Father Michel Renault didn’t notice the visitor in the chapel of Saint Anthony’s Cathedral until he heard the soft swoosh of the confessional door closing to his left.
He frowned worriedly. “I’m coming,” he called. But his gaze still lingered on the splintered empty drawer protruding awkwardly from his desk.
The office had looked undisturbed when he entered it earlier that morning . . . until he happened to glance at the locked drawer of his desk and noticed it had been forcibly opened. The contents were personal; it contained no weekly offerings or valuables of the church. Yet it had been completely emptied. The rest of his office remained untouched. Now the mystery of the empty drawer haunted his tasks, agitating his every thought, and distracting him from giving full attention to his duties.
“I’m coming,” he called out again as he hurried toward the side of the confessional reserved for priests. He actively pushed his thoughts away from his office and toward the soul inside the booth that needed his services. A moment later, he slid with a practiced ease into the tiny compartment reserved for him. At six foot two and weighing over 220 pounds, the former college linebacker always felt a bit squeezed when inside there. At the same time, it was a familiar constriction, one that was almost comforting. He’d spent many hours alone inside this little room, confessing his own sins before God. In here, at least, was temporary peace and confidence.
He slid open the window between the priest and sinner and caught a filigreed glimpse of a man sitting on the bench across from him.
“Thank you for waiting,” he said kindly. “What can I do for you, my son?”
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” The voice was even, controlled. Businesslike.
“How long has it been since your last confession, my son?”
A pause. Then, “A lifetime, Father.”
Renault nodded knowingly, even though the confessor was looking away. “Go on, son.”
“I’ve had impure thoughts today, Father.”
“Yes. Go on.”
“I imagined myself beating a priest to a bloody pulp.”
A sudden fear seized the Father. He tried to shake off the trembling in his stomach. Involuntarily, he clenched his fists. He was no small man, he reasoned. And years of playing football before dedicating his life to the church had certainly taught him how to handle himself in a fight, if the situation warranted it. Still, something in the sinner’s voice cut through his defenses. Something calm and terrifying in the way this other man spoke. As if . . . as if he . . .
“And Father? I enjoyed it.”
Renault stood quickly and reached for the door.
“Don’t run, Father. It will do you no good anyway.”
He flew across the carpet of the sanctuary, racing toward the huge cathedral doors that led to the outside, to safety. He didn’t look back.
The stranger caught him after only twenty feet or so, yanking hard on the back of his collar, releasing just in time to let Renault’s head crack hard on the floor.
He tasted blood from the gash his teeth cut in his tongue. He rolled quickly, instinct taking over. In a moment he was on his feet, facing the stranger and cautiously edging backward toward the sanctuary outside the doors.
“Now listen, son,” he spoke soothingly, palms facing outward toward the man. “You don’t want to do this.”
“Yes, Father,” the stranger grinned fiercely. “I really do.”
Renault took his first good look at the sinner. The man was neither small nor large. Six feet tall, at best. His dark hair was long and hung carelessly down his face, where the front tickled his chin and the back straddled his shoulders. He was not large, no, but he was solid. He wore a black ribbed shirt and a charcoal colored, thigh-length coat. Even through the clothing, Renault could make out the build of a man who had apparently spent many years in a weight room. His legs were thick and muscled too, and judging by how fast he had caught the priest, he obviously was quick. Still, the Father figured the stranger couldn’t weigh more than 175, or 180. Renault had the weight advantage. And the height advantage too. That was something, wasn’t it?
The priest drew in a breath, straightened his shoulders, and closed his fingers into fists. “I’m warning you, son. I don’t want to have to hurt you.” His mind and his body traveled back to the football days, when it felt good to menace an opponent—and it felt better to hurt him. Confidence flooded back into his soul. Yes, this stranger had picked the wrong priest on the wrong day.
The sinner’s voice turned to ice, and his face to stone. “Don’t worry, Father. You won’t hurt me.”
Renault never saw the blow coming, a heel to the groin that left him gasping in unexpected agony on the floor. The stranger leaned close to his ear.
“First,” he said, “I’m going to break at least two of your ribs, Father.”
Renault swung hard toward the voice, but his attacker was too fast and easily out of reach before the fist could land. Less than a second later the priest felt the hard toe of a boot digging viciously into his side. He yelped and tried to crawl away, but the boot landed a second time, making him curl into a soggy ball of pain. The kicks came again, harsh and relentless, until the priest felt one, then a second of his ribs crack in his side. His lungs felt like they were on fire and he felt dizzy with pain.
“Next, I think I will break an arm. You are left-handed, correct?”
The heel of the boot stepped quickly and firmly on Renault’s left forearm. It snapped with little resistance. The priest screamed; the man resumed casually kicking at the fallen father on the ground.
“Please . . .” Renault croaked finally, “please . . .”
The kicking stopped, briefly, and Renault felt strong hands grab and lift him to almost a standing position.
“What did you say?”
The priest gasped, coughed, gagged on the blood in his mouth.
The stranger balled a fist and cracked a blow directly on the bridge of Renault’s nose. He passed out then, briefly, and when he came to, he was still being held up by the attacker’s hands.
“Please . . .” the priest whispered over swollen tongue and through the bloody river streaming down his face. “Please . . . don’t hurt me . . . anymore.”
The savage before him leaned in close, looking deeply into the Father’s eyes. The stranger’s eyes were chocolate brown, calm. Controlled. But flecked behind the chocolate were tiny dots of reddish gold, as if this man had seen the fires of hell and traces of it had been spattered into the pigment itself.
“Are you listening to yourself, Father?” the man whispered. “Haven’t you heard those words before?”
Pictures flashed unbidden through Renault’s memory. He closed his eyes tightly, releasing tears of agony. “Why . . . why are you doing this?” he moaned.
“Because I’ve seen you, Father,” the sinner said calmly, still supporting the full weight of the beaten and bloody man of God. “I’ve seen what you did to Hector Gomez.”
The priest shook his head in protest. “But,” he grimaced at the effort of trying to breathe and speak at the same time. “But I’ve done nothing to Hector. Nothing.”
“Right,” the attacker said firmly. “And you never will.”
Father Renault closed his eyes again, and finally began to pray. To plead with God for mercy.
“I’m going to blind you now, Father.” The voice was still even, calm, as if it were discussing the weather or ordering coffee. “I will leave you one eye, though. One eye to remember. One eye to look for me. Because if you ever see me again, Father, I will take that one too.”
Pain exploded like dynamite in the priest’s left eye socket. Darkness, sweet darkness spread through Renault’s consciousness as he felt the orbital bone in his skull crack, then break beneath his skin. His body fell limp to the ground.
The sinner stood for a moment, looking down at the man he had just bloodied and beaten. He absently rubbed his forehead where the brunt of his head butt had broken the priest’s skull. Then with a swift movement, he removed some personal items from a pocket in the lining of his coat and dropped them unceremoniously on the Father’s unconscious body. He turned to leave the now-silent church and saw a boy standing, open-mouthed, in the doorway.
“Call the police, Hector,” he said quietly as he walked toward the door. “And an ambulance.” The boy didn’t move. “You’d better hurry. He’s going to wake up soon, and when he does, he’ll be in a lot of pain.”
The stranger disappeared through the door, pausing just long enough to make sure Hector had run toward the back room where a phone could be found.
“9-1-1 operator. What is the nature of your emergency?”
“Um, I need an ambulance. Please hurry.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No. But Father Renault is. He hurt him real bad. He needs help.”
“Okay. Everything’s going to be all right.”
“I’m at St. Anthony’s. I don’t know the address. But the man hurt him bad. You’ve got to hurry.”
“I’ve got the address. I’ve notified police and dispatched an ambulance to your location. Everything’s going to be all right. Did you see who attacked the priest? Did he use a gun?”
“Yeah. I mean no. I mean, a man came in the church and beat up Father Renault. I don’t think he used a gun.”
“Can you see the Father? Can you tell if he’s breathing?”
“No, he’s in the main sanctuary. I had to come back to the church offices to find a phone.”
“Can you hear the sirens yet?”
“No. Are they coming? I don’t hear anything.”
“Yes, they’ll be there any minute. You can trust me. I promise help is on the way. Is there anyone else there at the church with you?
“No. I don’t know. I didn’t see anybody.”
“What’s your name?”
“Hector. Hector Gomez.”
“You’re very brave. Hector . . .”