Excerpt from Blood of the Wicked
The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Something took the helicopter and shook it like a jackal worrying a carcass. The bishop gripped the aluminum supports on either side of his seat and hung on for dear life.
“Clear air turbulence,” the pilot observed laconically, and resumed chewing his gum.
“Merda!” the bishop muttered. He regretted the vulgarity as soon as he’d said it.
“What’s that, your Excellency?”
The bishop’s eyes darted to his right. In his fear and discomfort, he’d forgotten the microphones, forgotten the headphones, forgotten that the man could hear every word he said.
And what if he had? Was it not true? Was the helicopter not a merda, a great stinking, steaming merda? And who was the pilot, anyway? What had he ever done in his blessed life other than to learn how to fly the merda? How dare he criticize a man who might, God willing, be a future prince of the Church?
The pilot, whose name was Julio, and who wasn’t criticizing anyone, had been distracted by a flock of vultures wheeling in graceful curves over the approaching river. He honestly hadn’t heard what the bishop had said. He opened his mouth to repeat the question, then shut it again when he saw the cleric’s mouth set into a thin line.
Julio had a paunch, sweat stains under the arms of his khaki shirt and a habit of chewing gum with his mouth open -- all of which Dom Felipe Antunes, the Bishop of Presidente Vargas, found distasteful. But it was nothing in comparison to Dom Felipe’s distaste for the helicopter.
The bishop glanced at his watch, wiped his sweaty palms on his silk cassock and resumed a death grip on the aluminum supports.
Forty-seven blessed minutes in the air. Forty-seven minutes.
“It won’t be long now, Your Excellency.”
Was that amusement in the man’s voice? Was he enjoying himself? Did he think fear was funny?
On the floor beneath Dom Felipe’s feet there was a thin (he was sure it was thin) window of Plexiglas. He tried to avoid looking down, but some perverse instinct kept drawing his eyes back to that dreadful hole in the floor. They were over the river now, sand bars protruding through chocolate colored foam. The sand looked as hard as the rock-strewn banks.
Did helicopters float?
A rowboat drifted in mid-river, two fishermen aboard, a huge net piled high between them. They looked up at him, shielding their eyes against the morning sun. One waved.
Reflexively, Dom Felipe waved back. Then a flash, like the strobe on a camera, caused him to snap his head upward and seek the source of the light.
Far ahead of him, beyond the bug-flecked windshield, the flash came again. He squinted and...yes, there it was. Sunlight of an almost blinding intensity reflected off an expanse of glass. It couldn’t be anything other than the Great Window. And that meant that the brand-new church of Nossa Senhora dos Milagres was in sight.
The window was almost five meters in diameter and had come all the way from the Venetian island of Murano at a cost of almost two hundred thousand Reais, not including the shipping, which, together with the insurance, had amounted to thirty thousand more. When the sun hit it just right -- as it was doing now -- the Window would cast rays of glorious blue light all along the nave of the new church.
Dom Felipe made a conscious effort to hold that image, focusing on the blue light, as if it were a meditation. But then the pitch of the engine changed, dragging him back into his dreadful reality.
The Lord is my shepherd...
A landing spot had been marked out: A Christian cross in stones the size of golf balls, and just as white. A rectangle of sere grass surrounded it, hemmed by dusty palm trees. Yellow plastic tape ran from tree to tree, holding back the crowd. Men in the gray uniforms of the State Police were stationed at intervals along the length of the tape, their backs to the cross, keeping the landing area clear.
The crowd started moving like a living thing. Signs of welcome were raised. Others, already aloft, were turned to face the approaching helicopter. White and brown faces looked upward. And there were banners, too.
Dom Felipe bit his lip in vexation. The banners were red, blood red, the unmistakable standards of the Landless Worker’s League. The League seldom missed an opportunity -- no matter how inappropriate -- to turn a gathering into a political event. The bishop knew that. Still, he’d been hopeful that, in this case, the consecration of the new church....
There was the slightest of jolts as the helicopter’s skids met the grass.
It’s over! Hail Mary, full of grace... Never again.
Julio pulled a lever and threw a switch. The engine died.
Above the swish of air from the still-spinning rotor blades Dom Felipe could hear, for the first time, the cheers of the crowd. He took off his headset, handed it to the pilot and raised his right hand in benediction.
Insolently, the red banners waved back at him.
Dom Felipe suppressed an uncharitable thought and bent over to retrieve his miter, untangling the lappets before placing it on his head. Then he composed his features into a beatific smile and waited for the pilot to open his door.
Julio, unaccustomed to ferrying bishops, finally seemed to realize what was expected of him. He removed his headset, skirted the nose of the aircraft and reached Dom Felipe’s side just as the bishop opened the door himself.
Dom Felipe waved off the pilot’s offered hand, put his feet on solid ground and started searching the crowd for the face of his secretary, Father Francisco, the man who’d hatched the helicopter plot.
If Francisco thinks I’m going back to Presidente Vargas the same way he got me here, he’s got another think coming. I’ll return by car, he’ll have to find one, and it had better be one with air conditioning.
Francisco was nowhere in sight, but Gaspar Farias was. Dom Felipe could clearly see his corpulent body, wrapped in a black cassock, standing in the shadow of the vestibule. Involuntarily, the bishop scowled.
A choir of adolescents dressed in identical cotton robes was standing against the tape, a rectangle of blue in the multicolored collage that made up the crowd. The children were close enough to read the bishop’s scowl and seemed to be puzzled by it.
With the skill born of practice, Dom Felipe forced a smile onto his lips. The youngsters’ puzzlement vanished, replaced by beams of welcome. A woman in an identical robe, her back to the bishop, her face toward her charges, started to wave her arms and the children broke into song, their young voices murdering the English words, “Why do the nations...”
Handel? A Protestant? Who in the world chose that?
Dom Felipe raised his hand in another benediction and silently mouthed words of thanks, conserving his voice for the sermon and for the all-important interviews that were sure to follow.
It was the dry season and, to make it worse, a great deal of construction was going on. From the air, the city of Cascatas do Pontal had seemed to be covered by a dome of red dust. He could feel some of that dust right now, abrading his neck where it met his collar, coating his lips, working its way into his throat. He’d need a carafe of water on the pulpit. Francisco could take care of that. Not Gaspar. Dom Felipe didn’t want anything from Gaspar, didn’t even want to talk to him.
The bishop shifted his body to face another sector of the crowd and raised his arm. His silk sleeve slid downward, just enough to expose his watch. A practiced flick of his eyes confirmed that he wasn’t early. He was a stylish seven minutes late.
So where is the blessed reception committee?
He didn’t want to stand there looking like a fool, so he folded his hands under his chin, bowed his head and offered a prayer.
In recognizance of the solemn moment, the singing faded, and then stopped. The cheering abated. Dom Felipe kept his head down, and his eyes closed, until he heard the rustle of people working their way through the crowd. Then he lifted his head and unclasped his hands. Immediately the cheers erupted anew, and the singing started all over again, right from the beginning of the piece.
One of the policemen grasped a segment of the yellow crowd tape and held it shoulder high. One by one, the members of the reception party slipped under it, seven men in all, and started crossing the empty space toward him.
Cascatas do Pontal was an agricultural town, an informal place. The jackets and ties the men were wearing all looked new. Despite the welcoming smiles they’d plastered on their faces, the local dignitaries looked uncomfortable. All seven of them were red-faced and sweating in the heat.
The bishop took an impulsive step toward them, and then stopped.
They’ll think it more dignified if I let them come to me.
It was the last decision of Dom Felipe’s life.
Walter Abendthaler snapped off another shot with the Pentax, advanced the film and reached for the motor-driven Nikon. Some of his contemporaries liked the digital gear, and all of the kids used it, but not Walter. Walter preferred film. He was an old-fashioned kind of guy.
Maybe too old-fashioned, at least that’s what the agency art directors were telling him these days. A few lines on your face, a little gray in your hair, and they all thought you were over the hill.
Scheisse! Why didn’t they concentrate on his portfolio instead? His pictures clearly demonstrated that he had a better eye for angles than most of the young punks now getting into the business. But did they appreciate that? No, they didn’t. Instead of focusing on his pictures, art directors had a tendency to focus on his gray hair.
Walter would have been willing to bet good money -- something he happened to be short of at the moment, or he wouldn’t have been in Cascatas at all -- that not one of those overestimated punk kids, not even that Scheisskerl Chico Ramos, would have had the foresight to do what he’d done.
He was on the church steps, almost in the vestibule, just below Gaspar Farias, the crow that ran the parish. (The black soutanes priests wore always reminded Walter of crows so that’s what he called them.) That put Walter seventy-five meters from the helicopter, maybe even a little more, but that was the beauty of it, the action of a man who knew his business. The punk kids always tried to get in close, instead of letting the lens do it for them. And now, while they were all down there in the crush elbowing each other out of the way, Walter had a spot all to himself, high above the heads of the crowd. There was nothing, nothing at all, between him and the Chief Crow. He had an unimpeded view.
Walter’s medium-length telephoto, the 300mm, was -- exactly as he’d foreseen -- the perfect lens for the job. His frame ran from slightly below the knees to the tip of the bishop’s miter.
Walter hit and released the shutter button. The Nikon clicked and whirred.
Ha! Gotcha sneaking a peek at your watch.
He’d save that one, maybe blow it up and put it in his portfolio. They’d never print it. Then it got boring: His Crowness bowed his head, concealing his face under his funny hat, and stood there for a long time doing absolutely nothing.
Walter didn’t bother to waste any film.
At last the head came up and the kids started singing again, their high voices carrying well over the murmur of the crowd.
Walter knew the music, a passage from the Messiah, and he hummed along, pleased with himself.
The bishop took a few steps forward and stopped.
Just to the cleric’s left, Walter had the logotype, the whole logotype, solidly in the shot. The telephoto altered the perspective, brought the background closer, made the logo look even bigger than it was. The client would love it.
Love it, because Walter’s assignment wasn’t to register the arrival of the bishop. It was to register the link between the Church and Fertilbras, Brazil’s largest manufacturer of fertilizer.
Providing this day’s transportation was a public-relations ploy for the company. Running the chopper cost them eighteen-hundred Reais an hour, and they intended to get their money’s worth by making sure that Walter’s photos, the ultimate selection of which would be made by Fertilbras’s chairman himself, appeared in every newspaper in the state of São Paulo. Or at least in those newspapers where Fertilbras’s advertising budget gave them leverage with the editorial staff.
In one of his sarcastic moments, of which there were many, Walter, no Catholic, had commented to his wife, Magda, that there was a similarity between what the Catholic Church and his client offered to the public. Magda hadn’t laughed, so he’d had to explain: “The Church peddles bullshit, another form of fertilizer. Get it?” She still hadn’t laughed. Magda was from Zurich and had the same sense of humor as her parents: none at all.
The Chief Crow had turned out to be as handsome in the flesh as he was in the photos Walter had seen. Dom Felipe was still young, well under sixty, but his abundant, carefully coifed hair was already a snowy white.
Colored, for sure. His eyebrows are still dark.
Unfortunately, the 300mm didn’t bring Dom Felipe close enough to display the blue eyes that women were prone to gush about. Walter hoped for better luck when the bishop got his act together and moved toward him.
The guy’s got charisma, I’ll give him that. Looks like he has a poker up his ass. Stands more like a soldier than a priest.
Walter momentarily took the viewfinder away from his eye and glanced at the film counter.
Six. Thirty shots left on the roll.
He switched off the automatic focus and made a minor adjustment.
A cloud slipped between Walter’s subjects and the sun. He had to open up. One, no, two stops. Two whole stops! Scheisse! It was playing hell with his depth of field. If the bishop moved any further away from the background, Walter was going to have to choose between staying sharp on either the man or the logotype. And that was, as the English put it, Hobson’s choice: no goddamned choice at all. Unless the sun came back from behind that fucking cloud, the link he was supposed to capture would be gone, and he’d have one unhappy client.
Walter saw blurry movement on the bottom left of his frame. He lowered the camera to check it out, and then clapped the viewfinder back to his eye.
The reception committee.
He left the focus where it was. The group was getting sharper and sharper as it approached the bishop. Then one of them stopped right between Walter and the logotype.
In a spasm of anger, Walter pressed the shutter.
A fraction of a second later, a hole appeared in the front of Dom Felipe’s cassock.
The shutter stayed open long enough to register both the entry wound and the red mist that spurted into the air behind the bishop’s back.
A less-experienced man, one of those young punks, might have started looking around to see where the shot had come from but not Walter Abendthaler.
Walter, old pro that he was, kept his finger on the shutter button. The motor drive kept advancing. The shutter opened and closed, opened and closed, capturing shot after shot.
In successive frames, the bishop took a step backward, looked down at his chest, sunk to his knees, and pitched forward onto the ground. And then, in the very last exposure before the film ran out, the top of his head seemed to explode.
The crowd was horrified.
Walter Abendthaler was ecstatic. He was damned near positive he’d captured the very moment of the bullet’s impact.