The Thieves of Heaven
By Richard Doetsch
Random House Richard Doetsch
All right reserved. ISBN: 0440242886
Stained glass-they don't make it like this anymore: brilliant purples, deep rose, rich gold, all melded to depict the Gates of Heaven, the centerpiece of an old-fashioned, whitewashed church. The morning sun filtered in, casting colored shadows upon the host of parishioners, some there because they wanted to be, most because they had to be. And like in any house of worship, no matter the denomination, there were the people who sat in the front pews as if their proximity to the altar made them closer to salvation. The ladies in their fine dresses, the men cologned, blazered, and adorned in their best silk ties, all thinking it was the clothes that made the saint.
Behind the pulpit stood Father Patrick Shaunessy. His close-cropped hair was pure white and in sharp contrast to his stern black eyebrows. His stubby arms, buried deep in the folds of his voluminous green cassock, moved with the Irish lilt of his voice. For years he had preached to his flock, many hours spent on his words of wisdom, but he never failed to wonder whether he had ever gotten through to a single individual. Now, just as in his youth, there was a constant rate of crime, adultery, and a general exodus from religion. People, it seemed, put their faith in technology, science, and sex, believing only in the tangible. If you can't strokeit, don't believe it. Not sure why, Father Shaunessy preached on with the hope that he would save at least one soul from this world gone to confusion.
The priest may have been a slight man; some would say he bordered on puny-he had had fleeting dreams of being an equestrian legend, racing for the roses at Churchill Downs-but his voice, that was his gift, for his voice was as large as his body was small. And it was this voice that now boomed out over his congregation.
"You cannot steal salvation, like a thief in the night. For it is not perfection of life on this earth for which we strive, but perfection of faith. Faith in God will provide us eternal life, faith alone is the key that will grant us eternal salvation."
He gathered up his papers and, as if for emphasis, murmured, "If you open your missal to 'Morning Has Broken,' page one hundred and three."
The congregation joined in song, and while it wasn't Cat Stevens, it was on-key and hopeful, filling the air, echoing off the rafters.
Near the rear of the church, tucked away in the back, almost as if in hiding, sat Father Shaunessy's greatest fan. If the woman was trying to hide, it would be a daunting task; the auburn curls spilling down her back like liquid fire made her impossible to miss. With an air of confidence and a missal in hand, she sang quietly to herself; an action that stood in stark contrast to the rest of her life. She had been hard to contain for more years than anyone could remember. Since the age of thirteen, she had been one of those contradictions-learning of the seven deadly sins at Catholic school during the day, then running around at night, trying to commit all of them. And though the years brought temperance and a sense of responsibility, she would never totally abandon her wild roots. Saturday night usually found her out dancing, but almost every Sunday, no matter the weather, no matter her health, no matter what, she could be found in the same seat at eleven a.m., her head bowed, quietly thankful for everything in her world. Although she didn't always agree with the Church and her manner would never get her nominated for sainthood, Mary St. Pierre's faith in God always rang true.
Beside her in the pew her husband sat silently, his lips tight in protest as he contemplated the singing congregation. A shock of unkempt brown hair framed a strong face, striking, yet worn beyond its thirty-eight years. The man fidgeted. You could see in his dark eyes that his mind was already at the exit. To date, Michael St. Pierre had never told his wife of his diminishing faith, and now was definitely not the moment to do so. They already had enough issues to deal with.
Mary and Michael exited the church amidst the throng of parishioners all angling to shake their pastor's hand, hoping against hope that maybe some of the priest's holiness would rub off on their own souls.
Father Shaunessy went through the motions with a cordial nod to each, thanking them as they complimented his sermon, his slight smile hiding the question in his mind: If quizzed, could anyone of them repeat a single sentence, let alone the daily moral? But then his face lit up, for he had caught Mary St. Pierre's eye.
"Beautiful sermon, Father," Mary said, looking down on the little priest. It was almost as if she was talking to a child, the disparity in their heights was so extreme. Concerned her size would make him uncomfortable, she was always careful never to wear heels to church, but even in her flat shoes she pushed five feet nine.
"Thank you, Mary." He clasped her hand in his. "I can always count on your smile when I'm at the altar." Father Shaunessy didn't acknowledge Michael. It was as if he wasn't there at all. Sensing her husband's discomfort, Mary smiled, pulling him close.
Finally, as an afterthought, not wishing to offend Mary, the priest nodded to Michael. "Mike."
"Patrick," Michael begrudgingly mumbled back.
The line of glad-handers behind Mary was growing long and impatient. Reluctantly, the priest released her hand. "Peace be with you, child."
"Thank you, Father. And you."
The St. Pierres headed down the tree-lined walk toward the parking lot as Father Shaunessy
continued to greet his well-wishing flock.
The '89 Ford Taurus pulled out of the church lot and headed east. Its dinged and pinged body may have been old but it was clean. Michael drove, silent, focused on the horizon, lost in thought. Mary knew Michael was hurting again. Her husband was retreating to that world where he shut out everyone to tackle his problems all alone. It was a wall she always fought to break down, and each time required a new strategy. Her eyes twinkled and she smiled, reaching out to touch him.
He glanced over. "What's up?"
"Just brushing something off your shoulder."
"No. The chip."
"What?" Michael was genuinely confused, moving as if he had a spider on him. "What chip?"
"The chip on your shoulder."
Michael grimaced, trying to hold on to his bad mood.
"Pat is not a bad guy," Mary said.
"He looks down on me, like I'm going to infect his congregation or something. I thought priests were supposed to be forgiving." There was bitterness in his voice.
"It's pretty hard for a man that short to look down on you, Michael."
"Take a look at the world through my eyes, Mary." Michael's eyes never left the road.
Mary hated when he snapped. It wasn't often, only on Sundays and generally within an hour before or after Mass. She knew it was difficult for Michael but it was only an hour out of his week. She did see the world through his eyes; it was something she was always able to do, and as far as she was concerned, he could use a little peace in his life. "Why do we have to go through this every week?" Mary rested her hand on his leg in reconciliation.
An uncomfortable silence filled the car.
Cars by the dozens lined the sides of the road. Music, sounding like Springsteen, blared from somewhere. The roar of the ocean was not far off; a sea breeze filled the air with that unmistakable summertime smell. Mary walked up the slate path to a weathered gray Cape Cod house with Michael an obvious five steps behind her, still silent and stiff. She rang the bell. No answer. She rang again as Michael finally caught up. Mary grabbed the handle, opened the door-
"I don't know if I'm really in the mood for this," Michael warned.
"What are you in the mood for?" she demanded, her patience seeming to wear thin.
Michael said nothing.
"We'll say our hellos and good-byes within a half hour and be home before two."
She took his hand and led him inside. The rooms were dark, suspiciously empty. Mary wound her way toward the back of the house, through a simple living room, past the dining area, muffled noise growing with every step. She came to a sliding glass door, a large curtain across it.
"Remember to smile," Mary whispered.
She pulled back the curtain to reveal a party. Not just any party-this was a party to end all parties. A sea of people filled the back terrace, spilling out onto the beach. Three barbecues blazed, their flames licking the sky. If there was any meat on their grills, it had long since been cremated and returned to the gods. Large speakers spewed "Candy's Room," Springsteen's wailing voice having a hard time competing with the festive uproar.
Mary tugged Michael's hand and they dove into the mayhem, squeezing their way through the drunken throng. As she tugged Michael to breathing room at the back of the terrace, they spotted a huge bear of a man walking toward them. People parted, as if out of respect for royalty, nodding and slapping his enormous back as he went by. He was a heavy man, not fat but not muscled, either, just big and burly. At six feet five, he towered over everyone. His sandy blond hair reminded you of a surfer but they probably didn't make boards big enough for him. Mary was instantly swallowed within his girth as he hugged her tight: a gentle giant caressing a dove.
"The party can now officially start," the big man growled. He released Mary from his clutches, turned and embraced Michael, who couldn't have been more embarrassed as the wind was crushed out of him. "As usual, you're late," he roared.
"Church," Mary defended.
The giant looked right into Michael's eyes and asked: "Bubby?"
"I was praying for that large, whiskey-pickled soul of yours."
The big man's eyes became stern. "Excuses, excuses." He grabbed Michael's head in his enormous hands and pulled him close. "They're just like assholes-everyone's got one and they all stink." He planted a noisy kiss on Michael's forehead before releasing him. "Glad you made it."
Michael finally relaxed.
Paul Busch didn't drink to excess except when he had a really good reason-which was rarer than rare-didn't smoke, and drugs had always been his enemy. In fact, other than a weakness for junk food, Paul was probably one of the cleanest-living men you would ever find. Except for once a year. Once a year around this time, Busch had his Memorial Day weekend blowout. Everyone he had ever met, spoken to, beaten up, kissed, coached, hugged, or married was invited to help him kick off the summer. This was his appreciation-of-life festival and thank-you to all the living, and since he paid the freight he felt entitled to partake in everything, including the alcohol. Hence, his current clumsy, grinning state.
The sound of giggling, screaming children rose above the pounding music drifting over the crowd, the noise getting closer by the second. And suddenly they were there, as if materializing out of thin air, a boy and girl no more than six, Irish twins. Robbie-older by eleven months-and Chrissie Busch, a pair of towheaded blonds with smiles that could warm the depths of the ocean. Charging through the partygoers, they leapt into Michael's waiting arms.
"Come on the trampoline-" Robbie shouted, pulling Michael left.
"No! Sand castles!" Chrissie tugged to the right.
"Hey, guys, how about a hello?" Busch admonished his children.
"It's OK," Michael said, loving the attention.
"Give the man a break, let him at least get a drink." Busch tried to pull his kids off.
"But, Daddy . . . he's the only one here that'll play with us," Robbie pleaded.
Busch looked his son straight in the eye. "That's because he's the only one here with your advanced level of maturity."
"It's OK," Michael repeated, crouching down to the kids.
"Dad, please . . ."
Busch may have been a strong man, probably the strongest you'd ever meet, but when it came to his kids he was more than weak, he was putty. Throwing up his hands, he turned to Michael. "Suit yourself, but if they kill you, don't come crying to me." Busch grinned and put his arm around Mary. "Care to have some fun, beautiful lady?"
And they vanished into the crowd.
Michael and the two children sat down right in the middle of the party crowd as if they were sitting in their own private playroom, and in a magical fashion Michael raised his arms and waved both hands, showing they were empty. The two kids looked confused, exchanging glances. Then he reached behind their ears, pulling from behind each a small stuffed elephant. The smiles couldn't have been wider.
Sitting among a coffee-klatsch of women, Mary listened to the mile-a-minute chatter. The women had gathered, sipping umbrella drinks and gorging on chips and salsa. The conversations ran from gossip to their disappointing marriages back to gossip, none of which Mary could relate to. Next to her was a woman who had no patience for the pretentiousness of these ladies. Jeannie Busch sat back watching the diverse cross-section of her husband's friends and their wives mingle, chat, and drink, all the while barely concealing her contempt. Jeannie hated parties. All the phony smiles and insincere gestures seemed to dissolve to truth as the alcohol washed away the carefully constructed facades. Not that she didn't enjoy the company of her girlfriends, but this was her husband's party and she chose to keep her friends away, not wishing to expose them to the lunacy-that is, all her friends except Mary. Mary was Jeannie's anchor, her rock. She would help her keep her lip in check lest she pop off in her tough, take-no-prisoners fashion to one of Busch's inebriated buddies or boss-or worse, his boss's wife. One's true character was usually laid bare by drink and in general Jeannie didn't like what she saw-but she wore her smile and nursed her water every Memorial Day, because Jeannie hated parties but she loved Busch.
"How's the new school, they treating you all right?" Her husky voice cut through the banter.
Mary nodded, her hair glowing like embers in the midday sun. "I've got twenty-six of the cutest kids you've ever seen."
"Couldn't take that many," Jeannie remarked, pulling her sandy brown hair into a ponytail. "My hands are full with my two munchkins from hell."
Mary smiled. "I'd be happy to take them off your hands."
Excerpted from The Thieves of Heaven by Richard Doetsch Excerpted by permission.
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