My housekeeper had been away visiting her sister for four days now. This meant I had to fend for myself in the kitchen, not something I was very good at. On the upside it meant I got to eat dinner sitting in front of the TV. On the downside it meant a TV dinner. Easy enough for a man of my limited culinary skills to prepare, but that strange little tray with the recesses reminded me too much of the meals they serve in jail.
The Rockford Files had only just started when the doorbell rang. I groaned. I looked forward to this show all week, I’ve been a fan of Garner since he was in Maverick. But it seemed I was never going to be allowed to watch it uninterrupted. Every week the phone or the doorbell rang as soon as the credits rolled.
Abandoning the plastic dinner I hurried to the door. Whoever was out there was leaning on the bell. My irritation began to vanish as I realised it must be urgent. There was usually only one kind of situation when I was needed urgently and I reached for the small leather bag on its hook on the wall even as I opened the door to the chilly night air.
Mrs Wachowski was pretty close to the end, her daughter had said after mass last Sunday. Or there was Old Man Hazledene. He’d been hanging by a thread for months.
I didn’t recognise the man at the door. He was tall and tough looking. Bright blue eyes bored into me. But I didn’t look at his face for very long. I stared at the blood on his clothes.
“You the priest?” His voice was urgent and demanding.
“Yes. What do you need?” I had to stop myself adding ‘sir’. Under his stern gaze I inexplicably felt as if I was nineteen and back in the army.
“Bring what you need for giving Last Rites,” he ordered. That was what was in the leather bag I had already picked up. I grabbed my jacket from the back of the door and hurried out, slamming the door behind me. I didn’t even think about stopping to lock it.
A station wagon was parked in the road. As I half ran to keep up with the man, I said, “Are you from the lumber mill? Is it an accident?”
“Accident? Yeah… yeah, an accident,” he said, sounding distracted. “Get in.” He pushed me into the station wagon.
The smell hit me first. The blood.
I’d expected to be driven to whoever needed my ministry. But I was wrong. He was right here in the car. The rear seat was folded down and a man was stretched out in the back. A young man, no more than twenty-five. His hair was blonde and long, down to his collar, the way the youngsters wore it these days. I could see he was a good looking man, when he wasn’t gaunt, blood spattered and dying.
As the car started up, I glanced to the front. A dark figure sat in the driver’s seat, a large black man, shaven headed and scowling back at me in the rear view mirror. I gulped and turned back to the young man. He was unconscious; his breathing was shallow and fast. His face was strained with pain.
The man who’d come to my door was holding a flashlight and checking a bloodstained bandage wrapped tight around the blonde man’s abdomen. I noticed now that he had a handgun tucked into the waistband of his jeans.
I took a few deep breaths and got hold of myself. I could block out the smell of the blood and it was too dark to see too much of the sticky redness splashed all over the interior. I didn’t see this every day, but my time as a prison chaplain had involved more than once performing this sacrament for a man lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Usually under harsh, bright light, so my eyes felt as if they were filled with red for days afterwards. The darkness here was a blessing.
Concentrate on the ritual, I told myself. I took out the holy water and the oil. I left the candles, the car was bouncing around too much and I could hardly ask them to pull over.
“Are you heading for the hospital in Fairfield?”
“Yeah. But he wanted… we weren’t sure we would get there… in time.” For a moment the man in charge looked frightened, but his authoritative mask slipped back into place.
“Is he a baptised Catholic?” I asked. The young man had a small gold crucifix around his neck.
“Is he baptised? If he’s not, I need to baptise him first,” I said.
“He grew up in an orphanage run by you people!” The man snapped at me. I took that as a yes.
“What’s his name?” I saw him hesitate at my question.
“Templeton?” I couldn’t keep the incredulity out of my voice. You’d think he could have come up with something more convincing than that. “Please, his real name. I’m not going to tell anyone.”
Again that hesitation, then, “Alvin.”
I began the sacrament, anointed Alvin with the blessed oil, saying the familiar words.
“Through this holy anointing may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit…” The words came automatically.
“May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up…” I couldn’t help my mind straying to the gun the man in charge carried.
“And let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord…” I tried to remember if I’d heard anything on the radio today about a robbery, or escaped prisoners, but nothing came to mind. I also couldn’t help wondering exactly what these men were going to do with me when I was finished with their friend.
I dismissed such thoughts and fixed my mind on the young man, on Alvin. When the sacrament was over I closed my eyes, held one of his hands in both my own and prayed over him, for several minutes. I had no idea who he was, or if Alvin was his real name. Perhaps he was a criminal, but I knew he needed my prayers. That was all I needed to know.
When I opened my eyes the other man, the commander, was watching me.
“Is it done?” he asked, in a quiet voice.
“Yes, sir,” I said, trying to keep the quaver out of my voice.
“Sergeant, pull over.”
The dark man driving pulled in to the side of the road.
“Thanks, Father. Sorry, but we have to drop you off here.”
“Wait! Let me come with you to the hospital.”
“Sorry, padre,” he said. “You’re better off not being seen with us.”
I had no doubt that this was true. “But…”
“Sorry.” He opened a door and pushed me out. He was too strong for me to even think of resisting. I didn’t believe he would pull the gun on me, but it was clear I wasn’t going any further with them.
“I… good luck,” I said. I raised my hand, gave them a blessing.
“Thanks, Father. Go, Sergeant.”
The driver spoke. His voice was low and gruff. “Thanks.” I still couldn’t see his face properly. This was probably for the best. The car sped away. I watched its lights until they were swallowed up in the darkness, then I looked at my watch. It was barely twenty minutes since the doorbell had rung. With a sigh I turned to start to walk home.
It was only then that I noticed the knees of my pants were soaked through with blood.
A week later I was emptying the poor box and among the quarters, the dollar bills and the occasional five, I picked up a wholly unexpected hundred-dollar bill. I stared at it for a long time. Then I turned it over and saw the writing. It was shaky, but legible.
“Thanks, Father. Alvin.”
I smiled. “Bless you, Alvin. Bless you.”
I put the hundred dollars back with the rest of the charity money. I felt a slight twinge of worry about the source of it, remembering the sirens of the speeding army sedans that had rushed past me as I walked home that night a week ago.
Army though, not police. That was odd. But I suppose at least it meant that they weren’t just bank robbers.