s.

            Monsignor Shuldik continued communion in a daze.  I have to think that he felt the mistake in the air along with the murmur from the congregation.  But it was no mistake.  It was no accident.  Did he feel what I wanted him to feel — very warm, suddenly, almost hot?  As a priest he should have stopped and picked up the dropped host, but he must have been stunned –stunned by what he saw on the host before the consecration, stunned by my sudden refusal of the bribe, stunned like a pig in an abatoir.  Val told me later that he acted like an automoton.  He held up another host.  Someone stepped forward.  Someone I had sent.

            “Body of Christ.”

             Did he feel like he was falling?  Beyond the host he held in his fingers were the eyes of Officer James Redlands.

            I found out later that Shuldik didn’t know him all that well.  He had seen him at some of the Catholic Life meetings.  He knew that the policeman was Kensington’s creature.  He had always been careful to keep a safe distance between himself and the young zealot.  Now that safe distance was gone.  And looking into Redlands’ eyes he surely recognized something else.  I think all of us do when a man like Redlands looks into our eyes.

            Torey and I were almost at the side door.  I heard the voice behind me, echoing through the nave — that voice from the Albino Farm.

            “It is finished,”  said James Redlands.

            I wonder if he raised the gun slowly, or if he snapped it up like he was on a parade ground – no matter.  The muzzle was two inches from Shuldik’s forehead.  The blast echoed, and the Mozart coming from the pipe organ turned from mathematic’s pure form into chaos and then sudden silence, a half measure past the concussion.

            People screamed.

            I had heard it behind me as Torey and I continued parallel to the railing and out the side door.  Vandy had been watching me intently.  Only at the last second had the detective’s eyes found Redlands and understood the implications.  I heard Vandy start his rush up the aisle – too late.  I could hear the confusion and panic inside.  I heard Vandy’s shot as he put a bullet into the heart of James Redlands.  Mad dogs must be shot down.  I think even James Redlands knew that.

            I didn’t see it happen with my eyes.  Torey did not look back.  He did not turn into a pillar of salt. 

The sounds were horrifying enough.  Maybe I was even glad that Torey was there to hear the noise that hell’s gates can make when they open wide.  If it seems a cruel gift to you, then you do not know what boys like Torey, and me, and Douglas Hunter know.

We stepped out the door.  The boy was still holding my hand.

“You all right, Torey.”

“Yeah.”  A short answer.  Torey was thinking it all over. 

“Is Mr. Kensington really dead?”  There was actually a taste of little boy in his voice, as if he was asking, “Is the moon really that far away?”

“He’s dead, Torey.  They can’t hurt you anymore.”

We kept walking towards the car.  There was screaming and crying inside Infant of Prague.  People were starting to rush outside.  A woman fainted just outside the front door.  Scores of frightened voices mixed into an indistinct, “Bread and butter bread and butter bread and butter…”

“You made him kill the Monsignor didn’t you?”  Torey was looking up at me.  There might have been love in his eyes, or it could even have been fear.  The two are very much alike sometimes.

“Yes I did.”

“Was it like that story you told me about that time when you were in prison?”  Torey knew about the biker I’d turned loose on the gang banger to protect my cellmate. 

“I shouldn’t have told you about that.  Your mom got mad.”

“You told me lots of stuff.  Like how you stole things.  How you did stuff.”

  “I was trying to impress you.”  We reached the Sally’s car.  Torey hopped up on the hood.  Some members of the congregation were rushing through the parking lot, jumping into their cars.  Whenever there’s a public murder, everyone acts guilty.  I could hear some sirens in the distance.

Torey was stroking the pre-adolescent down on his chin, just like it was a beard – thinking hard.  “You showed the cop that videotape?”

I was fidgeting.  I didn’t know if I should answer him.  He was just a kid.  This was serious, amoral, twisted shit.  Then I closed my eyes and saw the image of naked Torey and the man’s hand.  That’s the last time I’ve intentionally let that memory loose.  Lord knows, those searing pictures pop up in my head often enough without me wanting them to.  You won’t find a single parenting book that recommends what I decided.  But to me, it seemed proper.  Torey had a right to all the answers.

“Yeah, I gave him the tape. That night I found you.”

“But it was a purple ring.  Why would he kill… kill… Why?”  Torey looked off towards the church.  The first of the police cars was screeching to a stop at the foot of the steps that led to the vestibule.  “You knew it was purple.  You saw it on the Best Buy screens.  So…”  Torey looked at me hard, like a tough old con with a tatoo.  Survivors can age in a heartbeat.

“The day after you went back to your mom’s, I went a few places.”  I could still smell the plastic closeness of the haz-mat suit I’d worn at the lead plant, the ginger in Kensington’s bathroom, the mold in the air at Redlands’ house.  I went so many places.  “You showed me what to do, Torey.”

“I did?”

“Yeah.  Simple for a smart kid like you.  Something I might have missed.”

His face lit up.  “I adjusted the color on Valerie’s television.”  He was almost a kid again — that curious transformation again.  Torey’s face looked like he was solving a jigsaw puzzle on a rainy afternoon.  “You went to the cop’s house.”

“Yeah.”  I admitted it to Torey.  The kid had no idea how lucky I’d been.  If Redlands had owned a nice, modern set, I’d never been able to skew the color settings.  But, of course, Redlands was not a man of the material world.  He wasn’t into all the latest gadgets.  Besides, on a cop’s salary, he wasn’t likey to have one of those computer chip-controlled plasma screens.  Luck.  I brought along the dubbed tape I’d made at Best Buy, just to make sure my adjustments were right. I’d risked Father Corleone’s life, sending him out with Redlands and the tape.

“You made him think what you thought at first — what Pies’ mom thought…”

At least five more cop cars had pulled into the lot, and two ambulances.  Parishoners cars were screeching out the other exit.  A crowd was milling on the sidewalk.  I could see Vandy talking to a few officers.  He looked upset.  He didn’t like killing people.

“Yeah.”  There wasn’t much else I could say.

I learned it in prison and on the street.  Manipulation is the best protection.  When my cellmate was threatened, I found a hypersensitive biker to wipe out the Frito Bandito boy.  I had used it on Mikey in jail with the tattooed Sponge Bob fan.  I manipulated everyone.  Even my own kid, in the end.

The most dangerous weapon, especially for a smart guy, is always somebody else.  Redlands was the most dangerous weapon I had ever tried to pick up.  Until I felt him behind me in line for communion, I didn’t know if it would work.

            What I did know was that Redlands was a human time bomb.  The question was, when would he go off?  With his religious psychosis going, I wanted him to see the tape himself.  That’s why I hoped he wouldn’t miss hearing about Torey’s re-emergence at Valerie’s house.  I know, I told Father Corleone to keep him from finding out.  But I always knew the young priest wouldn’t be able to succeed in that seemingly simple task.

I wanted Redlands to take the tape.  I wanted him to watch the tape.  I needed Father Corleone there to make sure he saw the right ring.  Because, once again, one of my great ideas had gone wrong.  I didn’t want James Redlands killing the wrong guy.

“Tools?”  Torey was looking at his feet.  “Tools?’  He looked back up at me.  It looked like he was having trouble getting the words out.

“What, Torey?”

“You knew Vandy would kill him.  That was part of it, too.”  He wasn’t asking me.

Torey was exactly right.  There was nothing I could say.  I wondered what he thought of me.  I took a deep breath.  A family hustled by our car.  Their little girl was laughing.  The mother told her to be quiet.  Torey broke the pause.

 “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it, kid.” 

            Most of the sirens had been turned off.  There was a big crowd milling around outside the church.  Hushed voices were spreading rumors instead of panic.  I could see Vandy coming towards me.  He looked very pissed off.  I had a feeling what he might ask me.  But I wasn’t going to answer him.  It was too late for him to stop it anyway.

            It was a blue sky.  It was a Sunday morning.

            I looked up at the few clouds there were.  My mind was blank.  I remember that Torey hugged me – a real hug.  Consummatum est.  It was finished.  I was very tired. 

I needed to rest.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 36

            It’s not good to spend all your time with one social class.

            That’s one of the things that has gone wrong with America.  In a typical city, like mine for instance, rich people live here, middle class people live there, poor people live down there, and trailer park people come and go. 

            The rich people only go places where the other rich people go. They think God loves them the most.  Middle class citizens stick to their tight circle. They think they love God the most.  Poor folk can’t afford the gas to go anywhere. They think God will love them the best when they are dead.  The trailer park types are a sub-set.  They don’t give a shit.  They think it’ll be time to deal with God after they die.  One of these days I’m going to buy myself a trailer.

            We were about to mingle; a thief, a disgraced cop, an unbalanced poor lawyer, and her lesbian ex-girlfriend.  The car was a bit of the American melting pot.

            The trip to the big party was a little tense.  It didn’t help that Vandy was in a bad mood.  He’d been forced off Terri’s case, and he would have to retire in a couple months.  That bothered him.  But what bothered him more was last night’s murder.  Lonnie, like all of Vandy’s cases, had become family.

            The press hadn’t paid much attention.  They were still hyping Torey’s heroic rescue or some such fiction.  Kim got more screen time than Chrysler trucks for a few days.  Lonnie’s death notice was delivered by the anchor between a story about a new cosmetic use for oatmeal and the “Weather Watcher of the Week.”  Vandy threw a styrofoam cup full of coffee at the screen.  Like I said, Vandy took it personally.

            He had urged the arrest of Officer Redlands.  The Chief wanted to keep it quiet until they were sure he did it.  My statement was not considered damning because of my obvious animosity towards poor James Redlands.  Emilio Valasquez was now officially desk bound.  The young detective had gotten splashed by Vandy’s fall into the shit pond.  Two amenable detectives were assigned to find Redlands — not arrest, just find.  They only worked half days on Saturdays, so hell, it’ll wait until Monday.  Redlands had dropped out of sight.  His house was empty.

            On the way to the big event, Vandy was spewing obscenities into his cell phone to no avail.  There would be no quick arrest.  We stopped at Infant of Prague.  Father Ken was packing up his Cavalier with his clothes.  He didn’t own much stuff.  His mother was weeping in the front seat. 

            “So off to Herunting?”  It sounded like Siberia.  It was worse, at least Vladivostok had a McDonald’s.

            “I haven’t decided.”  Corleone grabbed Valerie and hugged her.  “Maybe I’ll marry Val and settle down.”  Val laughed.  I laughed.  Sal glared, and Mrs. Corleone wept.  There were no slot machines in Herunting.

            “Good luck.  Stay in touch.”  I was trying to keep the conversation shallow.

            He took my hand and made it serious.  “Sorry I couldn’t keep Torey away from here tomorrow.”  Kenny gestured towards the church.  “Protect him, Marty.”

            “I will, Father.  I will.”

            “Try to be a good dad.  He’ll need one when this is over.”  There was sadness in his eyes.

            “If Kim lets me, I’ll try, Father.  Sorry about what’s happened.”

            “Everything happens for a reason,”  he said.

            I hate that kind of drivel.  Did what happened to Torey have a reason?  No, of course not.  How can good come from that?  It’s crap.  I let it go.  I whispered in his ear,  “Thank you for what you did with Redlands.”

            “I think I know what you’re doing, Marty.  But…  Well, maybe my sin will be forgiven.”  He wasn’t sure, or maybe he didn’t care. 

            “Everything happens for a reason, Father.”  I meant it differently than he had.

            “I suppose.”  He was sad.  While he hugged everyone except Vandy — you don’t hug Vandy — goodbye, I made a quick run inside the church through the sacristy door.  I just wanted to see the place.  Trust me for now.  I wasn’t in there very long.  I didn’t need to be.  It was a nice little church.

            Speaking of Liz Nice,  she was out front of the Chancellery when the four of us Musketeers pulled up in Sally’s Mercedes.  There were two piercingly bright, high intensity lights on telescoping poles pointed straight at her.  Maybe she looked good on the tube at home, but in person she looked like bad kabuki. 

            “Only the best people are here tonight at the annual Catholic Appeal Banquet.  Archbishop Kunkler himself will be awarded the Glen and Ella Runciter Humanitarian Award.  Named in honor of the former CEO of Amalgamated Metals and Foods Corporation and his wife, the local queen of philanthropy, ‘The Runciter’ honors the person in our community who has dedicated the most effort to help those less fortunate.  The Archbishop is a three time winner and that makes tonight even more special.  There will even be some Hollywood luminaries to brighten the scene even more.  Gavin McLeod from the “Love Boat” is here with his lovely wife…ah…with his lovely wife and also…I’ve lost my notes…”

            Liz was gesturing madly to the camera guy, who quickly put down the beer he was surreptitiously sipping and shoved some pieces of paper her way.  She got most of them.  One skipped off in the breeze under a Lexus.

            “…also one of Johnny Carson’s ex-wives will be here tonight… Joanna or Joanne…”  She found her place.  “Last year the event raised over three million dollars.  Which enabled organizers to complete construction of the new Catholic Appeal Building in Rio Caliente, Northland.  This year they hope to raise enough to complete the furnishing and landscaping.  The cocktail hour is underway now, as these good people gather to do good for others.  Remember, the strength of our community is in the hearts of our citizens.  So be nice.  This is Liz Nice for Eyewitness Six.”  She froze with a hideous smile on her face.  After ten seconds she broke into a frown.  The cameraman turned out the lights, and Liz pulled off her mike and threw it at him.

            “Where’s my beer, Mick?  Give me my damn beer!”

            The valet took our car. 

            The four of us were really something to see.  You wouldn’t have recognized us.  Valerie was in the blue cocktail number.  She’s not rich anymore, you know.  She doesn’t have much formal wear in the closet.  Sally was even looking good in a black pants suit.  She was not bad looking, really.  I just don’t like women who are better built than I am.  I had, lets say, borrowed a nice Armani tux while I was running my errands yesterday.  I looked very well-to-do.  I even acted rich.  Costumes give you the freedom to be someone you’re not.

            Vandy was a different story.  You can’t do much with a body like his unless you have a lot of money or a lot of time.  He had a blue pinstripe suit that Sally had scored from the community theater where she volunteered.  She had been the lead in “South Pacific”  last season.  “I’m gonna wash that man right outa’ my hair…” took on a whole new meaning.  Vandy’s suit was from “Guys and Dolls.”  It was so wrong it was right.  Damon Runyon would have been proud.

            We got to the party around seven.  Mattie had gotten me an invitation for two.  Get me that, and I’ll get four in, which I did.  The Chancellery was a horrid bit of fifties Gothic.  Instead of stone, it was concrete made to look like stone.  It didn’t.  Long and flat, it was three tall stories high with huge rectangular leaded windows.  Trimmed trees, too perfectly trimmed, fronted it like pencils topped with plastic cones.  Every angle was unnatural.

            Inside the doors was a huge reception area with a three-story-tall ceiling.  Out of scale, ugly, bad Art Deco chandeliers ran in perfectly ordered formation down the length.  It must have been fifty or sixty yards long and another thirty wide, with a long balcony feeding off of three huge Stalinist stairways.  With all respect to Valerie, I half expected Hienrich Himmler to greet us as we entered to a German polka.

            The music we heard wasn’t Bavarian.  It was from old Mexico.  A band was playing Canciones, incredibly full of life, and trumpets, and those giant Mexican guitars.

            We may have passed Gavin Macleod on the way in.   I’m not sure.  It could have been the guy who made a fortune with his cut-rate dental clinic.  They look a lot alike.  As for Carson, I wouldn’t have recognized Johnny’s “ex” if she fell on me.  About five minutes after we were there, a lady fell on me.

            She was overdressed and over-served.  As a Catholic, I’m proud of my religion’s drinking heritage.  Sally and Val started mingling while I headed straight for the bar. Vandy was back on the wagon, but he wasn’t letting me out of his sight.  He had frisked me in the car on the way.  He wasn’t going to let me murder Shuldik on his watch.  Funny how, when you hold something in your hand while being frisked, the frisker doesn’t find it. 

            So, anyway, I was fighting my way towards the booze when this Amazon, at least six feet, turned around and collapsed on my shoes.  Her breasts were barely covered anyway, but the fall had freed them, and one mammary gland was smothering my big toe.

            No one looked.  Everyone turned their backs.  It’s a Catholic thing.  If I don’t see it, it didn’t happen.  The broad at my feet shook her head, got to her knees, tucked in her tits, and stood up.  I helped a little, with the standing part, at least.  She straightened her hair, which was so lacquered that it was in more danger of cracking off, way before it became mussed up.

            She got back into character quickly.  Nothing had happened. Everyone pretended they hadn’t seen a thing.  She was one foot from my face.  Ah,  sweet vermouth, a martini drinker.  She licked her lips.  “Helllllooo, have we met?”

            “Darling, I am so hurt.  Ten minutes ago we were shagging in the coat room.  You were screaming like a mink in heat as I gave it all to you, my steamy dull surprise, my throbbing manhood, and now you pretend we’ve never been introduced?  I’m hurt.  Hurt, I tell you.”

            She frantically searched behind her eyeballs to ascertain if she had indeed… No, it wasn’t there.  Where were her panties?  Wait, she hadn’t worn any… Had he?  No.  What time is it?  So many things to think thoughts about.  She furrowed her brow with the effort.  Then she licked her lips again.  “Helllloooo, have we met?”

            She had already forgotten the start of our conversation.

            I ducked out of that time loop and made it to the front of the line at the bar.  A bored black guy with a name tag that said “Skip” greeted me.

            “I’ll have a…”  Shit, I hadn’t had a drink since Monday.  But I better wait.  I needed a clear head.  Yes, no booze tonight.  I would do what I needed to do and go.

            “I’ll have a Boodles martini, a triple, please.”  What did you expect, a bee to ignore the garden?

            “Yes, sir.”  He seemed mildly amused.  I was encouraged.

            “Skip?”

            “Yes, sir?”  He was pouring the Boodles.

            “Show it a vermouth bottle.”

            He grabbed the vermouth and was about to pour…

            “That’s close enough, Skip.  I just needed to know that there was some vermouth in the room.  I like my martinis very dry.”

            “Yes, sir.”  He put the vermouth away, laughing.

            “And, Skip?”

            “Yes, sir?”

            “I’ll give you twenty bucks if you can produce some ID proving that your name is Skip.”

            He reached for his wallet, and I was a son-of-a-bitch if his name wasn’t Skip.  I gave him the twenty.  “Go ahead and make me another triple, Skip.”  I didn’t want to lose my place in line.  He was the first black guy named Skip I had ever met.  Stereotypes get me every time.

            Vandy drank Pepsi, even though he’s not of that generation.  He watched me toss down the martinis and shook his head.  One day sober, and he was holier than me again.  He had time for three colas before I abdicated my position.  Skip made me a tall Boodles and tonic in an oversize tumbler for the road.  Get in good with a bartender, and he’ll always treat you right.

            The band was playing “Y Andale,” one of my favorite love songs, especially the last line;  “I want to keep on drinking, Get on with it.”  I almost sang along.

On the way over towards Valerie and Sally — the blue dress was a beacon — I passed my shoe fetish friend.  I had a snoot full, and she still didn’t look good.  Maybe I should have stayed with Skip a bit longer.

            “Helllloooo….”

            “I didn’t stop.  There was something in her eyes that told me she had planted what I said earlier, and it had grown into what approximated a real memory for her.  I can move quickly in a crowd.  Vandy wasn’t so lucky.  I even might have sort of nudged her into him as I snaked by.

            “Helllloooo….” she said, staring into Vandy’s limpid eyes from an inch or two away.  Vandy was not amused, but he was occupied for a few seconds as he untangled his coat button from the lady’s decolletage.  I could have ditched him then and there, but I didn’t need to ditch him.  I just needed enough time to open a packet of thallium.  I’m as good as a magician with a deck of cards and some flash powder.  Only this flash powder was deadly.

            When I got to the blue dress, a new delight awaited me.  Valerie had reached out and snagged the arm of the man-half of a couple obliviously mingling by.  It was Kensington.  Even better, it was also Mrs. Kensington.  This was definitely a party for big-wigs.

            Val was looking ravishing.  She was about to ravish.  “Kensington!  Joe Kensington, so good to see you again.”

            Can a man sweat that much that quickly?  “Ah,  Valerie.  How… ah …how are you?”

            “And this must be your wife.”  She grabbed the poor woman’s hand and pumped it.

            “Yes, this is… ah… my wife Nancy.”  He was standing still, but he looked like he was backing up.

            “Her name was McGill, she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy.”  I had to butt in.  Valerie gave me a “back off, jerk” look.  I butted back out.  There were wasps surrounding me.  And the sweet perfume of Boodles.  Val was pissed.  She saw the giant size gin and tonic in my hand.

            Her smile caught Kensington in a spotlight.  Still holding Nancy’s hand she said, “Your husband is quite an artist.  He wants to paint me in the nude.”

            Mrs. Kensington smiled at her husband, using a lot of teeth.  She turned to Valerie.  “My dear, you should let him.  You would be perfectly safe.  He gets such a bad allergic reaction to Viagra.”

            “Really.”  Val and Sally were giggling like teenagers.  I may have giggled, too.  Kensington, himself, was beet red and starting to tremble.

            “See him blush.  That’s how he looks when he takes it.  Oh, and he gets a rash on his belly.  It’s quite unpleasant for the poor boy.”  Nancy giggled, too.  “When the Viagra does take effect, well, it’s hard to tell.”  She stressed “hard.”

            I was starting to like this Nancy.  Even for a big time, rich bitch, newspaper publisher, establishmenty whore – well, I started to think that maybe this whole story might get told after all.

            Val commiserated with her.  “It must be hard to live with an artist.”  She underlined “hard.”  It was a female Greek Chorus.

            I moved next to Kensington, clutching my tall gin and tonic.  It was cold in my hand.

            Nancy looked at Kensington and then back at Valerie.  “Oh, yes, the burden of Art.  My dear, you should pose for him nude.  His art is so… well, you’ll be a rich woman.  You can sue him for malpractice.  Come by the house someday, and I’ll show you his work.”  She laughed.

            Kensington was about to have a massive stroke.  He had a hideous “isn’t this fun”  grin on his face.  His hands were busy, nervously playing with his big Papal ring like it was magic and could make him invisible.  He tried a sophistcated laugh, but it came out like a giggle.  He had to act like it was all a joke.  It was. 

I was sure he would clutch his throat and hit the marble floor like a skydiver with a shredded chute.  His unique case of social Parkinson’s kicked in.  All I had to do was stand next to him.  Offer a little nonverbal support, man to man, so to speak.  Kensington snatched the tall drink right out of my hand.  How rude.  Well, as Mattie had told me at the Dreamy Fish, rich people don’t have to be polite.

             He took the frosty glass in his well-manicured hand and downed the whole ten ounces in three big gulps.  It seemed to calm him down.  I was glad to be of help.

            “Thanks.”  Kensington wasn’t sure who I was.  But at that moment, he and I had bonded.  We were two harried men outnumbered by cruel liberated women.  We were a small band of brothers, and the drink sealed our friendship.

            “Have we met?” he asked as he returned the empty glass.

            “No.  I don’t think so,” I replied and looked straight into his eyes.

We were face-to-face, all alone, in a two or three-second bubble of silence.  The cachophony in the room seemed to fade for that moment, then just as quickly, the party noise was back.  Kensington broke the eye contact and uncomfortably turned back to his wife.      

Nancy had a little more shredding to do.  “Perhaps all three of us should pose naked for him all at once.  It would be fun, wouldn’t it?”  She was not bad-looking through the Boodles film on my eyes.

            Sally stepped forward and kissed Nancy’s hand in the continental fashion.  “I think I’d like that.” 

            “So nice to meet you, ladies.  Do stay in touch.”  Nancy smiled and with great dignity, waded away through the crowd like a shifty runningback.  Kensington was left standing there like a lawn ornament, maybe a fiberglass deer.  He moved his lips as if to speak.  Then, since he had nothing to say, he turned and attempted his cat-like escape.  He ran smack into a woman within five feet.  She spilled her drink in the collision.

            “Hellllooooo!” she said to him, flat on her back.

            They announced dinner.  I slipped away from my friends. I needed to ditch Vandy, and this was my chance.  Vandy was busy helping Kensington lift Ms. Concrete-hair from the floor.  I think Vandy kind of liked her.  Val and Sal, what a cute couple, were still giggling, screening the detective’s view of me.

            Yes, I was inebriated, but I’m used to it.  I was in my element.  It was easy to slip away into the crowd.  A waiter crossed my path.  I put the empty gin and tonic glass that Kensington had returned to me on his empty tray.  “Make sure to wash that,” I said.  The waiter looked at me like I was stupid.  He was probably right.

            I squirmed my way through the wealthy mob scene, stepping on very few prominent toes.  I made it to the catering area behind the doors at the back of the hall.  I could see where they were setting up the main course serving for the head table.  The head table, where Chancellor Shuldik would sit next to the Bishop.

            The good part was the toxic power of thallium.  I wouldn’t need a large quantity.  The white crystals were tasteless and dissolved in anything, or on anything moist for that matter. I had stolen five packets of five grams each.  I had three full packets left in my pocket.  That added up to fifteen grams.  One gram would kill a man.  And its onset was not immediate, so I would be long gone by the time the Monsignor’s insides turned on him like rabid weasels.  The bad part was I couldn’t be sure which plate he would get.  I would have to poison the entire bunch of them, including the sainted Archbishop.

            Hell, he wasn’t Thomas a’Beckett was he?  I’d have to dose the Mayor, the Chief of Police, The Governor, the three richest men in the state, and all their wives.  They would be dead by lunch tomorrow.  St. Pius XII Hospital’s ER would be knee-deep in prominent bodies.  It would be a shit storm of mammoth proportions.  The idea still appealed to me.  After all, thallium sounded a bit like a pun on the name of the Roman muse of comedy, Thalia.  The irony would be more delicious than the cardboard Chicken Kiev. 

            When I want to do something brazen, I am brazen.  I simply walked over to the covered plates on the stainless steel carts.  The metal was so similar to the autopsy tables at the morgue.  The wine was to my left by another door.  It was all so unsupervised.  It was all so convenient.  Fifteen grams can be distributed quickly, surreptitiously.  I’m a card shark.  I know how to use the old “there’s something hidden up my sleeve” trick.

            I stood over the plates.  I even touched the wine carafes.  I even considered changing my plan.  But I’d made my choice, and I would stick to it.  I waited for the honored guests to arrive beside me, as they say, “in the wings.”   I knew they would gather here, and they did.

            The head table guests gathered around me.  This was backstage.  They would be introduced and then proceed into the thunderous ovation and up to their seats on the dias.  The Governor’s security guy gave me a quick look but didn’t give me a second.  We’re not a big state.  Our Governor isn’t in “the bubble.”  He rides around in a Town Car — it’s not even armored.  He’s a dolt, but likable.  I’d be sorry to see him go, but war is hell.  The Archbishop vacantly shuffled in, supported by a young priest with a “Choose Life” button on his crisp black lapel.  A rich couple, the Runciters perhaps, glided in.  He looked like an over-made-up body at a funeral home.  She could afford expensive perfume.  She was wearing a month’s supply.

            I saw the Monsignor stride in like a retired athlete, and then he was all I saw.  He was built like a football player.  Not a large man, but solid.  He was about five-foot-eleven with a fullback’s neck, square shoulders, and short powerful legs.  He had salt and pepper hair, cut short in a restrained flat top.  Like I noticed when I’d seen him at the Dreamy Fish, he almost looked like a Marine.  Father Lee.  Leo.  Shuldik — in his own eyes, the Saviour in the flesh.  In my eyes, he was something quite different.

            I was locked on as I approached him.  I don’t recall walking at all.  I was just there.  We were face-to-face.  I had decided he must die, I told you that.  But I was drawn into the conventions of this sort of thing.  The hero always makes sure the bad guy knows what’s coming.   It’s supposed to be done that way, isn’t it?  I didn’t want to break any rules.  This had to be done properly.  I wouldn’t want to disappoint the albinos.

            I touched his arm lightly and bent to his ear.  It was loud near the kitchen.  It looked perfectly normal.  And he was the Chancellor.  People always whispered secrets in his ear.  Everything looked oh so normal at this party.  Just like “The Masque of the Red Death.” It was all perfect.

            He even lightly held my elbow.  Inviting me to speak, he tilted his head.  He was always the warm shepherd.

            My whisper was very controlled.  “I have a video tape, Monsignor.  An interesting video tape.”

            He started to pull back, but I held him.  “What?…”

            I reached down and took his hand in mine.  I may have gripped a bit too tightly, because I saw the Monsignor wince.  I had surprised him.  I pulled his hand up to my mouth and brought his ruby episcopal ring to my lips.  Then slowly, almost sexually, I licked it.  “I have a videotape.  I know what you have done.” 

I was being vague.  I wasn’t showing all my cards.  Evidence?  Redlands’ little bonfire had put an end to those tapes.  But I play poker from time to time.  A good player never counts on the actual cards to win a big pot.  Poker is all in the head – and up the sleeve.  I played like I had a full house.

“Proof?” asked the Monsignor.

            “A tape of a poor naked kid… and a big ring.”

            Shuldik’s eyes darted around the room.  Looking for help. Looking for escape.  “I don’t… I don’t know what…  It can’t show my…”  He stopped himself.  He was saying too much.

            “Your ring?  Is that what you were going to say, Monsignor?  Doug Hunter said that the word you used was ‘mistake.’  A little ‘mistake’ on a video full of evil.  I’ve seen that little mistake.”

            The name “Doug Hunter” and the word “mistake” made him flinch like he’d been slapped.  Shuldik tried to wiggle out of the corner.  “You must be making a mistake.”

            “Your mistake is what we’re here to talk about.  Just listen very carefully.  Your life is in the balance.”  He listened.  “This video I have will destroy you.”  He pulled away slightly.

            “There must be a mistake here…”  I smelled ginger.  There was no mistake.

            “Love your cologne, Your Eminence.  Was it a gift?”

His eyes were very wide.  I could almost hear the short circuits in his brain.  My little plan was in motion, and his was falling apart.  “My cologne…”  The only words he could get out.  “My…”

“Tabarome is the brand, I think.  Very expensive.  Hard to find here in the States.  Sold in those exclusive London shops.  Too expensive for a priest don’t you think?”

“I…  I…”  Shuldik was completely off balance.  It wasn’t because I knew the brand of his aftershave.

“Of course it was a gift.”

“How do you…” 

I cut him short.  “Just listen, I am not here to answer your questions.  The boy on that tape is my son.”  Shuldik’s eyes finally blinked – an almost convulsive series of blinks.  “Torey is my son, Shuldik.  My son.  Tomorrow he is your altar boy.  I’ll be watching.  If you touch him, I will yell it out in church.  I will tell everyone what you did.  If you touch him even once.”

Shuldik was having trouble swallowing his spit.

“I hope you understand me.  Do not touch him.”

            They were beginning to introduce the dignitaries.  One by one, they left the holding area, and the applause would swell as they emerged.  They waved and smiled as they took their places.

            “What do you want?”  Shuldik asked.

            “What do I want?  I want to kill you.”  I held his arm tightly.  I knew he would recoil.  He was frightened.  I wanted him to be frightened.  Torey had been very frightened.  I repeated,  “I want to kill you.”

            He was so close I could hear the small involuntary sound of fear.  His stiff gray hair bristled against my cheek.

            “But I won’t kill you if…”

            “What do you want?”  Arrogance started to creep back into his voice.  Even then, he was sure, given an opening, he could out-maneuver such riff-raff as I.  “How much?  How much?  How much?”

            “I knew you were an intelligent man.  I want three million dollars.  I will not negotiate.  I will be at St. Philomena’s tomorrow for your Mass.  I will come to the rail at Communion.  If your answer is no, place the host in my hand.  If your answer is yes, put it on my tongue.  If the host is not on my tongue you will die.  Three million dollars, Father.  God bless.”

            He fell back a bit when I let go.  He was puzzled.  But he had to be thinking things were on his turf now.  Money was something he understood.  He had regained his balance.  I wanted him to. 

Kensington entered the holding area and went straight to the Monsignor’s side.  Shuldik whispered something in his ear.  Kensington turned and looked at me.  He looked like a man with a piece of chewed meat stuck in his molars as his tongue works madly to worry it free.  I could see that familiar expression.  He knew me from somewhere.  Then something clicked, and his face began moving with a slight tremor.  The DA looked for a drink to grab.  There wasn’t one.  I couldn’t help him this time.  No one could.  Kensington grabbed the Monsignor, and they turned their backs to me, hunched over and talking intently.  Then the M.C. began to introduce Kensington.  He gave me a final look, and it wasn’t friendly.  He and his lovely wife headed for the dias.

            The Monsignor stared at me intently for a few seconds.  He went to the little temporary curtain.  They were introducing him.  He nodded at me.  “Three million dollars.  You will have my answer tomorrow,” he said.  Then he turned and ducked out.  The spotlight hit him, and he got a standing ovation.  He was such a popular man.  I smiled.

            I had done what I came here to do.  I looked at the plates, ready to be served.  I looked at the wine.  I looked at all the tableau of important people on the dias.  Quite an image.  It was the Last Supper at the Borgia’s. 

I went towards the other end of the hall.  Everyone was seated and enjoying the meal.  I tossed two empty thallium packets into the bar trash can.  Ten grams gone, enough to kill ten people.  They were just more plastic trash now.  I ordered another martini.  Gin and tonic is an abomination.  I never drink anything favored by colonial oppressors.

            I’d had two or three more, very dry, by the time the speeches started.    Vandy ate dinner at the table with the girls.  Facing the bar, his eyes never lost sight of me.  It’s hard for Vandy to chew without blinking, but he managed.

            Us real alcoholics were in the back, talking to Skip.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 35

            Everybody wants something.

            Every waking and sleeping moment we want something.  It could be as simple as some quiet so we can sleep, a day without pain when we’re sick, a new toy, someone else’s old toy, time alone, time not alone, fresh air,  sweet water, or sunshine.  It could be as grandiose as a billion dollars so you could buy everything you want, or as insignificant as a used rubberband for a bundle of old letters.  We never stop wanting.

            I wanted to live.  I’m really not afraid of dying.  I just didn’t want to do it right that moment.

            I had too much to do.  I wondered if we could reschedule the meeting.  Redlands seemed intent on covering the entire agenda.  I hoped I would have a chance to laugh with Valerie when I told her how I had peed myself, too.

            “I am so glad you came.”  His voice was full of a menacing pleasure.

            I felt the gun next to my ear.  Curious, I thought they were supposed to be cold.  This one felt warm, very warm.  I had no voice.  I couldn’t find it.

            The pistol and the air were still.  The city buzzed low in the background.  The air smelled like tea brewed with oak leaves.  I was very conscious of my pulse.  It was slowing gradually.  I could almost sense the rhythm of Redlands’ heart beating across the muzzle-built bridge connecting him to me.  We were synchronizing.

            He spoke again — the sound of a dry branch.  “Why do they call you Tools?”

            There it was — my voice.  “I am very good with my fingers.  I can open almost anything.  Why did you want to meet?”

            “Let me lead the way here.  I want you to listen to me very closely.”

            I listened with every cell in me.  Every hair on my body strained to hear.

            “The truth will set you free.”  He might have been smiling.  When his face changed expression, I almost thought I could feel the pressure of the air that moved in concert with his tiniest facial muscles.  “Promise now to tell me the truth.”  The smile faded.

            “I will tell you the truth.”  There were no contractions in my words.  I would be precise.  I would not hold back in this place, at this time, for all the moments of this confession under the bare lilac.

            “Why are you so good with your fingers?”

            “It is a gift.”

            “A gift from God?”

            The truth was my truth.  “Yes, it is a gift from God.”  The warmth of his bulk, so close, was like a lamp in this shaded place.  He radiated heat.  The gun was warmer.

            “Why do you misuse your gift?”

            “I use it as I can.”

            “You are a thief.” 

            “I am a thief.” 

            “You steal from people.”

            “Yes, I steal from people.”

            “Isn’t that a sin?”  Each word was spaced and distinct.

            “Some would say it is.”

            Almost before I finished.  “…say it is…”  The air grew warmer.  “Do you think you are the one who decides what sin is?”

            “No,  I do not make that judgment.”

            “You do not.  But I will make a judgment here tonight.  That is why you are here.”

            I was to be judged.  I had feared judgment all my life.  Now that it was here, I could only be amazed that the air tasted so good in my lungs.

            “What is the punishment for sin?”

            I had learned this years before.  Was the answer I had learned, then, the right one?  I knew it wasn’t.  I gave the answer I had learned since.  “Sin is its own punishment.”

            “Is there no other penalty?  How can sin be punishment?”  He was putting my words on some internal scale.  He was weighing them against the feather of his sanity.

            “Sin separates us from God.  To be separated from God is the most terrible of punishments.” 

            The scale did not tip yet.  No wind disturbed us on the Albino Farm.  Redlands held the gun so lightly, without the slightest tremor.  I held my head just as still.  We were both very strong at that moment.

            “Are you an honest man?”

            I had to be faithful to the real.  “Yes.”

            “But you are a thief.”

            “I am a thief.”

            “Are you an honest man?”

            Truth does not change.  We are all honest or dishonest, depending on how clearly we see ourselves, and how we share that with others.  Honesty is not based on propriety or law.  It is not diminished by our mistakes.  If we genuinely seek honesty, we find it.  The dirt under my knees was soft. 

            I think I smiled.  Terri’s body had been right here.  She needed some honesty even more than justice.

            “Are you an honest man?”  I hadn’t answered.

            “Yes.”

            “Have you hurt other people?”

            “Yes, I have.” 

            “Then you are judged.”  I felt the air move around his finger.  In slow motion I heard the click of the trigger, pulling springs, and the drawn-out slide of the firing pin.  Metal on metal like the rasp of death itself. The slap was deafening as it struck home with an almost seismic jerk.  I realized I was ready.

            SNAP!

            There was no bullet in the chamber.  He judged me.  He pulled the trigger and pushed me from one side of my life to the other.  I had crossed a line.

            Quickly, he brought up his other hand, lifted the gun, and slapped in a clip.  The gun had been empty, unloaded.  It was deliberate.  I was here to push his buttons, and instead he was pushing mine.  Redlands worked the slide with a calm efficiency.  I heard a round hit the chamber.

            CLICK!  CLICK!  The sound of the mechanism accepting its hard purpose.

            Within an eternal second, the warm barrel was back to my head, and my blood matched his again as it moved through our bodies.

            “The next judgment may be harsher.”

            “It’s yours to make, James.”  My own voice sounded strange to me.

            “You aren’t ever scared?”

            “Yes, I am scared sometimes.  But not of you.  I have wild blood.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “Something from a dream.  I can’t explain.”

            He took a deeper breath.  We were out of synch for a moment.  His voice was not as dry as it had been.  “What are you afraid of?”

            “Today, I am afraid my son has been hurt beyond healing.  I am afraid for him.  And I am afraid I can’t help him.  I am afraid I am a poor father.”

            “I am not a father.”

            “I know.  You and your wife have had some problems.  It must be hard for you to want something so badly…”  I think I was feeling some empathy for that man.  I really don’t know why.  I didn’t want to.

            “I hit my wife.”  The gun slipped down a quarter inch.

            “You hit her?  When?”  The feather grew heavy as it switched sides on the balance.

            “Last week.  I slapped her.  I slapped her once.”

            I had become a priest.  The night was my cassock.  I knelt on Terri’s tomb.  “Did you hurt her?”

            “Yes.”  He took three shallow quick breaths off rhythm.

            “Is she all right?”

            “She left me.”

            “I’m sorry.”

            “Have you ever killed a human being?”  The gun abruptly pushed very hard at my temple.

            “No, never.”  It hurt.  The muzzle grew very cold.

            “Have you ever wanted to kill a man?”  I feared my answer and what it might bring.

            “Yes.”  The truth will set me free.

            “Have you ever planned the death of this man?”  His breathing was inside my breathing.  One.

            “Yes.”

            “Will you kill him?”

            “He will die.”

            “Why will he die?”  The air moved.  Had he?  Was he closer?  Were his lips touching my head right next to the muzzle of his gun?  He whispered again, “Why?”  The hairs in my ear were electric.  Death is more intimate than sex.

            “He will die because he is a monster.”

            “Heh heh, a monster.  Does he look like a monster?”  It was almost a laugh that turned into a chill.

            “No… He looks like a man.”

            He spoke almost before I finished.  “He is not what he appears to be?”

            “Yes….”

            “When he dies, will it be a sin?”  He held his breath this time.

            “No.  It will not be a sin when he dies.”

            “You have judged him?”  He exhaled, and I found myself without air.

            “I have.”  I could barely say it, but I forced it out again.  “I have.”  My throat was empty.  I accepted what I was.

            “I know what he did.”

            “You …”

            He went on, “I know what you do.  I know what she does.”

            “Valerie does only good.  She is honest.  She is exactly who she appears to be!”  I needed him to hear that.  I needed him out of her life.

            “You will not kill him.” Redlands spoke as if he were reading an inscription on a tomb.

            “I will…I…”

            “You cannot do it.  I know you.  You are a thief, not a killer.”  His stare was a pressure on the side of my face.

            “You don’t know what I can do.  You don’t know what I have done already…”  I wasn’t sure of my words.  I was sliding carefully away from the complete truth.

            He was inside my head now.  “Have you ever seen a man die?”

            I saw Doug and the fountain from his brain.  “Yes.”

            “But you did not kill him?”

            “No.”

            “I have seen someone die.  I have killed.”

            Did he expect absolution from me?

            “I have killed.  Was it a sin?”  Redlands asked.  There was sorrow in the words.

            “Who did you kill?”  I was scared now.  Had he killed Valerie while I was out driving around, plotting in my head?  Why had I left her?  I felt my right hand in my jacket pocket.  It was wrapped around the gun Ahmed had given me.  I had been holding it the whole time.  I had forgotten it.  Now I became aware of its handle in my palm, wet with perspiration.  I felt my finger on the trigger.  Mother Mary, pray for me.

            “Who did you kill?”  There was no more union between us.

            “A pervert.  A dishonest man.”

            “Who did you kill?”  I held my breath.  So many awful possibilities.  Had he done it already?  Was I there for no reason at all?  I didn’t want it to happen so soon.

            A flashlight clicked on behind me.  I followed its beam as it tracked away from my knees to the trunk of a tree.  The yellowish beam climbed up into the branches.  There she was, about seven feet up.  It was an image straight out of a Renaissance painting,  the shadows and the agony.  Two bare branches extended out from under his arms, supporting her limp torso.  He was naked and covered in blood.  He’d been shot right under her left breast.  She’d been shot in his groin.  She was very dead.  He was Lonnie pinned to a tree by hate. 

            “Lonnie… You killed Lonnie!”  Flour, beans, celery, melba toast; I was cold. “You killed Lonnie.”  Some all-spice, a bar of soap, three Milky Ways; that poor, sad meth freak who tried to rob me, the transsexual Mikey had fed drugs to for years, had been executed.  I hated Mikey that moment.  I hated Redlands.

            “He was almost dead when I found him.  The drugs had eaten him alive.  He needed to die.  He was not honest.”

            “He was a thief like me.”

            “Look at him!”  He jabbed me hard with the gun.

            Lonnie’s flaccid female breasts were emaciated.  Lonnie’s male organ was distended and caked in blood.

            “He was not what he appeared to be.  He was dishonest.”

            “So you judged him?”  Where was the heat in my body?  I had thought, in my conceit, that I was moving Redlands with my deep philosophical truth.  He didn’t work that way.  He thought in concrete primitive ways.  To James Redlands, honesty was something he could touch with one of his senses.  He smelled it.  He tasted it.  He heard it.  He saw it.  He kissed it.  Then it was real to him.  He was over the edge now, and you can’t steer a falling man.  The question in my mind was — had he stepped over the right cliff?

            “I judged him and I killed him.  Now you have a choice, Mr. Tools.”

            “A choice?”  I wondered if I had gone too far.  Some weapons blow up in your hand.

            “I have killed and I will kill.”  Redlands took a deep breath out of rhythm.

            “You will kill?”  I wanted to be sure.

            “But you must join me, Mr. Tools.”

            I felt all the blood leave my face.  The November wind had picked up, and I was very cold at that moment.  “I must join you?”

            Redlands sounded like he was standing at the bottom of a pit.  “I will kill.”  He pushed the barrel of the gun hard into my skull.  “If you join me.  If you kill.”

            “If I kill.”  It wasn’t a question.  The time had come for me to understand the price of what I had decided to do.

            “Promise me that you will kill him.”

            I don’t know whether I was frightened or amazed.  James Redlands had, somehow in the depths of his insanity, seen the truth.  He had looked into my heart and understood the nature of my revenge. 

He pushed the gun hard into my temple.  “Now is the moment.  Choose.  Will you kill him?”

            “Marty!”  It was Valerie.  Her voice was distant.  She was on the switchback trail.  “Marty!”  She was coming up the hill.

            “She’s coming, Mr. Tools.  She’s coming.  Make your choice.  I will kill.”

            “Leave her alone!  Kill me, but leave her alone!” 

            “Can I kill you?  Will you let me kill you if I promise to leave her alone?”  He laughed.  It was loud after our reverential tones earlier.  He laughed again.

            “Martin!  Are you up there?”  She was halfway up.

            “Yes, kill me now and go!”  I was almost begging him. There were tears on my cheeks.  I was begging.  I let go of the gun in my pocket and reached out with both hands.  Turning, I grabbed Redlands’ gun barrel and put it to my forehead.  I held it there.  His finger was on the trigger.  His eyes were on mine.  I screamed at him.  “Shoot me now!  I am the dishonest one.  She has done nothing wrong!  Kill me now! Dammit!”

            The gun at my head was trembling a bit.  “Is that your choice?”

            He leaned in close to me.  My hand went back into my pocket.  I had my gun in my hand.  My finger found the trigger.  Once again his lips were as close to my ear.  I could shoot him now so easily.  I had never killed, but I could kill… 

I said it.  “I will kill.  I will kill.”  At first it was a whisper.  I made my choice.  “I will kill.”  Louder.  Hell, I’d already made my choice before I went up to the Albino Farm.  Redlands just wanted me to admit to it.  We were both killers.  “I will kill,” I  shouted.  My words echoed across the ridge.

            “Marty!”  Val was very close to the top.

            “Then kill, Mr. Tools.  Kill.”  He took a slow breath.  “I will.”  Redlands pulled the gun back away from my head.  I turned and saw his ghostly face.  And beyond his shoulder I could see into the void and the face on the crucifix pallid with agony. 

            Suddenly he pulled me close, and he whispered in my ear.  “Truly I tell you.  Today you will be with me in paradise.”

            The spit in my mouth evaporated as if the devil had sucked it away.  The two thieves.  Lonnie and I were the two thieves.  He had quoted Luke’s gospel, Jesus crucified between the two thieves.  One is saved by his honesty.  That meant Redlands was Jesus.  Sweet Mother of God, he thought he was Jesus Christ.  I hoped I had not pushed too far.

            I shouldn’t have asked him, but I did.  “Are you Jesus?”

            “I am the Saviour, Mr Hutchence.  I am the Saviour.”

            Redlands was up and away before I could think.  I saw his dark form dart away without cracking a single branch.  He slipped away across the Albino Farm and was gone.

            Valerie crashed through the bushes and almost fell over me.  I was just kneeling on that mound by the lilac.  I was shaking.  I could not stop shaking.  I realized I was squeezing the gun in my pocket so hard my hand was beginning to hurt.  I had not shot him.  I had not killed him.  I hoped I was right.  I hoped I had passed his test.  But…

            “Marty!”  She grabbed me.  She kissed me.  “Marty, are you all right?”  She kissed me a hundred times.

            “I’m O.K.  He’s gone.  I’m O.K.”  I thought I was going to live.  I wanted to live.

            “I love you, Marty.”  I was surely dead after all.

            “What did you say?”  I stood up on my shaky legs and pulled her to her feet.  “What did you say?”

            At that moment, Sally R. Rosemond reached the top of the hill and emerged from the bushes shining a flashlight on Valerie and me embracing.

            “Better back off, Val.”  Sally was smiling.

            “Why, Sally?”  Valerie was holding me very close.  I looked at my rival.  It was my turn for the look of triumph.

            “Better back up.  I do believe Mr. Hutchence has peed himself.”

            I’d forgotten about that.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 34

            I’ve made a few bargains with the devil.

            You can trust him.  He is what he is.  It’s all on the table.  The ones who admit that they’re the devil never do more or less than they agree to.  Those who claim to be holy will get you every time.

            “He wants to meet you on the Albino farm?  Tools, it’s been good to know you.”  Carl Vandy’s hung-over corpse stood in the doorway to the kitchen.  “You aren’t crazy enough…”

            “Sally, get our guest a cup of coffee.”  She did it before she realized I was the one telling her to.  Ms. Rosemond gave me another of her inexhaustible supply of contemptuous expressions.

            “Carl, meet Father Ken Corleone, formerly of Infant of Prague Parish, now exiled and penitent.  Father, say hello to Carl Vandy, the head Detective on Terri’s murder and Torey’s sexual abuse case.”  I’m not sure if Ken wanted to touch him, but he extended his hand.  Damien did not show such courage with the lepers of Molokai.

            “Former head Detective.  Always glad to meet another former.”  They shook hands.

            I was surprised again.  It was getting to be an unpleasant tradition.  “Wait, Carl, you said former?”

            “It’s the old story.  Cop meets body.  Cop arrests creep.  Cop steals DNA from church property after bloody suicide.  Cop retires from force, under pressure from powerful cabal of politicians and clergy.  You’ve heard it all a hundred times.  Got any Sweet n’ Low?”

            “You were stirring up too much dust?”

            “I stirred up the whole dune, my friend.”  Carl was sucking on his mug like a babe at the teat.  “I heard what your friend here said, Tools.  It would seem you had left me in the dark on a lot of things.  I might have been able to help — if you’d asked.”

            “I’m used to keeping secrets, Vandy.”

            “For good reason.  Give me a refill, will ya’?”  He was treating Sally like a waitress.  I loved it.  “You’re not going to meet Redlands, are you?”

            “Of course not.  I have had enough contact with dear Officer Redlands this week.”

            “He’s an asshole; a dangerous asshole.  He’s got a very thick file full of citizen’s complaints.  A thousand of ‘em are typical bullshit, but sad to say, there are two thousand in the stack.  I might be exaggerating, but not much.”  Carl drained the cup and held it out towards Sal.

            “What are you going to do, Marty?”  Valerie wanted to make sure that I didn’t have one of my great ideas.  It’s that whole “great” becomes “idiotic” thing again.

            “I’ve got to get close to the Chancellor, that’s all.”

            “Stop right there, Sonny!”  Vandy was spitting coffee.  He wasn’t angry.  He frequently spit coffee.  He’d have something to say, and he’d forget there was something in his mouth.  The others were a bit grossed out, but I knew Vandy.  “If you’re thinking of killing him, I’m not going to allow that.  He’s a slime, and he did something unspeakable to Torey.  But I can’t let you grease him, as richly as he deserves it.”

            I had my code, and Vandy had his.  I respected him.  I wasn’t going to drag anyone else into this; not him, not Valerie, Kenny, not even Sally Rosemond.  That sounds altruistic, doesn’t it?  Tools protects his friends.  He takes up his lonely cross, and through him, and him alone, all are saved.  That’s closer to the truth of it.  That’s the level my ego can operate on. 

Whatever was going to happen, it was something I had to do on my own, in my own way.  Terri and my son demanded justice.   Like most of the little deities who run around this world, pretending to care, I can be a very selfish god.

            I had to figure out how much of the truth I could get away with.  “I need to get close to Shuldik.  I need to say something to him.”

            Valerie leaned forward.  There wasn’t enough room in the kitchen to do much else.  It was very crowded.  No wonder Val never threw parties.  “What are you going to say to him?”

            “Something that will shake him up.  Something that will make him nervous.  I want him to make a mistake.”  It was two-thirds of the truth.  I had envisioned Shuldik’s death, but I couldn’t let Vandy in on my plan.  He’d stop me.

            Vandy wasn’t sure of me yet.  Had he seen something in my eyes?  He was capable of that.  I’d have to be very careful.  “You want him to screw up so we can arrest him?”

            I didn’t want to lie.  He would know.  I threw a curve ball in the dirt.  “Arrest him?  I thought you were retired.”

            Distracted, strike one!  “Not until the first of the year.  They gave me that.  I’m on a desk, but I’ve still got a badge, and in case you try anything stupid, a gun.”  He meant it.

            Sally decided to put me in my place.  “I’m sure the Chancellor will just invite you over for tea.  You do not move in his circle, pal.”  She was right.  She’s a pain in the ass, but she’s no dummy.  I had to give her that.

            “How are you going to get to him?”  Val made a poor choice of words.  It sounded like a gangster movie.

            Ken lifted his head and joined the conspiracy.  He sure had enough motivation to want Shuldik to get his cumuppence.  Forgive him, Father, he knows not what he does.  “There’s a party tomorrow night.”

            “A party?”  Vandy was waking up.  Between his odor and the coffee, the rest of us had been quite alert for awhile now.

            Corleone couldn’t stop now.  He was in too deep.  “A big fundraiser at the Chancellery.  He’ll be there.  He loves the smell of money.”

            “How uncharitable of you, Ken.  I’m shocked.”  I wasn’t.

            Sally stuck to her realism.  “A little late to RSVP, Martin.  Did you misplace your invitation?”

            “You’re right, Sally.  It’s not my social circle.  But I have a friend.”  I had a plan.  I was getting a great idea.  As usual, I was operating on the fly.  It felt good, very good.  This idea couldn’t miss.  It was, pardon the expression, a dead solid lock.

            “Marty?”  Val had picked up something.

            “What’re you up to, Tools?”  Vandy was sniffing the air.  So were the rest of us.

            “Go home to your daughter, Vandy.  She’s probably worried sick.  By the way, she spent the night at Jackie’s.”

            Worried, strike two!  “Shit! Jackie’s?  I gotta go.”  He headed towards the door.  Fresh November air filled the room.  What a relief.

            “Hey, Carl, be back here tomorrow night at eight and pick me up.”

            “Where are we going?”

            “To a party.  I’m going to have a talk with the Monsignor.  I’m going to blackmail him.  Offer him a way out of his predicament.  And you can stand by my side to make sure I don’t stick a butterknife in his testicles.”  Vandy would figure I wouldn’t do anything with him at my elbow.

            “Blackmail him?  How does that help?”  Vandy was trying to follow my plan.

            “He has nothing but contempt for all of us.  If I ask Shuldik for money to keep quiet it’ll confirm his conception of who we are — especially who I am.  I’ll make a desperate little blackmail pitch to him at the fundraiser.  The next day, Sunday morning, he celebrates Mass at Infant of Prague; I’ll go there and play him some more, try to set up another meeting for the payoff.”

            “You think he’ll pay?”  Vandy was up to speed.

            “Sure.  And he’ll talk. He’ll say something we can use to nail him.”

            “So now you’re in law enforcement?”  Vandy was skeptical.

            “What else can we do, Vandy?”

            “I’ll tell you one thing.   I’m going with you, Tools.  I’ll be sitting on your ass at the fund raiser and in church on Sunday.  There won’t be any vigilante stuff.  So forget it if you’re thinking that way.”  Vandy leaned towards me.  “We’ll do this together.”  It was a real pity that Vandy couldn’t trust me.  Friendship doesn’t mean what it used to, I guess.

            “I’m going with you, too, Marty.”  Val didn’t trust me, either.

            “If you’re going, so am I,” said Sally.  Great, it was a double date for the party, and church on Sunday.

            “I wouldn’t have it any other way, gang.”   What could I say?  Besides, they couldn’t stop me.  And they really had no idea just how widely I had cast my net of vengeance.  Excuse the super-hero riff and my cavalier attitude.  I repeat, it’s the way I work, and I had to think funny in order to do the serious work ahead.

            “O.K., I guess this might work,” said Vandy.

            Overconfidence, strike three!  Yer out!  And he was.  We could all breathe again.  We’d probably have to get a tomcat to piss on the rug so it wouldn’t stink so bad.  But at least the air was clearing in the kitchen.  I had tricked old Vandy. 

Normally, he would have seen through me.  Heck, if he had been maintaining a regular drinking schedule over the years instead of sobering up in AA, he might have been sharper.  As it was, the bender had put him in a state that he was no longer accustomed to.  If he were his old self, he would have seen it clearly.  Chancellor Monsignor Leo Shuldik was going to die.  And Vandy would be there when it happened.  I could see it all.

            “Just one problem; I can’t get you an invitation to the fundraiser, Marty.”  Father Corleone sounded genuinely sorry.

            “I don’t need you to, Father.  Valerie, my sweet.  I must be off.”  I grabbed my coat off the back of the chair.  I made it to the sidewalk.

            Valerie was at the door looking down at me, as was appropriate.  “Tools,  what are you up to?”  She wasn’t hung over.

            “I need to check on a few things.  I’ll be back later.”

            “You be home by midnight.”  She was afraid.

            “Do you think I’m stupid?  I’d have to be worse than crazy to go up there tonight.”

            She knew I hadn’t really said anything.  “Say it!”

            “O.K., I will not meet Officer Redlands alone on the Albino Farm tonight at midnight.  There, good enough?”

            She ran back the tape.  Sally put her hand on Valerie’s shoulder from behind.  “Fine, be here by midnight.  And don’t get arrested.”

            Touched by Sally.  Strike three!  Yer out!  Val never thought clearly with Sally around.  Too many inner conflicts started churning.  Thank you, Ms. Rosemond.

            “And don’t get drunk!”

            “I won’t.”  I felt like a little boy heading off to school with his mother shouting guidance from the front porch.  Men are always little boys.  Women, the best ones, are always mothers at heart.  Little boys are always up to something and moms, the best ones, always know it.

            Val closed the door.  I was standing on the sidewalk, looking for the keys to the Sebring in my pocket, when a little Miata pulled up — such a little cute car with a little cute driver.  She was blond, her hair cut very short, and she had that slim supermodel look.  Let me correct myself, that slim lesbian supermodel look.  She had to be a friend of Sally’s.  I hoped so, if Val…  Well, I know what I can’t compete with.  I’ll leave it at that.

            She popped up out of the car like she was spring-loaded.  She had a brown manila envelope in her hand and a smile on her face.  “Is Sally here?  This is the right place, isn’t it?”  She was a bubbly, happy lesbian.

            “Yes.  I mean, it’s the right place, but Sally’s not here.”

            “Oh…”  She bit her full lower lip.  Very cute.

            “You got something for Sally?”  I rarely miss it when some of my blind luck magically appears.

            “Yeah.  Some records from the archives, and something that…”  She stopped —  considering what she should tell the strange man.  So cute.  “…Something that another friend dug up at city hall.  Sally said…”

            “Yeah, she was expecting you.  I’ll take ‘em.”  I grabbed the envelope.  “Thanks.  Sally said she’d call you later.  Bye.”

            For a second she thought… and then thought… “Cool.”  The little Miata putted away up the street.  I stuck the envelope in my pocket, and headed to “my” car.  I felt so alive as I drove south, imagining the death of a monster. That’s what he was.  Monsters are real.  Tell your kids.  It’s best that they know.

            I followed all applicable local traffic ordinances in the  Sebring.  I didn’t want any attention.  I had a lot of errands to run.  I headed towards Younger Street again, but Baldie’s wasn’t my destination.  As I went past, I gave a little casual finger wave to my little friend at the gate.  He gave a tiny nod, man to man.  I think he liked my ride.  I felt guilty.  I was being a poor role model.  He wasn’t in school again today.  I figured he had other role models besides me, like Dennis Rodman, Notorious B.I.G., and Kenneth Lay. 

I passed the sewing machine place, driving slowly.  I’m a little superstitious.  I half expected to see Redlands in his patrol car.  I didn’t, probably because I crossed myself.  Hey, it worked for Jose Canseco a few times.  Which reminds me, my butt itched.

            I turned past Pies’ house.  I parked down the block.  The dirty red brick wall of the Amalgamated Lead Refinery towered above me.  It had been there for almost a hundred years.  Back in the last golden age of no government regulation they had smelted millions of tons of delicious sweet lead here.  You can still taste it in the dirt, and it is so sweet.

            Kids love it.  In the dirt, off their dusty tricycles or the chipping paint on the windowsills, lead destroys strong bodies twelve ways.  And the great thing is, it lasts forever, or at least until the lead company can mutate and reorganize so it’s no longer liable for any of the unfortunate damage.  They talk about cleaning it up, but clean-ups are slow and expensive, and you can’t cut a ribbon for a clean-up, so politicians avoid them if they can.

            One of the other fun things about making lead is that it produces something called thallium.  It is a lovely element.  Its atomic number is 81.  Doctors use it in an irradiated form to do heart circulation studies.  That’s safe.  Don’t worry if, when your chest hurts, they want to give you a thallium test.  You’ll be fine.  But thallium nitrate is a different matter entirely.  It will kill you dead.  It is a particularly bad way to go.

             First your hair falls out.  That’s not bad.  It saves you money on shampoo and blow dryers.  The next part gets nasty.  Your nervous system starts to die, inch by burning debilitating inch.  You are bedridden in fiery agony as your little living wires incinerate themselves.  It would be better to cover yourself with tar and walk into a stream of molten lava.  That’s if you get a merely borderline fatal dose.  Just imagine.  I did.

            How do I know?  I’ve read Agatha Christie.  She wrote a book where thallium is the modus opperandi.  I also saw a movie called “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook” a couple years back.  I just grabbed it at Blockbuster when I couldn’t find the Christian Slater film I wanted.  Valerie didn’t like it much.  It wasn’t a chick flick.  I also read about a guy in Florida or somewhere who kept some in old Coke bottles in the garage.  He was an unpleasant sort, as someone close to him discovered too late.   Sadaam, the new Nebedcanezzar, used it on the Kurds.

            Thallium poisoning is as far from slapstick as you can get.  Once I learn something, from whatever source, I file it away.  When I need it, there it is.

            They used to use it for rat poison.  Nothing’s too good for rats, of all varieties.  They still sell it in Portugal, but that wasn’t convenient.  What’s the old saying?  There’s no place like home?  My little fantasy had everything it needed right here in Tirawa.  They ended up with a lot of left-over thallium at Amalgamated Lead.

            While I cased the joint, I pulled out Vandy’s cell phone.  Last night, after I talked to young Sammi, I sort of decided to borrow it.  I owed Vandy two cell phones now.  What the hell, they’re practically free.

            Mattie Robinson had given me her card at lunch that day I trashed hubby’s surrogate Hummer pee pee in the parking lot.  I rang her up.

            “Mattie, it’s Tools.”  I hoped she wouldn’t hang up.

            “Oh, how delightful.  Would you like my ex-husband’s address?  He still has things I would love to see vandalized.”  I loved her sense of humor.

            It turned out she wasn’t kidding.  She considered it a quid-pro-quo for the favor I asked.  It wasn’t much of a price.  I’d probably find some things worth keeping.  Either way, I was ahead.  She promised to get me an invite to the Bishop’s soiree the next night.  She’d messenger it to Valerie’s address.  A messenger?  She did have class.  I promised to follow through on the matter of the ex’s valuables soon.  She invited me to take a dip in her indoor heated pool.  I’m not sure if she meant swimming or something else.

            I returned to my lead plant vigil.  I knew how it could be done.  It ran like a movie when I closed my eyes.  When I opened my eyes, it was time to work.

            I watched one group of guys leave the side security gate and climb into their Dodge Ram pickups.  The cleanup crew was leaving a little early.  No surprise, it was a government job.   Taxpayers were footing the bill since Bush II had stopped making the polluters clean up after themselves.  Taxpayers never show up to supervise.  Four-thirty was close enough to five, so off the gang went.

            Of course the security gate was locked, so I went straight in.  Those new fangled card scanners are simple if you’ve got a refrigerator magnet on you.  Mine was in the shape of a cute little cow head.

            Right inside the gate was a trailer with a big sign that said, “Suit-Up.”  I popped the dead bolt on the door, went on in, and found the cutest yellow plastic body suit with matching gloves and inflatable helmet.  I grabbed a name badge.  I wanted to look the part.  I’m a method actor.  Finally, I slipped on some orange booties to complete the ensemble and headed out into the plant.

            The Amalgamated Lead Smelting complex was in poor repair.  Fact is, they were slowly dismantling the damned thing.  Some Halliburton subsidiary had the contract.  Take down a wall.  Decontaminate the debris.  Put it on a truck and bury it in Wyoming.  Two or three out-buildings were gone.  I could see the outlines on the ground where they had once stood.  A huge pile of broken concrete and bent rusty re-bar dominated the old loading dock area.

            That’s where I was, looking around like a tourist, when somebody tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned around without thinking.

            “You working late, Tony?”  It was the supervisor.

            Tony?  Oh, yeah, I had the ID badge on. “Sure.” I grunted more than I spoke.

            “Don’t forget to lock the gate.  I’ll see you at the bar.”  The boss headed towards the Suit-Up trailer.  Lucky for me, all white guys look the same in yellow plastic jumpsuits and inflatable helmets.  I checked my identity badge — a little late, but I wanted to be thorough.  I looked at Tony’s picture.  Surprise, Tony was Toni.  Toni was a girl.  Lucky for me, all bipeds look the same in yellow plastic jumpsuits and inflatable helmets.  Though I wondered why my deep masculine grunting reply had fooled the boss.

            I really had no idea where any surplus thallium might be kept.  I was working on a hunch that there’d be some.   With the supervisor gone, there was really no time pressure, but the suit smelled like Toni.  I really didn’t want to think about what my nose was telling me for too long.

            My luck held.  Around a corner, tucked in against a stained brick wall, was another trailer.  This one was smaller and oranger than my booties.  There were enough hazard symbols tacked to the side walls to scare anyone away.   One had a circle with a silhouette of a man clutching at his throat like he was choking.  Another symbol involved a dead bird falling from the sky, and the scariest was an eyeball that had cartoon smoke pouring out of its pupil.  Those universal danger signs plus the words “Poison Collection” on the door told me I was in the right neighborhood.

            Inside the trailer.  No need for me to describe the shitty lock on the door, is there?  There were some steel cabinets.   My fingernail file would have worked great on the cabinet locks, but as it turned out, all the hatches were unbattened.  That was good, because I had no idea how to get the file out of my pocket while wearing the Haz-Mat suit.

            Everything was arranged neatly.  There were containers full of little slivers of a blue soft metal.  That was the pure thallium.  Useless for my purpose.  There were some white powders and some bluish tinged scrapings.  The middle cabinet had about twenty plastic jars full of fine white crystals.  I could have guessed, but I didn’t need to.  The jars were labeled “Thallium nitrate.”  Amalgamated had sold the stuff to pest control companies as a key ingredient in rat poison.  That business had ended with a federal ban in 1981.  No problem, thallium has a long shelf life, two or three thousand years.

            Over to the left on a stainless steel counter was a box of small high quality plastic bags.  Each bag would hold about five grams.  Carefully, I took one of the thallium nitrate jars down and oh so carefully opened the lid.  There was a small hiss.  I watched closely, no dust in the air.  The well-equipped trailer supplied me with a Pyrex scoop which I used to carefully fill five of the bags.  That gave me 25 grams.  I was starting to sweat like Toni.  I stashed the bags in a pouch on the front of my suit.

            I knew what I was going to do.  Now I had what I needed to pull it off.  So long as Vandy didn’t interfere.

            I drove up to Kim’s and tried to see Torey.  I wanted to convince him not to serve Mass for Shuldik.  I got the reception I’d anticipated.

            “Go away, Marty.”  Kim wouldn’t even open the door.  There was nothing more that I could do but hope.  I’m not comfortable depending on such a sentimental concept, but I had no choice.  I left Kim’s and headed north to the big houses.

            I made one quick stop.  To you it might be called burglary, to me it was investigation.  I had to go break into a house to check a medicine cabinet, a dressing table, and a painting.   When I saw the portrait, my chest got a little tight.  Art can speak to you.  It spoke to me. I don’t know art, but I do know what, I hate. I didn’t hate the painting. I hated where it was. I had to work at focusing my eyes, like I was almost going to cry. But my vision cleared. I looked long and hard at that picture. I would remember it always. I would never see it again.

A few hours later, after a few more professional errands – hey, I’m a thief and I had a little time to, pardon the expression, kill — I parked up the block from Ahmed’s.  I pulled out a black  Gucci briefcase I had acquired.  Let’s just say high-end stores are easy unless you’re Winona Ryder.  This lovely little leather bag now held two plastic-wrapped mega-doses of thallium nitrate.  I felt jaunty.  Gucci always makes me jaunty.  I almost bounced into Ahmed’s yard.

            “Crew, lovely evening, isn’t it?”

            Crew was unloading a truck.  I’m not sure it was his truck, but idle hands, as they say.  “Yes, Tools, a lovely crisp evening.”  He hit every syllable perfectly.

            “Is my good friend, may Allah be with him, Ahmed in?”

            “Yes, sir, he’s in the office.  Go right in.”  If Crew was outside and Ahmed was inside, you always want to ask permission to enter.  It’s a rule.   Crew is good at enforcing rules.  He can be quite frightening if he is stirred to action.  Even then he is quiet, never angry, but very deadly.  I saw him once… well, I promised not to talk about it.  The other person there that night certainly wouldn’t, ever.

            “Thank you, Crew.”  Always be courteous where courtesy is due.

            “You are welcome, sir.”  He returned to his labors.

            I went into the office.  Well, I got as far as the steel door.  I hit the buzzer.  After a few seconds — I’m sure there was a camera somewhere — I was buzzed in.  The room was mahogany, the back wall covered with filing cabinets and a vault door.  It was open.  Stainless steel is beautiful.  To the left was a painting of a smiling John Paul II.  To the right it was Malcolm X with, I swear, the exact same happy smile.  Ahmed was counting money.  He was grinning like a Polish Pope, wearing a Nehru jacket like Mr. X.  He’s always happy when he counts money.

            “My, my, my. What’s shakin’, Tools?  What can Ahmed do fo’ you this fine, fine night?”

            “I need a gun.”

            “Firs’ you needa taxi, den you need a gun.  You be getting your cute white ass in some trouble, boy.”  He was still grinning.  He was still counting.  He didn’t like those machines.  He liked to touch it.  I was sure Crew, the human calculator, had already totaled it up.  Ahmed trusted him completely.  But, he did like to touch it.

            “I need a gun.”  It was eleven-thirty.  I didn’t have time to chit-chat.

            “Eaaaasssssy, cowboy.  Ah got cher back.”  He swiveled around in his high back chair and reached in a filing cabinet drawer.  He came back with a great big nickel-plated Smith and Wesson cannon.  It was capable of bringing down the walls of Constantinople or turning a man’s chest into reddish Cream of Wheat.

            “I’m not hunting elephants, Ahmed.”

            He turned back and showed me a little gray and bluish gun about the size of my hand.  “It’s a Taurus, man.”  He tossed it my way.

            I snagged it with my left.  “You flunked gun safety, didn’t you, Ahmed?”  All of Ahmed’s guns were always loaded.  To him, if they weren’t loaded, they weren’t guns.  This was a gun all right.

            “Thas’ a P-T One Foe Tea., a millennium semi-auto-mat-tick.  Ten plus one, bro.”

            It was cute.  I’ve said it before, I hate cute.  I hate guns.  But I needed one, so there it was in my hand.  I settled up with a promise to bring in some swag next week and the car keys to the Sebring down the block.  That worked out well, considering I was going to be doing that little courtesy for Mattie.  It’s great to have a good credit rating at Ahmed’s.  You just don’t ever want one of Crew’s collection letters.

            Speaking of Crew, he was kind enough to give me a lift over to Saint Phil’s.  I didn’t want to push my luck driving around in the stolen Sebring anymore than I already had.  On this trip we listened to the Byrds.  I grabbed the Gucci attache and bid my ebony friend a good night.  He just nodded as “Turn Turn” jangled on.

            I hopped the wall directly into the cemetery.  I didn’t want to go near the Refectory.  That memory was way too clear.  I checked my jail-bought watch.  It was five ‘til the witching hour.  The switchback path was dark but dry.  I hoped I was there first.

            I moved slower and more carefully as I neared the top.  I wondered if Redlands was the punctual sort.  I came out into the first clearing and tried to remember how Indians walked when they stalked game.  I was moderately successful and only stepped on every other snapping twig.  I eased up on the lilac bush where they found Terri.  I set down the briefcase and checked the gun in my pocket.

            There was a small hump or hillock by the bush.  I crouched there and peered through the branches, trying to see if anyone was on the lookout.  It was very quiet on the Albino Farm.

            Even when the gun slid slowly up to my temple, it was quiet.  I didn’t feel a thing until the mouth of the barrel touched the short hairs in front of my ear.  The pressure increased, but it was never too hard – the gentle touch of fatal foreplay.

            I knew I wasn’t alone.  I knew who would speak.  He did.

            “Hello, Tools.”

            James Redlands sounded very, very cold.

            For some reason I couldn’t speak.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 33

            What kind of wine goes with a burglary?

The correct answer is: it don’t matter.  I finished my simple job at Redlands’ house.  His wife wasn’t there, so it was easy.  Then, so as not to waste the trip out into the night, I stopped at “The Confederate Army Mule Barn Liquor Store” where a very nice, historically obtuse, African-American clerk sold me a 1.5 liter bottle of “Little Penguin” for twelve bucks.

            I was only gone maybe an hour.  I made it back to Val’s and opened the big bottle of wine.  I had gotten through half of the over-sweet chiraz before the girls emerged.

I probably looked upset.  I was.  My genius plan was teetering on the edge of failure, and Torey too close to ground zero.  Val tried to comfort me.  She held my hand.  Sally was standing by the sink giving me a death glare.  And rubbing salt in my wounds.

            “Let me get this straight.  You had six video tapes that involved the sexual abuse of your son and possibly others, but you lost them.  Then you gained possession of another tape that showed not only the abuse, but revealed the identity of the perpetrator.  You claimed it was the Chancellor of the Diocese, the Bishop’s right hand man.  But once again, you lost the tape.  Both times, the alleged evidence was taken by a police officer.  Is that about right?”  I figure life must have been simpler in the old days, before we let women become lawyers.

            “Yeah.”  That was my rebuttal.

            “And you are the only one who saw this damning evidence?”  Sally was enjoying this.

            “Yeah.”  I am a master at word play.  “Wait.  Mrs. Peres saw it.  She recognized Shuldik.  And Torey saw it.  I mean, he was there.” 

            “Would she testify?”

            I remembered Mrs. Peres’ face.  There had been a fear of hell in her face. I ran her words back in my mind.  No, she wouldn’t testify.  Weakly, “No.”

            “Would you make Torey testify without any corroboration?”

            “No.” 

            “And besides that, Torey thinks this Shuldik is a great guy.  He’s going to be his altar boy on Sunday.”

            Val jumped in the middle.  “Sally you’ve dealt with kids like this.  It’s not unusual for them to defend their abusers.  They get all turned around.”

            “Stockholm Syndrome, like that.  Sure, I know about that.”  Sally turned back to me, “So you have no evidence.  No witness.  Your brother plead guilty to murder and rape.  And Father Hunter is dead.  What are you hoping to accomplish?”

            It was a very good question.  I heard what Sally was really saying,  “Why don’t you just go get drunk?  Hey, Tools,  Torey is home.  Monsignor Shuldik would surely not be so stupid as to hurt him now.”  Sally was offering me a way out.  All I’d have to do is live up to her opinion of me.  The devil was tempting me.  Jump off the temple wall.  Your Father will save you.

            What Sally didn’t know was that I had launched my soul into empty space way before the Devil came into the kitchen.  Everything was in motion. 

Anyway, she had missed the point.  The monster who hurt Torey, the man who killed Terri,  weren’t acting out of intelligence or stupidity.  It wasn’t an aspect of IQ.  There were other kids involved.  There would be more in the future.  There were no decisions to be made — to stop or go on.  Once begun, the crimes became part of an inexorable destiny.  A man’s demons, when they are fed too often, can turn and eat his free-will.  No, there was no rationality to this reality.  The problem was evil itself.  Evil was pursuing my son.

In the Bible, Job says it like this:  “…Dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake.  A spirit glided past my face.  The hair of my flesh bristled.  It stood still.  I could not discern its face…”  Evil comes even to the just man.  I was far from being above it.  So was Torey.  So are we all.

            I don’t know if I believe in Satan.  Maybe you do.  If God expected Lucifer to do nothing but praise him all day and all night for eternity,  I don’t blame him for being a little rebellious.  Surely God isn’t that needy.  Evil isn’t Satan’s invention.  It is ours.

            Evil is real.  You can’t turn your back on it.  You can’t pretend it’s not there.  You can’t feed the monster.  Once it steps into your life, you must fight to push it away.  You cannot destroy it, but you might be able to cut off an arm, or two, or three.  Leo Shuldik had to be cut off.  I knew it that moment sitting there in the kitchen.  I had known it the second I saw Doug blow his head off.  I had decided it when I saw that ring and my naked son.  I was making a list and checking it twice.

It was another one of my great ideas.  Typical, I hadn’t figured on Torey having to put the apple on his head while his alcoholic daddy’s fingers were twitching on the bowstring.  Regardless, it was going to happen.  I saw it all in my head.

            Sally was still going on.  “Valerie, you only saw the tapes in the boxes, but not what was on them, is that right?”

            Valerie was nursing another cup of coffee.  It was two in the morning, Friday morning.  “Yeah, but I believe Marty, Sal.”

            “Yeah, you believe Marty.”  She underlined the “you.”

            I couldn’t take it anymore.  “Sally, why are you so mean to me?  You know I love you.”  I got up and went to the Frigidaire.  I glanced at the poetry book – just to make sure — then opened the refrigerator door.  Damn! Val had only left, at most, a sixteen ounce tumbler full of wine in the bottle.  That wasn’t nearly enough.  I tried to figure out how to sneak out to the package store.  Shit!  It was way past closing time.  Maybe I could head over to Ahmed’s and…

            If Mohammed can’t go to the mountain, bring the mountain to Mohammed.

            The kitchen door flew open like the “Laugh-In” joke wall.  Only it wasn’t Ruth Buzzi.  It was Detective First Class Carl Vandy, and he was roaring, stinking, three sheets to the wind, smashed, feeling lots of pain, drunk.

            “Fuck all of you!”  This was going to be fun.

            “Carl, what the hell…”

            He dropped to his knees.  His eyes were beyond bloodshot.  This wasn’t the sober Vandy I knew.  I mean, I knew he was an alcoholic.  But I’d never seen him drunk before.  I didn’t think his AA buddies would approve.  That didn’t seem important right now.  What was important was that he was teetering and about to beach himself, face down, on the kitchen floor.

            I jumped to him and got my hands under his arm.  That was great, but not real helpful.  He weighed two-forty easy, and now it was a dead drunk, dead weight two forty.  I could keep him somewhat vertical and that was it.  We were entangled there like a warped parody of the Boystown “He ain’t Heavy”  statue.  He was heavy.  I was about to lose him, and the rest of my pride, when Val and Sally came to my aid.  Valerie came because she cared.  Sally came because she didn’t want Val in a group grope without her.

            “You fuckers!  Let go of me!”  Vandy bellowed.  So we all did.  It was a very large thump when he hit the floor.  The neighbors began adding their thumps on the wall.

            “It’s two A.M. fer Chris’ sake!”  They had a point.

            Vandy tried once…twice..he flopped over flat on his back.

            Maybe some social niceties would help.  “Hello, Carl.  What’s up?” 

            “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.”  I wasn’t sure what he meant.  Then I heard a cell phone ringing, somewhere.  It wasn’t mine, er, Vandy’s.  I’d thrown that one into the night quite awhile a go.  It rang again.  No, it was Vandy’s.  That is to say, Vandy’s new one.  He had a new cell phone.  It rang again.  Vandy just had a puzzled look on his face.  I don’t know if he even heard it.

            I bent over the wreckage and fished it out of his inside pocket.  The sports jacket he had on was a hideous dark blue polyester.  It rang.  I picked up.

            “Hello?”

            “Daddy?  Is that you, daddy?”  It was a young girl.  Probably a teenager.  The voice was on the edge of mature.  I didn’t know who she was, but I was reasonably sure that I wasn’t her daddy.  I hoped so.  I always try not to acknowledge paternity more than once a week.

            “No, I’m not your dad.  This is Detective Vandy’s phone.”

            “Is he all right?  This is his daughter Sammi.  Can I talk to him?”

            I looked down at Vandy.  Drool was running down his cheek and pooling on the linoleum.  I thought we might want to roll him on his side before he pulled a Jimi Hendrix.

            “He can’t talk right now.  Can I take a message?”

            “I just need to tell him that I’m not home because…”  There were some other kids giggling in the back ground.  “Ssshhh!  Ssshhh! I’m not home because I’m spending the night at Jackie’s?”  There was more giggling.

            “O.K., I’m sure that’s fine.”

            “And ask him if I can use the emergency ATM card?  We need money to rent a movie?”  Teenage girls end a majority of their sentences like they were questions.

            “Carl, your daughter’s going to use the ATM card, O.K.?”  The drool bubbled a little.  “Yeah, he says that’s fine, too.  Have fun.”

            “O.K.thanksgoodbye.”  She shotgunned it and disconnected.  I might not be a bad father.  I could do this stuff.

            I set the phone on the table.  The three of us wrestled Vandy into the living room.  A baby grand piano would have been easier.  Val got a blanket and some pillows.  We tucked him in right there on the floor.  I hoped the carpet had been Scotchguarded.  I looked up, and my love gave me a blanket and pillow.  She kissed me on the cheek.

            “We all need to get to bed.  We need some sleep.  You keep an eye on Vandy.”  She and Sally headed towards the bedroom.  Sure, boys in one room, girls in the other.  Sally gave me a little look of triumph and headed off in Val’s wake.  This was great.  It was a dream come true.  I was stuck with a drunk, periodically violent, armed man.  Sally was in the inner sanctum.

            I sprawled on the too short couch.  At least I was on high ground if the flood came.  Vandy’s whiskey snore kept me awake.  I was thinking back over the day.  The tape.  Torey.  Best Buy.  Vandy’s walrus bleatings covered any noise I might have made when I went into the kitchen and the fridge.  Half a bottle of wine was going to have to be enough.  I went back to my couch, and popped in a video.  I settled back.  Torey had done a good job adjusting the colors.  I’d never seen such a true picture on the old set.  I picked up the remote and hit freeze.  Then I thought some more.

            The next morning, when I might have slept, Sally was singing in the shower.  That was worrisome.  I could hear someone in the kitchen and smell the French Vanilla.  Val was up and she had a CD on the little player.  It was Nick Lowe singing “The Beast in Me.”  A sweet little plaintive song that spoke right to me.

            I rolled over and looked down at the fleshy landfill known as Carl Vandy.  You could see the stench.  The tail of his sport coat had worked its way into his mouth.  His hair was a comb-over disaster.  But God be praised.  He had not thrown up.  I just stayed there on my back.  If he drank, why did I have a headache?

            After Sal finished, I hit the shower.  I avoided stepping on any suspicious hair near the drain, wrapped myself in a towel, and went in the bedroom to grab some clean clothes out of the closet.  Ms. Rosemond was brushing her hair on the bed.  She looked out from under the black curls falling over her face and paused just long enough to make a disapproving puff of a sound.  Then she started humming,  “Send in The Clowns.”

            I dropped the towel.  She didn’t miss a sarcastic beat.  By the time I was dressed, she had headed into the kitchen.  I checked Milton’s book.  We three sat drinking coffee and sharing some stimulating total lack of conversation.  Felix the clock said it was one in the afternoon.  Then someone knocked at the door.

            Valerie kind of flinched.  It would be awhile before she got over yesterday’s first little visit by Redlands.

            I’m the man, so I answered the knock and opened the door.  It was Father Kenny Corleone.  He looked like he hadn’t slept at all.  We did all the standard greetings and sat him down.  We poured him some java.  He took some creamer and spooned it in his cup.  He stirred very slowly.

            I knew the answer but I asked,  “You didn’t bring the tape back, did you?”  I hadn’t really expected he would.

            “There is no tape.”  He kept looking into his cup for something.  The spoon kept slowly circling.

            “There is no tape!”  Sally said it like she knew all along that there never was a tape.  I gave her a look then that she actually understood.  She took a gulp of hot coffee and shut up.

            I turned back to Ken.  “What do you mean there is no tape?  Redlands had it last night.  You went with him.”  I actually said a little prayer to myself.  I had to have figured this right.

            “Oh, there was a tape.  There were seven tapes altogether.  I watched them all.  I watched them all.”  He kept the spoon in motion.  It seemed very important to him that the spoon keep moving.  Circles and more circles.

            “Was?  You said was?” Valerie leaned over and stopped his hand as she spoke.

            When the spoon was stopped, he took a long shuddery breath,  then another.  He held it together.  It was a close thing.

            “We burned them.  We burned the tapes.”  He looked towards the wall.  “We took them all and poured gasoline on them, and we burned them.  There’s nothing left but a puddle of melted black plastic lava.  There is no tape.  There are no tapes.”  He drank the whole cup in one go.  It banged back onto the saucer and broke it neatly in two.

            “He burnt the fucking tapes?!”  I acted like I was about to hit him.  I can act.  The truth is, I had expected exactly what happened.  All my visions ended with the tapes being destroyed.

            Val broke in.  “Shut up, Tools!  Let Father tell the whole story.  Ken, what happened?”

            “After we talked, Marty, I ran down the block and caught up with Redlands.  When he got in his car,  I jumped in with him.”  Kenny exhaled.

            Father Corleone had some guts.

            “He’s a very religious man, a very devout Catholic.  He hates you, both of you.”

            Val shook a little.  “We know.  I know.”

            “He didn’t know what the tapes were when he took the first six off your table.  He grabbed them because he’d been told to.”

            “Who told him to?”  I knew, but I asked.

            “He wouldn’t say exactly, but…”

            “He didn’t say exactly?” I can interrogate like the coldest bastard in the world when I have to.

            “Not exactly. Shuldik.  I think it was Shuldik.  Redlands talked about how the Monsignor had spoken about being the Saviour.  He kept repeating that phrase.  Be the Saviour.”  Father Ken’s face looked like he was in pain.  “Somebody was telling him what to do.  Redlands watched the six tapes after he stole them from the apartment.  I don’t think he was supposed to do that.  The tapes shocked him.  It might have even confused him.  He decided to kill you, Marty.  And Val.  Both of you.  He had to protect the church.  He figured you and Val were out to hurt the diocese.  That’s what he thought.”

            Val was very close to panic.  Sally was stroking her back.  I was on the wrong side of the table.  I wanted to hold her.

            The priest continued, “He told me all about it.  He was sure you had made the tapes to use against the Diocese in some sort of atheistic plot.  Torey turned up with you.  It was very clear to him that you two had to die.”

            I caught the tense this time.  “It was very clear to him?  You said was?”

            “We talked about many things.  I am a priest, you know.  And he is very, very, very devout.  We talked about his wife and their problem conceiving a child.  It has pushed him to the edge.  I got that feeling very strongly.  When we got to his house, there was no sign of her.  Redlands wouldn’t talk about her.  I think maybe she’s left him.  We went into the living room.  All the furniture was gone except for an old TV.  That’s where James and I watched the last tape.  I made sure.  Like you told me to.  I made sure he watched that tape.  The one you gave him last night.”  He stopped.  He looked at me like he knew something.

            “Go on.”  He might not have, if I hadn’t spoken.  He was waiting for me to say something else.  I kept my vision to myself.

            “You told me Shuldik was on the tape.”  He was angry.  His hand was back on his collar.  “But…but when I saw it, when I saw the blurred hand… when I freeze-framed that hand… when I saw that ring… that red gem stone… so red… and when Redlands saw the stone…  at first he didn’t seem to recognize…”  Kenny was shaking.  The priest looked at me like he wanted to say something,  but he looked around at Val and Sally and just took another deep breath. 

Kenny went on.  “The ring was frozen on the screen, and the room was very dark.  I said it first.  ‘The Monsignor’s ring!’ I said.”  Corleone gave me a look.  I nodded.  “Look, James, the Monsignor’s ring.  Redlands was suddenly very angry.  He saw it, Marty.  He only has a small television.  The quality of the picture wasn’t good, but the ruby was in technicolor.  He saw.  He exploded.  Redlands just stared at the ring and the naked boy.  As a devout man, he’s heard the Monsignor speak many times at the Catholic Life rallies, at the Purity of Marriage retreats, in the ‘immorality of those people’ sermons.  Redlands had kissed Shuldik’s ring.”

            Father Kenneth Corleone was very angry and sad at the same time.  He held up his cup.  He looked like he was trying to swallow, but he had no spit.  We ignored the broken circle of the saucer.  Sally refilled his cup.  He took a few sips.  I didn’t hurry him now.

            “I think something snapped in him.  Maybe it had broken a long time ago.  I talked to him for maybe two hours after that.  But it was hard making sense of what he said.  He took the tape, all the tapes, and I followed him out onto the patio.  It was morning by then.  That’s when he burned the tapes.  And he… Redlands quoted from the bible as the tapes burned.”

            “Quoted the Bible?  What… what did he say?”  It was important.  I knew it.

            “Something from Hosea.”

            “The Old Testament.  Good.  What was it?”  If Redlands was in the old books maybe things were working.

            Father Ken Corleone closed his eyes to bring the words back.  “He recited the verses that said… God, he was so intense.”

            “What were his words, Father?”

            And Ken recited Redlands’ version of Hosea.  “I reject you, oh priest.  Because you have forgotten the law of God.  I will punish you for your ways.  I will punish you for your deeds.  You have played the whore.  You have forsaken the Lord.”

            Val gave a little whistle.  “Damn.”

            “Precisely,” I said.  The danger quotient was going up, but that was something I had expected. 

            Father Ken’s voice trembled.  I think he thought he had let me, let Torey down.  “I didn’t dare stop him from burning them.. or even try to.  I’m sorry.”  He put his face in his hands.  “I thought he was going to kill me right there.  When he recited Hosea he looked straight into my eyes.  Then he asked me…”

“What did he ask you, Father.”  Val had her hand on his arm.

“He asked me to hear his confession.  I did.  And I gave him absolution.”

            Val squeezed his arm.  “You did what you could, Father.  You did what you could.”

            He looked up.  “There’s one more thing.”

            I didn’t ever imagine he would say what he did then.

            He looked me straight in the eye.

            “He wants to meet with you.  He wants to meet with you alone.  He wants to meet you tonight at midnight.”

            I held my breath.  “Where?”

            “On the Albino Farm.”

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 32

            Religious people often have violent disagreements about mercy.

            In 1281 the French Catholic hierarchy was quarreling with the then freshly minted, Franciscan Order about the nature of God’s mercy.  Several Cardinals were attacked by the humble friars with sharp sticks, and more than a few brown-robed monks were slathered with pitch and set afire in retaliation.  Eventually though, the violence got out of hand and began to interfere with the Church’s revenue stream.  Pope Martin IV was finally forced to call the Thirty-Sixth Council of Paris, demanding that the holy men settle their differences.  It didn’t work.  The conference soon devolved into fistfights, rude spitting, a decapitation — the equivalent of towel snapping in the Middle Ages – or two, and drunken duels in the shadow of Notre Dame.

            But before the meeting broke up, the Bishops, Cardinals, and Abbots were able to agree on one and only one thing:  Jugglers should be banned from the kingdom.  It’s a true fact.  Look it up.

Sally had left me alone in the kitchen, and I was standing there holding Torey’s videotape – the tape — when the ideas started to come together.  I tossed the video in the air, spun around and caught it behind my back.  I picked up the Mother Theresa salt and pepper shakers off the counter and tossed the nuns and the tape into the kitchen air above my head.  Careful of the ceiling, I popped them up, using the palms of my hands – catch release, catch, release.  The white-robed holy woman’s face spun towards me and away.  The black plastic cassette tumbled like the monolith in 2001.  I did a circle, an over the shoulder, and a one-hand shuffle.  I must have looked like a madman.  I was.  Finally, a cloud of pepper hit my nose.  I caught the saints and the sinner.  Then I sneezed.  I sat down at the kitchen table and looked at the tape.

            All video tapes look the same except for their labels.  There’s some drab factory in Taiwan or somewhere.  Some guy makes fifty cents a day, and he produces thousands of these.   Or he puts them in box after box after box.  He loads truck after truck.  They fill up container ship after container ship.  Blank tapes sell by the billions for pennies.  How much was this one worth?  Could it get Mikey his freedom back?  Could it get Torey some justice?  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  I held the video in my hands.  I hoped I wouldn’t have to look at its insides again.  I knew that hope was misplaced.  There were so many possible plans.

            Plan A:  I’d leave now and give the tape to Vandy.  Who would have to give it to the D.A. “Slow Joe” Kensington.  He was the Monsignor’s money man.  Kensington would destroy it.

            Plan B:  I’d give the tape to Liz Nice.  She’d take it to her boss at the TV station who would see all his advertising dollars dry up the day after he broke the story.  Kensington’s family owned the station.  He’d give it to Kensington.  Kensington would destroy it.

            Plan C:  I’d call up some ambitious Tirawa newspaper reporter.  They’d show the tape to their  editors, who’d show it to the publisher – Kensington’s wife.  The reporter would be packed off to re-hab and the tape would be destroyed.

            Plan D:  I’d give the tape to some lawyer who dreamed of fat contingency fees.  A jury would give us millions.  Except for the fact that Redlands would probably kill the lawyer, steal the tape, and give it to Kensington way before any jury saw it.  Kensington would destroy it.

            No matter how I ran the scenario, I lost the tape.  I had to think quick.   How could I use the ring clad finger as a weapon?  Stick it like a gun in somebody’s back and whisper, “Stick ‘em up?”  Who were the vulnerable inmates in this prison?  Where was Jethro?

            That’s what I was doing; thinking, plotting, looking for an angle, when I heard all the cars pulling up outside.  The door flew open.  They didn’t even knock.  I set down my coffee so I could keep Kim calm and turned towards the door where I expected to see her.

            My heart actually did stop at that moment.

            I could see Kim and Father Ken outside down a few steps.  And there at the door was my favorite cop.  I was a little surprised.  I really didn’t think he’d be the first one in the door.  I had figured him for third place.

            How many times was Officer James Redlands going to jump on my life today?  Wait, it was a new day according to the Felix the Cat clock on the wall.  It was Friday morning, and there he stood.  This time he was out of uniform.  He was wearing jeans and a nice high neck Scandinavian sweater.  It made him look bigger than ever.

            Redlands was giving me a disturbing look.  “Psychos, they’re not just for breakfast anymore.”  Did I say that out loud?  I believe I did.  I picked up the video.  I figured that would be  like waving a red cape at a bull.  He was on me in a step-and-a-half.  He almost knocked me off my chair.  I caught my balance and, oops, I dropped the tape.  I am such a fucking butterfingers.  He picked it up quicker than an NHL face-off.  I should have been stunned.  Yeah, that’s the word; stunned.  I acted stunned.  Plan E.

            The rest filed in right behind him.  Kim was all dressed up with her makeup on a bit thick, as was her style the last few years.  She hugged me like a pro wrassler.  I was still on the dinette chair, and her boobs were suffocating me — so was her perfume.

            “Oh, Martin, thank you.  Thank you for finding Torey.  Thank you.”  She let go of me so fast I almost fell over.  “Where is he?”

            “He’s in…”  I started to gesture in Torey’s direction, but it was superfluously redundant.  There was only one direction to go.  I heard her squealing from the living room.  Redlands backed up and stood by the door.  He had the tape in one massive paw.

            Father Ken gestured me outside.  I gestured him in.  I wasn’t getting any closer to Conan than I had to.  The priest had to turn sideways, but he made it in and sat down at the table.

            “How’s Torey?”

            I didn’t take my eyes off the tape. The tape was the whole game.  It wasn’t worth a shit in court.  Not in a Tirawa court.  There was a different trial about to convene, and the judge was a real piece of work.  I looked at Redlands.  I looked at the tape in his hands. 

            Father Ken repeated, “How’s Torey?”

            “He’s O.K., considering what’s happened to him.  Poor molested kid.”  That was for Redlands ears.

            The cop winced at the sound of “molested.”  Catholics are sensitive to the word these days.

            At the tiny dinette, Ken and I were now very close together.  The rest would be quiet, just between the two of us.

            “Torey’s doing O.K., I think.”

            He put his face in his hands.  When he pulled them away, I could see his eyes were filling.  He choked it back.  “Tools, I want you to know… I’ve been thinking about this ever since you told me.  I really didn’t know.  I knew Torey was troubled…I should have known… I should have seen it.  I should have listened more closely to what Torey said… I thought…”  He didn’t know what to think, either.  “Father Hunter’s suicide… Terrible…  It was on the news.  You were there?”

            “I was there.”

            “You’re sure it wasn’t Doug.”

            “It wasn’t Hunter.”

            “Who?”  He was crying, almost.

            “Monsignor Shuldik.  He did it.  He’s on that tape doing it.  Wearing the bishop’s red ruby ring on that tape.” I nodded towards Redlands.  I wanted Corleone to know how important the tape was.  “Shuldik is on that tape,”  I whispered.

            Ken was quick on the pick-up.  His face went through a lot of changes.  Anger?  Hate?  Disgust?  Pain?  It was hard to read.  All the expressions flashed by so quick.  His hands became fists.  Then they relaxed.  He was struggling, but he controlled himself.  “Are you going to the police?”

            I didn’t answer.  I just looked over at the hulking cop in the doorway.

            “I understand.  What are you going to…”

“Don’t ask me that, Father.”

His eyes widened.  He stroked his chin.  “I understand.”

“No you don’t.”  I was a little harsh.

Kenny let it go.  “No I don’t.”

“I’m going to ask for that favor.”

“The favor…  You should understand this.  Shuldik sacked me today.”  He had trouble saying the name.

            “You’re fired?”  My voice got louder than I intended.

            At that moment there was a commotion at the door.  Redlands was distracted.  Liz Nice had led a charge of reporters up the back steps.  He was busy holding them out.  It was a natural reflex for him.  Ken and I could talk a little more freely.  The din covered our words.

            “What happened?”

            “I’m transferred.”  Corleone sounded totally defeated.

            “Transferred where?”  I didn’t really know the guy.  But Valerie did, and she liked him.  I liked him, too.

            “All the way east to Herunting.”  It was a town up in the bluffs full of depressed Norwegian farmers.

            “Herunting?  There aren’t any Catholics there.  What’s going on here?”

            “I am supposed to reflect on the error of my ways.  The Chancellor will announce it at the ten o’clock mass Sunday.  He will celebrate the mass and my departure.”

            “Shuldik will say Mass at your church?”  Wheels started turning.

            “Yeah, a personal triumph for the man.”

            “There’s something else.”

            “What?”

            “When I was at Kim’s right after you called, and we were getting ready to come over here…  Well, the TV stations put the news out.”  We both turned and watched Redlands push the reporters back.  Yeah, the news was out.  No denying that. 

“I couldn’t stop them, Marty.  I’m sorry if I let you down.”  He nodded towards Redlands.  “I was supposed to keep it from getting out.  Keep him from finding out so quick.”

            “It’s all right.  It’s all right.”

            “No, it’s not.  We were heading out the door when Monsignor Shuldik called.”

            “He what?”

            “He called Kim.  He went on and on about how happy he was.  I couldn’t hear much, but I could hear Kim.  I think Shuldik told her I was a suspect in Torey’s case.”

            “What?”

            “He told her something.  She started acting real cold towards me.  All the usual funny looks.”  Ken looked sad.

            “Not a big deal now,” I said.

            “That’s not it.”

            “Go on.”

            “You know how Kim, Mrs. Janus, is impressed by power and privilege…”  Ken had a good take on Kim.

            “Yeah.  She’s always moving up.”

            “Shuldik said he would love to have Torey celebrate his rescue by serving that Mass.”

            “What?”

            “Shuldik asked if Kim would let Torey be one of the altar boys for the Mass Sunday at Infant of Prague.”

            “She said yes.”

            “She said yes?”  I just couldn’t believe it.

            I wasn’t surprised by Kim’s answer.  But I have to admit that I was shocked that the Monsignor would be that bold, that shameless.  I had my plan worked out, but this could fuck it all up.  “Can you talk her out of it?”

            “She thinks I’m a pedophile.”

            “Does Redlands think you’re a…”

            “No.  He treats me like a holy man.  He’s a true believer.  I’m a priest, ergo…”

            “Never tell the puppet about the strings.”

            “What?”

I remember looking at Father Corleone right at that moment and thinking he looked like there were strings on him, too.  “Nevermind, Father.”  I stood up and yelled.  “Goodbye, Torey!  Goodbye, Kim!  They’re going out the front door!”

            Redlands nearly fell over as the mob of reporters stopped pushing in an instant, and as a single mass started sprinting around to the other side of the building.

            “Listen to me, Ken.”

            “I’m listening.”  He leaned in closer.

“I need you to do exactly what I tell you to do.”  I was thinking.  I was thinking hard.  The fetal idea that was kicking up a storm in my devious womb appealed to my warped sense of the dramatic.

            “O.K…”  Father Ken wasn’t so sure.  Fact is, he probably wouldn’t have gone along with me if he had any idea of the outcome.  I wasn’t about to let him in on anything.  Trust is specifically forbidden in the rules of manipulation.  I looked up at the book of poetry on the fridge, and begged Milton’s forgiveness for putting his poetry to such a bloody use.

            “Just do what I say.”  I might have scared Ken.  I think I was kind of over-the-line fierce at that point.

            I noticed Redlands slipping out the door, finally free of the news pirhanas.  The tape was leaving with him.  There was commotion from the living room.  The tearful reunion was over, and the packing up was commencing.  I was sure Torey would take the PS2 with him.  A boy can never have too many game machines.

            I grabbed Father Corleone by his Roman collar and pulled him closer yet.  “You’ve got to go with him.  Go out to Redlands.  Maybe he’ll listen to a priest.  He’s going to follow Kim home with Torey.  You have to be with him.  You’re a priest.  He can’t say no to you.  Go with him.  If you’re with redlands Torey is safe.  Then after, go home with him.  His house.  You’ve got to be there and make sure Redlands watches the tape.”  I pulled him closer and whispered, “Look for a blur.  A hand moving.  Stop the frame.  Look at the hand.  Make him see whose side God is really on, Father.  And listen to me.  No matter what, make him see the Monsignor’s ring.”

            “I will.”

            “No matter what?”

            “I’ll make him see it.”  Up close, the young priest had the eyes of an unindicted co-conspirator.  “I’ll make him see.”  He got up and headed out the door.

            I yelled after him, “Just be a priest!  Be his priest!”

            Father Corleone turned, “I’m a good priest.”

            “Yes you are, Father.  Yes you are.”  I watched him trot off after Redlands.  My conscience started to act up, but I know where the “off” switch is.  I hoped Father Ken Corleone was a very good priest.  I’d just sent him off to Satan’s lair.

            Sally came out lugging the Playstation.  Val and Torey followed.  She whispered something in his ear.  He came to me and hugged me.  It was a tentative hug; all arms, no body.  It was the best he could do.  I loved it. As limited as it was, I loved it.  Valerie walked him out.  I was about to stand up and follow.

            Kim reappeared and hugged me again.  “How can I ever thank you enough?”

            I like breasts, but this was a bit much. “Mfff mff fll lmf!”  I said.

            “Maybe you’ll get the reward.”

            “Reward?”

            “With all the great television coverage, it’s up to fifty-two thousand dollars!”  She was so pleased with herself.

            “Reward?”  I would normally be pretty pleased myself.  Though I always feel a bit strange taking honest money.

            “There’s a chance to make some more money, too.”  Kim was excited, almost flushed.  It seemed very off-key.  I had no idea what she was talking about.  I wasn’t really paying close attention.

            “Kim, you can’t let Torey serve that Mass, Sunday.”

            “But the Monsignor has asked for Torey personally.”

            “Kim…”  I couldn’t tell her what I knew.  Kim was too stupid.  Too blind.  I turned to Torey.  “Don’t do it, son.”  I picked the wrong word.

            “Son?  Don’t call me that.”

            “Torey, listen to me.  You know about Shuldik.  Tell your mother.”

            “The Monsignor is a very important man.  He’s always been very nice to me.”

            “Torey!”  I yelled at the boy.

            Kim pushed me away from him.  “Marty, stop it!  Stop it!  You may be his father but you’re… you’re not… not really.”

            They were gone in a cloud of perfume.  The reporters hadn’t caught on to my simple trick yet.  No one had caught onto any of my tricks.  Kim and Torey made it to the car without interference and they pulled away into the night.  Redland was driving his civilian car, a blue Toyota.  Parked across the street, he watched them leave then spun his car around to follow.  I thought I could see someone in the car with him.  It was dark.  I crossed my fingers.

            Torey was my son.  I was his father.  Both facts meant exactly zero.  Welcome to my world.  I’d never protected Torey before.  Why should he trust me now?  He’d seen them kill.  They murdered Terri right in front of him.  Worse, in his mind, he was to blame.  He was part of the Monsignor’s world.  As warped as the bonds were, they were strong.  I had to figure out how to break them.  I wouldn’t be Torey’s father until I could truly protect him.  I swore I would let hell loose to do it.  I swore.

            All I could think about was the tape; the finger and the ring, Father Lee, Leo Shuldik, and his betrayal.  The tape in James Redlands’ hands.  He had to see what I had seen in Pies basement – a red ruby ring.  Everything depended on what happened with that tape.  The tape was the only tool I could use – the only tool that wasn’t human, that is.

            Val and Sally went back into the bedroom.  Usually it would have bothered me, but that night it was just fine.

            I grabbed the phone book off the shelf and tore through the pages to “R.”  “Thank God.”  I must have shouted it.  I didn’t mean to.  Things were happening faster than I liked.  I was ad-libbing.  That was dangerous.  Ask Terri.  “Thank God.”

            Val must have heard me all the way down the hall.  “What did you say, Marty?”

“Nothing.”  I slammed the book shut, and reached under Milton’s poetry on the fridge.  I yelled towards the bedroom, “I’m heading out to get some booze, Val.”

            “Marty…!”  she yelled from down the hall.

            It was too late.  I was out the door. 

I could see the tail lights of Kim’s car heading away north.  I could see Redlands, accompanied by Corleone, I hoped, following.  Another big risk — I was counting on Redlands not killing my kid.  No matter what, Redlands was a good Catholic, too fucking-crazy-good.  I was counting on the old medieval rule of sanctuary-by-proxy.  No killing in front of a priest.

They’d head back to Kim’s house, way up north.  That would give me enough time.  It was only about two miles to Redlands’ modest little bungalow in that little blue-collar neighborhood of his.  I had a quick service call to make.  I was really nervous.

Sometime I drink to calm my nerves, but other times the best medicine for my stress is a nice relaxing burglary.   Music helps, too.  Was it just a quirk of fate that, when I got to the stolen Sebring and went through the CD’s, there was Cyndi Lauper just when I needed her?  I headed towards Redlands’ place singing along.

True colors.