The Thick Man- Chapter Twenty One

We were greeted with a cool burst of air as we opened the doors to the Potosi Correctional Center chapel. The YMCA stink that permeated the rest of the buildings didn’t follow us here. Instead we were met with the not-quite pleasant aroma of air freshener trying desperately to smell like a bouquet of spring flowers. I guess they ran out of incense. Father Michael was busy straightening the paperback Bibles in the little holders on the back of the old wooden pews when we walked in. I didn’t think he’d heard us enter, but he proved my assumption wrong when he addressed me without looking up from his work.
“So, you’ve come back, Mr. Taft. I don’t suppose that you’re here for confession.”
It wasn’t a question and there was a tinge of sad resignation in his voice. He knew why we were there and he’d been expecting it. Even so he didn’t look back at us or stop what he was doing. He continued straightening his chapel as though we weren’t there at all.
“Actually, I am, Father, just not in the way that you’re referring.”
Nora took a step forward, and I noticed that her hand was hovering near where the gun she’d taken off of Brennan was tucked into the waistband of her jeans. “Father, we’re going to need you to come with us and answer a few questions about the string of murders that have taken place over the past week and a half.”
He nodded wordlessly but continued what he was doing. Nora gave me a concerned look and took a few more steps towards him, hand openly on the handle of her gun now. My spidey sense was tingling. Something was definitely not right. Nora’s tone was firm, but not harsh. “Father, please. Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be. Step out from behind the pew and walk slowly over to me with your hands where I can see them.”
Father Michael stopped then, his head dropping as he sighed and leaned forward on the pew in front of him. When he spoke he sounded slightly annoyed, the way a teen does when a parent asks them to do something while they’re playing a video game. “Very well, officer. I’m coming.”
Nora was only a row back from him as the Father sidestepped down the line of pews and into the center aisle. Then I noticed that he had something in his hands. I shouted a warning at Nora but he was too quick. He whipped around and chucked the Bible that he was holding at Nora’s face. The Bible caught her on the bridge of her nose and as her head snapped back she stumbled a bit, but that still didn’t stop her from drawing her gun. She had it cleared and was bringing it up to fire when the Father body-checked her linebacker-style, and the two went to the carpet in a heap.
The gun went off as they hit the floor and Father Michael was screaming bloody murder as he savagely beat on her like an enraged silverback gorilla I’d seen on a nature documentary once. The sheer violence of the attack had taken us both by complete surprise, and Nora, as well trained as she was, found herself trying desperately to prevent him from pounding her face into hamburger after the Father knocked the gun from her hand.
The entire thing occurred in less than a handful of seconds, and after the stunned disbelief of what I was seeing wore off I sprang into action. Well…I didn’t exactly “spring.” It was more like lumbering with intent. The smart thing would have been to go for Nora’s gun, since mine was lost in the previous gunfight and the one that Nora had recovered for me ended up being out of ammo. Of course I didn’t realize that until we were already on the way there and it was too late to go back and try to scrounge for another.
White knight syndrome struck with a vengeance, and doing what was smart was overridden by my need to get him off of her as quickly as possible. With my best battle roar I swung my cane like a baseball bat straight at his head. Then I gaped in complete shock when the Father nonchalantly caught the cane in his left hand inches from his face.
Holy shit.
We came to arrest a meek priest and instead we got Chuck Fucking Norris.
That moment of distraction was all the opening that Nora needed. While Father Michael’s attention was on me Nora swung her left leg over, hooked his head in the crook of her knee, and slammed him down to the ground. The move almost jerked the cane from my hands, but I had it in a two-handed grip and the Father let go first. Nora had him pinned with her leg and was moving to follow up when I caught a glint of metal from the overhead lights. The Father had let go of my cane so that he could grab the ornate knife that he’d had in a holster underneath his jacket, which he used to slash at Nora as she moved to hit him. The knife caught her across the forearm and she yelped. Now that most of the Father’s weight was off of her body she was able to roll away from him…and almost rolled into me instead.
That would have sucked for everyone.
Fortunately I was able to hop over her as she rolled in my direction. Unfortunately when I landed I felt a sharp pain in my right knee and heard a quick succession of pops, as though someone had a wad of bubble wrap and was twisting it in their hands. Then my knee just wasn’t there anymore and I fell to the ground with a whump. I landed on my back hard and felt the air rush from my lungs. I didn’t have much of a chance to think about that or my knee because a moment later I had a crazed priest with a knife to my throat straddling my chest.
He yelled “Stop!” at Nora, who by that time had retrieved her gun and was in a kneeling firing position with the business end leveled at his head.
“Drop your gun, Detective, or I’ll open his throat from ear to ear.” To emphasize his point I felt the knife bite into my neck and I let out a startled yip.
“If I drop my gun he’s dead anyway.”
The priest growled through gritted teeth. “I don’t want to kill this man, but I will if you push me. Drop. The gun. Now!”
I felt the knife bite harder and I couldn’t help but let out another pained yelp.
I couldn’t turn my head to look at her without slicing my own throat, but I heard Nora hiss a curse and some of the pressure eased off of my neck. The priest smiled but there was a manic madness behind it. “Good. Very good.”
The smile died as he shook his head. “It’s unfortunate that you came here today. When I heard about what had happened across town I’d hoped that that would be the end of it and that I could continue my work in relative peace. I suppose that’s impossible now.”
Nora scoffed. “Your ‘work’. You mean killing people?”
Michael’s face turned a funny shade of purple, and spittle rained down on me as he bellowed, “I’m doing the Lord’s work! Those men deserved to go to Hell for the horrors that they’d committed! It wasn’t right that they were free to walk the Earth and continue spreading their sin! It wasn’t right that with a few words of absolution they might be forgiven and end up at the pearly gates! It isn’t right! So I made sure that they wouldn’t continue to hurt others! I made sure that they’d go to Hell to burn for eternity where they belong!”
“Nora…” My voice was a strangled squeak given the knife at my throat. “Please don’t instigate the armed psychopath.”
“Psychopath?!” His eyes bore into mine now, wide with madness and rage. “I’m no psychopath! Those men, those murderers and rapists dealing in death! They were the psychopaths!”
“Says the man with a knife to my throat.”
The simple statement was like a slap to the face, and the knife jerked back from my neck. Father Michael’s face looked pained, desperate. “I didn’t want this! You seemed to be a nice person, Nick. You both did! I didn’t want things to end this way! I’m so sorry, but I cannot allow you to stop me from completing my work! It’s just too important!”
His expression morphed into one of tired sadness as he leaned back down and brought the knife back towards my throat. “I’m sorry, my son, but sometimes sacrifices must be made for the greater good. I’ll pray for you.”
It was at this point that I experienced what alcoholics often refer to as a moment of clarity; and in that moment I realized two important facts. First, if I didn’t do something I was going to die. That much was obvious, I suppose, but it was an essential revelation to have because it led immediately to the second, more important realization- I was armed with a pointy object of my own.
I depressed the button on the head of the cane and the bottom popped off and went skittering across the floor. Given our relative positions I couldn’t exactly stab the guy like I had the gangbanger earlier that night, but I could swipe the thing at him as hard as I could. There was a woosh of air and the priest sucked in a breath with a wince as the sword smacked him across the back.
His back arched in reaction, which presented Nora with a perfect target. The gun barked and I was suddenly showered in the warm stickiness of the priest’s blood from the bullet hole in his throat. The knife fell from his hands and clattered to the floor as he absently reached up to feel the hole with his hands. He let out a gurgle as he fell off of me and to the ground. I batted the knife away and rolled away from him. Nora was on me in an instant, pressing a piece of cloth she’d ripped from somewhere on her shirt against the cut on my neck.
“Nick! Are you all right?”
I nodded absently, my eyes still glued on the priest who was grasping at his neck and gurgling as a pool of blood collected around his head not five feet from me. He reminded me of a goldfish struggling for oxygen outside of its tank and it caused me to wince. With his last breath I heard Father Michael choke out, “Father…forgive…me.”
Then he was gone.
I felt warm tears against my cheek as Nora pulled me closer to her. That was how the guards found us a few moments later, holding each other and crying tears of joy because we were both still alive. As crazy as the events of the day had been, as close as we’d both come to dying multiple times, we’d made it. We’d been there for each other and survived.
“Nora? I need a vacation.”
“You and me both, baby. You and me both.”