Eight o’clock mass on a gray, cold morning.
It was only early November, but the threat of snow hung above the muddy river and threatened the air outside St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, making the chilly worshippers wonder what had happened to autumn.
The blue-collar guys on their way to work, the construction laborers and warehousemen carrying their lunch pails, had already come to pray and then gone again. On weekdays they hit the early mass, the six o’clock. In the winter they’d arrive even before the sun was up. The eight o’clock service, traditionally less well attended, was perceived to be for the office workers, walking up the front steps of the church more briskly and with more confidence than the blue-collar crew, because they knew that whatever perils they’d face in the corridors of their workplaces that day, at least they wouldn’t fall off a steel I-beam ten stories up or have a three-ton crane drop on them.
The stay-at-home moms and older neighborhood widows clad in solemn black took advantage of the eight o’clock mass, too. The faithful didn’t quite fill one third of the old, dark church this Monday morning. That was why the tall man in the nondescript gray suit and topcoat had no problem fitting in without being noticed.
He had dark hair streaked with white at the temples, blue eyes behind Coke-bottle glasses, and pale skin with an almost greenish tinge. He might have been British or Irish or Scandinavian, although Italian was indeed his heritage. He appeared to be about sixty years old, with stooped shoulders and a slight paunch—a tired man of late middle age who found the only solace in his bland vanilla life through the familiar words of the liturgy, the familiar smell of incense, of the mass and communion.
He walked up the church’s broad steps, through the large, ornately carved doorway, and into the narthex, dipping only the tips of his fingers into the font of holy water and making the sign of the cross before moving to a bench four rows from the rear, where he genuflected, crossed himself again, and entered a pew.
He’d been born Catholic in Youngstown, Ohio, youngest of four children of a steelworker, but at some point had stopped believing in any religion whatsoever—and he didn’t miss it in the least. His only faith was his love of his country, and during the Vietnam War, he’d been prepared to die for it. His oldest brother had been a Catholic priest and his second brother a police lieutenant, both gone now, and though he’d exacted a terrible revenge for their deaths, their loss left an empty, hollow space inside him.
He’d timed his visit to coincide with the start of mass, so he had to wait but thirty seconds or so, listening to the uneasy shuffling of shoes on the bare tile floor of the century-old church as counterpoint to the doleful organ music. The solemn priest, Father Joseph Benveniste, entered, followed by two apple-cheeked altar boys, and approached the altar. The man in the topcoat had seen him at his work the past two mornings.
Prior to coming to Philadelphia, he had carefully, almost obsessively, studied the photographs he’d been given, memorizing the heavy jowls that hung over the Roman collar and the five o’clock shadow that never really went away. The eyes were intelligent and brown and no-nonsense behind flat glasses that, at certain angles, caught and reflected the morning light coming through the stained-glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross.
The man called himself Douglas these days. He barely remembered what his previous aliases had been, and sometimes stretched his memory to recall the name he’d been born with. So many false identities. At this moment, as the sounds of the liturgy droned in his ear, all his senses were attuned to the here and now, alive, tingling painfully, like a foot that had gone to sleep and was now waking up.
Douglas had used up all his rage when he’d returned to Youngstown for his priest brother’s funeral, so he tried not to envision what he now knew—Benveniste’s fleshy jowls and fat fingers and a nine-year-old boy wide-eyed with shock and fear and shame. Perhaps a lifetime of nine-year-old boys. It was not Douglas’s job to judge. Others judged, and then passed sentence. His assignment was the endgame.
At length he joined a single-file line of parishioners to the front of the church and paused at the rail to receive communion. It meant nothing to him, nor did he think it blasphemous or sacrilegious that it did not. He wasn’t ingesting a portion of the body of Christ, but a commercially made papery wafer that some company had earned big bucks manufacturing, and a sip of bland, too-sweet red wine. The Protestants, he thought grimly, with their televangelists sporting comic toupees and theatrical makeup, had no corner on the market of commercializing religion.
He was keenly aware, though, of Father Benveniste’s hand placing the Host on his outthrust tongue—of the heat of his flesh, the intimate smell of his carefully washed fingers. He heard the priest’s voice, and for one transcendent moment the two of them locked gazes.
Did he know? Douglas wondered. And then: no. Too much care had been taken in making preparations.
After communion, Douglas joined the shuffling line of penitents at the side of the church, waiting to enter the confessional. He was sandwiched between two women in their seventies wearing black head-scarves, and he was momentarily bemused by what hot and steamy stuff, what sins of the flesh, they might be about to own up to—cheating the greengrocer or envying the woman across the street who’d lost six pounds by cutting down on the lasagna.
People like him—major sinners, night people, ones with much to be forgiven for—didn’t go to confession. Wouldn’t it be ironic, he mused, if the Catholics were on to something after all. That you could actually be cleansed, sanitized, and given absolution and forgiveness for all your sins simply by getting them off your chest to a priest nodding sleepily in the dark, and then mumbling a few of prayers of contrition and clacking your rosary beads together.
It couldn’t possibly work that way. It couldn’t be that easy—not for someone dragging around the kind of sins he’d already committed.
Douglas’s sins were real lulus.
The old woman ahead of him disappeared into the booth, probably to confess envy because her next-door neighbor had gotten a new DVD player from her son the paving contractor while her son, the bum, was growing a beer gut, losing his hair and his teeth at the same rate, and handing out smelly rental shoes over at the bowling alley. Douglas leaned forward, balancing himself on his toes, fists in his coat pockets clenching and unclenching compulsively.
The woman came out of the confessional clutching her rosary and headed directly for a pew on the other side of the church, where she knelt and began her Act of Contrition. She’d been inside the tiny cell less than ninety seconds.
“Father forgive me, for I have sinned—but not much,” Douglas imagined.
He swallowed hard and slipped inside the small enclosure, sitting on the hard edge of the bench, pulling on the latex gloves he’d been carrying in his pocket. The wood panel slid open, and through the screen he could see the outline of Father Benveniste’s large head, slightly bowed and resting on his hand. He could smell fifty years’ worth of garlic and body odor and ancient farts in the close fetid air of the confessional—and other people’s long-forgotten sins.
The priest waited a few moments, since it was usual for the penitent to get the ball rolling—Douglas at least remembered that much from his childhood. Finally Benveniste glanced through the mesh screen. “Yes, my son?” Impatience was audible in his voice, too curt, too much in a hurry. He had other things to do; the penitents were cattle to be dealt with, lined up, fed a dollop of redemption, and then handed out the door of the assembly line.
In those small confines, the priest’s terse words sounded unbearably intimate, almost painful to Douglas. That was a new one for him; usually he felt no pain at all.
He doubled his left fist, the nails of the third and fourth fingers digging into the fleshy part of his palm through the latex. It was a different pain, but strangely satisfying, making him feel alive, feel that peculiar, unsettling tingle, the one that came moments before he did something irrevocable and terrifying.
It was two minutes and forty-five seconds before Douglas emerged from the confessional booth. He wore winter gloves and held an inexpensive rosary in his left hand. With his head down, he shuffled toward a pew as well, but then kept right on going, exiting the church, flipping up his coat collar against the cold and veering off to his right at the bottom of the broad stone steps.
Walking two quick Philadelphia blocks, he turned the corner and took from his pocket the yellow-handled screwdriver with the nine-inch blade; three days before, he’d carefully filed down the blade until it was razor sharp—well suited for piercing the mesh of a confessional screen. Along with the latex gloves he’d removed in the booth, which he’d turned inside out because they were now spattered with blood, he dropped it into a sewer grating and waited until he heard a wet, definitive plunk from below.
When he got to the other side of the intersection, he whipped off the thick eyeglasses, broke them in two at the bridge, and dropped them and the rosary into a trash receptacle. Three blocks later he ducked into a cobbled alleyway, stripped off the nondescript gray topcoat, and dropped it in a doorway, hoping some homeless man would find and use it during the cold months to come.
From beneath his shirt, he removed the small pillow that made him appear to have a pot belly and put it next to the topcoat. The shapeless gray suit hung on him, too loose to show off his tight abs and slim, hard waist. He clawed at the knot in his dun-colored tie, pulled it off, and tossed it atop the pillow.
His throat was closing up—a familiar feeling, as though something was lodged behind his Adam’s apple. He gulped convulsively, and his mouth burned, filling up with spit. He understood it now as an involuntary physical manifestation, an annoyance that came with the job. He’d learned to live with it.
He bent over and expectorated several mouthfuls of stringy saliva onto the tarry pavement of the alley.
He stepped out onto the sidewalk and back into the thickening stream of foot traffic as 9 a.m. moved closer, continuing at a brisk pace for a quarter mile more, and then hailed a passing taxi. Using a passably decent German accent, he gave instructions to be taken to a corner within four blocks of where he was staying. When he got out, being careful to tip the cabbie neither too much nor too little, he headed toward his hotel.
Once up in his room, he removed the contact lenses—one of a half dozen in varying colors he’d purchased at a novelty shop in Los Angeles several years before—that had turned his naturally brown eyes a pale blue, and flushed them down the toilet, blinking in relief and rubbing at his eyelids.
Then into the shower, where he used the strong shampoo he’d brought with him for the purpose—not trusting the miniature bottles most hotels supplied—to wash the temporary gray tint from his hair, watching it swirl down the drain like blood, until his own light-blond color showed through, and scrubbed the theatrical greasepaint from his face, being careful to use only his fingers and not the hotel’s thin washcloth, which might stain. His pale Anglo-Saxon coloring disappeared, giving way to his darker Mediterranean complexion, and he soaped away the dark shadows he’d blended beneath his eyes, shedding perhaps twenty years in the process. Now he looked closer to his own age, which was forty-three.
What little he carried with him was already packed, save the change of clothes he’d set out on the bed—a tweedy sports jacket, khaki slacks, and a maize- colored dress shirt with a patterned tan necktie. The gray suit and white shirt he’d worn to church that morning were rolled up and placed in a paper grocery sack.
He availed himself of the establishment’s automatic checkout service so he wouldn’t have to talk to the desk clerk, then went downstairs and out the side door to catch another taxi headed for the Philadelphia International Airport.
Once through the security checkpoint, he went directly to the nearest men’s room and slipped into a stall, sitting on the closed commode and waiting calmly until he heard the maintenance cart as it made its hourly visit, the disinfectant smell announcing the sanitary worker’s arrival at least fifteen seconds before he actually came in.
He flushed the toilet, exited the stall, and brushed past the maintenance man to the basin, where he washed his hands thoroughly and then walked out of the men’s room, offhandedly dropping the paper sack containing the gray suit and shirt into the trash receptacle on the janitorial cart. Within a few minutes it would be gone, vanished into the great maw of waste disposal at the airport, and not left in the men’s room where someone might inadvertently come across it. Not many people pawed through trash receptacles in public bathrooms, but Douglas had survived in his profession for so long by leaving nothing to chance.
Back at St. Catherine’s, tubby, elderly Mariangela Lovecchio went into the confessional and sat heavily on the edge of the bench, surprised that the wooden panel separating her from her confessor was already open. Father Benveniste’s chin was on his chest, perhaps in prayer, or in deep thought, and she waited politely for him to turn his head toward her. After almost a minute, she cleared her throat noisily. The sin to which she was about to own up was gluttony. The night before, at the usual Sunday dinner, she’d had two and a half helpings of her sister-in-law Rose’s meatball-and-sausage pasta, even sneaking an extra piece of cassata cake because Rose was a perfectly splendid baker, though it made Mariangela feel stuffed for the rest of the evening and kept her up almost all night with gas.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” she said. She’d lived in Philadelphia for fifty years, but her pronunciations still bore the stamp of her home village in Calabria, and the singsong rhythm of the rote words was born of a lifetime habit of devotion. “It’s been five days since my last confession.”
The priest neither moved nor acknowledged her.
“Father?” she said again, shuffling her feet nervously. Something on the stone floor of the church beneath the sole of her shoe felt sticky and tacky, and she tucked her feet beneath the seat and looked down. That’s when she noticed the dark-red puddle seeping under the partition from the priest’s cubicle to hers.
That’s when she noticed Father Benveniste was preternaturally still, and that his seated posture made him look as if someone had removed all the bones from his body.
That’s when she started screaming.