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Jack O’Connell (b. 1959) is the author of five critically acclaimed, New York Times bestselling crime novels. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, O’Connell’s earliest reading was the dime novel paperbacks and pulp fiction sold in his corner drug store, whose hard-boiled attitude he carried over to his own writing. He has cited his hometown’s bleak, crumbling infrastructure as an influence on Quinsigamond, the fictional city where his first four novels were set, and whose decaying industrial landscape served as a backdrop for strange thrillers which earned O’Connell the nickname of a “cyberpunk Dashiell Hammett.” O’Connell’s most recent novel was The Resurrectionist (2008). A former student at Worcester’s College of the Holy Cross, he now teaches there, not far from where he and his family live just outside of his hometown.
A good number of the old churches in Quinsigamond have found other uses. These big, dark houses of God have been turned into nightclubs and restaurants, a museum, a weight training salon, and these weird, upscale condos for the city's nouveau riche Europhiles.
There was a big fad that peaked maybe five years back. Developers were grabbing the churches on the point of absolute decay, abandoned monsters whose parishioners had died out or moved on. For a while, every hustler with a real estate license was trying to find a way to target St. Brendan's, Quinsigamond's only cathedral. But the diocese held out, the bishop refused all offers. St. Brendan's was still a legitimate parish, even if the bulk of its worshipers were outpatients from Toth Care Facility, tethered to their pews by a pocketful of lithium.
Now the market's gone bad and more than one builder has filed Chapter 11. St. Brendan's looks like it's outlasted another trend. Speer sits in his car in the church lot and stares up at the structure. How could they want to desecrate such a thing?
To Speer, the cathedral is an architectural miracle with only one function—the singular glorification of the one true God. Whoever drafted the plans had to have been divinely inspired. This is the only explanation that makes sense, that offers a justification for the majesty that springs up from a common gravelly lot in the heart of downtown.
The church is almost a hundred and fifty years old, a monument to the tenacity of gray granite. It's a traditional nave-and-transept setup, but its centerpiece is a square tower that rises up in stages of arched windows and concludes with castlelike buttresses at each corner. The tower gives the cathedral the look of a fortress, a bastion of strength that could hold off a lifetime of heresy.
Speer instinctively senses, but has no respect for, the irony of what's happened to this church; the fact that this living artwork and testament to the possibilities of a honed Christian mind should become the stamping ground for the refuse of society. It sickens him these days when he watches the kinds of people who climb the granite stairs to make a visit. There are the dozens of street folk, the deinstitutionalized peasants who live in the alleys and cellar holes off Main Street. There are the drunks and addicts who fixate on some childhood, addlebrained idea of Christ. There are the last remnants of the old neighborhood, the elderly who never moved on and now haunt the cathedral with their walkers and canes. And there are the rapidly growing clans of immigrants, the majority illegal. Speer calls these people the mutants. He thinks they're the product of some awful recessive gene that condemned certain countries to a continual backwardness. They are the bottom of the DNA barrel, but nature has seen fit to give them wild breeding abilities, and so they explode beyond their natural boundaries. Every time some petty despot seizes their homeland, they run to America to live the parasite's dream.
They are Hispanic and Indian and, more and more often, any one of a variety of the Asian tribes—Laotian, Vietnamese, a slew of Cambodians. The federal and state governments help them buy the dilapidated tenements packed into the center of town, and then literally dozens move in, five to a bedroom, people sleeping on tables. They bring the aunts, the uncles, the cousins and in-laws over on the next freighter. They raise chickens in the kitchen cabinets and practice unspeakable religious rites on the back porch.
Except for the converts, the ones Father Todorov has gone to great pains to win over. This is what you want as the future of Catholicism, Speer thinks, and bites down on his back teeth. He finds the name Todorov particularly suspect. It sounds Russian and they've got their own very insular rite—Russian Orthodox, out of old Constantinople. Speer has read a book on the history of schism in the church. Splinters from the Rock, by an ex-Jesuit named Bloom. He couldn't get a handle on where the author's heart lay. But he does know that the modern toleration of heretical thought could be the end of the only true route to God.
There was Todorov just last week allowing a Lutheran minister onto the St. Brendan's altar to read the gospel. A show of ecumenism. A display of understanding. And a two-column photo in the religion section of the Spy. Todorov has been pulling down more than his share of press lately. Last summer, when no one was looking and half the chancery was playing golf on Cape Cod, the good father starts up his own radio hour on QSG. The Word Made Flesh. His initial broadcast was exactly what Speer expected, an apologia for Liberation Theology and Marxist Clerics. But grudgingly, Speer had to acknowledge the man had classic radio skills, a natural heir to Fulton Sheen, not a trace of an accent, never a stammer or cough, and always building to commercial-time climaxes.
And now Fr. T's latest crusade is the city's mounting gang problem. He explained it on last week's show as a "natural outgrowth of a morally reprehensible foreign policy." Speer was glued to the radio, both disgusted and fascinated by the bizarre progression of the priest's logic, his proposition that American support for "genocidal tyrants around the world" has "bred a violent mind-set" among the "global peasantry, the fellaheen." The peasants seek sanctuary in our urban cesspools and "bind into the only form of security they've been allowed to know—the gang system, the tribal rite."
Speer wonders—where did this guy learn to talk this way?
So now the priest tries to play big brother to the dozens of immigrant packs attempting to carve out a block or two for themselves in their new home. One day he's down bringing donated food to the Haitian Tonton Loas. The next, it's government cheese to the Castlebar Road Boys, drug-running IRA punks. In the meantime, all this street trash with their coded tattoos and colors are muling skag and doing drive-by clubhouse hits.
Speer thinks that throughout human history, more damage has been done by misguided men than by those with consciously heinous intent. He thinks that maybe the worst sin of all is the sin of confusion. He thinks that on their first day in the seminary, all novitiates should have a quote branded onto their chests, backward, like the ignorant cattle they are. Then each morning they could rise and look in the mirror and read the words that lie on the skin above their heart: I would not even believe in the Gospels were the Holy Church to forbid it—Francis Xavier.
Todorov clearly doesn't see the danger of his actions. He views himself as a man with a mission, maybe a destiny to fulfill. The horror is that he's giving these heathen scum some degree of credibility, making the public see them as a genuine collective, an organized force to be dealt with rather than a minor, excisable exception to the rules of order and progress.
Speer knows the gang boys in ways Fr. Todorov never will. He knows them as aberrations, throwbacks to the pack mind of wild dogs, dim-witted, overstimulated, unsure of what they need or want and striking wildly at whatever comes their way.
This is the kind of vile scum Todorov wants to bring into the Church.
Speer wants to place firm hands on the priest's shoulders and explain slowly, "There is nothing to save. This is basic theology. Look at the faces. Look at the features. Animals. Beasts of the earth. And as such, they have no souls."
Speer puts his hand in his coat pocket, touches the canister, finds two loose Excedrin, pulls them out, and puts them in his mouth. The headache is probably too far gone now, but he dry-swallows the caplets anyway.
Todorov isn't a stupid man. Why can't he see the simple fact that following the fringe, following after the aberration, will always lead down a blind alley? The only explanation for the priest's actions is the sin of vanity, the vice of raging ego. Pride will always make the brain lie to the soul. Todorov wants to be a shepherd so badly he's tending to a flock of serpents.
Speer looks up and sees fewer people exiting the cathedral. He glances to his watch and sees confessions are just about over, so he gets out of the car, crosses the street, and enters through the enormous, castlelike front doors.
He stands in the doorway for a moment and lets his eyes adjust to the dimness. He moves to a small table set next to the St. Vincent de Paul Society collection boxes and picks up a mimeographed flier. It takes him a second to realize it's written in Spanish.
He walks through a second set of double swinging doors into the main body of the cathedral. He slides into the last pew, kneels, folds his hands in prayer, and starts to take inventory. To his left is an elderly couple kneeling in a pew next to the confessional booth. And far to the front, up at the altar, is a large-bodied nun in a reformed habit, folding fresh white linen cloths. Speer scans the whole scene again.
He grew up in churches like this one. Smaller versions, but always built of heavy stone, like the cathedral, always ornate rather than quaint, with long aisles and cold, shadowy choir lofts, and a dark, smoky tinge to the walls where the heating system would push dust and grime upward year after year. Places where every word echoed and threatened to end up unintelligible.
Speer grew up dreaming of overseeing a place like this, four or five curates under his domain, maybe a crowded school staffed by classic disciplinarian nuns, enormous May Processions spilling out into the streets, and local politicians sniffing around each year for a vague endorsement. Three months in the seminary severed any hopes of fulfilling that dream. He found the core dogma of the institution had been subverted. And he knew that once that happens, the cancers of compromise and rationalization spread like an unbroken line of oil fires down the landscape.
Speer left the seminary and signed on with the FBI.
The nun on the altar folds and smooths her last piece of linen and exits into the sacristy. A few moments later the older couple finish praying their penance simultaneously, slide out of the pew, and leave. And Speer is alone with the priest.
There's the sound of a cough and then Todorov appears from the sacristy, a set of keys in his hand, ready to lock up the church now that all the Masses are done.
Speer gives a hesitant voice and says, "Are you leaving, Father?"
Todorov squints down toward the rear of the church, then smiles and says, "Can I help you with something?"
He starts down the aisle toward Speer, and Speer moves his head around sheepishly and motions with one hand toward the confessional booth.
The priest pauses. "Do you want to ..." He trails off and mimics the motion with his keys.
"If it's not too much trouble," Speer says.
"Not at all."
Speer waits and allows the priest to enter the box, then moves out of his pew, steps in the adjoining booth, and pulls the heavy curtain closed behind him. He goes down on the cushioned kneeler, waits a beat, and then hears that old sound, that childhood sound of the miniature door, the sliding panel being pushed open to reveal the shadowed face of the priest, in profile, his ear turned to the penitent, obscured behind a heavy mesh.
The sound and the sight take Speer back for a moment, catch him off guard.
Fr. Todorov says, "Go ahead, my brother."
And Speer instinctively begins speaking in a low, rote voice. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been—"
Another pause and then an improvisation. "—an awfully long time since my last confession and these are my sins."
He stops. Todorov gives him a good ten seconds, then says, "It's all right, son. Remember why we're here. God has infinite forgiveness."
"You truly believe that, Father?"
Speer can almost see the priest smile on the other side of the mesh. "With all my heart, my friend. That's the root of all my faith."
"But you've made a very broad statement, Father."
"How is that?"
"What I mean is, is forgiveness the same as redemption?"
"I'm not sure I'm—"
"I'm speaking about the unconverted, Father. I'm talking about those outside the Faith. I'm asking you, can they be redeemed?"
"Are you trying to tell me you're not Catholic? Is that—"
"Excuse me, Father, but, in this day and age, what would you mean by Catholic?"
Now Todorov pauses, backs away from the confessional screen, seems to put a hand up to his face.
"Well, very simply, were you ever baptized in the Catholic Church?"
"Is that necessary, Father?"
"Necessary? I'm not sure ... I'm not sure we're on the same track here. Did you want to make a confession?"
"It's just that I've been following your work, Father. You've been in the Spy quite a bit lately. And I'm just wondering what it is you tell the heathens—"
Now Todorov interrupts, his tone turning sharp, his torso leaning back to the screen. "Heathens?"
"The gang boys. The Tonton Loas. The Angkor Hyenas. The Granada Street Popes."
"I'm not sure we're in the right place to—"
"Of course you're right, Father. It's just that your work, what I've read about, the things I've heard—it's all caused me to rethink certain ... Well, it has relevance to my confession, you see."
The priest is curious now, maybe on the verge of being flattered. "Go on."
"It's just that, Father, the things I've done ... It's very difficult to ... I'm very ashamed ..."
Todorov is in his element now. His voice turns professional, a brother to his radio voice. "God's brought you here today for a reason, don't you think? We can't change the past, my friend, but we can repent. That's why you're here. There are things you want to tell me, yes?"
"Yes, there are, Father."
"Yes, there are. Now, you take a deep breath and you let the Spirit move you."
"It's very difficult, Father—"
"God will give you the strength. Tell me your story:"
Speer begins to whisper in a voice too soft to be heard. Todorov says, "If you could just speak up a bit, my friend."
Speer sees the priest lean his ear toward the screen. The buck knife comes up and slashes the mesh diagonally. Speer's free fist flies through the opening, catches the priest in the eye, breaks open skin. His hand grabs hold of Todorov's throat and pulls the priest's head through, into the penitents' booth. Before the priest can scream, Speer has a full arm around his neck and the blade to his throat.
"I'll have your tongue on the floor before you can make a fucking sound."
The priest starts to let out small, panicky gasps that immediately evolve into a wet gurgle.
"I want you to know what you've done. I want you to realize what your actions have brought you. I hope God can have more mercy on you than I."
Speer brings the knife down, pockets it, and draws from his jacket a small silver metal cylinder about the size of a hip flask. He holds it up in front of the priest's face, actually touches the man's forehead with it like some kind of quick anointing.
"This is benzine."
He brings the canister up to his mouth, grips the cap with his teeth, unscrews the top, and spits the cap to the floor.
"The Nigerians used to be crazy for this stuff a while back. Warring tribes used to pour it over their captives. Made for an unbelievable sight. A man on fire with this shit—it isn't like he just burns. This is like rocket fuel, okay? You explode."
Todorov makes a single frantic pull backward, a seizure-like move of absolute panic. Speer tightens his grip on the neck and begins to pour the benzine over the top of the priest's head.
"Just like baptism, Father."
He empties the canister and drops it.
"Coincidentally, you know who's big on benzine death these days? That's right. Your own little Hyenas, there. The little Cambodian fuckers. It'll look like you and the Hyenas had a disagreement. But that was bound to happen."
Speer gets ready, takes a breath, then lets another punch fly, connects at the bridge of the priest's nose, hears the bone break. At the same time he releases his hold and Todorov's head shoots backward, back into the confessor's booth.
Excerpted from Wireless by Jack O'Connell. Copyright © 1993 Jack O'Connell. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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Posted August 20, 2012
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