Chapter Nineteen: Pride and Punishment
Father Bernard looked up from his sheath of papers to see an elderly man standing before his desk, a man in casual clothing such as a rancher might wear. Such attire was not uncommon for this midwestern region, but it was exceptionally unusual to find one dressed so casually in his private office, especially one who was both uninvited and unannounced.
"How... Who are... Sir! Who are you, and how did you get into my office? No one is permitted in here without prior appointment! Miss Brookings! MISS BROOKINGS! Come here, immediately!"
Father Bernard punched at his intercomm buttons, raising his voice to get the attention of his personal assistant in the outer office. After all, as the senior Priest of one of the oldest, largest, and most prominent cathedrals in the midwest, he was entitled to certain formalities. There was something ominous, threatening in the aura of this stern-faced old man who had materialized in his private sanctuary.
"She will not hear you. Her mind is focused elsewhere. We will remain undisturbed until my message has been delivered."
"What message? Who are you to confront me in my own chambers? Begone with you, this moment! Perhaps you can reach the street before the police arrive!" Father Bernard snatched up his telephone handset and stabbed a thick finger into the rotary dial, hurriedly forcing it to spin "0" for an operator.
"If you will calm yourself and listen, I believe you'll hear no dial tone in that telephone."
Father Bernard stabbed his forefinger down on the telephone cradle, repeatedly pushing and releasing the handset plunger. Nothing, not even switch clicks, came through the earpiece. It was totally silent. He felt his heartbeat and his breathing rise to uncomfortable rates, dangerously high for a portly man who exercised little. He piously ignored his physician's warnings of unhealthy cardiac symptoms during his last physical.
Father Bernard began to sweat. He nervously loosened his tight collar, the immaculate badge of his priestly office. He tried to slow his gasping breathing. He glanced again at the closed doorway to his office, then at the window overlooking the great courtyard outside. The door was sealed, the courtyard empty. He briefly considered lunging for the door but the tall stranger, an imposing figure despite his apparent age, stood between himself and any hope of escape. Father Bernard was not a brave man; he was certainly not brave where physical confrontation was possible.
"How dare you! You will spend many miserable years in jail for this assault, you... you... intruder! How dare you attack my assistant, cut my phone lines... I'll have the police in here and you'll rot in jail! You will rot in Hell for attacking His Holy Church!"
The slightest smile twitched briefly on the old man's face.
"I suggest that you sit down. No one is coming, and you will go nowhere until we are finished here. My message will take some time, so you had best make yourself comfortable."
Father Bernard returned the telephone handset to his ear, and hearing nothing but his own erratic, thumping pulse, he slammed it down onto the telephone base. Glancing again at the doorway, then at the window and seeing that nothing had changed, he slumped heavily into his chair. His sweating hands gripped the ornately carved ends of the leather-padded arm rests. Beads of sweat gathered on his temples and trickled downward, running under his loosened clerical collar.
"Very well, damn you! Say your piece and then get out of my office! But I warn you, there's nothing you can say that I wish to hear, and nothing you can ask that has any chance of being granted! Ah! Threats? Are you here to make threats against me? Against the Holy Church? Little good it will do you, old man. You have no idea what you have started here. It will be the end of you, I assure you! Well, speak, damn you! Let's have it out of you!"
Mike stood impassively, waiting for the fat, sweating man to run out of breath and bravado. Clearly the priest was half terrified. Never before had he been challenged so ominously on his own ground, a fortress-like setting that virtually no power in the nation could assault. The priest had come to consider his position, his sanctuary, as impregnable.
The priest waited for some response. His face was fully flushed, red with anger and fear, his temples wet and throbbing, eyes nervously scanning about but always returning to confront the intruder.
Mike was perfectly centered in the priest's vision at the edge of his huge desk. He stood tall, ramrod straight, as fixed and stern as a staring eagle. His eyes focused on the priest and bored into him. Whatever he saw in the priest's mind or soul, no emotion touched Mike's face. Several long moments ticked slowly away while he stared at the sweating, squirming man in the chair.
"Look into my eyes!"
The command was barely audible in the office but it rang like the clap of doom in the priest's head. Instantly his focus locked onto the stranger's eyes and remained there. Not even tears came. His was an unblinking stare, frozen, unable to break away.
"Now see what you have done!"
Father Bernard saw dimly before him the naked body of a small child. The apparition grew and formed in his sight while everything else dimmed, darkened, receded, until all he could see was the slender, nude form of a young girl standing alone, turned away from him, her shoulders hunched in sobbing misery.
He could not look away. He was forced to witness her grief increasing to the edge of hysteria. She turned, her head swiveled to face him and Father Bernard knew her tear-streaked face, his latest victim, the Jacobs child. He recoiled with apprehension and sudden fear; this was leading somewhere he did not wish to go.
She stared directly into his eyes. Her grieving stopped, her face grew still, no sound came from her lips. Her eyes accused him. He heard her accusation of betrayal, a foul charge stained with his guilt. His heart beat more rapidly, his breathing came in shallow gasps.
Her face... what is happening to her face? It is changing, shifting, becoming another face? What is this face? Horror seized him. She rose above him and became the Madonna, holiness upon her face, her body clothed in a fine linen drape. Her arms held a child! My God in Heaven... the child! No, not the boy child. It is the Jacobs child, her small, abused body cradled in the Madonna's arms!
He looked to the face of the Madonna and saw in her eyes the certitude of his damnation. The truth of his hideous crimes lay reflected in her accusing stare. He then knew himself judged and banished to a hell of eternal remorse.
"Oh, God, no... noooo... he shrieked, but nothing issued from his screaming mouth. No sound came from his contorted throat.
She vanished; the child vanished. Nothing remained in his sight but the motionless figure of the tall stranger.
His pulse thundered in his temples, in his ears; his struggling heart pounded and threatened to burst through his chest.
His eyes swept his office, frantically searching. He had seen that horrible... holy specter... Holy Madonna and child... the girl child, now gone, both gone, where?
He looked to the tall man who began to shorten and expand, distort and grow into a grotesque caricature of...no! No... oh, my God, NO!
"NO! It is not possible! That cannot be me!" he shrieked, voicelessly, soundlessly. His ears burst with the sound but not a whisper came from his mouth.
He saw himself as a grotesque caricature, his naked body obscenely fat and distended, his loins clad in filthy, stained boxer shorts of a style he always wore. His huge belly bulged over pale hairless legs, his knees bowed with the ponderous weight of their burden.
He tried to move his eyes away, to close them, to twist his head so he could escape this indecent view of himself, but he could not. He could not escape the horror of himself. And then he began to change. As the shape of the apparition of himself changed, he felt his own body change, mimicking that which he saw!
His jacket and shirt split and fell away, the sleeves slid from his arms and he thrust himself up and away from his desk. His huge, ornate chair slid away behind him. His belt snapped, his trousers split and fell to his ankles. His feet split out of their shoes, grotesque and gnarled.
The priest and his caricature became mirror images, himself and the horrid thing standing before him. Their skin loosened, coarsened, hanging in folds from their neck, chest, arms, and belly. They glistened with sweat, an oily corruption; the room filled with a stench that assaulted their senses. Their stomachs heaved with nausea.
He tried to clench his nostrils and his mouth closed to escape the unbearable stench but he could not. His gasping breaths ingested the stink of his own corruption; it twisted his stomach into knotted cramps. He could not vomit. Hot bile rose in his throat and swelled until it burned the soft tissues. His vocal chords shredded. His tongue dissolved in the acid flood.
An alien face emerged from the corrupt flesh that had been his sunken chest. He felt it grow on his own body while he saw its twin, a face, nose, chin, forehead, eye sockets, all mirrored on his doppleganger's chest. Each regarded the other with leering, evil eyes.
Oh, dear Holy Mother of God... NO! his mind shrieked! His sanity reeled and recoiled in incoherent panic, insane terror. He knew that face! That hideous apparition grown from his own chest... it is the face of the Bishop! HIS BISHOP!
The face of the supervising Bishop stared out from the apparition's chest. Looking down, he saw the bald head of the Bishop growing from his own chest. They faced each other across the great desk. The Bishop's apparition glared into its other face, then looked up to the priest.
"You have brought us to this," it said.
The priest was beyond answering. His mind had become an endless scream, echoing insanely inside his head.
A grasping tongue with barbed spines snaked out of the Bishop's mouth. It descended downward, slithering over the priest's distended belly to seek out his shrunken, withered genitalia buried under rolls of fat. The Bishop's tongue sank its spines into the shriveled scrotum and jerked it violently upward. The priest clawed frantically with his hands, too late to save himself. He seized the attacking tongue, frantic to pull it away. He clutched and tore and ripped at it.
His end came quickly. His blood pumped out in a dark fount; his heart exploded; the contents of his nauseated stomach splashed down to mingle with the river of blood streaming down the richly carved sides of the great desk. Blood and vomit soaked into the priceless Persian carpet.
"Are you sure you heard nothing? No sounds, no voices, no movements, nothing at all?" the detective asked Miss Brookings for the third... no, the fourth time.
"No sir, as I've said each time, I was here at my desk all afternoon. I'd not left it for any reason. There were all these reports to finish, and himself, Father Bernard, was most insistent that they be finished by day's end. I didn't even go out to check the mail or fetch coffee from the corner shop. I've been here the whole time.
"The only thing I could say was different, sir, was that I never did get a summons from himself, for any errand or questions. Nor any calls. It was just as silent as could be, and himself was in there the whole time. He never called for me, nor opened that door. It was just me here, and himself in there, and that's the whole of it."
The city's chief detective frowned, shook his head slightly, and flipped his notebook closed. This was not right. Nothing about this scene was right, but there was precious little he could do about it. He had no evidence of anything or anyone. He had a clueless witness who saw nothing, heard nothing, did nothing but sit and work at her desk the whole time!
"Thank you, Miss Brookings. That will be all for now. We'll need a formal statement, of course. If you wish, one of the officers can take it from you here. If you do happen to remember anything else, please call me."
Detective Edwards handed her his business card, knowing it was a wasted effort. She wouldn't remember; she wouldn't call.
The ambulance crew finished loading their burden onto a stretcher and were having a difficult time easing the dead Priest's bulk down the steps leading from the Cathedral offices into the courtyard. A covering sheet outlined an obese form, a bulging belly, and just where the crotch should be a great bloody circle spread outward on the cloth.
"That is sure as hell one for the books," Edwards told his partner as they paced nervously back and forth in the courtyard, each taking hurried drags from cigarettes hungrily welcomed after their harrowing investigation.
"The most powerful priest in the city; he has run this place like his own private kingdom on earth for over twenty years. We get a frantic call from his personal assistant screaming bloody murder that's he torn himself nearly to pieces. What do we find, first on the scene? There he is, sprawled back in his great chair, and he's torn his own clothes off! They're layin' in shreds, scattered all around. He even snapped his belt; popped the damned buckle, he did. Even his shorts, ripped off and flung away. Naked as a jaybird!
"But that ain't the half of it! Oh hell, no! I don't know how to write this one up, and it sure as hell ain't gonna go over well with the Chief or the D.A., but what can we do? The fat bastard used his own hands, his own fingernails, and clawed his cock and balls away. He bled out, right there, all over his desk like a stuck pig. And puked! Jesus, he puked across his desk and halfway to the door.
"God, what a horrible way to die!"