When I finally awoke, dawn had at last broken, and slate-gray light filtered through the sheer curtains. Rain drops freckled the window panes. There was barely enough illumination to find my way around the room. I finally got my pants on over the rather roomy pair of undershorts the kid had given me. White cotton, almost to the knees. Not exactly my style, but way ahead of the alternative. I finally got my shirt buttoned-up and was adjusting my tie and shoulder holster when the soft knock came to the door. My watch told me it was just past six.
I couldn’t say I was surprised. I had actually expected it a little earlier.
I opened the door wide to allow Brick to enter, as he was holding two cups of steaming hot black coffee. It looked like Brick was going to turn out to be a good partner after all. I always equated caffeine and partners that way.
“Good morning, Johnny,” he said, handing me one of the cups.
“Morning, Brick. How was your night?”
“Better than yours, I’ll bet.”
“Why do you say that? I slept like a baby,” I lied, using the Howard Carter playbook. I wanted to find out just what Brick had heard during the night. And I wanted to find out why he had made a special trip up to my room so early. There were mysteries in this old house for sure. The kid had told me himself just as we arrived the day before that we had the house to ourselves. He had lived alone for several years he explained. No wife, no girlfriends—and no little babies either.
“Have any odd dreams lately, Johnny?”
It was not the opening I was expecting. “Maybe,” I hedged.
“How about the night at the hospital?”
“How’d you know about that?”
“Lucky guess,” Brick replied.
“Who’d you see?”
“Heard, more like it.”
“Who did you hear, Johnny?”
“My mother. My father. A few others.”
“Yeah Brick,” I replied, starting to get a little irritated. “Mom was in one, and dad was in the other. I’ll let you figure out which was where. You already seem to know more about this than I do.”
Brick shook his head up and down slightly—just once. “Yeah, guess you could say I do, Johnny.”
“So why don’t you just tell me whatever the hell it is you came up here to tell me, and stop beating around the damned bush,” I spit out.
“You’re displaced, Johnny.” His face and voice was as flat as an Orc’s.
“I’m displaced?” I repeated. “Just what the hell does that mean, Brick?”
“It mean it’s good news and bad news time, Johnny—most of it bad, I’m afraid. It’s like the old joke. Which one would you like to hear first?”
“How about starting out with the truth? That seems like a really good place to begin.” I was getting even more irritated. It was looking as though Brick was going to be really good at doing that to me.
“You don’t need the watch anymore, Johnny. You’ve just graduated to the big-leagues.”
“What do you mean?”
“How do you travel with the watch?”
“Hold it and think where—and when, I want to go.”
“Where’s the watch now, Johnny?”
“In the night-stand drawer.”
“Then try it right now—without the watch. Don’t worry, I’ll wait right here for you to get back. It’ll make it a lot easier for me to explain to you what I need to.”
“Because then you’ll believe me.”
I stared at Brick for probably ten or fifteen seconds. I didn’t know what to say. I did know what to do though. A thought flashed through my mind. I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t stop it. As God is my witness—I couldn’t even slow it down. In a moment I wasn’t in the room anymore. I was in another place and in another time. Another building. At the bottom of a stairway. A staircase to Hell—only this time up instead of down. A slice out of time. A piece of my life. My own personal torment. One I had revisited a thousand times in my dreamscapes. Only this time it was real.
This time I was living in my own personal nightmare. I struggled mightily to escape. I stood at the bottom of those stairs and clenched my hands tightly and willed, with every cell of my body, and every fiber of my soul to be somewhere else. Anyplace else. Anytime else. But I wasn’t moving. Try everything though I might, I stayed exactly in the same spot. Right at the bottom of those hellish stairs of the damned.
And there was no place to go—but up.
It was true, Linh thought, as they emerged from the van about an hour later. It was a Church alright—kind of. Truth of the matter was though, that it hadn’t been used for any religious services for quite some time. Or for anything else either. It was, or at least had been, a Catholic Church—or maybe even a small Cathedral. The very dark gray marble stones and vaulted spires attested to that. The windows had long since been boarded over with plywood though. The dark stains and moss growing on the cheap wood testified to the fact that it hadn’t been done recently.
It was actually several blocks from the scene of the terrorist bombing. That entire area was still blocked off, but even at that Linh, Howard and Maggie could see the tendrils of smoke in the sky, as the ruins continued to smolder. As promised, a uniformed police officer met them and directed them to park off to the side of the Church building, when Howard produced his identification. Carter was then directed into a side entrance, again one that was cordoned off from the public.
They entered a few minutes later and were met by Sergeant Andrew McMullen of the Detroit Police Department.
“Good morning Sir,” McMullen started out. “Although sad to say, not much good in Detroit this morning.”
“Agreed, Sergeant. Pleasure to meet you anyway.” Carter held out his hand, and the big Irish cop took it.
“You too, Chief Carter. I understand you may know one of the victims?”
“Perhaps. A private detective and personal friend from Washington State. He was a registered guest at the Hilton. On the second floor.”
McMullen let out a low whistle. “Sorry to hear that Chief. We haven’t had any survivors from that floor. Name?”
“John Albert O’Brien.”
“We’ve recovered quite a few ID’s so far, although a number of them weren’t with the bodies. A few victims have already been identified by relatives, but not that many. Most were from out of town.” McMullen checked his list. “No Sir—he’s not on my list.”
“Well, that’s a good start, Sergeant. How many without IDs?”
“We’re going to have to look, Sergeant.”
“I know, Chief Carter—and I don’t envy you that. The ladies too?”
“Yes—the ladies too. They’re both deputies in my Department.”
“Okay then, Sir. They’re all in the main Chapel, just down the hallway to the right. The lights have been off here for years, but we have some floods rigged. We’re keeping it cold in there—for obvious reasons. The bodies are all inside body bags, but I’m gonna warn you right now—a lot of the bags contain nothing but pieces. Quite a few of them are pretty much unrecognizable as having ever been human beings. The smell ain’t too good in there either. I’ve been a cop for a lot of years, Chief—but even at that it turns my stomach real bad.”
“I understand Sergeant. I’ll know my friend if I see him. He has a couple of pretty distinctive scars. I was with him when he got them. We’ll be okay.”
McMullen nodded his head sadly. “Okay then. Just check in with me when you’re ready to leave. I’ll have to let you out. If you find your friend, we’ll get him moved out to the Wayne County medical examiner’s office right away for you. There’re pretty full right now, so we’re taking it slow.”
“Okay, Sergeant—I appreciate it. Thank you.”
Once inside the Chapel, Carter, Linh and Maggie quickly understood what the Sergeant had been talking about. Three rather neat and tidy rows of dark black body bags lay on the floor, where once equally straight rows of pews had stood. The sweet and sour metallic smell of blood and fecal material hung in the close air with a thickness that could almost be seen. The jerry-rigged lights cast crazy shadows on the floor and walls of the old Sanctuary, contributing to the hellish and otherworldly atmosphere. The stately old Church had truly become a house of the dead.
Linh spoke up. “How you want to do this Howard—split up?”
“Not a chance Linh. All of us together—one bag at a time—ready?
Linh and Maggie swallowed hard, and answered in unison—“Ready.”
I started up the stairs. There was nothing else to do—no use going back. No wimping out. There were exactly thirteen steps. I had counted them many times. My girlfriend Sheila and I had joked about it on many occasions. Bad luck and all. She was not terribly superstitious, although somewhat a believer in Astrology. She was a beautiful kid, and smart as hell too. I had fallen in love with her somewhere between the second and third date, and although we never formally moved in together, she spent a lot more nights at my place than her own. Our youthful appetites were, shall we say—sultry and sensual; cool, passionate and hot—all at the same time.
It was at her place that I was now. Climbing the same stairs that we had traversed, hand in hand, so many times before. And also the ones that I had taken, two at a time, as I raced to her apartment on the night of December 17th, in my senior year at Harvard. She hadn’t answered her phone all day. When darkness fell late in the afternoon, I began to realize that there was something seriously wrong. I knew that she had been depressed. I knew that she was suffering since the abortion of our baby the year before. I knew she wasn’t in a very good place. I suppose I also might have guessed that she needed professional help—too late of course.
What I didn’t quite get was the fact that she was also suicidal.
I could see the door at the top of the landing now. I knew it would be unlocked—same as it was that night—so many years ago. I could hear the Christmas music coming softly through the door, just as it had been then. My legs grew heavier and my feet slowed as I approached, unlike on that horrid night of my memory. At last I reached the door. I felt my hand, almost involuntarily slip around the knob and turn. It gave way easily as the door swung inward. The music grew louder. Perry Como softly crooned the lyrics of Hark! The Herald angels sing.
“Hail! The heaven born Prince of Peace,
Hail! The Son of Righteousness!
Light and Life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings,”
He sang in the dark—a voice on the radio. The only light came from a narrow slit in the bathroom door. Sheila’s studio apartment was small, but I knew it just as I knew her—by heart. A sleeper sofa just to the left. The bed was open, unmade. The covers scattered. Just beyond the bed was a tiny kitchenette. To the right was the bathroom. White on white on white—almost blinding in the light of the glaring overhead florescent light fixture. White tub—old-fashioned claw feet. The ancient building had stood since the beginning of time. White painted walls. White tile floors. Small tiles with broken grout—darkening with age.
The bathroom door was partly closed. An inch or two remaining open. I remembered how we always had to push it closed that last bit to make it click shut. This night, Sheila hadn’t bothered. This night, she was in a hurry. My eyes traveled, as they had that night long before, to the floor. Where the tiny white tiles met the light-brown carpeting of the living-room. I could already see the stain forming, even from several feet away. The blood had worked its way along the grout-line, and was now beginning to pool just outside the door. I knew where it was coming from. This was not my first visit to this tiny room in Hell.
I pushed the door open.
She was staring directly at me. Her lifeless and sightless eyes met mine. Imploringly. Accusingly. The tub was filled with water—bright red. Impossibly red. Almost luminous—in stark contrast to the darker burgundy of her lifeblood on those tiny white tiles. One arm, dripping, dangling from the side of the tub. A blood-splattered kitchen knife lay on the floor. It was, I knew, a sharp one. I had bought it for her—a gift to end the problem of slicing her beloved pineapples. Now, it had ended all her other problems as well. I wondered for an instant, just as I had before, if the use of that knife was a personal message from her to me.
Perry sang on . . .
“Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the sons of Earth,
Born to give them second birth.”
I looked at my feet. Planted on those tiny white tiles, just exactly as they were then. Not just close—but precisely where they had been. My hand remained on the doorknob, just as it had then. Everything—just the same. Except for one. I looked in the mirror. No longer did a youth look back. Now I was face to face with an older me. Instead of a college kid, now stood a middle-aged and somewhat broken-down man in an expensive and tailored suit. Lines on his face that hadn’t been there before. A deeper widow’s-peak. Gray on the edges. A slight stoop. In that moment, I knew this wasn’t a dream. It was the most real moment of my life. My past—right in front of me—in the here and now.
And I had a choice.
I looked at the corpse of the woman I had loved. Lived with. Argued with. Laughed with. Made love to. Conceived a child with. Cried with. A first love. A starter romance. A test-run for later on in life. Mistakes. Blown opportunities. Missed chances. Regrets. Pain—lots of it. The pain of days. The pain of death. The emptiness of nevermore.
And I could change it.
As I stood in that blood-splattered bathroom, I knew, with one-hundred percent clarity and complete and absolute empathy, exactly what it was to be Matt McCabe. I at last, completely understood his pain, his doubt, his humanity, his fear, his uncertainty, and yes—his insanity.
And . . . the choice, that he was being forced to make.
And I forgave him.
I wept, my chest heaving. But I didn’t weep for McCabe. And I didn’t weep for Sheila either. I wept for me. Because for the first time, in a long life of study of the infinite, I understood the power that was God’s.
And more importantly, I understood the power that wasn’t.
With a simple flick of my mind—a flash of thought—I could take it all away. With just a moment out of time, I could make this woman live again. I could put the blood back in her body, the air back into her lungs, return the light to her eyes. I could even put my dead son back into her womb.
And I could put them both back into my arms.
I stood, weeping, for the space of several minutes. I wanted, with every single fiber of my being, to walk into the kitchen and retrieve the bottle of Gin that I knew was there. And I wanted to drain it. To numb the pain. To forget for a night. To go away. To check out. To run away again. To desert those I claimed to love—again. To prove to myself once more, that I was everything I always wanted not to be.
A coward. And a no-class one at that.
In the end, I simply walked away—gently closing the door behind me, both to the bathroom and to the apartment. Darkness once more enveloped the scene of death.
As the apartment door clicked shut, Perry finished his carol:
“Hark! The Herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King . . .”
Once out on the sidewalk, I walked to the corner phone-booth and made a quick phone-call, telling the police just where to find Sheila’s body. Fat flakes of white fell from the sky. For just a moment, I once again watched them in wonder and awe—freezing the moment forever into my memory.
Then, carefully looking both ways on the nearly deserted side-street for prying eyes and finding none, I disappeared quietly into the dark and snowy night.
Thanks so much for reading. We’ll be back in a few days with another installment of THE RECKONING . . .
Until then, Goodnight.
Dumb Joke of the Day: