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LAST CHANCE

By 3tate4lace All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Other

Chapter 22

“I’ve got to get back to St. Florian’s. My parishioners need me. Mrs. Cleary is at her wits’ end. No one knows where I am and I just don’t believe I can put them off any longer. Besides, I have a job to do, regardless of the risk. I understand your position and I know that you’re trying to help, but I think I can handle a few reporters.” Father Cass stood and walked to the tall bank of windows that would have looked out onto the expanse of backyard at Arnold Park’s home in Bloomfield Hills had they not been covered with blackout drapes. As it was now, it was impossible to tell whether it was night or day. Since the decision had been made to use Arnold’s home as the priest’s safe house, every window in the place had been fitted with the same kind of drapes. The poor father felt as if he hadn’t seen daylight in ages. It was no surprise that he was going stir-crazy.

Barbara Knapp had been born and raised a Catholic, and although she didn’t always get to mass every Sunday, it was killing her to not give in to Father Cass and let him leave Arnold’s place. But she owed Arnold everything, and in her book, that was a debt that could never be repaid. Besides, he’d told her that there were more than just reporters after the priest, and Arnold had never lied to her, so there was that. When Arnold had called and offered her a job in his new firm as a receptionist she felt as if she had won was the lottery. Arnold had made the case that sent her boss to prison for embezzlement and extortion, and proved that she’d had no part in it. But after that it was tough to find a decent job. Suddenly no one was hiring. Now working at a good job with a steady income, Barbara was finally feeling secure again. If that meant babysitting a priest to keep him safe, then that’s what she would do.

“I’m sorry, Father Cass, but those are my orders. If you want, I’ll call Mr. Park and have him stop by or you can call the senator. Anything I can do to help, just ask. Can I get you another cup of coffee, or maybe a sandwich?”

“I would like to talk to Mr. Park, if you don’t mind.”

A voice from the hallway called out. “I’m right here. What do you need?”

“Mr. Park, you wouldn’t have any new information for me, would you, or possibly a good reason to let me go home? I really need to get about my work. You do understand that, don’t you? I have a job to do. I thought I made that clear to you and Senator Gardner.”

“You did, Father, yes, you did. And I do have some new information, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to wait and give it to both you and the senator. He’ll be here momentarily. Barbara, is there any coffee? I could really use a cup.”

“Sure, just a minute.”

“Thanks.”

Arnold took a seat opposite the wall of windows where Father Cass continued to pace. “Does that help?” he asked.

“What?”

“The pacing, does it help?”

“Not really, but I can’t seem to sit still, and there’s nothing for me to do here. I tried to sit down and write a couple of sermons and well…as you can see, I’m still pacing.”

Arnold felt for the guy. There was never a second in his life that he would have considered becoming a priest, not that he was a Catholic, but still even he could imagine how hard this must be for a man whose life revolved around the needs of other people; if it were him, he would have broken out for sure by now. “Look, Father Cass. Why don’t you just take a load off? Take a couple of deep breaths and try to put things in perspective.”

Always the one to bring calm to chaos, this situation was as alien to the priest as opening one’s mouth expecting to speak and instead finding tiny, yellow canaries flying forth. But he was also never one to back down from something because it was difficult, so he took Arnold’s advice, breathed deeply, and sat.

“Maybe you could unclench your jaw. I’m told if you keep it clenched like that on a regular basis, it can lead to all kinds of problems.”

Father Cass dropped his jaw and then stretched his mouth open. They both heard two loud pops. “Huh, I think you may be right about that. Thanks for the tip, I had no idea I was doing that.”

“What was that popping sound?” Barbara walked in and set the coffee on the table between them.

“Nothing to worry about, Barb. I think I just heard the garage door open. Will you get another cup for the senator, please?”

“No problem.”

As Barbara left the room the senator’s footsteps could be heard coming down the hallway. He appeared just seconds later. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. I hear you have news, Arnold.”

Arnold wasted no time. He pulled a thin file from his briefcase. “My contact in the Vatican…”

“Excuse me, you have a contact in the Vatican? What exactly do you mean by that?” It was clear that Father Cass was upset by what Arnold had said.

“Father Cass, I have contacts in places all over the world. Please trust me when I say that you will be grateful that I have this contact in particular.”

“Wait a minute, are you saying that you have a spy in the Vatican?”

“No. I didn’t say that.”

“Well, then, what are you saying?”

The senator put a hand on Father Cass’s arm and spoke. “Why don’t we wait and hear what Mr. Park’s contact has to say, before we worry about who he is and why he’s willing to talk to us? Would that be agreeable to you?”

“Fine. But I will hold you to that.”

Arnold grimaced. “I don’t usually reveal my sources.”

“I don’t think we have any other way to do this, do you, Arnold?”

“All right, senator. It’s your ballgame. Agreed. Now, may I go on?”

“Please.” Father Cass’s demeanor had changed from tense to anxious. He felt uncomfortable thinking that Arnold Park could have a contact in the Vatican. Did that mean the person was a spy, a mole? Could it be a priest? No, it was impossible, it must be someone in housekeeping or one of the Swiss Guards, surely not a member of the clergy. No, that was simply out of the range of possibility.

Before Arnold could begin, Barbara stepped into the room and handed the senator a cup of black coffee, one cream, exactly how he took it, and left the room. She may not have finished her masters degree, but if she’d served someone coffee once, you could bet your life she’d remember how he or she took it for the rest of hers.

Arnold opened the file in front of him. “Okay. My contact has reason to believe, actually he’s certain, that a High Council, made up of a group of cardinals of current and former members of the Holy See, have met on or about the seventeenth of this month and determined that Father Casimir Radnaezewski is in fact the antichrist, and it is their job to destroy him. As such they have secured the services of three different organizations here in the US to carry out that mission. Our contact was only able to get the name of two of the organizations. One is our own NSA and the other is a small branch of the Cosa Nostra, or Mafia. We are unaware of the third organization. The project is code-named Ragnarok. Incidentally, should Father Radnaezewski attempt to contact the church in any capacity, he will be killed.”

Father Cass jumped to his feet, knocking the chair he was sitting on backward. “Ragnarok?!? This is madness. The antichrist? Where on earth did they get the idea that I was the antichrist?”

The senator shook his head. “My guess is they got the idea from all the Baptist bible thumpers that we were unable to get rid of during that Tea-Party Sweep in ’18. As they say, ‘Good news meanders; bad news travels like a bat out of hell,’ or so I’ve heard.”

“Boy you’ve got that right, and this couldn’t get much worse. But you two are the ones with the education. I’m just a guy who’s street-smart. So do either of you know what this Ragnarok refers to?”

Father Cass glanced at the senator, who looked back at him. Finally the senator decided to take it. “Ragnarok refers to ancient mythology. It was an epic battle between the gods and man; however the gods knew that the outcome was pre-ordained and no matter what they did, mankind would win and the gods would lose. I find it odd that the Roman Catholic Church would name a covert operation after a story in which man would win and God would lose.”

Arnold drank what was left of his coffee and ran his right hand through his already messy hair. “Odd, weird, and goddamn insane if anyone wants my opinion. The whole damn thing stinks to high heaven.”

“Agreed,” said the senator. “But why? That’s what I don’t get. Why do they see you as such a threat? Forget about the bible thumpers or any other insane theories for a minute. Why does this threaten the Catholic Church? And why the antichrist or is that just a cover for something else? What are they afraid of, because it has to be something, something big.”

“It is. Something big, I mean. For now let’s just call it fear, though that’s just the first layer on a very large cake. It’s much easier to lay it at the feet of the antichrist, a monster, a nightmare, and a biblical apocalypse that has haunted Christians for thousands of years. If they can point to me, and scream ‘antichrist!’ they may not have to destroy me at all, the panic of their followers will accomplish it quite easily.

But I will tell you this-all of these miracles, each and every one-small and large, have been done through and by the grace of our Lord, God. If you want me to say through Jesus Christ, I will, but say it or not, the healings came through God. Mankind understands so very little.

In the bible, it states that Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Close enough, but the point was this: every man, woman and child of the earth; black, white, yellow, red and brown; regardless of what God is in their heart-whether it is the God of the Jews, the Christian Jesus, Islam’s Allah, Buddhist’s Buddha, Shiva or Vishnu of the Hindus or whatever part of the earth and sky the Druids and Pagans may worship, even the true and moral humanists approach to life-all of these are the children of God.

All of these, equal and true, the kingdom of Heaven awaits. No one is better than another, and God sets no one above another. There is the mystery; there is the confusion that has caused all the problems, all the suffering, and all the pain. There is the conflict. The antichrist? No. Not I, indeed no one, but surely not I. God has indeed given me a plan, and I intend to carry it out. I only pray that humankind is ready.”

Father Cass stopped speaking, and it was as if all sound had been vacuumed from the room. Arnold felt as if the blood rushing through his veins could suddenly be heard, a miles-long, muted river of blue-violet continuously coursing through him, keeping him alive. Senator John Gardner could suddenly hear the barest movement of his slightly too-long hair brushing against his shirt collar as he turned his head to look at the priest. And then the moment ended as Barbara entered the room with fresh coffee. They remained silent as their coffee cups were filled, and Barbara, wise to body language, simply retreated back to the kitchen and her soap operas.

Once she had gone, John Gardner spoke. “So can you give us more information about your intentions now?”

The priest smiled at the senator. “Have I not just explained all of it to you?”

The senators eyebrows creased and he said, “No, Father. I don’t believe you have.”

“I have to disagree with you. Go over my words again. The answer is there, though perhaps not as clearly as you would have preferred. As time goes on, I will share more with you. For now, I need my question answered. Mr. Park, about your contact at the Vatican. If you please?”

Arnold gave a pleading look to the senator who simply stared back at him blankly, as if to say, ‘Sorry.’ So with no other recourse he gave up his source. “You have to understand, and I’m asking for your word, that this information does not leave this room ever. Do you understand?”

John Gardner instantly said, “Yes of course, Arnold. You have my word.”

Father Cass said nothing.

“Father Cass, do I have your word, that what I’m about to tell you will never leave this room? If not, I’m afraid I can’t share this information with you. It’s your call.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Park. Of course you have my word. I was praying. Please, go ahead.”

“Excuse me. Okay.” Arnold took a deep breath. He hadn’t realized that exposing a source would make him feel vulnerable somehow, but it did. In a convoluted way he felt that if he could reveal his sources, than they in turn could reveal things about him. It gave him an eerie feeling and made the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He cleared his throat. “Father Andrea Colletto began working in the Vatican Library with Monsignor Denis Barret in 2003 and continued in that capacity until early in 2016, when he was transferred. Cardinal Damiano Vignola, of the Holy See, had appropriated him as his personal secretary after becoming aware of his excellent skill set and fluency in three languages. However, it is unlikely that Cardinal Vignola would have put Father Colletto in such a sensitive position had he known that it was Father Colletto, himself that was instrumental in having Pope Francis’s sudden death in February of 2018 investigated as a homicide.”

“But that was never proven!” Father Cass shouted.

“You’re correct. It wasn’t. The powers that be stopped the investigation cold. In fact an autopsy was not allowed…”

“What does this have to do with anything?”

“If you’ll just let me go on?”

“I don’t see what this…”

The senator put a hand on Father Cass’s arm and pleaded with him. “Please, give us a chance, Father.”

He let out one long breath and then nodded his head.

“Let me go back a bit. The pope loved to read, and though he had little time to search through the volumes, it was easy enough for him to make requests. Father Colletto delivered those requests. Much to his astonishment, when he delivered the books to the papal suite, the pope would sometimes ask him in to sit and talk with him. Over those years they developed a friendship,p and friends tell each other things. Shortly before his death, Francis confided to Colletto that he feared for his life. He told him that he felt threatened by some in his inner circle of advisors because of some of his policies. They told him that his love for the poor and the disenfranchised would destroy their church and that they would find a way to stop him. When they found him dead in his suite that morning, Colletto knew it had to be one of them. He was a healthy man, even his doctor had said so only weeks before.

Soon after, he was transferred to Vignola’s office, and an associate of mine approached him to see if he would be willing to help us. He was so disillusioned and grief stricken by what he saw as the murder of Pope Francis, that he was more than willing. We got our information from Father Colletto.”

Father Cass sat perfectly still, hands in his lap. No sound escaped his lips, his eyes a brown so dark that they were almost black stared at something or nothing, it was impossible to tell, and down his cheeks ran tears that seemed to never end.

The senator reached into his pocket and, pulling out his handkerchief, offered it to the priest. “Thank you, no. I have my own.” Father Cass proceeded to mop his face and eyes with the starched white kerchief he pulled from his back pocket. He was still wearing the same black slacks he’d worn to mass the Saturday the Senator’s associates had picked him up. Fortunately he and the senator were near the same size, so he’d loaned him a few polo shirts. However their waists sizes varied by four inches, as John Gardner, already sixty-six years old, wore a thirty-six inch waist and Father Cass, a victim of his ascetic lifestyle, fit easily into a thirty-two. It had given the priest cause for amusement when he pictured Pattie Cleary’s horror at the thought of “the poor man being in the same trousers day after day after day…”

He put the kerchief back into his pocket, cleared his throat, and said, “So, what do we do now?”

Arnold took the question. “There are a couple of ways we can…” He stopped talking and it looked as if he were listening for something. Then he put a finger to his lips and indicated that they should both follow him to the kitchen. When they arrived he quickly went to Barbara and whispered something in her ear. Her response did not elicit confidence in Senator Gardner or Father Cass, but he pushed them both toward her and mouthed the word, “GO!” At that point they had no choice but to follow her.

Barbara quickly led the two men through the dining room, down the hall, past three bedrooms and into the library. Once they were in the library she immediately went to the middle bookshelf, and it appeared that she was looking for a book. Senator Gardner thought that perhaps the pressure was getting to her. He had no idea what was going on, but it seemed to him that now was definitely not the time to be reading. As he was about to say something, she began to pull out a book, and the entire shelf, in fact that section of wall, turned as if on an axis and she pushed them in, following behind just as the wall closed.

What had alerted Arnold was the sound of the garage door opening. There were only two remote openers; he had one and John Gardner had the other. It was the only way the house could be breached. He had reinforced both the front and back doors. Dead bolts were fine, but if someone really wanted to get in, they were pretty useless. He’d had three eighteen-inch steel bars installed in each door. In order to lock the door, which is steel, an electronic lock would run the bars out of the door and into the wall. This was relatively easy to do for the front and back doors because the house was built in 1939 and the walls were plaster. However, the attached garage wasn’t added until 1965 and the builders used drywall to build the breezeway that attached the garage to the house. Unfortunately there was no way to improve the lock on that door, so if someone wanted to gain entry to the house, the best option would be the garage.

Arnold turned the sound up on the television, turned out the kitchen light and then pulled his 9mm from the back of his waistband. Turning off the light in the family room as he passed through it, he made his way into the darkened living room. He backtracked to the hallway that led to the family room just as the intruder passed him, giving him the opportunity he needed. Coming up behind the stranger, he held the 9mm by its barrel, put all his strength behind it and smashed the man in the side of the head with the butt of the gun. He crumpled like last weeks grocery list.

Arnold switched on the nearby table lamp and took a quick survey of the situation. First of all he was still breathing. Good. The 38 Special he’d been carrying had apparently been knocked out of his hand when he fell to the ground and was currently lying on the floor near the end table. There was no telling how long he’d be unconscious, so Arnold knew he’d need to be restrained. Quickly scanning the room, he spotted the rope-styled tiebacks hanging loose on the decorative hooks by the windows. Those would do nicely. Grabbing one of them, he was able to tie the intruder’s hands behind his back in such a way as to make Houdini think twice about how to get free.

The only thing left was to set up the “crime scene.” It took him a moment but once he had it, it was simple. First he slightly bunched up the two-by-four foot rug that lay on the floor at the entrance to the room. Then he kicked off his shoes and put one of them underneath the man’s right foot; he set the other one on its side near the man’s hand. Next he moved the coffee table a few inches closer to him, so it would appear that when he “tripped” over the rug and the shoes while coming into the dark room, he “fell” and hit his head on the table, knocking himself out. Then he turned on the family room and kitchen lights, called the local police, and sat down to wait.

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