God's Dice
A Jackson Donne Mystery
by David White

Short-listed as one of "Notable Stories of 2004" by storySouth



.......The room spun.

.......The bed, the nightstand, and the TV, all swirled in front of my eyes. I shut them hard. My side ached, and I could feel the blood flow between my fingers.

.......Don't pass out, I thought, she's going to need you.

.......Then I felt her hand cradle my head, heard a voice from somewhere out in the distance. "It might be a good time to start believing in something."

****

.......My favorite time to jog is ten a.m., right after the early morning thaw, before the day gets too hot.

.......St. Paul's, a towering brick church, is just down the street from my office, near the New Brunswick train station. I jog past it on my normal route, and each time I do -- its two long steeples pointing toward the clouds, its stained glass sending cracked, colored reflections of the sun slicing through shadows on the street -- I get a chill. I haven't been inside since Jeanne's funeral.

.......The only welcoming thing about the place was the old priest who seemed to be out sweeping the steps whenever I went by. He'd smile and say hello, and though I was usually out of breath, I'd try to do the same. Not thinking much of it, I'd turn right onto George Street and head back toward my building.

.......I was out on my route for the first time in weeks, one of the first nice afternoons in March. With most of the students away on spring break, the streets of New Brunswick were near empty. Finding my rhythm on Somerset Street, I saw St. Paul's in the distance, towering as usual. I squinted, surprised I didn't see the friendly priest sweeping or chatting with pedestrians.

.......I had pushed past the familiar chill, past the church, when I realized something else wasn't right. A black BMW was parked awkwardly, its front right tire over the curb across from the stairway. Someone was in a hurry. And that someone was probably from out of town. The locals couldn't afford Beamers and neither could the Rutgers students. The professors never parked this far from campus. And it wasn't the kind of car a priest drove.

.......He always swept from ten to eleven.

.......I jogged up the steps. A broom lay on its side on the landing, as if dropped. I pulled the large oak door open, the handle slipping in my sweaty palms, and stepped into the darkened church. I stood for a moment to let my eyes adjust, but tensed when I heard a loud crash, like tin rattling on the ground.

.......Then: "Please, I don't know where she's gone."

......."Don't give me that. You know where she is. She told you. She wouldn't just leave the church. You can't lie to me. Isn't that a sin?"

.......Tracking the voices, I saw the old priest being backed against a closed door by a thick man who looked like he was about to tear through his suit. The door was tucked into an odd corner I wouldn't have noticed otherwise.

......."You can either tell us where she is now or help us find her later. We'll take you along as a guide. If we don't find her then-"

.......The priest visibly paled. "All I know is she took today's donations. Said something about where she always used to go."

.......The big guy smiled. His face was cracked like old leather, and his nose and jaw curved like they'd been broken before. He wore a gray suit over a white shirt and black tie. His biceps pressed tight against the seams.

......."'Where she always used to go.' I think we know where that is. Right, Charlie?"

.......It was then I noticed another man, standing off in the shadows, near the confessional, watching at a perfect angle. Charlie seemed to be an audience, only watching the situation, but not wanting to get too close to it. He looked like a negative of the big guy, wearing a black suit, white shirt, gray tie. Thin and balding, his face was piggish. His nose was round, his eyes small and beady. He didn't seem to notice me.

......."Guess we won't have to take you along, but let me leave a message with you in case she comes back."

.......The big guy held the priest by the lapel with his left arm and cocked his right arm back-

......."Hey, guys, how's it going?" I called, only a few feet from the big guy.

......."Who the hell are you?" Charlie asked, his head twisting in surprise.

......."Good Samaritan. Let the priest go."

.......I was closing in on the big guy, who didn't have enough room in the passageway to maneuver. I slid a bit to my left, to see if Charlie was coming up behind me. He wasn't. He called from his spot. "Come on Buddy. We both know where she is."

.......Buddy looked at the priest and dropped him on the ground. He didn't say a word. Just ambled back into the church.

......."Buddy and Charlie, huh?" I asked, following him. I pointed at Charlie. "I guess he's in charge."

.......Buddy turned to me and growled, but didn't advance. Seconds later, they were both out the door.

.......I went to the priest who was trying to get up, huffing and puffing on his knees. His head was shaved, ebony skin dripping with sweat. He was thin, in the usual off-duty priest garb: black jacket, black pants, black shirt, and white collar.

......."Father, are you all right?" I asked.

.......I took his wrist and pulled him to his feet. He brushed himself off. "I'm fine. Just a bruised ego."

.......I helped him into one of the pews.

......."Who were those men?"

......."It's nothing. Nothing. Thank you for your help." He finally took a look at me. "What happened to you, son?"

.......He had noticed my long hair and shaggy beard. Business had been bad. My name had been all over the papers and none of it was good news. My bank balance was drying up. To make the rent, my food budget had to take a hit. Shaving cream and haircuts were out of the question.

.......I said, "I'm going for a new look."

.......He took that in for a moment, not speaking. Finally, "You haven't been around since the funeral, Jackson. You might not even remember my name. Father Michael."

.......He stuck out his hand, and we shook.

......."You remember me?" I asked. I never got the priest's name before, had even avoided eye contact. Then after Jeanne's funeral, I did my best to put him out of my mind.

.......He smiled. "Jeanne was a good friend of the parish. You and she used to come to Mass every Sunday"

.......I looked away.

......."I've seen you in the papers. It looks like you've come across some rough times. The best time to return to God."

......."Who were those men?" I asked again.

.......He looked back toward the doorway, putting his arm over the back of the pew, twisting his body. Above the doorway was a stained glass window, the image of Jesus pressing his palm against a kneeling man. Behind them an apostle seemed to be turning his back, his arm in the air as if waving more to join them. The kneeling man looked to be at peace, as if Jesus was forgiving him.

......."I've always viewed that window as a sort of recruiting poster for the church. I feel like I'm the apostle, calling for others to join in the worship of Jesus. It's my favorite part of serving here. I've recruited someone else to stay here as well. A woman, Julia Carver has agreed to become a part of our parish. She is willing to become a nun, give herself to God. But she's run off. Disappeared, with some money from the church.

....... "I want to tell you more, but she's confessed to me. I can't break that trust." He pressed his thumb and index finger against the bridge of his nose. "But I know where she's gone to. And if you ride with me, we can find her."

.......He pulled his wallet. "And," he continued before I could say a word, "I'll advance you enough to get a shave and haircut."

****

.......More than three hours later, Route 30 was full of brake lights. I only hoped the black BMW was only a little ahead of us, stuck in the same traffic mess. I spun the radio dial, found nothing, and popped Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head.

.......Showered and dressed in jeans, polo shirt, leather jacket, and holstered Glock, I had picked up Father Michael in front of St. Paul's. He was in jeans and a Yankees sweatshirt now. We cruised down the Parkway and then hit the exit for Route 30, heading for Atlantic City. The road was lined with traffic lights that seemed to stick on red, small chain restaurants, Holiday Inns and a ton of strip motels that charge fourteen bucks a night. Perfect for all the losers who need a place to stay before they drop the rest of their quarters on a bus ride home the next morning.

......."Who were those guys at the church, Father?"

.......Michael looked at me and shook his head. "She confessed." Then he smiled. "I do think it's a good idea if we check out Harrah's. I hear it's a good place to play craps."

.......We finally hit a few greens, and I was able to get to Harrah's in about ten minutes. From his lips to God's ears, I thought.

.......The casino isn't on the main strip. It's on the Marina, near two other new casinos, the Trump Marina and the Borgata. While it was only late afternoon, the sun still shining, we could see lights flickering and colors glittering in neon. Signs read: HIGH PAYOUTS! WIN A MUSTANG BEFORE TAX TIME! Even I was starting to believe I'd walk out a millionaire.

.......I parked in the parking deck, on the 3rd floor, and we took the elevator to the casino level.

......."I haven't been here in a few years," Father Michael said, as the doors swung open. I could hear the canned 60s pop music, the ringing bells, the people talking and screaming, and couldn't even see the casino yet. "Too bad we can't stay around to play a few slots."

......."You like this place?" I asked, squinting against the neon.

.......He smiled at me. "I used to like to come down once a month or so and spin the wheels. Sometimes I got lucky. Sometimes I didn't."

.......We kept walking toward the glitter and gaudiness.

......."Father, I don't know what I'm looking for. I don't know who this girl Julia is, or why I'm here. I'm trusting you. Where are we headed?"

......."You have faith in me?" he asked, as we walked around a corner.

.......The casino was a vast canyon of tables and video machines, all glittering in bright flashing lights. It was designed like a maze, so you could never tell whether it was day or night, and could never find your way out. Bells, whistles, and music assaulted the ears, and the place, while not mobbed, was crowded, especially at the tables. There were no clocks, and I couldn't see the entire room. The flashing lights were disorienting and I had already lost my sense of direction. Not to mention my sense of smell from all the cigarette smoke. The slots were many, grouped together pushing you away from the corners of the room toward the middle, toward the tables.

....... "Faith and trust are two different things," I said.

......."Are they? I'm not so sure," Father Michael replied quickly.

......."Why are Buddy and Charlie after Julia?" I scanned the crowd looking for Buddy and Charlie. I didn't see them.

......."She ran off. She stole money from the parish and she ran off."

.......Father Michael wasn't really answering my question, but I let it go. "How do you know she's here?"

.......Father Michael picked up his pace and moved away from me. He headed toward the craps tables. A throng of people three deep milled around the tables, some hoots and cheers each time the dice rolled.

.......As he approached, people made way, as if they knew he was a man of the cloth despite the Yankees sweatshirt, allowing him to get close to the table. Father Michael popped a few dollars down on the table and placed a bet. I watched the crowd. It was four-thirty, according to my watch, and the crowd at the tables was mostly young men, frat boys and businessmen putting everything on one roll. Living on the edge. I scanned the crowd. Nothing jumped out at me. Most of the women were older and hanging out near the slots. I didn't see Charlie or Buddy either.

.......The dice must not have been in the priest's favor, because he turned away from the table empty handed and came my way.

......."Is she here, Father?"

.......He glanced around, over my shoulder, behind him. "I don't see her."

......."This place is huge. She could be anywhere."

......."She'll be here at the craps table."

......."When? How can you be so sure?"

.......He met my eyes. "She's a craps player."

.......I looked away.

......."What happened to you, Jackson? You used to come to Mass with Jeanne."

......."What happened? Jeanne died. That's what happened. God hasn't exactly been gracious to me." I could feel my anger rising. Then, either because I was sick of him already or because of the stress that had been on my shoulders for the past few months, I said, "If there even is a God."

.......Father Michael didn't move, the words barely fazing him. "Everyone has a crisis of faith."

.......Behind us the bells and whistles of a slot went off, the electronic sounds of "We're in the Money" blaring as a woman screamed with joy.

......."I don't believe in God, Father. Sorry, but over the past year I've seen people die. Hell, I've even killed a man, and it seems like it's all for nothing. You expect me to still believe there's a God?"

.......My muscles had bunched around my neck. I felt tight, coiled. I wanted to kick my way out.

.......I watched Father Michael, waiting for his counter argument. I expected some sort of rhetoric, something from my years of Catholic school, but he didn't say anything like that. He nodded and said "I don't expect anything from you."

......."What do you mean?"

......."I don't expect you to believe in God. You've shown in the past that you have believed in God. Now your life has taken a turn. Does that mean you should stop believing? Do Red Sox fans stop believing in their team just because they've had another losing series? It's all about faith. It's not about expectations. Mine. Or yours."

......."Red Sox fans haven't seen what I've seen." I wanted to add "duh," but decided against it. "Haven't done what I've done."

......."It's not all about you. Yes, bad things happen. Despite what Einstein's said, God does play dice with the universe. Just like a craps table, sometimes the good comes out, sometimes the bad. Random outcomes shouldn't stunt our belief or strengthen it. That's not what belief is about."

.......Two burly figures caught my eye. They pushed their way through the crowd on the other side of the casino. Charlie and Buddy, dressed the same as before. They were eying the crowd, searching the tables. I stepped in front of Father Michael, my back to them, hoping they wouldn't notice us.

......."Is Julia here yet?" I asked.

......."You need to be patient. She'll be here. Don't change the subject."

....... I thumbed at Charlie and Buddy over my shoulder, confident enough they wouldn't notice us. "I don't think they're going to be patient. If you see Julia, you need to get to her before they do. It's going to be tough to sneak out of here."

.......Father Michael looked over my shoulder. "She's here."

......."You're kidding."

.......He smiled. "No. I told you to have faith. She's crossing the floor this way from the elevators."

.......I turned and looked.

......."The one with the blue sweater?" I asked

......."Yes."

.......There was a woman wearing a navy sweater, and jeans. She was walking quickly. Thin, with dirty blonde hair, small frowning lips, and a face covered with too much make-up, she was going through her purse as she walked.

....... "Okay. Do you remember where the car is?"

.......He nodded.

.......I pulled my keys from my pocket and pushed them into his hand. "Go start it. I'll get her. We'll meet you in the lot."

......."But-"

......."Have a little faith, Father."

.......For once, I'd gotten to him. The man in him looked like he wanted to hit me. But the priest turned and headed away.

.......I caught up with Julia putting some chips down on the craps table. I moved up behind her as Charlie and Buddy's backs were turned. I wanted to get moving before they spotted us.

......."Julia?" I said, stepping behind her, as if shielding her.

.......She turned quickly, surprised. "Who are you?"

......."Father Michael sent me."

......."Father Michael--?"

......."I'm a private investigator. There are men after you. They are here now. We have to go."

......."Charlie is here?"

......."Yeah, and his friend." I took her by her arm.

......."Let me cash these chips," she said, pulling back.

......."No. There's no time." I didn't care if I sounded like the Terminator. We had to move.

.......I took her arm again and pulled her from the table. She followed, but we'd already caused enough commotion for Charlie to turn, squinting in our direction. He motioned to Buddy, and they both headed towards us.

.......Julia and I broke into a run, as I pushed past two guys in cowboy hats playing the one-armed bandits. We turned the corner, the elevators in sight.

.......Julia got to the elevators first and hit the button, but neither of the cars was on our floor. I had stopped running, turning to face Buddy and Charlie.

.......Buddy was the quicker of the two, built like a fullback, and moving like one too. If I stood back to handle him, I'd be flattened. Instead, I ran at him. When I hit him, I kept my legs moving, and wrapped him up with my arms, twisted and threw him to the ground. I jumped up, turned toward Charlie.

.......He smiled, bouncing on his feet like a boxer. I decided to play defense and let him come at me. Charlie swung, and I wasn't able to spin out of the way in time. He hit me in the left side. I gasped, but was able to spin off that and connect with a right hook. Charlie staggered back, and I heard the elevator doors ping open. Something with a glint clattered to the ground as Charlie fell. I ran toward the elevator.

.......I got inside behind Julia, hit floor three, and the doors shut, just as both thugs were trying to get up.

......."What do those men want with you?" I asked, holding my side where Charlie had punched me. It throbbed, and I couldn't catch my breath.

.......Julia looked. "Oh my God."

.......Finally, I looked down at my side. My jacket and left hand were covered in blood. The pain didn't feel like a punch usually did. My side burned and stung. And as I replayed it in my head, I could tell it was a small penknife that had clattered to the ground next to Charlie.

......."That bastard stabbed me." I said, gritting my teeth, and forcing my vision back into focus.

.......The elevator doors opened and Father Michael had the car waiting right at the casino's front entrance. Julia got in the front; I pretty much fell into the backseat. I pulled my knees up so I could fit in the small space of the two-door.

.......We got back on to Route 30, moving at a normal pace. I told Father Michael to try and appear inconspicuous.

......."We have to get him to a hospital, Father," Julia said.

......."No," I said. "It's not that bad. Besides, Charlie knows he stabbed me. Hospitals are the first place they'd check."

.......I lied. I didn't know how bad it was. I just knew it hurt like hell.

......."Where to, then?" Michael asked.

......."I just need a place to stop the bleeding. To rest." I told Father Michael to try for a fourteen-dollar room. I wasn't sure I was making any sense, but no one argued with me. I gingerly pulled my jacket off, and the left side of my polo shirt was soaked with blood. I pressed hard against my side.

......."Oh my-" Julia started again, but a cell phone went off. It wasn't mine.

.......Julia dug through her bag, and pull out a small phone. She answered it, but an instant after saying hello she hung up quickly.

......."It was them," she said. "They must have been the ones who called me before. I didn't check the display, I didn't answer. I figured it was you"

....... "Who are they? How do they have your number?" I asked.

.......Julia looked at Father Michael. "You didn't tell him."

......."You told me in confession."

.......My vision blurred and my side ached. I took a few deep breaths, trying to get my body under control. I felt cold.

......."Somebody better tell me," I said.

.......Julia turned to me. "They're loan sharks. Well, Charlie -- Charlie Hafner -- is. Buddy's just hired help."

.......Some help. He went down easy.

.......Julia looked at Father Michael, who was getting ready for to make a U-Turn. "I like to gamble. I played craps. I used to come down here all the time. When I wasn't here it was sports -- football, basketball. Charlie took my bets."

......."You lost?"

......."Everything. I couldn't pay."

......."So you ran to Father Michael?"

......."I'm going to give myself to God."

......."What do you mean?"

......."My life's always been a mess. I've been coming down here since I've been eighteen, avoiding the security guards, just playing the slots. The first two times I came out ahead. After that I was hooked, couldn't help myself. Bet on sports, craps, roulette, everything. I borrowed money from more friends than I could keep track of. Never paid them back. They abandoned me, and I don't blame them. I even thought of committing suicide. Just ending it all."

......."Why didn't you?"

......."I heard God. God talked to me, and told me that if I gave myself to Him, everything would be okay. I'd always been religious, and I'd always prayed. But finally he answered back. I decided to become a nun. Father Michael said he'd give me a place to stay until I could take my vows. Until I was ready to give myself to God. Completely."

.......God is the last refuge of a desperate woman, I thought. "But you ran," I said aloud.

......."Charlie called my new apartment. He found me, I don't know how, knew that I was staying under Father Michael's watch. Charlie told me if I didn't get the money by Friday he'd kill me and the Father.

......."I had no choice. I told him that I was going to get his money. I thought I could win it back. But I didn't have any of my own money. I'm -- I'm so sorry Father."

.......We were pulling into a parking lot of a one-story motel. It looked like a ranch. No other cars were in the lot.

......."It's okay, Julia," Father Michael said.

......."I wanted to give the money back. I was going to win it all back, plus. I could even things out. I didn't want you to even notice-You wouldn't even miss me-"

......."I knew you had good intentions, Julia. But those men came looking for you."

.......Father Michael parked the car, hitting the brakes too hard, making me wince. Pain shot up my side.

......."Check us in, Father," I said. "Pay cash. Don't give them our names. Don't give anything. I don't want Charlie or Buddy finding us."

.......I watched him shuffle into the office.

.......Trying to subdue the pain, I concentrated on my breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. It was just like jogging, finding a rhythm and something to focus on. Let the seconds pass and so will the pain.

.......Julia turned back to me. "How do you feel?"

......."Lousy."

.......My hand felt soaked with blood. Hopefully, the motel room would have towels. But from the looks of the chipped paint, the cracked windows, and the splintered walls, towels weren't a guarantee.

......."Why don't you pray?" Julia asked.

......."I gave it up. Going to be a nun, huh?"

......."God's always been there for me."

......."Even when you lost it all?"

.......She paused, closed her eyes. "Especially when I lost it all."

......."That doesn't make any sense."

......."It's not something anyone can break down. I just knew there was a reason for what had happened to me. God was trying to tell me something. It sounds stupid, but --"

......."God rolled the dice, and they didn't land your way."

......."What?"

......."Just something Father Michael said."

.......She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "I think I got pretty lucky, actually. I've always wanted to serve in some way. But when the gambling was going right, when I couldn't lose, I lost sight of that. Then I lost everything except God. I think it was meant to be. But I need to pay them back. I need to win the money back, though. They'll never leave us alone," she said.

......."What do you mean?"

......."Money's important to Charlie, but he gets more pleasure out of killing, holding that kind of power over life in his hands. He won't threaten you or break your legs. He'll just kill you. He gets off on it."

......."That's not good business, killing your clients."

......."You don't see that side of him until you miss a payment. He told me a story once. Another woman, she didn't pay. She was into college football and she was down thousands. They gave her a deadline. She didn't pay. So Buddy cut her brake lines. When the cops found her dead in a ditch, she had a briefcase. She was on her way to pay them. They didn't care. We need to get the money back."

.......Father Michael came back to the car and directed us to Room 12, furthest from the highway.

......."I think the owner is deaf. He just took the money and gave me a key. No questions."

......."These places aren't exactly reputable," I said.

.......Julia opened the door, went inside. I got out of the car, needing to wrap an arm around Father Michael for support. We hobbled into to the room.

......."See if there are towels," I said. "I gotta stop this bleeding."

.......The room was bare. One night table, a stained brown carpet, a double bed, which I collapsed on to. It smelled like mothballs and paint. I didn't even want to know what the bathroom looked like.

.......Julia came back with a towel, as I pulled my shirt over my head. The wound didn't look too bad, It wasn't a long cut, but more a puncture wound. I just hoped the knife didn't hit anything important. I pressed the towel to my side, wondering how much blood I had lost. I pulled my belt from my jeans, and tied it around the towel and my stomach, so I wouldn't have to apply pressure myself.

.......And then the room pitched. Everything spun. And went black.

.......I could hear Father Michael. "It might be a good time to start believing in something."

****

.......Consciousness came back in the form of pain. It was a jolt of electricity through my entire body, settling in my side. I opened my eyes, and took a lot of air in through my mouth.

....... The room spun for a second, with my stomach, and then settled. The lights were off, the curtains drawn. Everything was dim. I was lying on the bed, on my back. Sweat dripped along my face.

.......My hearing was the last thing to function correctly. White noise fading in and out until there was only Father Michael and Julia whispering. I had to concentrate on what they were saying. They were praying.

.......I must have grunted. Julia looked up and rushed to my side. "Father, he's awake!"

......."Yeah," I said through grit teeth. "I'm up."

.......I pushed on the bed, and tried to sit up. The room spun again, but righted itself.

......."Don't move too much, Jackson." Julia was at my side.

......."I'm fine," I said.

.......I heard Father Michael laugh. "You just passed out. Sure, you're just fine."

......."I think the bleeding's stopped," Julia said to me. "We had to change the towel while you were out. It was soaked through. But this new one is okay."

.......I looked at my side. She was right. The towel was dry.

......."We need to get you to a hospital," the priest said.

.......I shook my head. "Not yet."

......."How can you say that? You might be dying."

......."I'm fine."

.......Julia stood up. "You've been saying that. You're going to keep saying that. Do you even believe it?"

.......I looked her in the eye, trying not to blink. I didn't believe it, but I had to make her think I did until we could sort this out. "There are two dangerous, obvious places right now. A hospital either here or in New Brunswick or the church in New Brunswick will make it too easy for them to find us."

......."So," she said, "what are we going to do?"

......."Make them come to us on my terms."

......."What are you talking about?" Father Michael asked.

.......Now they were both standing and all I could do was sit. My legs felt weak, and I was afraid if I stood too quickly I'd be down and out again.

......."Father, I want you to take Julia away from here. "

......."But-" Julia cried.

......."This is the only way. You aren't going to be able to pay them back Julia, and they're not going to stop coming until they either get their money or until they kill you. So we're going to have them show up here. And all that'll be waiting is me, my stab wound, and a bunch of cops."

......."I can win the money back. I'll just pay them. You both shouldn't have come. I don't want the police involved." Julia rubbed her hands together hard. I thought she was holding her breath.

.......Father Michael took her hands in his. Looked her in the eye.

.......I pushed on the bed, trying to stand. No dice.

.......Father Michael took the keys and said, "I'll start the car."

.......As he went out the door, Julia stared me down. "I don't want to leave you."

......."They will kill you," I said, "just like they killed that woman you told me about. She already had the money, too," I said.

.......I finally pushed hard on the bed and stood. I fought hard with my equilibrium, but I didn't go down.

......."Julia," I said. "Call them. Tell them where we are. Then get out of here."

.......She looked at the cell phone in her hand. Dialed, waited for an answer. Then, in a wavering voice, she told them where we were. And that we'd meet them at seven.

.......She left the hotel room without looking at me. I went and found my pistol in the bathroom.

****

....... The sun had set. Standing in the parking lot behind an oversized SUV, I could smell the salt water from the bay and the ocean. It was still too early in spring for the air to stay warm into the evening, but the ocean smell, the fact that I could walk to the bay from the lot was enough to remind me of summer. I had my jacket on, but I felt warmer just thinking of it.

.......Father Michael and Julia were long gone. Before they pulled out, I told Father Michael I'd call when I got back. He agreed, and pulled on to the highway.

.......From my corner of the dusty lot, I could see the casinos' glitter reaching the sky. The rest of the city was mostly rundown. People were homeless or living in houses that should have failed safety inspection years ago. In New Brunswick, the city countered this problem by knocking the houses down, kicking the poor to the streets and building new houses, all in the name of economic improvement. The press made it look like New Brunswick cared. The casinos didn't even pretend to care about the city, or about the people, only money. In a way, they were loan sharks as bad as Charlie Hafner and Buddy.

.......My gun felt heavy in my hand, and my side ached as I checked my watch. They would be here any minute. I crouched behind a small bush, trying to remain focused. Trying not to pass out again.

.......The BMW cruised into the lot, its brakes squealing as it came to a stop outside our door. Two doors opened and shut, and I heard footsteps on the dust and gravel.

......."If she's going to try and talk us out of this. . . " Charlie said.

......."She doesn't have the money. I'm telling you. She wasn't even at the craps table long enough," Buddy said.

......."I'm going to fucking kill her."

.......Here we go again, I thought. This wasn't going to end well, no matter who came out ahead.

.......I caught myself starting a prayer. A desperate man turns to God as well.

.......As I forced myself out of the crouch, I saw Buddy knocking on the door. Walking toward them, I clicked off the safety of my Glock. By the time I was behind the two of them, Charlie had pushed the unlocked door open himself.

.......I pressed my gun to the back of Charlie's head. He froze while Buddy continued in to the room.

......."Don't fucking move another muscle. Either of you."

.......Buddy twirled around, ready to pounce, not figuring me to have a gun. He took a step toward us, but must have seen something in Charlie's face. He froze.

.......I pressed the gun hard against Charlie's skull, forcing him into the middle of the room, behind Buddy.

.......Charlie said, "Where's the bitch? I will kill you. Then I will find her and kill her. I have people everywhere. You can't hide."

....... "Shut up," I said.

.......For a moment, I wished I had asked Father Michael to pray for me. I had known what was going to happen, lied to make them both leave. Now I wanted someone praying for me, hoping for it all to be okay.

......."We're going to take a walk. Behind the motel, out to the bay," I said.

......."Buddy, kill this son of a bitch," Charlie said.

.......Buddy took a step toward me, reaching into his jacket. I turned his way, shot him in the chest. Blood spilled everywhere as he fell to the ground.

......."Jesus Christ!" Charlie screamed. "Buddy!"

.......My gun was back on Charlie. "I'll fucking kill you, too."

.......He actually looked surprised.

......."You ever going to leave her alone?"

.......He tried his hardest to say "Yes." To lie. But he couldn't. His pride was too strong. "I'll kill the both of you," he said again.

.......Before today, I had only killed one person, to save a woman I thought I could have loved. It was still the most difficult thing I've ever done. Today it was a lot easier to pull the trigger.

****

.......I sat in St. Paul's the next Sunday morning. My face was clean shaven, and my hair cut and cropped neatly. It had been nearly two months since I'd shaved, and now I felt like a different man.

....... Father Michael said Mass. If he saw me sitting in the back, he didn't show it. The church was nearly filled, mostly by older people. I decided not to take communion.

.......It had been three days since I waited in that motel room with two dead men. I scrubbed away the blood, taking whatever I could find out of the pockets of the dead, and wrapping the bodies in bed sheets. The rest of the time I spent trying to stay conscious.

.......In the darkness after midnight, I dragged both bodies from the room and dropped them into the bay. By the time I was done, I was soaked with sweat, and my wound had started to bleed again. I went back to the room and wiped it down once more, locked Room 12, and threw the keys into the bushes.

.......Using Charlie's keys, I drove the BMW to the Atlantic City International Airport and parked it in long term. With luck, it wouldn't be found for weeks. It may not even have been in Charlie's name.

.......I took a cab to New Brunswick. It cost a fortune, but I didn't care, just wanting to get the hell out of Atlantic City.

.......Finally, I passed out in the emergency room of Robert Wood Johnson Hospital. When I came to, I had been stitched up and given blood. It wasn't going to be serious, but they had a lot of questions on how I'd been stabbed. I told them I didn't know; I had been in a drunken blackout. I was surprised I even got to the emergency room.

.......They didn't buy it, but they didn't ask any more questions. Didn't even ask to do a blood alcohol test. If push came to shove, Artie would back me up. He'd say I walked out of the Olde Towne Tavern piss drunk at closing time.

.......I was released the next day.

.......When Mass ended, I hung around while the crowd cleared. Father Michael followed them out, shaking hands and saying hellos. The church was silent, the high ceilings and empty pews, the stained glass, the altar, the crucifix, I felt like they were all watching me. They were wondering why I was here.

.......Father Michael reentered the church and caught my eye. I nodded toward the confessional and he returned the nod. I stepped in. The priest entered a moment later, though I could hardly tell it was him behind the mesh that separated us. I didn't want to see his face. After what I had to tell him, he might not want to see mine.

......."Bless me Father, for I have sinned"

......."How long has it been since your last confession?"

......."I don't remember."

......."Have confidence in God."

.......I laid it out for him. Everything that had weighed on my conscience since Jeanne's death. Everything. Including Wednesday night. We were in there for a good twenty minutes.

.......He gave me my penance. I had a lot of praying to do. "Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and . . ." Father Michael's voice trailed off.

.......I waited a second. Then said, "Father?"

......."And," he said, his voice small. "And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

......."Amen."

......."Go in peace, and may God bless you."

.......So I had confessed, and still felt the weight of three dead men.

.......I turned to leave the confessional when I heard Father Michael clear his throat. I couldn't see his expression through the mesh. In a small voice, he said, "Please don't return. If you want to worship, find another church."

.......I had nothing to say to that. I left the confessional, stepping into the church. Father Michael didn't follow me.

.......On my way out, I noticed the stained glass window again. The light from outside stabbed through it, etching a cracked, inverted image across the floor. It looked to me like the turned apostle wasn't recruiting, but throwing his hands up in anger, not willing to give the same penance that Jesus was. I wondered how Father Michael would view the image.

.......I pulled the door open and stepped out into the harsh sun.

Copyright (c) 2004 by Dave White.

David White is the Derringer Award-winning author of the Jackson Donne series. His stories and reviews have appeared in both Thrilling Detective and Hand Held Crime. He resides in New Jersey. He'd love to hear from you at dpwhite237@yahoo.com or via his website.

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