Excerpt: Damned

Excerpt: Damned

Book 7: Shaye Archer Series

Saturday, May 14, 2016

St. Mary’s Cathedral, New Orleans

 

Father Nicolas Chatry pushed himself out of his dressing chair and twisted his entire body when he was upright, then dropped into the wheelchair. It had been two years since the car accident that had left him partially paralyzed. Physical therapy had resulted in a tiny bit of improvement every month, but it was excruciatingly slow as well as painful. With every session he kept reminding himself that now he was able to stand, even if only for ten seconds at a time. And he could manage a few steps with the help of a walker. They were the halting, shaky steps of a drunk, but Nicolas was thrilled to have them.

Standing, even for seconds, and walking like a drunk, even for a handful of steps, had made a huge difference in his independence. And at only twenty-six years of age, that had been of monumental importance. Those few seconds and steps had allowed him to do everything he needed for basic living without assistance. Things like using the restroom and changing clothes. Things normal people took for granted.

Things he had taken for granted before the accident.

His therapist believed that if he kept up his therapy regimen and did his daily exercises without fail, he would be able to walk without the walker soon. He’d look like a baby taking his first steps without his parents’ hands, and a lot of tumbles were probably in his future, but that was all okay. As long as he was making progress, Nicolas wouldn’t stop believing that he could live a completely normal life again.

Pull his weight.

The senior priest at St. Mary’s, Father Bernard Abshire, had taken Nicolas under his wing out of seminary, despite his limitations, and had assigned him duties that could be conducted while seated in order to allow him recovery time. Nicolas was grateful to the senior priest for creating the position for him and making adjustments to his duties to fit his situation. He suspected it was because Bernard was a biblical and historical scholar, like Nicolas, and appreciated the dedication Nicolas had to knowledge. They had indulged in many a spirited discussion over the nuances of Scripture in regard to historical context, and Bernard appeared pleased that someone could engage anywhere near his level.

Father Malcolm Warner, seven years Nicolas’s senior and the other junior priest in residence at St. Mary’s, was more progressive than historian, which was common among the younger generation of priests. Bernard called Nicolas an old soul. He called Malcolm “necessary for the future of the church.” Nicolas assumed that meant Malcolm was in touch with the younger generation and could prevent the congregation from becoming one that eventually died off.

Nicolas exited his apartment and wheeled himself down the cloister toward the church. Immediately following the accident, he had a motorized wheelchair, but he’d found that using it made him complacent—less inclined to work on his recovery. So he’d given the motorized chair to a senior church member who didn’t have the funds to purchase one, and he’d picked up his manual form of transportation. At first, his upper body had protested all the use. Nicolas had always played sports, but he’d never spent this much time utilizing just one area of his body. But after many months of ice packs and heating pads, his arms adjusted, and now he could propel himself around all day without tiring.

But all that exertion was not necessary today, because he was scheduled for one of the duties his body was completely suited for—confession. He was pretty sure the chair in the confessional was as old as the church, which made it slightly less comfortable than the wheelchair, but it was a task he could handle without assistance. Malcolm had been more than happy to turn over his confessional duties and take additional turns at mass in exchange. But then everyone knew Malcolm was hoping to be made senior priest, even though he’d have to leave St. Mary’s if he wanted to head his own church. Bernard, at fifty, showed no inclination that his retirement was on the horizon.

The confessional was located in a private section on the side of the cathedral. A stone wall separated the confessional from the main part of the cathedral where mass was conducted. A narrow hallway traversed the length of the wall with the confessional on the back side, allowing those coming to confess—penitents—to enter the hallway from the cathedral and to exit at the other end, either back into the cathedral or through a door opposite that led into the courtyard. Nicolas loved the architecture of the 250-year-old building, despite the challenges it sometimes presented him. The sheer beauty of the structure sometimes held him captive for hours, just studying the artistry that had gone into the construction.

When he reached the confessional, he pushed himself out of the wheelchair and slid it into a tiny alcove next to his booth. He then managed, by clutching a cane and the stone wall, to make the four steps around the corner into the confessional. He turned around and dropped into the chair, winded from even that small bit of walking, but rather than view it as something to be distraught about, Nicolas chose to view it as one small victory for independence.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket and accessed a book on ancient Egypt that he’d been reading. Ten minutes went by before he heard the shuffle of footsteps pass him and enter the confessional. The familiar sounds of the oak door closing and the chair squeaking let him know it was time for the unburdening of souls. He flipped the switch that triggered a small red light in the cathedral, alerting congregants that the confessional was currently occupied. Then he pulled back the small door that covered the screen between the two booths and saw the silhouette on the other side.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” a voice whispered. “It has been a week since my last confession.”

“Welcome,” Nicolas said. “What do you have to confess?”

“I killed her.”

Maybe it was the simple statement of fact or the whisper, but Nicolas felt the hair on his arms rise. He forced himself to focus. Of course, the penitent did not mean that statement literally. Clearly, they were upset about the death of someone close to them and feelings of self-doubt had manifested.

“Death often brings about guilt in those left behind,” Nicolas said, trying to find the correct opening. “We wonder if we could have done something that would have made a difference. But that’s rarely the case.”

“It’s not what I could have done. It’s what I did. I strangled her. Watched the life drain out of her until there was nothing left but her imperfect body in an imperfect world.”

Nicolas’s pulse shot up and he felt suddenly short of breath. “You’re saying you willingly took the life of another person?”

“Yes. Do you think God makes mistakes, Father?”

Nicolas tugged at his collar, feeling as if he were being choked. “No,” he finally managed, his mind racing with a million horrible thoughts. “God has a reason for everything He does.”

“I agree. You see, God is the reason I killed her.”

“I don’t understand,” Nicolas said as panic began to course through him. As incomprehensible as it sounded, the person on the other side of the wall might be a murderer. And Nicolas was all but defenseless—trapped in a stationary chair. He fumbled with his phone, typing a text to Father Malcolm.  

“I didn’t want to do it at first,” the penitent said. “But he kept calling. Whispering in my ear.”

Nicolas finished the text and hit Send, praying that Malcolm was nearby. It was Father Bernard’s day off.

Emergency in confessional. Come now!

“You know how in the movies,” the penitent continued whispering, “when people die, they look like they’re at peace? It’s not really like that. When you kill someone, that terror they feel as the life drains out of them is permanently frozen onto their expressions. It’s beautiful. Art, really. Only God could create something that perfect. That’s how I know for certain it was his will.”

Nicolas struggled to take a breath and choked.

“Will you absolve me, Father?”

“I…don’t…” Nicolas stuttered. “I can’t…”

He heard the chair in the booth squeak and a shadow passed in front of the screen. Nicolas could feel his pulse pounding in his temples and he started to sway, dizziness washing over him. Malcolm wasn’t going to make it in time. He was going to die in the confessional at the hands of a murderer asking him for absolution.

 Then he heard the quiet echo of footsteps quickly walking away.

Gathering all his strength, he shoved himself up from the chair, not even bothering to grab the cane, and staggered to the door, pushing it open. He clutched the frame, the pain in his legs like daggers stabbing him from every angle. He was moving too fast, too harshly, but he had to know who had confessed. He took one more step to the side and peered around the doorframe, but the hallway was empty. He pushed himself away from the frame and twisted in time to catch the other side. Tears formed unbidden and rolled down his face as he forced himself around the corner and into his chair.

A wave of nausea washed over him as he dropped onto the seat, and he drew in a deep breath, trying to control his ravaged body. The breath barely alleviated the dizziness, but he didn’t have time to wait. He grasped the wheels and propelled the chair as fast as he could manage down the hallway, every bump on the uneven stone causing him to flinch.

At the end of the hall, he leaned right and shoved open the door to the courtyard, but he only saw the landscaping crew at work. He turned left and flung open the door to the cathedral, almost catching Father Malcolm in the face.

“Nicolas?” Malcolm took one look at him, heaving for air, and paled. “I’ll call an ambulance.”

“No,” Nicolas said. “I just need a minute.”

 Malcolm didn’t appear remotely convinced. “You’ve lost all color, you’re not breathing properly, and you’re clearly in pain. Please let me call.”

Nicolas shook his head, taking in another deep breath, trying to force his body into compliance. “I need some air.”

Malcolm moved behind him and maneuvered his wheelchair out the courtyard door. “You need more than air,” Malcolm said as he scrutinized him. “What happened? Did you fall?”

Nicolas looked up at Malcolm, his concern so clear in his tone and his expression. “Did you see someone enter the cathedral from the hallway?”

Malcolm looked confused. “No. But I was in the electrical room beyond the choir loft. Did someone hurt you?”

Malcolm’s voice went up several octaves, and Nicolas could see the panic starting to set in. The text and his behavior had the other priest’s imagination working overtime. Nicolas hadn’t been physically attacked, but he had been spiritually and emotionally. And both had done a number on his already-weakened body.

“I need to speak to Father Bernard,” Nicolas said.

“He said he had an appointment,” Malcolm said. “I don’t think he’s back yet, but I’ll call him. Just try to calm down. Keep breathing. Do you need water? Your pain medication?”

Nicolas shook his head. “I need Father Bernard.”

Malcolm pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed, his watchful eyes never leaving Nicolas’s face. All the while, that horrible whisper echoed through Nicolas’s mind.

God is the reason I killed her.

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