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One by one, Father Robert Koesler lit the tall, unbleached candles. Three on either side of the open casket, then finally, the ornate Paschal candle thatas was customaryhad been blessed during the previous Holy Saturday liturgy.
Seven candles provided the only illumination in this dusky chapel.
Unaccountably the flames danced at their wicks' ends. Father Koesler could detect no breeze, no open door or window.
Perhaps some residual current of air ...?
As well, he would have said there was no sound in the chapel. Yet there was, indeed, sound.
The heat had been turned off for the night. The heating pipes groaned as they gave up the last of the furnace's comfort. Tiles shifted as they resettled. Hardwood floors rearranged themselves in terms of insignificant millimeters; supported statues followed suit.
There was sound, as there was movement of air. One had to be acutely attuned to one's surroundings to perceive all that was going on in this ghostly sacred place.
It was 3 A.M.
Over the yearsand there had been so many of them nowhe had come to realize that when he was this wide awake no way was he going to fall asleep.
Of course, seldom at such times had he a corpse with whom to commune.
Koesler was more than reasonably sure that he and the deceased were alone in the chapel. Indeed, he would have been as startled to hear another living voice as he would have been had the corpse sat up.
In his wakeful state, he had tried to read. But, oddly, every book on his reading stand seemed somehow depressing. That being the case, his attention had wandered toward thechapel. After a brief debate with himself, he had slipped a clerical collar atop his pajamas, pulled on a cassock, and stepped into his slippers.
He'd hesitated before deciding not to turn on the chapel lights. Candles seemed basic, more natural and fitting.
The flickering flames cast odd shadows. So different from just a few hours ago.
Then, a good-sized crowd had assembled. A reverential restraint pervaded as people conversed in barely audible whispers. Relatives and friends had read from Scripture. Hymnsor songs that seemed both relevant and meaningfulwere sung.
Father Koesler had invited anyone who wished to share recollections to speak up. Fortunately, those who did kept it on the light side ... humorous anecdotes and the like. That way it was easier on everyone.
Tomorrowwell, actually, later this morningKoesler would deliver the eulogy.
That was another reason he had come to the chapel now. In peace and quiet and a modicum of light, he would ponder the life of the deceased. From this he would put together the personal details that had made this unique life distinct.
He pulled up a chair and sat at the opposite end of the casket from the Paschal candle.
Until now he had paid no mind to the coffin.
After the wake, things had gotten noisy and bustling, with friends greeting each other. Many of them met only on occasions such as this. Koesler had been swept up by the activity that bordered on tumult.
Now, with time seemingly suspended, he took notice of the coffin.
Koesler had officiated at so many funerals that he was familiar with, though not an authority on, the various coffins. This one was different from any he had seen before.
This definitely was not the Cadillac of the industry. That, unless he was mistaken, would be the "Marcellus"premium with a polished Provincial finish and a "Roseton Allure" velvet interiorprice: almost $17,000.
As for the coffin before him, only dully reflecting the candlelight, it was a wood wanna-be, with a gray doeskin finish and an ivory satin interior. The operative word for this casket was definitely "basic"read, "cardboard." It ran a little over $300.
As far as Koesler was concerned, the "basic" made sensefor anyone. Particularly when the final disposition of the body wouldas was the case herebe cremation.
Cremation was one more custom whereon Catholics had turned the corner. Father Koesler could easily recall a time when Christian burial (which to Catholics meant a funeral sanctioned by and conducted in a Catholic church, with interment in blessed ground) was not invariably granted.
One of the several reasons for denying Christian burial was the intention of having the body crematedan action presumed to express a rejection of the resurrection.
That was no longer a factor; nowadays, one would have to have been extremely explicit in denying a resurrection before a priest would refuse a church funeral.
That is, Koesler amended himself, before some priests would refuse.
Shopping for an amenable priest had become a popular pastime for some in the post-Vatican II Church.
These musings were distractions. He had come to the chapel to gather inspiration for his eulogy. Now that he had begun his seventieth decade, he found himself more and more falling victim to stream-of-consciousness. Get down to business, he admonished himself.
But the stream rolled on.
* * *
Father Koesler heard a sort of hissing sound. It was not very loud, but, in the silence of the chapel, it attracted his
He looked about, searching for the cause. He heard it again. This time, because he was looking for it, it was easy to pinpoint.
One of the unbleached candles either had been inserted crookedly, or had tipped a bit. The melting wax was dripping on the cold floor tiles.
Koesler straightened the candle and resumed his seat at the foot of the casket. He studied the body. He had read that there were some consolations in death, but very few, indeed, in dying.
For the figure that lay before him, death had not been a necessity. Death had not been from natural causes, such as disease, illness, or old age. It had been murder. A murder that might have been prevented if everyone involved had been more alert.
Koesler, bathed in candlelight, continued to gaze at the immobile body in the casket, but without really seeing it. What that he now knew might have prevented this murder?
He clearly recalled the moment, several months ago, when he had returned Pat McNiff's phone call. A phone call that had set off a series of events that could haveand should havebeen avoided.
That, he assured himself, was hindsight, Monday-morning quarterbacking. In all probability nothing would have changed. Everything would still have led to this corpse in this coffin.
But Father Koesler would not have played a part in the eventsor at least not such an integral part.
What was incontrovertible was that Bishop McNiff had called. And Father Koesler had responded.
That was the beginning of it all. After Koesler's initial plunge, the water just kept getting deeper and deeper....
The time of pressure, stress, and tension was supposed to be past for Father Robert Koesler. After all, as of several weeks ago, he was officially in retirement. Or, as bureaucratic correctness preferred, he had achieved Senior Priest Status.
Whatever, he had stepped down and away from the day-to-day parochial duties that had filled the better part of half a century of priestly tenure. And no sooner had he become a Senior Priest than several of his former parishioners with impressive connections arranged a chaplaincy for him aboard a cruise ship.
Initially, he didn't see the point. Here he had just been relieved of official responsibility for the care of souls only to shift his workload to the high seas. With some reluctance he went along with the "gift" that was at least well intentioned.
But, as the two-week cruise progressed, island- and port-hopping around the Mediterranean, relaxation took on a whole new broader and deeper meaning.
His total responsibility aboard was to offer Mass at five each afternoon in the ship's auditorium. Beyond that there was sunning on the various decks; skeet; reading; dolphin watching; splashing about in the ship's pool, or off the beaches of the various ports of call; attending interesting lectures; enjoying evening entertainment in the lounge; and eating, eating, eatingeach meal more delectable than the previous.
As for the care of souls, if any of the passengers experienced a problem, spiritual, psychological, or even physical, evidently such plight could wait until after the final docking.
All in all, it was the best vacation Father Koesler had ever experienced. He would for the rest of his life be grateful to those who had arranged this busman's holiday.
Too soon the ship arrived at home port, whence Father Koesler flew back to Detroit. His room awaited him at St. Joseph's parishor Old St. Joe's downtown, as it was more familiarly known.
His residing there was on borrowed time as it were. He had for many years been St. Joseph's pastor and only priest. However, on becoming Senior Priest, at least in the Archdiocese of Detroit, one was expected to move on and out.
The bureaucracy had decided that a new pastor would have a better shot at a smoother, more successful takeover if he was not in competition with his predecessor. Also, absent the former pastor's presence, disgruntled parishioners would not be tempted to try the whipsaw ploy.
While Father Koesler had every intention of establishing himself elsewhere, there hadn't been time for this before the cruise.
Now he was "home." But happily his successor, Father Zachary Tully, seemed in no hurry to have Koesler gone. So, with no pressure to vacate, he determined first to come up to speed.
First he fingered through the phone messages. They fell into neat categories of priority. Mary O'Connor, longtime secretary to Father Koesler, had arranged them according to her perception of their importance.
Mary had intended to retire when Father Koesler did. But she took pity on Father Tully and offered to stay till a suitable replacement could be found. Both Koesler and Tully were grateful.
Atop the pile was a message from Bishop Patrick McNiff, rector of St. Joseph's Seminary. Although it had come in the day after Koesler had left for the cruise, and noted no urgency, only a request to return the call, Mary must have been impressed by the title of bishop, ergo the priority placement.