The banker had been blubbering for what felt like hours, but he finally quieted. Father Michaelson heard the door to the box open and close again, and felt the holy spirit leave him. He was back to being himself, and felt the pit growing in his stomach.
He waited for as little time as decorum allowed, and stepped out of the confessional, into the massive arched hall of St. John’s Cathedral.
Michaelson had never met the man before, but he was now crouched in front of the alter and the thousands of candles that covered it. He was a big man, but not big enough to be a problem, and worked at a bank downtown. He’d confessed to frequenting prostitutes, but it was his secretary who posed the real problem. She must have looked at his wife and children like things that might be swept aside by a proper application of perfume and makeup. That was probably true.
“Excuse me, Father,” a man said, distracting him from his prey.
He was a young priest, a man who actually belonged there. He looked very young, and must have still believed everything he’d been told, and what they’d implied with their tone.
“Hello, Father. I was just investigating,” Michaelson said with a chuckle. “Your confessional is very comfortable here.” He let one of his feet step in front of the other, and fell forward.
Rather than stepping back and letting him fall, the young priest stepped forward and caught him. Michaelson wrapped his arms around the man’s waist, and squeezed tightly, before slipping his hand into the man’s pocket.
“Pardon me. Two left feet,” Michaelson said, chuckling again.
He righted himself, and turned to leave, placing his hands in his pockets, and ignoring the confusion on his brother’s face.
He walked slowly between the pews. In his significant experience, the parishioners rarely looked up at a priest who passed them by. A friendly smile would have been appropriate, but they didn’t tend to look up.
He thought at first, this time would be no different, and, of those dozen lost souls, most stared down at their laps, but he found a familiar face, and saw her eyes staring back at him.
Michaelson had seen this woman before at a dozen parishes across the city. She was dark, a mix of races, but, from her very short black hair, African origins were most prevalent.
She might have worked a strange job, driving a taxi possibly, or have been some kind of church tourist. Though, most people in a church at ten-thirty at night on a Wednesday had a guilty conscience, that banker being an immediate example.
She turned away, but stared at the alter rather than her lap, and Michaelson continued on. He found his coat in the front room and the Bickerton folding bicycle he’d left underneath it.
The parking lot was cold and dark. He was grateful for his long coat. While its thick vinyl was hot for summer, it was perfect for these occasions.
He pulled out the keys he’d pinched from his brother’s pocket, examining them by the yellow streetlight. Ford, for a moment he hoped it might be a Mustang, but the idea of a young priest driving a Mustang was too incongruous.
He first tried the door of a mustard-yellow Fairmont, but succeeded on his second try, a lime green Pinto. He hoped that banker didn’t drive anything heavy.
He buckled his bicycle in the passenger seat, and then buckled in himself. The Pinto started up with a whirr, and he pulled out, heading down Twenty-Ninth by half a block, but then he turned back and pulled over, parking street side, and killing his headlights.
As Michaelson waited there, shivering, he thought that banker might have walked it, or taken a bus. Or he might have just struck up a conversation.
He thought of that woman. The idea of her conversing with anyone seemed strange, and in hindsight she seemed to be glowing, glittering in his memory, like stained glass with the sun streaming through it.
That didn’t make sense, and his thoughts cleared as he saw a big black Lincoln pull out of the church parking lot with that pitiful banker behind the wheel. That Lincoln probably had a working heater.
The Pinto rolled forward, and he flipping on his lights as the Lincoln rounded the corner. Three blocks, Michaelson thought, to outdistance the search radius, and time for a young priest to forget his face. His face was forgettable to begin with.
He’d planned to wait three blocks, but, after one, the banker was weaving, his guilt must have been weighing on him. He started to make a slow left and Michaelson saw an opportunity he couldn’t ignore. He accelerated, jumping the median and pressing the pedal until it touched the greasy tan carpet.
His headlights hit the Lincoln’s driver’s side, and the black sedan bowed, wrapping around the nose of his Pinto. The sound of the tires screeching was louder than metal meeting metal, and Michaelson was sure that meant something.
He found his knee trapped against the fuse-box but let back his seat and struggled free, opening the door, and dragging his bicycle out after him.
There were cows where Father Michaelson had grown up, and fields of grain, and tractors and apple trees, but it was the cows that had interested him, and their language. They had a way of greeting humans and greeting eachother, and a noise they made when they were grieving. But at that moment, through a shattered window, his face dripping blood, the banker made a plaintive wail. It reminded Michaelson of a mother having lost her calf.
He left his bicycle still folded on the asphalt, and jumped up onto the crumpled hood of the Pinto.
“Please- Father, help me…” the banker said, as Michaelson crouched next to his window.
“Hush now,” he said, pressing his a hand over the man’s mouth, and drawing a knife from the back of his belt. “You are perfect in this moment, please don’t ruin it.”
It wasn’t the holy spirit in Michaelson now, but he felt the tingle as it took him and saw the knife burning in his hand as he slid the blade across the man’s throat.
His wife would find a new husband, a new man to be a father to his children. A moment of tragedy would always be preferable to a slow walk into hell.
“We’re too late,” a woman said.
Michaelson only then noticed the sound of footsteps.
“Too late for what?” a man asked, as Michaelson turned to them. The businesses were closed on that street. The Eleven o’ clock news was on a TV in the window of an electrics store, but the lights inside were out. A man and woman stood on the street in front of him, no car, not even bicycles, as if they’d been carried there by the wind.
The woman was a bit small, brown haired, and dressed too lightly for that cold night, wearing a black T-shirt stenciled, in what looked like white spray-paint, I Got That PMA.
“Looks like we caught him red-handed,” the man said, chuckling and pointing at the bloody hand in which Michaelson still held his knife.
“Yeah…” she said.
The man was stranger, wearing a long soiled coat as if he slept in an alley. It was gray, and had holes where there had been patches at some point. He had a face like a corpse, hidden behind a veil like a bride at the alter. Michaelson had never performed a wedding.
“Can I help you,” Michaelson asked, standing up on the hood, and returning his knife to the back of his belt.
“I don’t think so,” the man said.
Michaelson turned and dove back, hitting the asphalt at a run. His bicycle had cost him a month’s salary, so he planned to circle the block and return for it, but before he’d made five steps something heavy struck the back of his head and carried him down to the ground.
“…You’re like Annie Oakley or something. Have you been practicing?” the man asked.
Michaelson’s body felt heavy, and all he could see was the black asphalt beneath him.
“On the stump out back,” the woman said. “Didn’t she use a rifle?”
“Pavlichenko then,” he said.
Michaelson reached his hand back, his finger tips sliding along his scalp until he found something foreign, cold and metal.
“I know she used a rifle,” the woman said.
“I think Oakley could probably throw a hatchet, or a tomahawk, at least.”
There was a hatchet, a hatchet embedded in the back of his skull.
“He’s moving,” she said.
“Pull out the hatchet. That’ll probably do it.”
There were footsteps, and then the cold sole of a sneaker against the back of Michaelson’s neck. He’d heard the brain didn’t feel anything, there weren’t any nerves to feel anything, but he hadn’t expected to experience a first hand proof.
His head lifted up, and then slammed down again as she wrenched the axe free. He did feel his nose break against the asphalt.
“He’s still moving,” she said.
“Prick’s sturdy,” he said.
Michaelson heard a quiet click, and then a pop louder than the car crash had been.
“That should do it,” the man said.
“You wanna get a forty on the way back?”
“I found a fifth of Jack in the last guys trunk.”
“I know,” she said, “but I like beer with whiskey, or it turns my stomach.”
He heard their footsteps on the asphalt, and felt the lead in his chest like a weight on his heart, but his ears were still ringing, and he wasn’t dead yet.