Officer Scanlin sat in his car, door open, head back against the rest. As the black Ford Expedition rolled to a stop behind him, Scanlin busied himself by scraping dried mustard from his steering wheel.
With a sigh in his voice, Turkle said, “You mean to tell me you had her and she got away?”
“Don’t talk to me like that,” Scanlin said, scraping away at the condiment with his fingernail.
“You couldn’t even apprehend an unarmed teenage girl. It was a routine call. How should I talk to you?”
“There was nothing routine about what happened here,” Scanlin spit back at him, finally facing the FBI agent.
Turkle folded his arms. “Go ahead. Tell me what went wrong.”
“I told you,” Scanlin said, “she ran from me.”
“That’s it? She ran? End of story?”
Scanlin pursed his lips. “You wouldn’t tell me what she’d done, so what was I supposed to do—shoot her?”
“If that’s what it took, yes,” Turkle said, leaning into Scanlin and locking in on him.
“C’mon, Ron, she didn’t deserve a bullet and you know it.”
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of what she deserves? I ask for a simple favor. Apprehend a teenage girl on the run, and this appears to be too difficult.”
“Shit, I was never going to shoot her and it was almost as if she knew it.”
“So just put the cuffs on her and hold her in the car. How tough is that?”
“I was pointing my gun at her, point blank. The kid never even flinched.”
“So grab her,” Turkle said, seeming to lose his patience.
“You ever point a gun at someone from close distance and have them ignore your warning?”
“Yes,” Turkle said, raising his voice. “After they ignored my warning, I shot them.”
“Yeah, well,” Scanlin said, turning away, looking out his windshield. He didn’t know what kind of hard-on Turkle had for this girl, but he wasn’t about to shoot an unarmed civilian just because an old police academy buddy wanted to question her.
A dark cloud suddenly formed overhead. Scanlin watched as the cloud developed with record speed, blocking out any sunlight and darkening the sky. Starting from way up high in the northwest, to a low spot just to the south of them.
“You see that?” Scanlin said, gesturing with his head.
“Sunspots,” Turkle said without looking up. “I heard about it on the radio.”
“Sunspots?” Scanlin said, skeptical mostly because he didn’t trust anything Turkle said anymore.
The storm system gathered steam and cast a deep shadow over the city. Scanlin couldn’t keep his eyes off it, while Turkle kept on badgering him about the quality of his police work.
“That’s why you’re still with the Chandler PD,” Turkle sneered. “When do I ever ask for anything from you, huh?”
Scanlin got out of the car and squared up on the agent. “You’re right, Ron,” he said, pulling out his logbook and clicking a ballpoint pen. “Let me write this up in my report and let Timlon look at this. Maybe I deserve to be reprimanded. What was I thinking, letting a teenage girl who, as far as I know, hadn’t broken a single law, get away. Maybe you can explain to him what an egregious error in judgment I made.”
Scanlin began writing the date on the top of the form. Turkle grabbed the logbook and pulled it down. He yanked the replacement car key from his pocket and tossed it at the officer. Scanlin grabbed the key as it bounced off his chest.
Turkle’s eyes sizzled with laser-like fury. “Thanks for nothing,” he growled, then headed back to the Expedition.
Scanlin waited until Turkle was out of sight before he took a full breath. He tossed the logbook onto the passenger seat and stuffed the pen back into his shirt pocket. When he got back into the car, he noticed the clouds seemed to dissipate.
“Sunspots,” he murmured.
* * *
The taxi pulled up to the entrance of St. Andrews and stopped. On the back of the passenger seat was a picture of an alien inside of a circle and a red line across the alien’s face. Father Joe paid the cab driver, then got out and shut the door. The cabbie kept looking at him as if the priest should offer him something more than money. Father Joe leaned into the passenger window and said, “You okay?”
The cabbie was older and bearded. His tired eyes stayed on the priest. “We don’t have much time left do we, Father?” He asked the question as if Father Joe kept an almanac with the date for the end of time inside.
Father Joe was tired himself. He’d endured a shooting right outside his rectory that morning, then Margo’s miracle recovery. Somehow the end of time seemed like a reasonable consequence.
“Are you concerned?” Father Joe asked.
“Well, it’s just all these incidents. First that rain cloud that won’t go away, then that alien girl.” He looked up at the sky and pointed, “Then that.”
The clouds had formed a gigantic stream of billowing smoke overhead, like the exhaust from a thousand airplanes spilling out over the sky. Recent events had caused a split among the average Chandler resident. Half thought it was the apocalypse. The other half felt it was aliens here to destroy the planet. Father Joe believed neither was imminent, yet he understood the apprehension of restless souls.
He looked at the cabbie, who seemed anxious for some guidance. “Do you have Jesus in your heart?” Father Joe asked.
The bearded man seemed to ponder the question. “I’m not sure, Father, but I can always make room for Him.”
The priest smiled. “Then you’ll be just fine.”
The cabbie nodded, his troubled expression still lingering. Father Joe took a breath, then held up his Bible as a reference point. “There’s plenty of time,” he said sincerely. “Spend it wisely.”
The cabbie seemed to understand. He saluted Father Joe, then put the taxi in gear and drove away.
Father Joe felt heavier as he walked up the entrance to St. Andrews, as if he wore ankle weights. He pulled open the thick oak door and made his way into the main church. The aroma of scented candles wafted throughout the large, empty cathedral. He glanced at his watch and made his way to the wooden confessionals in the far back corner of the church. They were constructed in the early sixties and moved into St. Andrews when a nearby church decided the ancient structure no longer fit their modern theme. The Christian faith had discovered a new business model. In an attempt to attract a younger, hipper and more affluent crowd, the trend was to begin the service with a short rock concert. Long-haired guitar players and pretty girls swayed onstage to a trio of rock ballads praising the Lord. Father Joe was more of a traditionalist so he gladly accepted the contribution.
The priest placed a sign directing those looking for reconciliation to the open doors of the wooden structure. He clutched his Bible and made his way into the middle door of the three-door confessional. His tiny compartment had a small seat while each of the side compartments had padded kneelers for the sinner to use while confessing his or her sins.
The frequency of visits was sporadic at best. Some Saturdays, Father Joe could go the entire hour without a single sinner willing to repent. Other times, the hour flew by. Once inside, he shut the door and used the tiny rays of light passing through the dark screen window to fumble through his Bible once again. He was still searching for something which could explain some of his questions.
The familiar squeak of the left confessional door opening and closing stopped him. It was followed by the click of the door fastening shut. Father Joe placed the Bible in his lap, then slid open the one-foot-square window of the shared wall. As always, Father Joe leaned toward the opening, but never tried to see through the tightly wound mesh screen which made identifying the occupant practically impossible.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” a man’s voice said. “It has been five weeks since my last confession.”
“Yes,” Father Joe said. “What sins would you like to confess?”
“Well, Father, I’ve lied to my wife.”
Father Joe stayed quiet allowing the confessor to repent at his own pace.
“Do you want to know what I lied about?” the man asked.
“I’m not here to judge,” Father Joe said. “If you feel the need to divulge the details, however, I’ll gladly listen.”
The man took a good long time to gather himself. Finally, he said, “That’s not really what’s bothering me. It’s something I’m about to do that bothers me.”
Father Joe remained still.
“You see, Father, I recently lost my job and couldn’t afford to pay my mortgage. My daughter’s got two years of college left and . . .” The man seemed to consider his words.
The sour economy had brought many fine people to make unfortunate choices, so Father Joe wasn’t surprised to hear this explanation from the other side of the wooden wall.
“Well,” the man continued, “I don’t have much of a choice, really. I was offered a large amount of money to kill someone.”
“I’m going to murder someone, Father, and I want to know if the Lord would forgive me.”
Father Joe clutched his Bible tight. He peeked through the opening, but saw nothing. It was too dark. “You must understand, I can’t offer reconciliation for something you haven’t done.”
“Why not?” the man asked, seemingly bewildered at the comment.
“Well, because the Lord gives us the ability to choose. You don’t need to murder anyone.”
“But I do,” the man sounded frantic. “I have no other choice. If I don’t, I’ll lose my house, my wife, and certainly my child’s college education.”
Father Joe felt his tiny cubicle closing in on him. He considered jumping out and opening the confessor’s door to detain the possible killer, but then he’d be abusing the sacred vow he’d sworn to uphold. The seal of the confessional could never be violated.
“Father?” the man said in a low voice. “Can you offer reconciliation?”
Father Joe knew he would have to rely solely on words to keep this man connected to the world.
“You believe in Jesus, right?” Father Joe asked.
“And you believe he died for our sins?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then you’re a Christian and understand the commandment of God,” Father Joe said, blandly, waiting for the response.
“But Father, what about repentance?”
Father Joe let out a breath, grateful to know the man still needed something from him. “My son,” Father Joe said with a paternal voice, “those who sin willfully risk enslavement by their sin and the real possibility that they will not be able to repent.”
“That can’t be true,” the man said, his voice growing stronger and angrier. “I know my Bible, Father, and there’s nothing in there about repenting future sins.”
Father Joe shut his eyes and caressed the top of his Bible, recalling the passage he knew so well. “In Genesis, when Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for some bread and a bowl of lentil soup, his regret was rejected. And I quote, ‘for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.’”
There was silence on the other side of the wall. Father Joe wondered if he’d pushed too hard.
After a long minute the man spoke in a low, gritty growl, “That’s what he told me you would say.”
“The man who’s paying me to do the job. He said you’d try to trick me into believing I couldn’t be saved.”
“I’ve done nothing of the sort,” Father Joe said. “I’ve spoken the truth. You can’t twist Christianity to fit your own terms. That’s not how faith works.”
“You’re a liar,” the man snarled. “At first I was hesitant, but now I’m glad she’s a friend of yours. She deserves to die for what she’s doing with these aliens.”
Before Father Joe could process the words he’d heard, the man’s confessional door squeaked open. The aging priest leaped to his feet and shimmied his door handle, but it was jammed from the outside. He leaned his shoulder into the wooden door and couldn’t get it to budge. Finally, he sat back into his seat and lifted both legs and thrust his feet into the door once, then twice. Nothing. His legs dropped to the floor like an anvil as he sucked in large breaths, imagining another life taken from him. He’d worked so hard to keep a placid demeanor for his congregation, but now—in confines of his confessional, a temporary prisoner—it was too much for him.
“Damn it,” Father Joe murmured. Then he instantly made the sign of the cross and looked up. “Forgive me, Father.” He prayed silently for guidance, needing an understanding of the recent events and the blessing which was Margo Sutter.
The answer came as it always did with a deep and rich silence. In the recesses of his mind, Father Joe came to interpret the quiet as God’s way of winking at him, letting him know He trusted the priest.
Father Joe’s Bible lay on the floor by his feet. He looked down at the open page and brought it up to his face so he could see the text. A broad smile creased his face once he recognized the passage. He looked up again. “Thank you Lord for the gifts I’ve received. Amen.”