LAST CHANCE

By 3tate4lace All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Other

Chapter 9

Cardinal Marin took a full two minutes to get up, tie the belt around the plush robe that the hotel had so generously provided him and make his way across his suite to open the door when Father Jack DuMont arrived fifteen minutes past his scheduled appointment. He was wiping the last bits of a flaky croissant from his lips with a thick linen napkin as he waved the priest inside. “Come in, Father, come in. Please make yourself at home. Coffee?”

“Thank you, Your Grace. Coffee would be fine.” Jack pulled up a chair to the table covered with enough empty dishes to have fed breakfast to four or five people. “So I’m not the first meeting of your day. Looks as though you’ve had an early morning meeting.”

“What…oh, the table. Actually that table is a trompe l’oei of bloodsucking proportions. I find these higher end hotels tend to use an individual plate for each item, a separate plate for the eggs, one for the meat, one for the bread, one for the muffins, etcetera. I suppose one must assume that’s how they justify charging a la carte for everything. On the other hand, I’m one of those people who believe that breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day, and shouldn’t be ignored or sated with just a roll and coffee. Cream…sugar?”

“Uh, no, just black please. I’m sorry to be late, Your Grace and if you don’t mind I need to be downtown by ten. One of my boys has to be in juvenile court this morning. I promised to be there for him.”

“One of your boys?”

“The boys I work with down at Catholic Social Services. He got himself in a bit of a fix, hanging with the wrong crowd, eh? He’ll likely get off with a slap on the wrist, since he’s only looking at a misdemeanor and a first offense, but he’s near to wetting his pants, poor fool. But I need to be there, don’t I?”

“Of course you do, Jack. May I call you Jack? I don’t need much time. I just have a few questions for you. I know that you and Cass Radnaezewski are good friends, and I’d like to know what you think about these prayer circles. And I’d like to know what you think about these healings, these so-called miracles.”

“Prayer circles? As far as I know the Baptists are the ones running the prayer circles, not us, eh? Look, I talked to Cass, and he’s not claiming to be doing anything miraculous or anything else for that matter. He’s just a regular, by-the-book priest, and there’s no story, gossip or whispers to tell. He’s just not that deep, trust me.”

“Just a regular guy, huh? Just like you, Jack?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“C’mon, Jack, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten that we’ve met before?”

“Really? I’m sorry. I guess I’ve forgotten.” Jack could feel tiny beads of sweat beginning to form under his arms and dampen the back of his shirt.

“I would be startled if you ever let anything at all slip from that razor sharp brain of yours, Father DuMont. You do a very good job of playing the below-average Joe, un-ambitious priest without a parish, don’t you? But you and I know better, don’t we? You can stop pretending, Jack. No hard feelings. I remember everything, and I’m not the type to hold a grudge.”

“And why would you be holding a grudge? I can’t imagine what you’re talking about, Your Grace.”

“I know I’ve changed over the years, Jack, but did you really think that I would so easily forget something you put so much brain power and effort into in order to embarrass a bishop from Rome. If I remember correctly, you were only a freshman at St. Joseph’s Seminary, although quite a bit older than the other young men. I admit you made quite an impact on me. Ring any bells?”

“Your Grace, that was over thirty years ago. I was an idiot. We didn’t mean any harm. It was a childish prank pulled off by young men with no outlets for all that testosterone rushing through their bodies. Surely you can’t be still wasting time thinking about that?”

“Well now, Jack, I must say that unfortunately when I flush a urinal, I do sometimes look through the water expecting to see our Blessed Mother shining brightly, thanks to you and your cohorts. Let me ask you something. Did you honestly think that your prank would be perceived as a miracle?”

“No, of course not. Well, maybe, for a short bit anyway. What can I say? The rest of the guys were eighteen, nineteen years old at most. I was twenty-six, twice divorced and I definitely didn’t fit in; I was just trying to get on their good side. And this definitely set me on the top of the ladder; from then on they would have followed me anywhere. After all, what better way for a seminarian to prove he’s cool then to embarrass a visiting bishop from Rome? I’m sorry, Your Grace, truly I am.”

“Not a problem. So, I wonder, has this experience of yours, being on the outside, not fitting in, helped you in your work with troubled boys?”

“Everything has; hockey, failed marriages, seminary, life, God, everything. Not as I expected, but yes, it all works together, right?”

“It always has for me, Jack. And what about Father Cass?”

“I’m telling you the truth. There’s nothing to find.”

“Okay. Thanks for your time.”

“No trouble. I’ve got to get to court then. Enjoy the day, eh?” He got up, walked to the door and left. As he pressed the button for the elevator, he had a short conversation with his maker regarding small white lies and the bigger picture.

Cardinal Marin returned to the table and poured one more cup of coffee. As he stirred in the cream and sugar, his mind went over each of the interviews he’d had since his arrival. Starting with Father Cass, which was exactly what he expected, then on to Mrs. Cleary, which was a bit of a bonus. Then he’d gone out to the Medical Center and had seen the doctors, and although the conversations were certainly intriguing, there wasn’t any solid evidence of miraculous healings. Yesterday’s visits to Mr. Khirshon and Mrs. Scanlon had turned out to be pointless. Apparently something or someone had spooked them and they had decided to clam up. Nothing he could say or do would convince them to talk about Father Cass or the prayer circles. As for their illnesses, and all they each said, independently of each other of course, was that they had remarkably gifted doctors. End of story. And now Father Jack DuMont claimed that there was nothing to find, so he may as well stop looking.

But the little hairs were standing up on the back of his neck, telling him there was more to all this than met the eye. The entire tale just didn’t make sense to him; something was off. He was a priest, yes, but he was also a scientist and he rarely relied on hunches. But this felt like a hunch. Why? He shook his head in an attempt to clear out the confusion, rose, and headed into the bathroom to shower. During the second aria of the “Barber of Seville,” as the steamy water flowed down his ample back and into the drain, the reason for his hunch became as clear to him as the water.

The conversation with Mrs. Cleary yesterday morning had been tugging at the back of his mind. And as the steam of the shower cleared his sinuses, that constant tugging at his memory finally snapped and put all the pieces together. The story of the supposed miracle of Mrs. Cleary’s son-in-law was unimportant, but what stood out like the illuminating star of Bethlehem, was Father Cass’s admonition to Mrs. Cleary to “keep this between us now; tell no one.” If there was nothing going on, no healings, no miracles, then what possible reason could there be to keep anything secret? Absolutely none.

He turned off the water, grabbed the towel, and stepped out of the tub. In no time at all he was dried, dressed and seated at the desk making a comprehensive list of theories and, possibly even more important, witnesses and their individual motivations.

When the list was complete, he searched through his briefcase until he found the file on Amanda Kozlowski. Scanning through the file he found everything as expected, until the Leukemia. Amanda Lynn Kozlowski, born at Hutzel Women’s Hospital, Detroit – full term normal birth. Diagnosed at age four with acute lymphoblastic leukemia or ALL. In most cases this is a very treatable form of childhood cancer. After aggressive chemotherapy, Amanda went into remission. Seven weeks later the cancer came back with no hope. After praying every Wednesday with the group, Amanda’s cancer disappeared. Mrs. Kozlowski refused to sign any sort of release. She also refused to speak with the Cardinal.

Attached to the letter she had sent to the archbishop was a basic information sheet that the archbishop’s secretary had put together for his benefit. He noted that Mrs. Kozlowski lived in Hamtramck and that she had graduated from the University of Detroit with a BFA, but was currently a stay at home mom. Her husband, Mel Kozlowski, was the proprietor and head baker at Koz’s Bakery in Hamtramck. He wondered what type of bakery Koz’s was, and if they did only take-out or if they also served coffee.

Well, he would just have to go and see for himself. And this meant he would have to go sans collar. Luckily he had packed a couple of turtleneck sweaters that would do nicely. To further shed the clergyman look, he removed the large gold ring that had been given to him by Pope John Paul II and placed it in the room safe along with his other valuables. Then he called the desk, requested a taxi, and headed down to the lobby.

The cab was waiting when Cardinal Marin stepped through the revolving doors. He got in and told the driver, “Koz’s Bakery. I’ve heard they’re the best around. I believe they’re located on Jos. Campau in Hamtramck, I’m sorry I don’t have the exact address.”

“No problem, I know exactly where Koz’s is; I’m there at least two or three dozen times every Fat Tuesday - they’ve got the best paczki in town!”

“Pardon me, but what are poonch-kee?”

“You’re not Polish are you?”

“No, as a matter of fact my heritage is English and Irish. Any Polish blood in my background would had to have been added hundreds and hundreds of years ago, most likely by conquering heroes. Why do you ask?”

“Well clearly you’re not from around here since I’m picking you up at the Omni, and since you don’t know anything about paczki, I kinda figured you weren’t one of us, Polish I mean. So let me give you the nickel tour. First of all, Hamtramck is sort of unique being one of the few cities within a city, in the country. By that, I mean that Hamtramck’s boundaries lie completely within the boundaries of the city of Detroit. Weird, huh? Now, Hamtramck was originally settled by German farmers, but that all changed around 1914 or 15 when the Dodge brothers opened their auto plant. That’s when all the Polish immigrants poured in and kind of re-settled the area, and it’s pretty much stayed that way for most of the twentieth century. Y’know in 1970 Hamtramck was ninety percent Polish, but by 2000 that number had dwindled down to twenty-two percent.

Of course that don’t change none of our Polish celebrations, such as Fat Tuesday and consuming as many paczki as you can between sunrise and bedtime, if you know what I mean.”

“I know about Fat Tuesday, because in my younger days my older brother and I went down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. But you’ve got me stumped with the poonch-kee.”

“As far as I’m concerned they’re sugarcoated pieces of Polish Heaven. I’ll tell you what, instead of trying to explain them to you, I’ll just take you over to Koz’s and you can see for yourself. Most of the bakeries only make them for Fat Tuesday, but Koz makes a few dozen every day. I guess they like to keep their hand in; that must be why theirs are better than all the other bakeries in town. If you stick around a couple of more weeks, you’ll see what I mean. By the way, I’m Joe.”

“Good to meet you, Joe. My name is Paul. I’ll tell you what, when we get to Koz’s, the poonch-kee are on me.”

“You might not be Polish, but you’re okay in my book, Paul, `specially if you’re buying. Plus, I always like seeing a person’s face when they get their first taste.”

“Your words are making me drool. I hope the sugarcoated pieces of Heaven live up to their reputation. How much further is it?”

“The wait is over. Here we are.” The cab pulled up to the curb in front of a small, storefront bakery. The large display window was trimmed with a border of red, white, and gold in honor of the Polish flag. In large golden cursive letters, Koz’s Bakery was hand lettered across the top and along the bottom. In smaller letters, read Breads, Cakes, Paczki, Pastries, and Cookies. Displayed in the window were an assortment of tiered wedding cakes and a three-tiered plate of assorted cookies. A sign in the window indicated today’s specials: Rye Bread $5.50, Egg Bread $5.99, and 4-dozen Chrusciki $9.25.

Although the sidewalk in front of the bakery had obviously been shoveled, with the temperature hovering around sixteen degrees Fahrenheit, the bit of snow left behind had turned into a thin layer of ice, and Joe, recognizing a good tip when he saw one, jumped out of the cab and quickly opened the door for the cardinal, offering his arm for support. “Thanks, Joe. I’m not really used to this kind of weather.”

“No problem. Right this way. C’mon in.”

“Hey everybody, it’s Joe!” The rosy-cheeked girl at the register greeted them with a big smile. “Who’s your friend?”

“Hey, Alice. I brought you a fresh one. This is Paul. He’s from outta town and he’s never had a paczki! You got any fresh made this morning?”

A voice from the back called out. “Who’s doubting that we’ve got fresh made anything? Is that Joe’s voice I hear?”

“Yep, it’s me, Magda, and I never said I doubted you. I just wanted to know if you had any paczki today!”

A full-figured woman with black hair and the face of an angel walked out of the kitchen with a baking pan of glistening pastries, the size of a man’s fist, the likes of which the cardinal had never seen before, and he could feel his salivary glands kick into action. “If you weren’t so good looking, Joe Zalecki, I’d tell your mother what a rude young man you’ve become.”

“And if you weren’t so beautiful, I’d take the tourists to Greektown instead of bringing them here. So, how about a couple of paczki and some coffee for me and my new friend?”

“You got a way with you, Joe. How come no girl has caught you yet, huh? You need to settle down with a nice girl and have some babies. How ’bout Fila who teaches over at the preschool? Now, there’s a nice girl, and smart too.”

“Magda, you’ve been talking to my mom, haven’t you? How `bout we just forget about that subject for now and have some paczki and coffee, okay?”

“Okay, but life moves fast and before you know what’s happened, poof-over, just like that! You better think about it.” They sat at one of the three small tables, and she brought them each a coffee and a paczki. As she set the plate down in front of the cardinal, she said, “This is not a donut.”

“No ma’am,” he answered. She was right. To describe the lovely confection in front of him as a donut would have been a serious disservice. Certainly to the uninformed and vision impaired, the paczki might be confused at first glance to be an overly large donut, until one took their first bite, and then all bets were off. As Joe had told him, this was truly was a sugarcoated bit of Heaven. The experience began with a light, eggy dough that was glazed with a slightly crunchy coating of sugar, but that was just the beginning. The cardinal had a very discriminating palate, and he thought, no he was certain, that in the depths of the egg-like dough, he could taste not only a bit of whiskey, but lard. Ooh, he thought, this was a true, Old World masterpiece, yet still there was more. At the very edge of his first bite he tasted the rich, deep flavor of plums – tart, juicy, beautiful plums, lovingly hidden beneath sweet, yeasty, rich bits of Heaven.

His muscles yielded and serotonin quickly spread from his brain to the rest of his body. The cardinal was in culinary nirvana. He had just ordered his third when the door to the bakery opened and a tall, well-built man carrying a little girl walked into the bakery. He pointed at Joe and smiled. “You better check to see if this guy has any cash before you serve him.”

“Not to worry, Koz. My buddy Paul is buying.”

“I shoulda’ known. If I know you, you came in here to flirt with the girls.”

Alice at the register blushed. “He’s not bothering us, Koz. Hey, Amanda, how are you today? You want a cookie? Can she have a cookie, Koz?”

“Sure. You want to get a cookie from Alice, honey?” He put her down and she ran behind the counter to Alice’s open arms and just as quickly ran back out with a big sugar cookie in her hand. “Look what I got, Daddy!”

“Well aren’t you a lucky girl! C’mon over here and say hi to Joe. He brought a new friend with him today.” Amanda skipped over to her dad who had taken the empty chair at the table where Joe and Paul were sitting, and jumped up into his lap.

“Hi, Joe,” she said with her mouth still full of cookie.

“Hey, punkin. How `bout you swallow that cookie before you start talking, okay? I don’t want to get in trouble with your mom for your poor table manners.”

She made a big show of swallowing and began again. “Sorry, Daddy. Hi, Joe. Daddy took me for a ride on my sled this morning, and then we took Raider for a walk, and then we went to the market for six dozen eggs. That’s why we’re late. But don’t tell my mom, `cause I’m not s’posed to go sledding.”

Koz shook his head at her and put his finger to his mouth. “I thought that was our little secret. When something’s a secret, you’re not supposed to go tell everybody you see, y’know.”

“OH! I thought we just weren’t s’posed to tell Mommy. I’m sorry, Daddy.”

Joe ruffled her hair and smiled. “Don’t worry about it, Amanda. I won’t tell if you won’t. Hey, I want you to meet my friend. This is Paul. He loves paczki.”

“How do you do, Miss Amanda? I’m very pleased to meet you. Do you like poonch-kee too?”

She giggled. “Everybody loves paczki. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like paczki. I could even eat them for dinner, `cept I don’t think my mom would let me.”

“Well, moms are like that, aren’t they?”

Magda’s voice rang out from the kitchen. “Koz, you’ve got a phone call, one of our suppliers.”

“Excuse me, boys, but business is business. You sit here with Joe until Daddy gets back, okay, honey?”

“Can I have a paczki?”

“I don’t think you better, considering what you’ve already had this morning. How `bout I get you some milk to wash down that cookie instead?”

She giggled. “Okay.”

“Alice, would you please get Amanda a glass of milk?”

“Sure thing, Koz. Coming right up.”

The cardinal took this opportunity to talk to Amanda without the screen of her father as a gift. “So, young lady, I heard you say you went sledding this morning. That sounds like a lot of fun.”

“Oh sledding is the most fun of all! Daddy tied a big rope around my sled, and then he pretended he was a horse and he pulled me all around the park like I was a princess in a sleigh. The snow flew up in my face and I didn’t even care. I had the most fun ever! Have you ever sledded?”

“Well, yes I have but not since I was a boy. And that was a long time ago. From what you say, sledding is your most favorite thing of all. I wonder why your mother doesn’t like sledding?”

“My daddy says that she’s a big worry-ward. But I’m not really sure what that is, `cept I know my mom worries a lot, ’specially about me.”

Joe reached over and patted Amanda’s knee. “That’s only because she loves you more than the sun and the moon and the stars all rolled into one, you silly goose. How about if you give this five-dollar bill to Alice and ask her to bring Paul and me a plate of chrusciki, okay? And tell her I think that you’re plenty big enough to carry it yourself.”

Her smile reached from ear to ear and lit up the entire bakery. “Okay!” She hopped down from the chair and sped off to find Anna.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Joe turned to the cardinal and quietly spoke. “Her mom is afraid of everything that Amanda comes in contact with lately. But she really shouldn’t be. That is one lucky and blessed little girl.”

In order to hide what appeared to be a shot of good luck that he felt had just settled on his own head, the cardinal lifted his cup and took a long drink of his coffee before he replied. “What do you mean, lucky?”

“Three months ago, Joe and his wife were planning that sweet little girl’s funeral, and here she is this morning, eating sugar cookies and going on and on about a morning of sledding and playing. I’d call that being blessed or lucky. Wouldn’t you?”

“I certainly would. What happened to her, an accident of some sort?”

“No accident, that’s what makes the whole thing so amazing. Amanda had leukemia. She was doing pretty well after the chemo, and then WHAM! The cancer came roaring back like the devil itself, and the doctors said there wasn’t a thing they could do. Mostly they told Koz and his wife, Margaret, to take her home and spend the little time she had left with her. Yet here she is, right as rain.”

“My God, that really is amazing. But how…is there any explanation? I mean, what do the doctors say?”

“All I know about what the doctors say is that Amanda has a clean bill of health – no leukemia anywhere in her body. But I can tell you the doctors and the treatments didn’t cure her, and I know that for a fact.”

The cardinal carefully composed his face into a look of utter confusion. “I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at. If the doctors didn’t make her well, what did?”

His new friend Joe didn’t let him down. “God healed Amanda, pure and simple. A miracle was performed, and nobody is ever going to convince me otherwise. Margaret refuses to talk about what happened anymore, and she doesn’t want Koz to talk either, but Goddammitt, excuse my French, this needs to be shouted from the rooftops! Amanda was healed by a miracle from God, Paul. I know, ’cause I was there.”

Amanda slowly approached the table, balancing the plate of Polish cookies in her little hands, as if she were carrying the Eucharist. When she finally managed to set the cookies on the table without spilling even a crumb, she exhaled a breath that could be heard around the room. “Ahhh! See! I knew I could do it! Oh, Alice said that she knew you wanted her to keep the change, Joe.”

Just a few more minutes, that was all he needed. The cardinal looked at the counter and then back at the child. “Amanda, could you tell me what’s in those big glass jars on the counter? The ones that are all different colors and kind of curly?”

“You mean the ribbon candy?”

“Ribbon candy? Is that what that’s called? My goodness, you know, they really do look like ribbon, don’t they? I bet they’re real good, too. Do you think you could do me a favor? I want to talk to Joe about some grown-up stuff for just a couple of minutes. If I gave you a couple of dollars, do you think Alice might let you buy some of that ribbon candy for yourself and let you stay with her for just a little while?”

“I’m not supposed to take anything from strangers, but if I ask Alice for some ribbon candy I bet she’d give me some.” She smiled and bounced away toward the carryout counter and Alice.

“I hope I didn’t do anything wrong, Joe. I’m just so intrigued by your story and I didn’t figure you’d want Amanda to overhear you talking.”

“You’re right about that. That little angel has been through more than most of can even imagine.

“So what did you mean when you said you were there?”

“I was there when she was healed, at St. Florian’s. You see Koz and Margaret and most of the people around here are all parishioners at St. Florian’s church. Anyway, this past summer Father Cass that’s our pastor started holding these prayer circles.”

“Excuse me, prayer circles? I’ve been a Catholic for a long time and I’ve never participated in a prayer circle. Sounds like a Protestant idea.”

“Whatever. We’d all been talking about how nothing seemed to change no matter how much we went to Mass or prayed or anything, so Father Cass suggested we start these prayer circles. The thing is, only about a dozen or so people attended. Margaret brought Amanda. Father Cass prayed over her a couple of times, and in just a few weeks, the Leukemia was gone, over, finito, just gone. And she wasn’t the only one either. Emily Scanlon’s cancer disappeared, and I’m not sure if he’s cured, but Alex Khirshon’s Parkinson’s seems a whole lot better. But nobody wants to talk about anything all of a sudden, especially Margaret. You’d think something awful happened to Amanda, instead of something wonderful and blessed. I don’t get it, I really don’t. But I guess that’s not my call?”

“Wow! That’s unbelievable, in this day and age – a real miracle? But I guess you’re right, it’s not your call. Who’s to say what anyone else is thinking? If it were me, I’d be like you – shouting the good news from the rooftops, but hey, who are we? Just a couple of regular guys who probably don’t know any better. Well, Joe, this has been great, but I do have to get back to work. I am on a business trip and all, and since the company’s paying the tab, I’d better get busy.”

“Me too,” said Joe. “By the way, you never said what line of work you’re in.”

“Nothing too exciting. I’m in biochemistry.”

“Biochemistry? Man, no offense, but that sounds boring. What exactly do you do all day?”

“Mostly I just look through a microscope at things that don’t make sense and then try to figure out a way to make them make sense. But sometimes, they just don’t.”

“So, kind of like solving a mystery, like those detectives on TV, except you’re doing it with a microscope?”

The cardinal laughed at Joe’s analogy, amazed at how close the man was to the actual truth. “I guess so, Joe. It’s pretty much just like that.”

They pulled on their coats, and as they headed out the door, Alice stopped Joe and handed him a white paper sack that seemed to be loaded to the brim. “Here, Joe. You might as well take the rest of these paczki. There’s only three and I made you a fresh cup of coffee, too. The forecast is calling for extra cold and blustery winds out there today. You don’t want to get chilled.”

“Uh, well thanks, Alice. Thanks. See ya.”

As the door to the bakery closed behind them, the cardinal turned to Joe and said, “I see that the poonch-kee are not the only sweets in Koz’s.”

Joe blushed as red as the border of the bakery window before he uttered, “Humph,” and got in the cab, slamming the door behind him.

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