Neon Blue (suspense) and This Shoal of Space (SF) by John Argo were the first two e-books ever published online for download, in the history of the world, 1996-7 in innovative weekly serial chapters. More info at the museum pages. If you enjoy this free read, which is offered in the spirit of the Golden Age of the World Wide Web, please consider buying a print or e-book edition as a way of thanking the author. A fine E-book is typically priced at the cost of a latte, yet offers many more hours of enjoyment than a cup of coffee. Thank you (John Argo).
Chapter 8. Hamilton, Connecticut
Vincent Brady's nightmare, the one he'd had since childhood: Here it was again. Another tormented night. The night was black and bitter cold. Flurries of snow (tiny, crabbed flakes tortured into ice) rattled against the windows, dark granite blocks rimed with black ice. In the dark, wood-floored room, a clock ticked loudly. There was always, somewhere in this big building, water sighing and gurgling stealthily in pipes. As he snored, the Monsignor twisted and moaned.
East Texas. The town of Careyville, population 350, all pious Southern Baptists. The way the town wags had it, it waren't the widda's fault. Her old man, the preacher Nesbitt Brady, a good man and a rousing preacher but a mean drunk, had come home and knocked the boy about. Upended the table. Beat the widda. She knocked him on the head in self-defense while the boy cowered in the closet crying. Old Nesbitt done got in his carfolks wonderin' how, maybe the car done drove itselfand went to Ledbetter's Tavern crost the river for another pint or so of that Texas lightnin'. Returned at four in the morning ragin' like a fleabit ox. Hollerin' his fool head off he was gonna kill Edna and the boy cause she'd been foolin' around with some other man, which was pure hokum, cause the widda's pure as Sunday lace. Anyhow he got a pitchfork from the barn and was kickin' the front door in when Edna blew him away with both barrels of his own twelve gauge shotgun. Some say the boy's watchin’ the whole thing from the side o' the porch and got slightly tetched ever since.
Snow rattled against the loose window pane near the TV, and Monsignor Gordon cried out in his sleep. He moaned, he cried.
Fearfully, he climbed out the window when he heard his daddy driving in swearing and yelling. From the side of the porch he watched his daddy kicking at the door. Then the door opened. The Angel of Death stepped forth and belched mouthfuls of fire. His daddy flew away in a mangle and tangle of blood and bone. The boy screamed and screamed. His momma came and hugged him. The Angel of Death took flight because of Momma's powerful love. But sometimes Momma's eyes lit up like the Angel of Death's. At such times Vincent Brady would hide behind the sofa or in the closet. In time he came to hate his momma as much as he loved her. He hit the road when she died, a chicken bone stuck in her gullet, a final steely glance as she reached out to him.
Next morning, at breakfast, Vincent Brady, a.k.a. Monsignor Gordon, was stirring his coffee at the kitchen table in the rectory of the Church of the Good Shepherd when his eyes chanced upon an article on page 4 of the Hamilton Daily Watch: FEDERAL WITNESS, PRISON GUARD SLAIN; KEY TO DRUG INVESTIGATION LOST. Vincent shook, and the coffee cup rattled. Father Tiernan, the pastor, looked out from behind the sports section. "Are you all right, Monsignor?" Tiernan was a slight, owlish man with a halo of dark hair around a bald pate. He wore black-rimmed glasses and had a warped nose.
"I just dropped my spoon, Father."
Tiernan fluffed the sports page and buried himself back in the horse racing articles. Vincent glanced aside quickly to see if anyone had noticed. But the three younger priests had already leftone to say Mass, another to visit the sick, and the third to argue at the bank about a bounced check. Vincent read the rest of the article and blanched. Until now he had looked at his involvement as a harmless game; not any more. He left his coffee and rose. "Father, I'll be going."
The sports page rattled. "Okay, Monsignor," Father Tiernan said without flinching from his favorite morning pastime. Vincent went to his small suite of rooms. It was a cozy but austere setup on the second floor of the rectory. He had a television set and books. He loved glossy art books. Every Christmas he would pointedly buy himself a new colorful collection of Titian or Tissot or Rembrandt masterpieces, instead of something godly, just to spite her. He found his black hat and coat and car keys.
Vincent Brady had escaped from the tiny East Texas town of Careyville and worked his way north, first picking cotton and fruit, later doing custodial work at a small Pennsylvania Catholic parish and reading voraciously in his free time. There he'd gotten the idea, slowly, to become a Catholic priest. The exposure to this Mediterranean culture, with its statues and outward symbolisms that he'd heard condemned all his life as idolatry and worse, had fascinated him. There was power in this ancient and primitive ceremonial religion. In his heart of hearts he'd never really taken it completely seriously. But there was one pressing reason why he pursued it all the way to seminary. As a priest, he had the power to ward off devils and evil spirits. One of the ranks you had to attain before becoming a priest was that of exorcistporter, lector, acolyte, subdeacon, deacon, exorcist, priest. With that power, he should be able to raise his hand in the sign of the cross and drive away the Angel of Death who seemed to haunt him wherever he went. The Church had paid his way through seminary and then graduate school. He was a Monsignor by the age of 38, sort of the Church's MBA, in charge of administrative and financial matters, ranking above the priests and the parish pastor, and able to lead a life of his own. Then, like most men in their forties, he'd begun to be tormented by his mortality. His marriage to this Church was little different from marriage to a wife. The Church demanded his chastity, much as an aging wife (he'd heard all this in confessions, nobody could be more attuned than a confessor) demands that her spouse dry up his balls and forget looking at all the pretty little flitty things. The demands of the flesh were severe, and he'd begun to fold to them. He could consort with whores by night, and by day rant and rail all the more strongly against the vices of the flesh. It was a self-sustaining cycle, and he felt at home in the company both of corrupt popes and fallen evangelists. He was like a drunk. In the morning he'd swear he'd never again, and by nightfall the demon was out of the bottle again. The demon of it grew voracious. The Angel of Death stayed with him, and that made him slightly dotty. If only he could rid himself of that. Every time he turned and said, "Go, the Mass is ended," there she was, Edna, his mother, sour disapproving face, eyes filled with hellfire and condemnation, in the back of the church, and when he gave the blessing, she disappeared, so there truly was something to this Catholic business.
Vincent parked his old Mercedes and found the familiar phone booth by the park. Using the credit card Hugh Stone had provided him (under an assumed name) he called Palm Springs.
"Hugh. I read the paper this morning. Witness slain."
"He was going to key them to a lot of information about us."
"Hugh, I never thought
it's gone too far."
"No, Vincent, it's going along fine. You're safe now, don't you see? Are you nervous?"
"I'm floored. I'm nauseous. Murder!"
"Listen, little man, this is all a little bit over your head. You just keep counting the alms and leave the serious stuff to the big guys. Do you understand?"
"Hugh, I want out."
"No, Vincent. There is no way on God's earth you can get out. Don't be a fool, man. You wanted to play in the big leagues, and you had the chips, so we let you. Now you want to cut and run. Well, that isn't how it goes. You're along for the ride. Any further questions?"
"Good. It's day six and the clock is ticking. Are you about ready to turn the money over so we can get on with it?"
"Yes," Vincent said miserably. After the call, Vincent wiped a tear from his eyes and staggered back to his car. The icy cold weighed on him like old age. Sitting behind the steering wheel, he thought about his options. They were scarce. Sometime soon, he would have to disappear from the Church. That much was clear. At the moment, he had three million dollars salted away in about twenty bank accounts. He wondered how many of those bank accounts Hugh Stone knew about. One consolation: He could not know about the Chicago account.
Vincent appeared at the Church of the Good Shepherd in time for his eleven o'clock Mass. He went through the motions, and as always at this particular Mass, there were two knowledgeable altar boys from the grammar school, and a congregation of mostly elderly women who adored Vincent and preferred to attend a monsignor's Mass. As the church bells rang in appeal for the coming twelve o'clock Mass, the rafters rocked majestically under the motion of the massive bells. Vincent changed the bread into the Body of Christ, imploring his sins be forgiven. As he changed the wine into the Blood of Christ, he begged for mercy. Minutes later, Vincent turned and blessed the congregation: "Go, the Mass is ended."
In the back of the church stood the Angel of Death. No, it was his mother, Edna Brady. Or was it both. As he made the sign of the cross, she looked at him full of sour condemnation, turned away, and disappeared into the solid stone wall.
"We thank the Lord our God," the congregation answered.
Vincent trembled. Once again, he'd driven it away. How many more times could he? He followed the altar boys into the sacristy where they would trade their red cassocks and virgin-white surplices for play clothes and run outside, while a stashed bottle of Johnny Walker Black awaited Vincent.
Copyright © 1996 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.