Eleventh Hour Page 1

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ONE

SAN FRANCISCO

Nick sat quietly in the midnight gloom of the nave, hunched forward, her head in her arms resting on the pew in front of her. She was here because Father Michael Joseph had begged her to come, had begged her to let him help her. The least she could do was talk to him, couldn’t she? She’d wanted to come late, when everyone else was already home asleep, when the streets were empty, and he’d agreed, even smiled at her. He was a fine man, kind and loving toward his fellow man and toward God.

Would she wait? She sighed at the thought. She’d given her word, he’d made her give her word, known somehow that it would keep her here. She watched him walk over to the confessional, watched with surprise as his step suddenly lagged, and he paused a moment, his hand reaching for the small handle on the confessional door. He didn’t want to open that door, she thought, staring at him. He didn’t want to go in. Then, at last, he seemed to straighten, opened the door and stepped inside.

Again, there was utter silence in the big church. The air itself seemed to settle after Father Michael Joseph stepped into that small confined space. The deep black shadows weren’t content to fill the corners of the church, they even crept down the center aisle, and soon she was swallowed up in them. There was a patch of moonlight coming through the tall stained-glass windows.

It should have been peaceful, but it didn’t feel that way. There was something else in the church, something that wasn’t restful, that wasn’t remotely spiritual. She fidgeted in the silence.

She heard one of the outer church doors open. She turned to see the man who was going to make his midnight confession walk briskly into the church. He looked quite ordinary, slender, with a long Burberry raincoat and thick dark hair. She watched him pause, look right and left, but he didn’t see her, she was in the shadows. She watched him walk to the confessional where Father Michael Joseph waited, watched him open the confessional door and slip inside.

Again, silence and shadows hovered around her. She was part of the shadows now, looking out toward the confessional from the dim, vague light. She heard nothing.

How long did a confession take? Being a Protestant, she had no idea. There must be, she thought, some correlation between the number and severity of the sins and the length of the confession. She started to smile at that, but it quickly fell away.

She felt a rush of cold air over her, covering her for a long moment before it moved on. How very odd, she thought, and pulled her sweater tighter around her.

She looked again at the altar, perhaps seeking inspiration, some sort of sign, and felt ridiculous.

After Father Michael Joseph had finished, what was she supposed to do? Let him take her hand in his big warm ones, and tell him everything? Sure, like she’d ever let that happen. She continued to look up at the altar, its flowing shape blurred in the dim light, the shadows creeping about its edges, soft and otherworldly.

Maybe Father Michael Joseph wanted her to sit here quietly with nothing and no one around her. She thought in that moment that even though he wanted her to talk to him, he wanted her to speak to God more. But there were no prayers inside her. Perhaps there were, deep in her heart, but she really didn’t want to look there.

So much had happened, and yet so little. Women she didn’t know were dead. She wasn’t. At least not yet. He had so many resources, so many eyes and ears, but for now she was safe. She realized sitting there in the quiet church that she was no longer simply terrified as she’d been two and a half weeks before. Instead she’d become watchful. She was always studying the faces that passed her on the street. Some made her draw back, others just flowed over her, making no impact at all, just as she made no impact on them.

She waited. She looked up at the crucified Christ, felt a strange mingling of pain and hope fill her, and waited. The air seemed to shift, to flatten, but the silence remained absolute, without even a whisper coming from the confessional.

Inside the confessional, Father Michael Joseph drew a slow, deep breath to steady himself. He didn’t want to see this man again, not ever again, for as long as he lived. When the man had called Father Binney and told him he could only come this late—he was terribly sorry, but it wasn’t safe for him, and he had to confess, he just had to—of course Father Binney had said yes. The man told Father Binney he had to see Father Michael Joseph, no one else, and of course Father Binney had again said yes.

Father Michael Joseph was very afraid he knew why the man had come again. He’d confessed before, acted contrite—a man in pain, a man trying to stop killing, a man seeking spiritual help. The second time he’d come, he’d confessed yet again to another murder, gone through the ritual as if he’d rehearsed it, saying all the right words, but Father Michael Joseph knew he wasn’t contrite, that—that what? That for some reason Father Michael Joseph couldn’t fathom, the man wanted to gloat, because the man believed there was nothing the priest could do to stop him. Of course Father Michael Joseph couldn’t tell Father Binney why he didn’t want to see this evil man. He’d never really believed in human evil, not until the unimagined horror of September 11th, and now, when this man had come to him for the first time a week and a half ago, then last Thursday, and now again tonight, at nearly midnight. Father Michael Joseph knew in his soul that the man was evil, without remorse, with no ability to feel his own, or another’s, humanity. He wondered if the man had ever felt truly sorry. He doubted it. Father Michael Joseph heard the man breathing in the confessional across from him, and then the man spoke, his voice a soft, low monotone, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”

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