Death comes in threes; everything comes in threes. It is the mathematics of God’s universe.
When Keith McFarland killed the editor in Burlington, I knew two more would die there, two people somehow connected to the rum man. This occurs naturally enough – a heart attack, a suicide, or some other resonation of an individual death. I typically do not have to do any of the arranging but merely approve the results.
I wasn’t surprised, then, when some days later I needed to oversee the death of Detective McHenry of the Burlington Police Department. The man was a stereotypical career policeman: heavyset with a steely bristle of gray hair, blue eyes with yellow edges, a piercing stare that was half command and half reproach, a neck permanently scarred by worn razors and tight collars, a barrel body that could wrestle a mule to the ground, and narrow legs better suited for driving than running. If he were older – say, sixty-three – he would die when the last bit of grease that he had poured down his throat solidified across the web of his coronary arteries and made his heart explode.
But he was fifty-five, and it wasn’t to be a heart attack today. Only an accident. The detective deserved an elaborate death, with its measure of ceremony and civic pride.
Detective John McHenry had been a cop in Racine County for forty-five years and in Burlington for the last twelve. He’d been known as Officer Friendly by two generations of kids before landing the detective job in Burlington; had pushed for D.A.R.E. programs and started anti-graffiti campaigns; had rescued one adult, seven children, four dogs, a cat, and a hamster from various house and apartment fires; had organized the Tornado Task Force for the Union Grove Fire Department after the twister of ’83; and done countless other works for good.
He’d paid for it all with a bullet still in his left lung, a pack-a-day habit for his right lung, a hardened liver from nightly drinking, a few bar-fight scars on knuckles and face, two back-to-back failed marriages, and an addiction to twelve-hour days. He was a stereotypical cop and deserved a death better than what would be scripted for the average cop show.
Here’s what I came up with.
* * * * *
You still look like a cop, John. The faded blue Dockers don’t change what you are or who you are. You tug at your belt as you walk across the hardware store parking lot. You hold the plastic ball cock as if it were a blackjack, and the hardware receipt crouches in your shirt pocket. Nobody uses shirt pockets anymore, John. Smile and nod, yes, greet your townsfolk, but what about the bright belligerence in your eyes? Always scoping. Level and unapologetic suspicion. Only sunglasses could mask that, but those are still in your squad.
In moments, it won’t matter. Then you see her. After all these years, she still has her hooks in you. “Ah, Susan – how are you and Edward?” you ask the once-lithe creature on the sidewalk in front of the store. Her page-boy hair shifts as she turns toward you. A distant train bellows mournfully.
“Ed, please,” she says. “Can’t you call him Ed, after twenty-five years? And he’s fine.”
Even you notice the twitch in the corner of your eye, and you wish for those sunglasses. The windshield of a nearby car glares mirror-like, showing fragments of tattered sky. “Good to hear.”
The train’s marching feet clang on the track.
You stare at each other, nodding. A rebel thought reminds you that you were once inside her. You blush and look away.
Something’s going on in the elementary school parking lot across the street. The child’s fingers still show above the hard gray line of the Chevy’s roof when the rumple-faced man slams the door. Her scream is loud even through the glass. He tries the latch. It is locked. He drags keys from his pants and shouts angrily at her, “Shut up! Shut up!”
The ball cock trembles as you run across the parking lot and into traffic.
He has the passenger door open and the screaming girl tries to fight out past him but he throws her back into the front seat. The man’s plaid flannel shirt sticks to him, sweaty, and flaps a warning from his belt line. He rounds the hood and half-runs to the driver’s side door.
At best an abusive dad. At worst, a kidnapper. “Hold it!” you shout. The cars around seem to hear, bunching back like wildebeests before a predator. The man, too, hears, swinging wide his door and lurching in beside the girl.
“Hold it! Police! What’s going on here?”
You catch the door he’s trying to slam and almost get your own fingers caught. You yank it open and grab thread-worn plaid that tears beneath your grip. He tips half out of his seat.
The engine roars. As you reach to snatch the keys, you see something. Had you lived longer, you would have sworn it was a knife under her throat, but how can a man start a car and hold a knife under his own daughter’s throat? A reflection in the glass, your friends would have said. A hallucination, a prejudice of a white cop against a Latino father, the prosecution would have said. You’ll be dead before you even recognize his race or his daughter’s.
It is I who hold that phantom knife. I sit in the back seat of the car and hold the blade to her throat so that you will see it – so that what happens happens.
The car lurches. You grab the man’s shirt. Your own weight pinches your arm in the door, but you won’t let go. Tires squeal. Lights flash red. A claxon sounds. You fight to keep your feet, but the blacktop potholes steal your toes. The ball cock only now clatters to the ground. You cling to the man.
The car drags you fifty-eight feet before, at forty-five miles an hour, the undercarriage strikes the tracks and jolts you loose. You tumble, arms flapping like rubber from a stripped tire. You come to rest on the southbound line that hooks up with the Illinois Central.
Susan screams. The horn is louder and nearer, and the brakes, too. You hear nothing, though, and see only sky before your body is struck by the cattle catcher, rolled over twice, and then cleaved by the wheel. It rolls through you like a pizza cutter.
* * * * *
Cops die well. Cops and gang members. Soldiers, doctors, mobsters. They understand death. They face it at least minimally every day, and some are neck-deep in it. They have given death a lot of thought, and know it for what it is, a ubiquitous necessity. It is no less mysterious to these folks than it is to everyone else, but it is more a reality to them. They dwell at the edge of a black and endless ocean that others have only heard about. Michael, row the boat ashore, alleluia…
Slaves face death, too. They know that the river of death is black and chilly and endlessly wide, and that the ferryman must row them safely across. And what of the Jews at Buchenwald and Dachau? Did they not pray to the angel of death for release? Mobsters know their saints and go to their confessions. Midwives go softly. Hookers, addicts, fugitives, and freaks – all those marginalized by the world and therefore pushed to the ragged edge of death, they know.
Only the soft white belly of America dies badly. They know more about Canada than they do about death, and that’s not saying much. They thrash and scream or go dumb in amazement. Most do not even realize they are dying until it is all done. In the face of all religion and science, they believe that if they want to live they will not die. They go about life in ruby slippers that will always fetch them home, wishing upon stars and cars and pensions to keep them alive.
But they will die. Every last one of them. That black sea is insatiable, and it rises. One day, it will lap at the doorstep of anyone, will fill the basement and rise until it swallows the man crouched in the attic and the woman waving from the rooftop.
Everyone dies. Pray to me, and die well.
* * * * *
It’s interesting how one glimpse can change a town. The white majority had called for and gotten the arrest of Manuel DeGarcia on charges of reckless homicide and child abuse.
He, in fact, could not have been telling his daughter to “Shut up!” since he neither spoke nor understood English. Nor could he have known McHenry was a policeman. Rattled from having accidentally slammed his daughter’s fingers in the door, he panicked when a fat man ran up, shouting, tore his shirt off, and tried to take his car keys. Manuel drove off, trying to escape, but the assailant wouldn’t let go.
That was the Latino’s story, once an interpreter could be found, and it was the truth. The truth didn’t matter. The police and community wanted someone to pay for the death of the detective, and a non-English-speaking, foreign, apparent child-abuser was without defense.
The death had been very satisfying for me. It was public, involved an ex-wife and a school-aged child, allowed Detective McHenry to play the hero one last time, included a harsh repayment for selfless action, used the trains that daily crisscross Burlington, occupied the staff of the Gazette for months, and divided the community that McHenry’s jurisdiction had done so much to unite.
* * * * *
I had overseen the deaths of one hundred twenty-two others in the Chicago-Milwaukee megalopolis before Keith McFarland went hunting again. This was the third death connected to Burlington – the editor, the cop, and now the priest. This time, I had little to do but observe and prevent things from going awry. Though Keith had no real plan – too psychotic for that – he was heading in a direction almost sure to satisfy us both.
It was Christmas Eve. The ground was white with hoarfrost, all that the Midwest would have of a white Christmas, and a priest from Burlington happened to serve at St. Francis in Woodstock, Illinois.
* * * * *
Keith steps down from the bus and looks around. The town glows beneath a woolen sky. The steeple of the Nazarene church scrapes the belly of the clouds. Behind his gray polyester trench coat, glass doors close. The bus hisses and moves on.
Keith ascends from the road to the curb. On the concrete, the frost has etched tiny stars. His Converse high-top All Stars look very red against the wintry ground. He imagines standing there through the next frost and the first snow and wonders how his shoes would look then.
Alone and lonely, that’s how. If I stand here all those days, I’d be alone and lonely for Father.
That last one wasn’t too good. He was not much of a father except to his dog. There were plenty of fathers there who got scared, maybe, which helped. But still, one bad father was bad enough. He would have to be replaced by one very, very good, good father. The chimes of St. Francis on the hill at the end of the street say it is two o’clock: time for confession. Mass is at six.
Keith doesn’t put his hands in his pockets as he shuffles up the cracked sidewalk. Maybe if he holds them really still they will turn to ice and he can break them off at the wrists and put Father’s hands on in place of his own.
He walks. The round-leafed weeds that worked so hard to push through the sidewalk cracks are now bunched and dry, shaded gray by frost. He can probably kick them out and they will be the shape of manhood, long and with a ridge underneath. They are pushing to get down into the ground – the sky is always trying to burrow into the hard, cold earth.
Someone nods to him as he passes. Keith gestures in a way that looks like he is taking a DVD down from the rack. He wonders which DVD it is. Probably a naked one. He thinks of the Manhood of Eddy’s Father. That was a good one. For a while he walks with the scenes playing in skin-colored neon across his mind. All the store windows have bright fantasies: lights, snowflakes, pictures, statues, TVs, smiling men, pointed toes, metal rods up into the back of the boy’s new pants, deer with targets on their sides, guns with those hard long ridges beneath them, men in white furs that cover their long chastities, a man who crouches and turns a screwdriver in a wall box, a little train that puffs real gray smoke and always swerves away from the dark, round tunnel through the cotton mountain, silvery sausages made out of the dirty parts, amber bottles wearing little red collars around their necks, elves working hard and fast beneath Santa – what a wonderful world.
He stands on the corner and waits for the light to change. It goes to yellow, and a black sedan roars up and dashes through the red. Someone shouts out of the window, “Fuck you!”
That is what the rum man had said. What a wonderful world.
Keith crosses the street and takes the sidewalk toward St. Francis. The church is massive. It is built of yellow brick. The cornerstone says A.D. 1953, but it looks older than America. He wonders if there is a cat in the cornerstone. They do that to give a building good luck. It is bad luck for a cat. It is not a good cat they use. It is an alley cat that isn’t fixed and has one eye and half a paw on one foot.
Maybe the luck isn’t in the cat. Maybe it’s just in the fun of killing it.
The windows are tall and colorful and shaped like manhood. The steeple has a wiry cross on top like an unbent coat hanger. It is a bigger church than the Nazarenes have, and higher. It needs lightning rods so that when God blasts out of the sky, He doesn’t burn it all up. It is bigger than the Nazarene church but it is still really small under God and it belongs to God and He can do whatever He wants to it. There are three big red doors on the front, for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Keith McFarland wants to go through the big Father door, but it is locked, and the Holy Spirit door is, too. The Son door is just right, and he goes in.
It is dark and damp and still cool inside. There is a smooth floor of stone like in a cave, and coats hang on one wall. He hangs his with the others.
The big part of the cave is up ahead. It opens up so the colored windows are standing tall and shining on both sides. There are two men sitting in fur coats in the dark pews, their heads down like they’re tired. The Father is in that cabinet with the curtain, behind a little square with a screen like he is about to do a puppet show. Keith McFarland walks there. “Hey, get in line,” says a man with big yellow hair – no, a woman. She is one of the tired people in the pews. The other one, who also has breasts, looks up, too.
Keith looks from the one man to the other and makes a dotted line in his head. He walks to the end of his dotted line and sits in the pew there. No sooner has he sat than a man comes out of a red curtain and walks slowly toward the hanging coats.
“Hey, g-get in line,” Keith shouts to him. He keeps walking. He is tired, too. He must have been working very hard before he got here.
The man with the big yellow hair is gone, but Keith sees her high heels under the curtain. He listens hard in the buzzing quiet and hears everything. This man talks like a little boy: “That hurts, Father. No, not there. That hurts. That hurts. Don’t.”
There is one more man. She goes. Then it is Keith McFarland’s turn. He feels his pistol and his hunting knife. He goes past the curtain into the cupboard and stands in there, waiting for something to happen. His gun is ready in his pocket.
“Kneel, my son,” says the voice through the screen. “Begin when you are ready.”
Keith McFarland kneels on the little velvet cushion on the little wooden ridge. He still has his hand on his pistol.
“What troubles you, my son?” the voice says.
“N-nothing, m-my F-f-father.”
“Have you any sins to confess?”
“I-is killing a s-sin, my F-f-father?”
“Killing what? An animal? A person?”
“Oh, yes, my son, that is a very serious sin – unless it was during a war. Did you kill this person during a war?”
“Ah, but it troubles you, still. Are you Catholic, my son?”
“Are you C-Catholic, my F-father?”
“I am C-Catholic, too, my F-father.”
“Have you confessed about this killing before?”
“Ah, but it still bothers you. Have you spoken to Our Lady of Mercies about it?”
“I d-don’t kn-know.”
“Are you C-Catholic, my son?”
“I don’t kn-know, my F-father.”
“What is troubling you? Speak freely. You have no need to fear.”
“I don’t l-like the w-way you touch m-me.”
There comes a pause. “What do you mean, my son?”
“My son, this is a holy place. You must not do such things.”
“It is when you touch me here, and put your hands in here, my Father.”
There comes another pause. The Father is speaking, but Keith hears another father, a father long dead and gone.
“Oh, so you don’t like that? You don’t want me doing this? Or how about this? Well, that’s too bad, Keith. When you’re the father, you can make the rules.”
“I am very angry about this.”
“Go ahead and be angry. Go ahead and go in the back yard, spitting and kicking the cat. The neighbors know what you are, what you’ve been doing. They could care less. The cops know, too. They just say, ‘Well, he’s a retard. At least he’s found something he’s good at.’ ”
“I’m good at shooting you with this.”
“You keep your hands off my guns. How did you get into the rack? Give me that. You want to shoot the thing? Shoot it down your own throat. You ought to be used to that by now, you little fuck.”
The bullet blasts out. It’s loud in the little box, and it echoes in the rest of the cave. There is a hole in the screen and something heavy leaning on the other side. Keith McFarland comes out of the cupboard and sees there is not a line, or anyone in the church at all. He opens the door where his father is and goes in with him.
The gun is hot in his pocket but the knife is very, very cold.
* * * * *
Father Mike could not have asked for a more fitting end. He was a young priest, very caring and sensitive. Such attributes lay a cleric open to charges of homosexuality and misconduct with younger parishioners, but Father Mike had not let suspicions prevent him from his work with the youth of Woodstock and nearby Rockford.
When his superior, Father Clayton, had advised against his volunteer work at the Boys Club of Rockford and in the intramural basketball league of Woodstock, Father Mike had shrugged it off and said, “I cannot and will not abandon these kids to the streets just because gossip mongers want something to talk about. My ministry and message come first. If they want to ruin me, let them take up the matter with God.”
Some had, and others with the parish council, but Father Mike was innocent of any offense, and the conflicting stories’ lack of evidence only served to prove the fact. Then, two years after the last such rumblings, a youth he had never known not only accused him of a crime he was innocent of, but also executed him for it. Father Mike had been willing to be martyred for his ministry and now, in the way of a true martyr, he had died for his beliefs without anyone but his killer knowing why. I am convinced that if he had seen Keith coming and known who and what he was, Father Mike would still have patiently counseled him, been similarly misheard, and would have died in much the same way.
It was a rare and beautiful thing to have a serial murder in which victim and killer were so attuned that I had only to sit back and let the music of the spheres well up around me.
Copyright Angry Robot Books, used with permission.