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
.......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.
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
.......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.
.......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
......."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
.......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
.......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
......."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
.......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
......."Is Julia here yet?"
......."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."
.......He smiled. "No. I
told you to have faith. She's crossing the floor this way from
.......I turned and looked.
......."The one with the
blue sweater?" I asked
.......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?"
.......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."
......."Have a little faith,
.......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
......."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
.......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
.......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
.......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
......."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?"
......."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
....... "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.
tell me," I said.
.......Julia turned to me. "They're
loan sharks. Well, Charlie -- Charlie Hafner -- is. Buddy's just
.......Some help. He went
.......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."
......."Everything. I couldn't
......."So you ran to Father
......."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
......."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?"
.......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?"
......."I gave it up. Going
to be a nun, huh?"
......."God's always been
there for me."
......."Even when you lost
.......She paused, closed her
eyes. "Especially when I lost it all."
......."That doesn't make
......."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."
......."Just something Father
.......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?"
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 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
.......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
......."How can you say
that? You might be dying."
.......Julia stood up. "You've
been saying that. You're going to keep saying that. Do you even
.......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. "
......."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
.......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
......."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
.......Here we go again, I
thought. This wasn't going to end well, no matter who came out
.......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
.......I pressed my gun to the
back of Charlie's head. He froze while Buddy continued in to
......."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
.......I pressed the gun hard
against Charlie's skull, forcing him into the middle of the room,
.......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,"
.......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.
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
.......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
.......I was released the next
.......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."
.......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
......."And," he said,
his voice small. "And I absolve you from your sins in the
name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
......."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
.......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
.......I pulled the door open
and stepped out into the harsh sun.
Copyright (c) 2004 by Dave 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
or via his website.
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