ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 17

            My kid was in a cave full of monsters.

            I was sure of it.  I could sense it.  The image was vivid in my head.  Eventually I found out how right I was.  I had been in that same cave once.  When I was twelve… I’ll leave it there.  For the sake of my own sanity.

            Knowing where all this was going when I started telling you the story, it’s been impossible not to let the end peek out from time to time.  So don’t think you’re smarter than me just because you’re a bit ahead of where I was at that particular point.  Stories have a way of turning when you least expect them to.   “The journey not the destination,” as a schizophrenic on a long smelly bus ride to Albuquerque told me once.  All endings are the same really; blouses get stained, mad captains are swallowed by the sea, and people we love get hurt.  Stick with me.  I’ve still got a lot of story to tell.

            “So, Father, you say there’s a big meeting at the Chancellery tonight?”

            Kenny had a mouthful of cookie.  “Yes.  The monthly gathering of the faithful.  Shuldik will be giving a big speech.”

            “If I went over there, could I get to the Monsignor?”

            The young priest stopped mid-chew.  “Get to?”

            Val jumped in.  “Marty, you can’t kill him just because you suspect that…”

            “Relax.  I just want to see the guy.  He lives over there doesn’t he, Father Corleone?”

            “Yeah, he has a big house next to the bishop’s…”

            “Bigger house?”  I said.

            “…Yeah, next to the bishop’s bigger house.  There’s a compound on the property next to the Chancellery.”

            “You just want to case the joint.”  Valerie had an accusatory tone, and rightly so.

            “Well, as long as we’re in the neighborhood.”

            Valerie had a coughing fit.  She was chain smoking.  The whole time we were there, she was inhaling every burning object in sight.  Kim would light up a fag — excuse me, Father Corleone — then set it down in the ashtray every time the phone rang.  Val would snatch the ciggie up and finish it before Kim noticed a thing.  The house smelled like an old-line AA meeting.  It was making me uncomfortable.

            So I understood why Kim was happy to see us go.  She wanted to talk to Father Kenny.  She wanted to talk on the phone.  She sure didn’t want me sitting there conspiring to commit a felony burglary.  And mainly, she wanted to protect her last two cigarettes.  Kim was trying to do all three, when Val and I slipped out the back. 

We hopped the fences again and got in the car.  After Valerie started it up and just missed a mailbox within ten feet of where we started, I wished I had stolen at least two of Kim’s Ativan.  Valerie had her nicotine.  I was unarmed.  I hadn’t had a drink since Monday.  Worse, it seemed unlikely that I’d be able to clear my calendar and make it to Honkers’ Wednesday tradition, “They Ain’t No Ladies’ Night.”

            We got lost three times trying to get out of the suburban maze.  At night the street signs are nothing but vague, dark shapes in the bushes.  On almost every corner shadows mask their numbers. Mercury vapor light blocks out the stars and turns Caucasian skin into wax.   Streets, Terraces, Circles, Places all double back on one another.  There are no landmarks.  The planners didn’t want strangers here.  I really expected to come face-to-face with a Minotaur after every wrong turn.  It wouldn’t stand a chance against Valerie’s mad Neon.  Her alternate tapping of the gas pedal and brake was positively abusive.   Her foot moved like Twyla Tharp listening to La Vida Loca.  Eventually we escaped and emerged onto streets that actually led somewhere.

            The Chancellery sat off a wide, tree-lined boulevard.  Val pulled the Neon into a parking spot between a mini-van and a schoolbus.  She was able to keep the bright yellow paint scrapings to a minimum as her front quarter panel brushed the bus so very delicately.  When we stopped, there was less than two inches of clearance and I had to crawl out of the car on the driver’s side.

            The entrance to the conference hall was illuminated in the bright yellow glow of fake antique globe streetlights.  A row of trees to the right framed a walkway leading up a small hill towards the bishop’s mansion.

            “Let’s go,”  I said to Val.  “We can go right by the conference hall.  Looks like everyone’s inside for the big speech.”

            “No way, Marty.”  Val had an irritated tone in her voice.  “I drove you here, but I’m not about to help you break and enter.”

            “O.K., you be the wheel man.  Wait here.”  It was just as well.  Val was next to useless as a second-story man.  Plus she had already lit up a cigarette.  She sat down on the warm hood of the Neon and puffed away.

            “Don’t take too long,” she said.

            “Sure.”  I was already moving towards the walkway.

            “And be careful.”

            I didn’t try to sneak.  Sneaking always looks sneaky.  The sneakiest way to sneak around is not to be sneaky.  Does that make sense?  Well, it’s true.  I just walked straight on up to the entrance to the conference center like I belonged there.

            That’s when I saw Detective Vandy’s unmarked car parked at the curb.

            “Shit.”

            “Excuse me?”  A uniformed security guard stepped out of the walkway shadows.  “May I help you, sir.”  He had a lovely German Sheppard on a short leash at his side.

            “No.  Just stubbed my toe.  Good dog.  I mean, yes, you can help me. Is the conference in here?”  I pointed at the big glass doors with the big sign that read, “Conference 7:30” posted on the lintel.  The big dog growled when I pointed.  I stopped pointing.

            “Yes, sir.  Been going on a while now.  Believe it’s almost over now.”  The man was starting to reach for his walkie-talkie.

            “Well, I’ll just head in and catch the good part.”  I moved slowly so that his furry partner with the big yellow teeth wouldn’t think I was a Milk-Bone treat.  Any chance of checking out the Monsignor’s place was off.  I wondered why Detective Vandy was there, and I figured at that point that I might as well just mosey on in and see what was up, so that the jaunt over wasn’t a total loss.  I ducked inside and saw the detective right away.  There wasn’t really anyplace to hide in the big open lobby.  So I just froze.

            Detective Carl Vandy was pacing back and forth in the foyer.  Carl was clutching a white Styrofoam cup.  That was hard to see.  The cup was so small, and his beefy hand so big, it disappeared.  Now I know institutional coffee, and it’s usually a very light brown.  It was my guess that it had taken Vandy six cups just to get slightly irritated.

            “Anymore on the videotape, Valasquez?”

            Valasquez’s face looked like it was the tenth time Vandy had asked the question that night.  “Nothing, Boss.  All the tech can tell me is it’s old and full of edits.”  Valasquez knew enough to just answer the question as if it were the first time it had been asked.

            Vandy kept pacing.  The plastic cup was deformed in his hand by the constant squeeze of frustration.  When he abruptly handed it to Valasquez, it was an exaggerated oval shape.

            “Get me another cup.  See if you can find something close to black,”  Vandy snorted.  He pulled out his cell phone, flipped it open, then cursed, “Shit.  Can’t get no signal in this damn tomb.”

            “You gotta call somebody?”

            “No.  But the damn thing keeps vibrating like there’s an incoming call.  Then when I try to pick up, no signal.  Fuckin’ thing just keeps vibrating.”

            Valasquez headed to the other side of the large lobby where a row of stainless steel coffee urns sat on a long cafeteria style table.  Above the urns on the wall was a mural dominated by a large Jesus extending his arms above a cartoonish style globe rendered in finger-paint hues of brown and blue.  Jesus’ skin was impossibly white, the color of a picket fence in suburbia; Albino Jesus.

            The speakers inside the meeting droned on and on.  There were occasional small waves of reverential applause, like a golf gallery, restrained, not too loud.  The voice of Monsignor Shuldik leaked out of the hall.

            “…these lawsuits elsewhere in the country are baseless.  Thankfully we have no such legal persecutions here in Tirawa.  I have worked hard to make sure our position remains pure.  But there are problems.  The Church is under attack, and the situation is being exploited by the press and the atheistic forces of humanism and relativism that have finally come home to roost.  That said, we have to take some of the responsibility, too.  For too long we tolerated those same forces in the Church itself.  To this very day we allow our Church to be subverted from within.  How long until we say again, Vade retro, Satana!  Get thee behind me Satan!  There are some among us who are not pure.  The laxity of modern culture must always be guarded against.  We must be vigilant.  We must turn back to the tested ways of our faith.  We must drive the evil out like our Saviour did at the Temple, for the Saviour lives in each of us.  I am the Saviour.  You are all the Saviour.  Let Him live inside you…”

            Vandy heard the Monsignor and cringed.  He was an old fashioned guy, but his opinion was clear on his face.  “Fucking ridiculous.  I am the fucking Saviour?”  That’s when he saw me.  “Tools?  What the hell are you doing here?” 

            I just looked up at the big mural of Jesus, and made the sign of the cross.  “Detective Vandy, please.  Your language.  Can’t you see we are in the lobby of the Lord?”

            “I’ll send you to the Lord’s lobby.”  He came towards me.  “Get outa’ here.”

            “I have every right to attend.  I’m a Catholic.”

            “Yeah, and the pope shits in the woods.”  He took a deep breath.  He’d been working the case for a couple days by then.  Vandy isn’t totally stupid.  Maybe he knew about Torey and me.  For whatever reason he backed off – a little.  “Yeah, maybe you’ve got the right to be here.”

            “I just want to talk to the Monsignor.”

            “Listen, Tools.  I’m the detective here.  You’re just the slimeball.  I’m going to talk to the guy, and you just stay out of my way.”

            I could see it all in his eyes. Vandy was Catholic, and he was sick in his heart about what he was beginning to suspect.

            “You going to ask about Father Hunter?”

            “Back off, Tools.”

            “Sure are a lot of arrows pointing at the pastor of St. Philomena.”

            “I’ll do it my way, Tools.”  Vandy sighed.

            Valasquez returned with the oddly shaped Styrofoam cup.  Vandy took it and looked inside.  An expression of disgust covered his face.  “Light brown!  I’ve seen snot with better color than this piss!”  He was over-mixing his bodily fluid metaphors.  Vandy took a gulp anyway.

            “Best I could do, Boss.”

            “Yeah, yeah… Shame what these cretins are doing to the Church.  Don’t you think, Valasquez?”

            “Wouldn’t know, sir.  I’m Presbyterian.”

            Vandy smiled, then he remembered I was standing there and he frowned again.  We all stopped talking.  The only sound in the lobby was the drone of the Monsignor’s sermon in the background and the almost steady humming vibration of Vandy’s cell phone.

            Vandy checked his watch.  “Two fucking hours!  Two fucking hours we been here!  Valasquez!”

            “Yeah, Vandy.”

            “I want you to go in there and take hold of the Monsignor’s stiff white collar, and drag his holy ass out here!”

            Valasquez had to know that his career was over if he did as Vandy had ordered.  He loved being a cop, and he wanted to be a good one like Vandy.  He admired Vandy.  I could tell.  Now he was presented with a stark choice.  Vandy had told him to go into a meeting of prominent people and bodily remove the most important of them.  Bottom line, he feared Vandy.  That outweighed everything.  He took a deep breath.  Looked up at Vandy.  There was no reprieve there.

            “O.K., here we go,” he muttered.  “Traffic beat won’t be so bad…”

            Events saved the young detective.  Another bit of polite clapping, and people began to emerge from the hall.  A few women with stiff over-sprayed hairdos from the sixties, but mostly men emerged, with the quiet light of inspiration and certitude on their faces.  There was a low murmuring as they shuffled for the doors.  One of the men stood out above the others.  He was tall. 

            “Son-of-a-bitch, Redlands!  Did you get that piss off your shoes?”

            Redlands nodded.  Two blue-haired women covered their mouths in shock at the earthy language.  Redlands stared straight ahead and bee-lined out of the lobby.

            “Aren’t you supposed to be on duty?”  Vandy yelled after him.  “And here you all in uniform and everything.”  He’d report Redlands tomorrow.

            Redlands didn’t look at Vandy, but he did make quick eye contact with me.  It was an evil look.  I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I knew that I didn’t like this guy knowing who I was.  But it was too late to worry about that.  The flea-ridden cat was out of the smallpox-infested bag, so to speak.

            Vandy smiled sweetly at the offended matrons, tossed down the last of the weak brew and crumpled the cup.  He tossed it in a nearby wastebasket and headed for a small knot of people surrounding the figure of Monsignor Shuldik, looking at him like he actually was the fucking Saviour — kissing his big red ruby ring and other basic fuedal behaviors. 

Vandy shouldered his way through all the fervid faithful straight up to the priest.  I tagged along trying for my best unobstrusive facial expression again.

            “I need to talk to you, Father.”

            “So you said earlier, Detective.  Give me a minute to finish talking to these dear people, and I’ll speak with you.”  Shuldik was treating Vandy like a bothersome servant.  Bad approach.

            “Sure, Father.  Take your time.”  Vandy was sounding reasonable.  That was a bad sign.  Shuldik didn’t pick up on it quick enough.

            “Thank you, Detect…”

            “I only wanted to talk to you about some child pornography.  And the connections to one of your priests…”

            “Good night.  Good night.”  Shuldik was frantically shaking hands and bidding farewell to the shocked group he had been talking to.  Within five seconds they were hustled off and Shuldik turned to face the caffeine-enriched Detective.

            “Do you realize what you were saying?  What were you thinking to mention that here?”

            “Oh, excuse me, Father.”

            “That’s Monsignor!  I act in the Archbishop’s name.  How dare you…”

            “Excuse me, Father.  I mention this distasteful subject here only because you wouldn’t meet with me in your office.”

            Shuldik was calming down a little.  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say he was regaining control.  Control was very important to him.  He saw me out of the corner of his eye and turned to give me a quick once over. 

            I didn’t much like the stare he was giving me.  I tried to back up behid the refreshment table.  It was covered in little white foam plates full of treats for the faithful.  The aroma was strong – fresh-baked cookies.

Shuldik’s eyes narrowed.  It was clear that he knew he’d seen me somewhere.  Still pondering that disquieting fact, the Monsignor turned back to Vandy.  “What exactly do you want from me, Detective?”

            “A good cup of coffee would be a good start.”

            There was a pause.  Shuldik didn’t get the jape, so he ignored the comment.  “What can I do for you, Detective?”

            Vandy moved close.  He invaded the Monsignor’s space.  He was leaning.  “You have any, shall we say, complaints about Father Hunter at Saint Phil’s?”

            “All those sorts of matters are extremely confidential, Detective.”  Shuldik had backed up.  He had reached the wall and run  out of room to maneuver.

            “I could subpoena your files.”

            “You could try.  And you would fail.”  Shuldik sounded ninety-five percent sure.  The other five percent bothered him though, and he showed it.

            “I will.”  Vandy leaned in.

            “Whenever we get any credible complaints, we turn them over to your Department.”

            Vandy chewed on that one.  It was true.  The pedophile cases involving the Church would be turned over to a division of Internal Affairs.  The run-of-the-mill lay pedophiles were handled by the vice cops.  In Tirawa, the Internal Affairs Division was under the supervision of the D.A., Kensington. “Shit!”  Kensington could head off any mess.

            “Pardon me, Detective?”

            “Listen, Father, I’ve got a missing kid.  This could be a lot more than sexual abuse.  I’ve already got one murder.  If I get another, well, guess what?  You’ll be playing in my ballpark.”

            A quick tremor hit Shuldik’s right eye.  It was a little loss of control. Shuldik was thinking, weighing the situation.

            “Have you talked to Father Corleone, the boy’s pastor?”

            “Funny you should ask.”  Vandy wasn’t laughing.  “I’ve gotten all sorts of information about Father Corleone.  This morning on my desk a big folder of stuff.  Pages and pages of confidential church documents about Father Corleone.  All the pages add up to the fact that he’s a fag.  Then this afternoon, I hear from the D.A.’s office.  I get more stuff about Father Corleone.  They think he’s a fag, too.  So I go down to the AIDs Outreach office, and sure enough, there’s Father Corleone.  I figure everybody’s right. He’s a fag.”

            “I suggest you follow up on that, Detective.”

            “Are you suggesting he’s messing around with kids?  Because if you’ve got any information..”

            “All of that would be confidential.”

            “Of course, of course, confidential.  Like all that confidential shit on my desk.  Do you know how all that helpful stuff about Corleone got to me, Father?”

            “I will investigate the unauthorized release of confidential material from this office, I assure you.”  Shuldik ducked under Vandy’s arm and headed off down the hall.  It was an athletic move for a man of his years.

            For a big man, Vandy was no slouch either.  He was alongside the Monsignor in a heartbeat.

            “You do that, Father.  You do that.  I’ll be talking to Father Hunter, too.  Got a file on him anywhere?”

            “Easy, Detective Vandy.”  It was the stentorian voice of our well-bred D.A., Joseph Kensington.  He had popped out of an office just ahead of the parade.

            “Mr. Kensington, so good to see you.”  The Monsignor was at his side grasping the proffered chubby hand of the noble patrician.  “So good to see you.”  Funny, Kensington didn’t kiss the Monsignor’s ring.  Maybe he wasn’t Joe’s type. Obviously Kensington’s cash was Shuldik’s type.   “And how’s your wife, Joe?”  Kensington’s wife, as publisher of the Star-Register newspaper, provided what they used to call “a mouthpiece.”  Now they call it “synergy.” 

Kensington didn’t answer Shuldik’s little social inquiry.  He turned immediately to the detective.  “Detective Vandy, so good to see you, too.”

            Vandy was now the underdog.  “Mr. Kensington, good evening.  I’m working on the Header case and the missing kid.  I’ve got a few more questions for…”

            “And you’re doing a great job, Detective Vandy.  I hope the evidence my office supplied you with today will help locate the unfortunate youth involved.  And,  Mr., Mr….?”   Kensington was looking straight at me. 

            I reached out and shook his hand.  “Mr. Jimenez, sir.  So nice to meet you.”

            Kensington froze for half a beat.  He couldn’t place me.  There was a quick tremor in his left eye, then he grabbed Vandy’s styrofoam cup right out of his hand and downed the last of the weak brew.

            “What the…”  Vandy was not ready for that move.

Kensington had his balance back again.  “And good evening Sergeant Valasquez, great future for you, Que linda noche, eh?  Just watch and learn from your legendary partner.  You will excuse us, gentlemen.  Church business.”   He put his arm around Shuldik’s shoulders and pulled him into the office.  The door shut.  Vandy and Valasquez were, as they say, standing there with their dicks in their respective hands.  Game over.

            Vandy was beyond pissed.  If he’d been drinking real coffee while he waited for his shot at the Monsignor, the top of his head would have exploded.  There would have been brains all over the ceiling.

            I took that as my cue to leave.  I headed for the door.  So did my cop friends.

            Valasquez was laughing quietly.

            Vandy didn’t like that.  He could spread his new partner’s brains overhead as a substitute.  “What’re you laughing at?”

            Valasquez didn’t seem scared.  “Que linda noche.”

            “Que linda noche?”

            “What Kensington said — Que linda noche.’”

            “So?”  Vandy was getting red in the face.

            “What’s that mean?”  Valasquez smiled.

            “How the fuck should I know?  I don’t speak Spanish!”

            Valasquez tapped Vandy on the shoulder.  “Neither do I.”

            Vandy stopped and looked at him, amazed.  “Your name is Emilio Valasquez, and you don’t speak Spanish?”

            “Nope.  I took German in High School.”

            The two cops laughed all the way to the car.  I shuffled along right behind them.  Then Vandy’s cell phone, free of the conference center’s interference reaquired signal and started ringing.  It was the Chief.  The conversation was one-sided.  I would have stayed to eavesdrop…

            But I heard Val screaming.

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