Vatican City: March 11, 1956
The viscount with the dense, copper hair rocked back and forth in the front pew. He whispered to the man next to him.
Felix pretended not to notice the disturbance. He unlocked the tabernacle and retrieved a gold chalice, pyx, paten, and crucifix from its purple silk interior, then arranged them on the altar before the Cardinal. A sweet, breathy gust of air blew in from the only open window in the chapel, making Felix’s cassock flutter against his legs. It felt good – almost like the touch of a woman’s fingertips.
“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen,” the Cardinal said, making the sign of the cross over his head and breast.
At long last, the viscount looked up from his rocking and whispering. He folded his hands and consigned them to his lap, where Felix could still see on the man’s middle finger the shiny indentation where a bulbous emerald ring had rested until a few weeks ago. It had come time to pay off the Romanian attaché and his pet border guard in exchange for a wispy woman with an advanced case of Parkinson’s disease.
“But what wouldn’t a man do for his mother?” The viscount had said upon their last meeting. Plenty, Felix had thought. He’d once watched a man shoot his mother in the face for a single gold tooth rolled in a piece of blood-stained suede. Of course, the attaché had failed to disclose that the viscount’s mother – in addition to her Parkinson’s – was also in the late stages of dementia, soiling herself and exhibiting a total vocabulary of five words: “Paris, last Christmas” and “hideous curtains!” Still, the viscount appeared grateful for her safe recovery. He’d even remarked that she was eating better.
“Judica me deus, et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta: ab homine iniquo; et doloso erue me.”
Psalm 42. Felix recited it in tandem with the Cardinal. Judge me, O God, distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy; deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man.
Mass was brief – twenty-five minutes start to finish – and Felix was glad of it. Cardinal Carlo Merillini’s obligation to the row of elegant gentlemen bowed in the front pew was fulfilled. The Cardinal now stood in the back of the nave with Primo, his valet, while Felix collected the tithes and thanked the visitors: an Argentine cattleman, an American steel magnate, a Polish-born hotelier, the viscount, and a handful of other influential Catholics.
“Envy and death, Father,” muttered the cattleman.
“It’s all they know.” He was a little man, fully bald.
The cattleman spoke lovingly of his Lithuanian wife. Pretty woman. Felix had met her before.
“Envy and death,” the cattleman repeated.
The cattleman’s sister-in-law and young niece had been killed by a Russian soldier at the end of the War. Raped on a bed of horse dung in their stables, then bludgeoned with a bottle of cheap brown vodka. Only his wife’s daughter from a first marriage had survived the incident, hiding behind a bushel of hay and biting a salt lick to keep quiet. The cattleman mouthed the girl’s name.
It was just the year before last when Felix had finally been able to arrange passage for the girl. Already sixteen by then, she’d been instructed to dress as a prostitute – presumably for one of the port guards – but was instead folded into the bowels of a sofa and smuggled over the Baltic Sea into Sweden.
“She still hates horses,” the man said. “And she hates her mother.” The cattleman tapped Felix’s forehead with his index finger. “Poisoned her mind.”
Felix looked the man in the eye and clasped his hand. He then took the cattleman’s envelope and handed it to Primo.
“And this is the acquaintance I wrote to you about.” The cattleman tugged at Felix’s cassock.
Felix nodded at the Polish hotelier, though they hadn’t been officially introduced. The man took Felix’s hand and squeezed, bringing it to his lips and rubbing his twice shaved cheek over the priest’s knuckles.
“A tragic story if I ever heard one,” the cattleman said.
The Pole began to sob.
Felix put his hand on the Pole’s head and assured him that he would speak to the Cardinal on his behalf. “These matters take time,” he explained.
He didn’t have the heart to tell the man how far down in the queue he was – how many dozens had come before him begging about a wife, a husband, a son or daughter, a brother, a lover. And how Felix, too, had begged and prayed until finally his turn had come.
About the AuthorVictoria Dougherty writes fiction, drama, and essays that often revolve around spies, killers, curses and destinies. Her work has been published or profiled in The New York Times, USA Today, International Herald Tribune and elsewhere. Earlier in her career, while living in Prague, she co-founded Black Box Theater, translating, producing and acting in several Czech plays. She lives with her husband and children in Charlottesville, Virginia.
For more information, please visit Victoria Dougherty’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Pinterest.
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