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Sunday, December 1, 2013

(“From the houses of the holy, we can watch the white doves go. From the door comes Satan's daughter and it only goes to show. You know...”) Led Zeppelin

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration

Chapter Twenty

Fresno, California, April 1969

Jay and KC had not said more than two words to one another during the twenty-minute ride from the hotel to the hospital. They had spent that time like the professionals they were, mentally preparing for their assignment, putting on their game faces so to speak. They had already agreed upon the photo layout that they would need for the story. And KC had decided that her questions would focus mainly on the man and not the story around him. She already had all the details she would need to set the stage with facts about the good doctor and his mischief. That angle had been covered after spending countless hours interviewing Dorothy Mahoney, Alma Donnelly, her husband Arthur, as well as various other arresting officers, paramedics, and hospital staff. No? The real story here the one angle that none of the other publications had stumbled on yet was the migrant child, she was the local legend. KC was well prepared to break this story, the only thing she needed to watch for were the wild cards, there were always wild cards to play in this business.
   LaTina Marie Lopez was the wild card in this game, and she was nestled safely in the hand that KC and her newspaper were holding. KC smiled to herself as she silently reflected on the fruits of all of her hard work and long hours. She felt very comfortable in the position she found herself in. She was in the catbird’s seat as James Thurber might have put it. She had gathered nearly all of the pieces of the puzzle, and she was certain that this interview with Dr. Katz would produce the last of the border pieces. After today she would be ready to complete the puzzle from the inside out. But first KC needed to see for herself the evidence of this so-called miracle. She wanted to see first hand what this entire county had managed to keep secret for so long. She wanted to hear from the monster himself, the account of his spiritual redemption and physical resurrection. Once that was done, once her own curiosity had been satisfied, she would be able to finish this job, and break the story without suffering the pain of moral or social conscience.
   After all, this wasn’t just another stigmata hoax, or Virgin Mary apparition. This was the real thing, a warm body with a sweet face that people could see and a soft voice that they could hear. It would be the closest thing to an interview with an Apostle or even Christ himself.  She started to feel the old adrenaline run, like she always did before one of her stories ran. But this was going to be the mother of all stories, it was going to be the biggest byline that she had ever had, a career launcher, and a life changer! And yet she was apprehensive for reasons she didn’t quite understand.
      No, that wasn’t exactly true she thought, it was the kid, the little girl had bewitched her somehow. During the time she was recording her talks with the Lopez girl, ten full cassettes of dialog, she and Tina had somehow managed to bond. Without her realizing it, KC had broken her cardinal rule, never get tight with a mark, and she was angry with herself for ignoring that basic journalistic axiom. It was that one little rule that made the job easy, because you didn’t need a conscience with a mark, you could lie straight faced and pat yourself on the back for a job well done! But with a friend, with someone you stupidly allowed yourself to care about, the ethical line between right and wrong became less fuzzy. The lies actually left a bad taste in your mouth, words seasoned with a raging case of social conscience. KC shook that thought out of her head and shuddered visibly.
   “You OK Kathy,” Jay asked?
   “Yeah, I’m fine, looks like we’re here,” she answered, clearing her throat and pointing to the building.
   KC pulled into the Emergency Room lot as she had been instructed to, while Jay finished taking inventory of his equipment. He zipped the camera bag closed just as she turned off the engine, and they exited the Ford Pinto together, racing toward the automatic doors like they just might have an actual emergency to tend to. They weren’t wearing their press ID’s as per the guidelines of their special privilege, and went directly through the double doors bypassing the insurance/billing desks. Once inside they walked up to the nurse’s station, a long chest high counter littered with files and clipboards, and asked for a Detective Sergeant Daniel Jankowski. The young woman behind the counter looked puzzled at their request and was about to say something when a slightly balding gentleman in a blue blazer and gray slacks walked up behind the pair.
   “That’s OK doll, they’re looking for me,” the middle aged man in the off the rack suit said in a thick Bronx accent, slightly out of place for this hick central California city. He took hold of KC by her elbow and led her over to a short, uncomfortable couch against the wall. She shot Jay a queer look letting herself be led away by the strange man.
   “Detective Jankowski I presume?” KC uttered.
   “The one and only, you two must be the reporters from San Francisco that pulled all the strings to get in to see the magic Christian,” he said, replying to KC’s question.
   “Ahhh, yeah, that would be us, I guess. And what exactly do you mean by the Magic Christian anyway,” KC said, squinting at the detective and tilting her head slightly.
   “Don’t worry, you’ll see for yourself soon enough,” the detective snickered.
   Jay pulled out his Nikon and started to attach the short lens for the portrait shots he and KC had discussed earlier at the hotel. Detective Jankowski stepped over to him picked up the equipment bag and motioned for Jay to return the camera to the bag.
   “Nuh Uh my friend, no pictures, that’s one of the rules on this special visit,” he said gruffly. Both KC and Jay started to protest but Jankowski cut them off.
   “NO EXCEPTIONS, the cameras stay on this floor. I’m sorry if that was not made clear to you beforehand, but it’s not negotiable, I don’t care how much money your boss has to throw around!” Jay gently returned the camera and lens to the bag and the detective zipped it closed and walked toward the nurse’s station.
   “Keep an eye on this will ya hon, we’ll be back for it in just a little bit,” he said, winking at the young woman behind the counter and dropping the heavy bag on the counter.
   “HEY, watch it, that equipment is delicate AND expensive,” Jay shouted. He turned back to face the two stunned reporters.
   “SUE ME,” Jankowski said sarcastically.
   “So, are we ready now lady and ummm, gent?”
Jay said nothing, he just stared at the man in disbelief, while KC raised both her hands and shook her head in a mock surrender.
   “OK, let’s just get on with this. I’m assuming that there won’t be any more surprise conditions to deal with,” KC stated rhetorically.
    Detective Jankowski led the way to the service elevator and held the door for his two charges. They entered the car single file, the detective from hell bringing up the rear as he pushed the button for the sixth floor. KC looked up at the roof of the elevator and noticed her own reflection staring back down at her in the glass. She reached up with her left hand and mussed her hair, giving her short haircut a quick adjustment. When she lowered her head and caught Jankowski giving her the stink eye. She returned the gesture by shooting him her best Harpo Marx impression, complete with the crossed eyes, the cheeks full of air, her tongue extended, as she mimed a real authentic Bronx cheer! 
   “Oh, that’s mature, you kiss your mother with that face,” Detective    Jankowski said sarcastically.
   KC squinted and moved her lips rapidly, silently mimicking him as the elevator stopped and the doors opened. The wall in front of them announced that they had arrived at the sixth floor in bold black letters. The trio exited the car together, the surly detective squeezing between Jay and KC in order to lead them down the hall to their destination. Jay took in every detail with his photographer’s eye, and he elbowed KC, as they were about to turn the corner. Up ahead there was two of Fresno’s finest standing on either side of the closed door to room 665. KC stared at the room number as they walked up.
   “Hmmmm, one door down and I’d have been worried,” she whispered so only Jay could hear.
   “Know what you mean jellybean, I was thinking the same thing,” Jay whispered back, indicating that he had also picked up on the anti-Christ reference.
   “OK, ground rules,” Jankowski started.
   “Oh come on, I asked you downstairs if there were going to be any more surprises,” KC whined.
   “Take it easy doll, nothing out of the ordinary. And these are his attorney’s rules, not ours.”
   “Go on,” KC said warily.
   “Alright, number one, no pictures, you already know that one. Number two, no tape recording, you were told about that before you arrived, so hand it over shrimpy,” the detective said, holding out his right hand like a grade school teacher waiting for some kid to spit out her gum. KC started to feign outrage, and then thought better, digging into her purse and removing a small cassette recorder.
   “Ahem, number three, his attorney will be present during the interview and will advise her client whether or not to answer questions based on the relative impact to his pending trial. Last but not least, number four, DO NOT TOUCH the prisoner. That’s important Miss Littleton; the guy is positively psycho about being touched by anyone. He believes that he’s already been touched by the hand of God or something like that,” Jankowski finished, staring at KC until she made eye contact.
   “I get it, I get it,” she said gruffly, her frustration doing a poor job of camouflaging her nervousness.
   “What about you Mac, do you get it too?” Jankowski directed at Jay Namura.
   “Yeah, I’m with ya,” Jay replied matter of fact like.

   “OK then, you’re on,” Detective Jankowski said as he signaled for the officer nearest him to open the door. KC and Jay gave each other a reassuring glance and then followed the detective into the room.

Daybreak at Casa Lopez…Fresno, California

The teakettle whistled furiously while Maria waddled as fast as she could down the hall to the kitchen. She was within spitting distance of her delivery date, and this baby couldn’t come soon enough for her. Tina and Gilbert had been such easy pregnancies, but this little one had been different from the get go. To begin with, the fact that she had conceived at all had come as a complete shock to her. God forgive her, she had been secretly taking precautions to prevent this very thing from happening. She knew that Victor wouldn’t understand, in fact he would probably have been angry given his strong Catholic beliefs. But ever since they discovered that Tina was more than just their child, that she had become an instrument of God’s will, Maria had been terrified of bringing another baby into the world.
      Gilbert was already on the way by the time these events began to regularly take place in their lives. Who knew what might be in store for him she wondered? But this new child growing inside her, this one that could have, maybe should have been prevented, she just didn’t know what to think. There was nothing to think about anyway, it was coming and she would deal with God’s will. But even so, she worried that she would not be strong enough to protect Tina from the wolves and care for a growing family as well. She was after all just one woman, and life’s demands on her time, her energy, her sanity, were reaching a physical, mental, and spiritual apex.
   “Aye Dios mio,” Maria said to herself as she reached the screaming teakettle and removed it from the burner. The shrill whistle trailed off into oblivion while she set the steaming water container down on a potholder on the kitchen table. She pulled the chair far enough away from the table to provide enough clearance for her and the baby, and then slowly lowered herself onto the soft cushion. Puffing out her cheeks she let out an audible sigh then drew her sleeve across her brow. Maria made herself a cup of instant coffee and stirred in a little cream from the cow dispenser that Victor had bought for her at the county fair last summer.
      She watched the dark liquid swirl and then change into the same creamy tan color of a Brach’s caramel square. Maria sipped her coffee, thankful for the peace and quiet with the kids in school. She held the cup with both hands in front of her face and blew lightly on the coffee watching the ripples her breath made. She was recalling the argument she and Victor had the night before. Victor had come to bed and snuggled up next to her, rubbing her belly, making a fuss about the coming birth.
   “It’s going to be somebody’s birthday pretty soon,” he cooed at her swollen stomach. He really was being really sweet, and she wanted to be as happy as he was, but she wasn’t. She was scared, and her hormones were raging, running wild throughout her body. She was hot, she was cold, she was dizzy, and she was inconsolable. She knew it wasn’t fair, but she couldn’t help it, he would just have to forgive her, and it shamed her knowing that he would do exactly that.
   “So which names did you decided on honey,” was all he had said.
   “IS THAT ALL YOU CAN SAY TO ME PANSON!” she yelled at him harshly. Maria hated herself before the echo had even faded against the walls of their small bedroom.
   “I DON’T KNOW, OK, I DON’T KNOW!” she had wailed, breaking into tears.
   Maria closed he eyes and shuddered. She took another sip from her cup and promised herself that she would make it up to him when he came home. Maybe she would call Mrs. Donnelly and ask her to stop by and help her make some chili verde and fresh home made tortillas, that was Victor’s favorite meal, it would be a good start at making up she thought. She was pretty sure that Alma would be happy to help, besides she thought, the woman wanted to learn how to make tortillas anyway, and now was as good a time as any! Maria smiled to herself at the prospect of making things right and looked at the stack of mail by the fruit bowl. She picked up the stack of bills and sorted through them. She came across an envelope addressed by hand and studied it. The letter was for Tina and it had no return address. She turned it around a couple of times and then set it down on the table in front of her.
   She tapped her finger on the envelope and toyed with the thought of opening it first to screen the contents. But she decided that the handwriting was a childish scrawl and that it was probably from one of Tina’s little friends. She decided that would leave it for her daughter to open herself, remembering how much fun it was to get mail when she was a child. Still, it was tempting, and she picked up the envelope once more.
   “No, she’s getting older, I can wait,” she sighed to herself, and set the letter down.

Dr.Katz Interview, April 1969

Detective Jankowski closed the door behind them and KC and Jay walked up to the chairs near the window. A handsome woman with shoulder length blonde hair, dressed in a smart burgundy business suit got up and extended her hand to greet them. She looked to be in her late thirties or early forties KC thought.
   “Hello, I’m Helen Walden,” she said in a controlled and professional voice.
   “I’m part of Dr. Katz’ defense team and will advising him during your interview.”
   “Yes, well, this is Jay Namura and I’m KC Littleton,” KC said firmly shaking the woman’s hand. Ms. Walden reached over to Jay and shook his hand as well, and motioned for the two of them to take a seat.
   “Dr. Katz will be arriving any minute, he’s being brought down from another floor,” she explained.
   “Oh, we thought that he was in this room. Why all the secret squirrel activity anyway,” KC asked?
   “I’m afraid that due to the nature of the case and the sensitivity of certain aspects of the case, it’s been necessary to keep Dr. Katz out of the public eye,” Ms. Walden answered.
   “What aspects,” KC pressed.
   “Really Miss Littleton, I’m not at liberty to discuss that with you right now. But as I understand it, you’re already privy to many details that the mainstream media has been kept in the dark about. I’m certain that once you meet Dr. Katz that you’ll be able to put two and two together.”
   “May I ask the reason for the restriction on photographs,” Jay asked.
   “Again, Mr. Namura, I believe that you’ll have your answer as soon as Dr. Katz arrives.” Ms. Walden waived her arm toward a table near the door like she was one of the girls pointing to door number 1, 2, or 3 on Let’s Make A Deal.
   “May I offer you any refreshments,” she asked indicating the pot of coffee and tray of juices?
   “No thanks, we’re good,” KC said, answering for both of them.
   “As you wish”
   With that the door suddenly opened and in walked a uniformed officer followed by Dr. Murray Katz, his hands shackled at the waist in front of him, his ankles bearing similar restraints. Ms. Walden rose and walked over to the doctor and whispered something in his ear. Dr. Katz nodded and the smiled at the pair of reporters, who were now standing, more out of curiosity that courtesy.
   Helen Walden made the introductions and everyone sat around the small makeshift conference table in the center of the room. Dr. Katz asked for some apple juice and turned to look directly at KC. It made her uncomfortable to be so near someone who had done such terrible things, and yet she felt no fear or surprisingly any anger. Even with the facts that she possessed about his crimes, when she looked at him all she could feel was pity. Could this really be the same man that Victor Lopez had spoken of? Who, in Victor’s words, looked like a 50/50 bar on a hot sidewalk? She studied him closely and watched as he sipped at his juice, which an officer had poured into a Styrofoam cup, making sure that the prisoner had no contact with any metal object.
   “I know what you’re thinking,” Dr. Katz said, breaking the silence and startling KC slightly.
   “Excuse me?”
   “I know what you’re thinking,” he repeated.
KC remained silent, not ready to speak, waiting to see what it was he was about to offer.
   “I can feel her presence you know. I know that you have been with her.”
“Who have I been with doctor?”
“Please Miss, don’t insult my intelligence, you’ve been with my angel, with she who made me.” With she who made him, what was this lunatic talking about KC wondered.
“I’m afraid you’ve lost me doctor, she who made you, what exactly did this person make you to be,” KC asked agitated?
“Come now child, you know what I am saying, she who made me whole again, she who provided this chance to make things right. You’ve sensed the power although you’ve not yet witnessed it.” There was a long, pregnant pause as the monster and KC stared through one another.
   “Until now that is,” Dr. Katz continued.
   “Look at me Katherine, is this the face you expected to see!”
Helen Walden leaned toward Dr. Katz. She placed her hand lightly on his arm and whispered in his ear again. The doctor relaxed and returned to the calm composure that he had entered the room with. He sipped at his juice again and then set the cup back on the table. KC blinked repeatedly, she was not comfortable with the familiar way that the doctor had addressed her. Why did he call her by name she wondered was he just well coached?
   “Forgive me, I haven’t had much contact with anyone since the incident,” Dr. Katz said slowly.
   “My attorney has informed me that you are well informed about that awful day.”
   “You’ve done well to uncover that which has been well guarded, formidable my dear, formidable!”
   “I ask you again Miss Littleton, is this the face that you expected to see?”
   KC swallowed hard and looked over at Jay. He was also transfixed on the utterly unblemished person of the man they knew to have suffered horrible burns over ninety percent of his body. His flesh should have melted into a form unrecognizable as human. Yet there he was, and Jay’s mind was screaming conspiracy. This could not be true, the only logical explanation was that this must be someone pretending to be Murray Katz, but why, to what end, to serve what purpose?
   “No doctor, it’s not what I had expected at all. Or rather, what I had hoped to see,” KC said in a low voice.
   “Seeing you suffering and dying from the wounds you received from the poor girl you drove insane with your evil, would have actually been comforting. That would have satisfied my belief in, no, my hope for justice and karma. But, it also would have been wrong, given the things I now know to be true.”
   Murray Katz said nothing, showed no emotion as he looked back at KC, absorbing every syllable of her verbal attack. KC wanted to hurl more damning condemnation at him, but just as Maria Lopez had shared when interviewed about that day, KC was unable to feel hate in spite of her mind’s urging. The fact was, the doctor had been right all along, Tina was here, in spirit, and KC could feel it. This man who deserved to be hated, who had done so much harm to so many innocent people, had been forgiven, and with forgiveness came mercy. She looked at him with her two eyes. She studied him with her mind, processing and re-processing all that she had learned of the man up to this very moment. Then, with her heart she discovered his repentance, it permeated from every pore of his body. She watched as the first tear appeared in the corner of his eye, when he must have recognized that her heart had won over her mind.
   “Penny for your thoughts,” the doctor said softly.
KC couldn’t speak, she began to stammer a reply, but stopped abruptly, she needed to compose herself.
   “Get a grip KC,” she whispered harshly to herself. She looked away from Dr. Katz and over to Ms. Walden, the woman wasn’t even paying attention, she was looking out the window. KC turned quickly to Jay and touched his arm.
   “We need to go now,” she said firmly.
   “We just got here KC, are you letting this nut get to you?”
Clearly Jay was not experiencing the same revelation that she was, but she didn’t have the wherewithal to explain it to him this minute.
   “It’s not like that Jay, I’ll fill you in on the way back to the hotel, we just need to go now!”
   “Ms. Walden, thank you for helping to arrange this, my editor will be contacting your office soon I’m sure.”
   “Ah, OK. Are you quite sure you’re finished here,” Helen Walden asked dumbfounded? It was obvious that this woman was no more in tune with the moment than Jay was, KC thought to herself.
   “Yes, I have what I came for, thanks again,” KC said standing, tugging at Jay’s sleeve in the process.
She looked back at Dr. Katz reluctantly and nodded at him, drawing in her lips and biting down on them.
   “Thank you for seeing us doctor,” she said weakly.
 Murray Katz stood and extended his shackled hand as far as he could and offered it to KC.
   “I’m sorry,” he said, his hazel eyes clear but moist. KC took his hand and squeezed his fingers, “I know,” she said, smiling as she turned to leave.

Buena Verde migrant camp…Fresno, California

Elena Rojas tucked Miguel in, then kissed the sleeping child lightly on the forehead and turned out the light. She tiptoed down the hall to the tiny living room and sat down on the second hand sofa that she had bought only a month ago with some of the money that Mitchell’s life insurance policy had provided. Every day since his death had been a repeat of the day before where her heartache was concerned. She looked up at the wall that the television was set against. There were four framed pictures of her family surrounding a wooden crucifix. The one on top was her favorite. It was of her and Mitchell at their wedding, taken just before he playfully squished cake all over her face. She loved the big smile on his face and the light in his eyes. The picture to the left of the cross was of Miguel when he was only a year old. It was taken six months after that child witch had saved him from death in the melon fields.
   The picture to the right of the cross was of the three of them. It had been taken at the strawberry festival in Bakersfield, a year before Mitchell had received his draft notice. And the picture underneath the cross was of Mitchell. It was the same picture that every mother, wife and girlfriend of a US soldier had in their home. He looked so fine in his Marine Corps dress-blues posing against the backdrop of the American flag, unfurled proudly behind him in the photo. She looked and looked at the picture for over an hour. The light from the television flickered erratically around the otherwise darkened room. The images from the TV were reflected in Elena’s brown eyes, even though she was not actually watching the screen.
   Presently, she got up from her spot on the sofa and walked over to the television. She reached into her apron, removed an envelope and set it down on top of the old black and white TV. She smiled as she ran her finger over the name on the envelope, Father Ethan Kelly. Then she reached up and removed the picture of Mitchell from the wall and held it close to her. Turning slowly she walked down the hall to the bathroom. She stopped and closed Miguel’s door before she went in and set the picture on the sink. Elena looked at herself in the vanity mirror and pulled her long black hair back into a ponytail, securing it with a blue beaded tie that was sitting by the faucet. She turned and adjusted the bathtub faucets to just the right setting and let the water run while she undressed. Carefully, she folded her clothes and placed them neatly on the turned down seat of the toilet. Then she twisted the faucet knobs clock wise to shut off the flowing water. Gingerly she dipped her toe into the tub and tested the water temperature, it was perfect.
   She stepped into the tub and lowered herself gently, letting the hot water rush over her naked body, feeling it surround her, embrace her with its wonderful sensations. She reached down with her two hands and cupped her breasts, it had been so long since anyone but she had done so. Elena leaned her head back against the tub enclosure and closed her eyes. She was remembering the last time she and Mitchell had made love. It had been so long ago, but the memory was strong and the vision in her mind was vivid. She caressed herself softly and slowly, biting down gently on her lower lip. Elena began to breathe deeply, rocking her head slowly from side to side, whispering Mitchell’s name again and again. Then she suddenly stopped, opened her eyes and sat up straight. She reached up with both hands and removed the cross from around her neck, pulling it gently over her head, careful not let it get snagged in her long hair. Slowly she let the jewelry curl into a ball inside her open palm and then placing her hand outside the tub she let the cross and chain fall to the tiled floor.
      Elena Rojas leaned forward a little further and retrieved the picture of her fallen husband. She brought the picture to her lips she kissed it softly, and then in a swift motion smashed the frame on the edge of porcelain tub, the glass shattering into dozens of large and small shards. Selecting a piece that suited her intentions, she slowly leaned back against the bathtub. She lowered her hands down into the hot water, and just under the surface she used the sharp piece of glass to slice deeply into the flesh of her small wrists, one then he other. She made no sound. The expression on her face could only be described as one of peace and determination. She let the glass fall silently to the bottom of the tub, the water already turning a sickening shade of red as her open veins poured out her life’s blood. Slowly she slipped away into unconsciousness, to the nowhere place that the weak in spirit too often escape to whenever they choose this path. On the wet floor, under the shards of broken glass, the uniformed image of Mitchell Rojas stared up at the ceiling. The only light left in the small room being the dim luminescence of a forty-watt bulb above. The light of his life, his beautiful Elena, no longer shone.

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