LAST CHANCE

By 3tate4lace All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Other

Chapter 4

The door opened and Mrs. Cleary popped her head just inside the door, her silver hair framing her face like a feathered halo. “Dinner won’t be but a couple of minutes or so, Father.”

“That’s fine. I’ve got a few things to take care of here. Thank you.” Father Cass continued attending to the pile of papers on his desk, but obviously Mrs. Cleary had more to say. “Is there something else?”

She stayed half in and half out of the doorway. “Well, you see, uh well, my son-in-law...my daughter’s husband. Well, uh...he’s...well...”

At this rate it would take all evening. “Mrs. Cleary, why don’t you come in and sit down and tell me what’s on your mind?”

“Well, dinner is waiting and I need to...”

Father Cass stood and went to the door. He took her by the arm and led her to one of the chairs in front of his desk, carefully settled her, and then sat in the chair opposite and faced her. “Dinner can wait. Now what is bothering you? How can I help?”

“My son-in-law, there was an accident and...” she looked up at him and burst into tears.

Retrieving the box of tissues on his desk, Cass handed her one and then took one of her hands in his and held it. “Now then, just try and take a deep breath and tell me what’s happened. Just breathe. Everything will be all right.”

She took a deep, ragged breath and seemed to gather the strength she needed to speak, and between an occasional hiccup, she began. “My daughter, Melanie, her husband, Luke he was in a car accident a minor one...really...but he won’t wake up...y’know. He just broke his arm and there were some...cuts and scratches...but he won’t wake up.” She hung her head and dropped his hands. “He won’t wake up. They did what they could and he won’t wake up.”

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Cleary. But I’m sure the doctors are doing everything they can to help your son-in-law. Would you like me to pray with you?”

“Father Cass, Emily Scanlon is my best friend. I know how you helped her, how you healed her. Please, Father please. Luke is only twenty-three years old. He has his whole life ahead of him. This can’t be God’s plan for him. This has to be a mistake. He’s such a lovely young man, Father and he and Melanie, well they love each other that much, they do. Just seeing them together is a gift. They’ve just started their life, this can’t be what’s supposed to happen; it just can’t be. I believe God has given you this gift, and if you only say the word, Luke will be healed. Please, Father, do this for Luke, please save him.”

Father Cass looked at the woman before him, and compassion filled his heart. He saw her entreaty to be pure and selfless, for she was trying to spare her daughter’s pain and grief, not her own. He stood and put his left hand on the top of Mrs. Cleary’s head. Then with his right hand he made a small cross on her forehead with his thumb and said, “Go now, and pray with Luke and your daughter, Mrs. Cleary. Everything will be just fine. You’re a woman of strong faith.”

The woman looked up at him and smiled, and all the lines of worry that had creased her face when she had first walked into the office were gone now. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks held a faint blush of pink. The texture of her skin and the gray in her hair seemed somehow to look wrong alongside the youthful exuberance that her expression now held. “Thank you, Father, thank you. You’ve done so much.”

“Go on now, Mrs. Cleary. Go now and pray. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Oh, and Mrs. Cleary, let’s keep this between us, alright?”

“But, why? Now of all times is when we need you. There is so much pain, so much need, so much.”

“Please, Mrs. Cleary, I’m asking you. Let’s just be still for now, okay?”

“Yes, Father, whatever you say. Thank you again, I’ll be going to the hospital now. Your dinner will be in the oven warming until you’re ready to eat. Remember to turn the oven off. See you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow, then.” Again, what have I done? Now is not the time, and here is not the place. This is not in the plan at all. Please, forgive me. He went back to the papers on his desk and remained there until morning when dawn’s light woke him from his dreamless sleep, head slumped over his arms, and back stiff from sleeping in his office chair.

He was pulling eggs, milk, and butter from the refrigerator when Mrs. Cleary burst through the back door of the rectory in her usual state of managed chaos. Coat half on and half off, head scarf flying, and bag of groceries practically falling out of her arms did nothing to dampen her joyful mood. She deftly slipped the groceries onto the table, allowed her coat to fall onto the chair, and enveloped Father Cass in a bear hug in one smooth movement.

“Oh, Father! Thank you. Bless you. Thank you. What you did, well...praise God, a miracle! I went to the hospital last night just after I left you. When I arrived, Luke was sitting up, and talking, no less. Oh, Father, bless you. Thank you and thank God.”

“No, Mrs. Cleary. Just thank God. I had nothing to do with anything; your faith is what saved the day. I’m so happy that Luke is well. But let’s just thank God for our blessings shall we?”

“Whatever you say, Father, but makes no sense, if you ask me. There’s so many people who could use a miracle these days, y’know what I mean? Where’s the harm, I say?”

“More than you know.” Cass shook his head and frowned. “More than you know.”

Always the nurturer, Mrs. Cleary reached up and patted the priest’s cheek. “I don’t want to be the cause of any sorrow for you. Not after what you did for Luke. If you want me to keep mum, then I’ll keep mum, whatever you want. Now, you just sit yourself down and let me take over with those eggs. You never could cook worth a lick, and we both know that’s the truth.”

Father Cass settled himself into his usual chair at the long breakfast table and opened the newspaper. Before he could even finish reading the headline, the doorbell, an old-fashioned deep-toned bell chime, rang. Mrs. Cleary nearly dropped the egg she was about to crack; she was that startled. “Who has the bad manners to come calling before breakfast, I’d like to know?” she said. “I hope no one’s died.”

“I’m sure everything is just fine, Mrs. Cleary. I’ll get the door.” The rectory, though old was large, and since the kitchen was at the back of the house, getting to the front door took at least a minute or more. One had to navigate through three long hallways, the study, the back parlor, the sunroom, the front parlor, and finally the large vestibule to get to the imposing mahogany double doors. By the time Father Cass got there, the bell rang two more times. Obviously this caller was impatient to say the least.

As he pulled the door open, the bell rang one more time. Standing on the large porch, his finger on the bell, stood a short, well-upholstered man who probably tipped the scales at three hundred pounds. His hair was gray and thinning and his face, round and dimpled, shined with beads of perspiration, even though it couldn’t have been more than thirty-five degrees outside. “Ah, good morning you must be Father Casimir Rad..uh..na..zooski? I’m Cardinal Marin, from the Vatican. I understand you’re expecting me. Might I come in? The taxi ride from the airport was unbearable, and I’d love a cup of coffee. Perhaps some cookies?”

“Please, please come in. Let me get your bags. Do you have a hotel?”

“I’ve got a reservation at the Omni Hotel in Dearborn, but my room won’t be ready until this afternoon, so I thought I’d come directly here. About that coffee, Father?”

“Of course, Cardinal, right this way. I’m sure Mrs. Cleary can fix you right up. She was just making breakfast.”

“Breakfast? Oh, breakfast would be lovely. They gave us breakfast on the plane, but that was a few hours ago. These overnight flights are just brutal. They give you a little dinner when you get on, then a little breakfast before you get off, and other than that, just nuts and drinks. How, I ask you, is one supposed to survive a ten-hour flight on such a small amount of food?”

“I can see your point, Cardinal. They do say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I prefer just a bit in the morning, but I’m a man of spare tastes in all things. Mrs. Cleary has attempted to break me of this habit, but so far has been unsuccessful. Ahh, here we are.”

They came to the end of the hallway and entered the kitchen. Mrs. Cleary hearing the voices, actually actively listening as was her practice, was already pulling more eggs in addition to bacon, bread, and fruit out of the refrigerator as they entered.

“Ahh, what a lovely aroma! You, my dear lady, must be Mrs. Cleary.” The Cardinal gave a shallow bow in Mrs. Cleary’s direction, which caused her naturally pink complexion to darken to a deep rose, and she actually tittered.

Father Cass settled his hand on her shoulder by way of calming her. “Mrs. Cleary, this is Cardinal Marin from the Vatican. He’s just arrived from Rome, and I believe he would love to have some breakfast, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“How do you do, Your Grace? I’m so very honored to meet you.” She managed a sort of half curtsey, half bow and then quickly transformed into her hostess mode and guided him into the nearest chair. “Now then, what can I fix for you? Eggs, bacon, toast? Poached, scrambled, fried? Anything at all, what would you like? Coffee, tea?”

The Cardinal’s dimpled cheeks broke into a cherub’s childlike grin, and his ears seemed to prick up at the mention of her offerings. “Well now, I don’t require much. Why don’t we start with some eggs? Four over easy and a rasher of bacon, would that be all right? Toast would be lovely. Do you have raisin? Would there be any chance that you might whip up a few hotcakes? Or would you have a sweet roll or Danish about? Would that be any trouble?”

Mrs. Cleary walked over to the Cardinal and patted him once on the shoulder. “Now see here, Father. This is how a man’s supposed to eat. Of course I can whip you up some hotcakes a pleasure I’d say. I enjoy seeing a man eat. This is what makes the cooking all the more worthwhile. Now let me just get you a cuppa and I’ll get started. Coffee or tea?”

“Coffee, Mrs. Cleary, double cream, three sugars. Thank you.” Thirty minutes later the two men sat at the long kitchen table, finishing up their last bits of breakfast. Although all that was left of the priest’s meager two poached eggs and wheat toast were a few drops of coffee, the cardinal was eating the last of a sweet roll that Mrs. Cleary had rustled up to top off his morning feast. Father Cass had watched in sheer amazement as his guest consumed the eggs, bacon, toast, six hotcakes, and a pot of coffee, and wondered to himself not only about the sin of gluttony but about how the man managed to move about. In fact, he wondered why the man didn’t actually erupt.

During the meal there was very little conversation. Clearly the cardinal saw mealtime as mealtime. Socializing, conducting business, or doing anything but eating was obviously not something Cardinal Marin approved of during mealtime. And that was exactly what he did. So Father Cass waited. When the cardinal finally finished, he pushed his chair back from the table, covered his mouth with his napkin, and belched. Then he rose and said. “Mrs. Cleary, well done. Shall we excuse ourselves to your office, Father?”

“Of course, your Grace. Right this way.”

Cardinal Marin followed Father Cass down the long hallway, back to the front vestibule to retrieve the Cardinal’s briefcase before they wound their way around and settled into the study, which Father Cass used as his office. As they entered, the priest offered his superior the chair behind the desk, but instead the Cardinal chose the aged, over stuffed love seat and indicated to the priest the small, Windsor chair to his right. He reached into his briefcase, pulled out a file and laid it out on the table in front of him. “So, Cass, tell me about these miracles of yours.”

“I don’t have any miracles, your Grace. Really, this has all just been blown out of proportion. Some of my parishioners and I prayed together, that’s all.”

“Yes, I see that. But what I also see is that some of these people were sick and now they’re not. What is your explanation for that?”

“I have none. People get well. Cancer goes into remission for no reason at all. Ask the doctors. That’s what they’ll tell you. They’ll tell you that their treatments finally worked. There are millions of reasons as to why these few people got well. And none of those reasons have anything to do with me. Maybe they do have something to do with God. These people prayed. I don’t know if God answered their prayers. Do you? I simply prayed with them, that’s all. I do not claim to perform miracles. I never have. Ask anyone. Ask any of these people and they will tell you. This is all just much ado about nothing, really Your Grace. Talk to them and they will tell you. Talk to the doctors. I’m sure they will find a reason as to why these people have been healed or gone into remission.”

“Good answer. That’s what I was hoping you were going to say. You see, I get sent out on these investigative cases more often than you would imagine. Take for example all the cases we get regarding the weeping virgin statues. Most of the time, the witnesses turn out to be deluded by their own state of mind or a strong group suggestion. They simply believe they see something that isn’t really there. And when there actually is something there, sometimes the tears are beads of condensation from microscopic cracks on the surface of the statue; sometimes there’s nothing there at all. But more often than not, the entire event is a hoax, and easy to prove.

In 1995, a Madonna statue appeared to weep blood in the town of Civitavecchia in Italy. The local bishop said that he himself had seen the Madonna weep. I spent six weeks investigating that case. But the blood on the statue was later found to be male. Of course, the statue’s owner, Fabio Gregori, refused to take a DNA test. Regardless, after the Civitavecchia case, dozens of reputedly miraculous statues were reported. They were all proven to be hoaxes, where blood, red paint, or water was splashed on the faces of the statues. So you can see how just a small thing can snowball once word of the miracle gets rolling, so to speak. That’s something we at the Vatican would like to avoid, Father.”

“As do I, Your Grace.”

“Good. Now, I’m sure you understand that I will need to speak to a few of your flock.” He picked up the file and flipped through some of the pages. “Mrs. Scanlon, Mr. Khirshon, and Mrs. Kozlowski, to be precise. Also there are some doctors that I’ve scheduled some appointments with today. Do you think you could arrange for me to meet with these parishioners, possibly later this evening or tomorrow? I don’t anticipate taking up my questions taking up a lot of their time.”

“Of course. I’ll get a hold of them as soon as possible. Is there a number where I can reach you?”

“I suppose my cell phone will be best. Here’s my card, the number is listed there. Now if you wouldn’t mind calling me a taxi, I’ll leave you to your day.”

“Is that all you need from me, Your Grace?”

The Cardinal stood, looked up at Cass, and smiled. “Unless you’re going to tell me you’re the Son of God, I think we’re through here, yes. Is that what you were going to tell me?”

“Uh, no. No, that was the furthest thing from my mind. Absolutely, the furthest.”

“Alright then, all I need is a taxi.”

“Okay. If you want to wait in the kitchen, I’m sure Mrs. Cleary would be happy to provide you with some coffee. It usually takes about a half hour to get a cab out here.”

“Sounds good. Thank you for your time, Father Cass. You’ve been more than gracious. I’m most appreciative.” He picked up his briefcase and headed out the door and down the hall to the kitchen. When he entered the kitchen, he found that Father Cass was right, Mrs. Cleary was just sitting down to enjoy a cup of coffee and was happy to get him one.

Once he had doused the brew liberally with cream and stirred in his usual three sugars he turned his smile on Mrs. Cleary and said, “Mrs. Cleary, if you don’t mind me asking, what is that amazing aroma? Have you been baking?”

Mrs. Cleary beamed like the angel she was. “Well I did just take out a couple of nice homemade banana breads. I had a few going brown on the counter, and I just don’t like throwing anything away. Do you have time for a slice?”

“Mrs. Cleary, for your banana bread, I’ll make the taxi wait.” She got up and cut him a one-inch slice. Centering it on a dessert plate from the rectory’s best china, she sprinkled it with powdered sugar and then finally placed the prize in front of him. The steam and aroma dispelled into the air like drugs to an addict. His fork cut off a large piece that he shoveled into his mouth, and then he held it there for a moment before he began to chew and then swallowed. His smile mirrored the Cheshire cat. “Oh you are an artist, indeed. So, Mrs. Cleary, you’ve got quite a wonderful boss, haven’t you?”

“Oh, Your Grace, you don’t know the half. He’s a blessing, that man is. And as humble as the lilies of the field, too.”

“Well, you know, we priests...it’s our vows. That sin of pride, we work very hard on that one.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. There are things that he should shout to the roof, that man. But he just keeps still, he’s that holy, he is.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Mrs. Cleary. Is there something you want to tell me?”

“If I told you something, something, well, intimate, something important, would you keep that secret just between us?”

“If that’s what you ask me to do, Mrs. Cleary, then that’s what I will do. Tell me the burden you’re carrying, what is weighing on your heart?”

“Well, Your Grace, I want to tell you what happened last night.”

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