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Sunday, December 8, 2013

(“It is better to be of humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud”)...Proverbs 16:19

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration

Chapter Twenty-one

San Francisco, California, November 1969

He watched the gulls swooping and gliding only a few yards in front of him. They soared on the stiff ocean breeze and then turned sharply back into the wind. The swift maneuver allowed the graceful birds to nearly hover as they scanned the retreating surf below for their supper. Looking for signs of scurrying sand crabs, small minnows or unlucky mackerel deposited close to shore by the breaking waves, they took turns diving into the shallow backwash. Father Willet tossed the last few chips that remained on his paper plate to the sand below, chuckling to himself softly as the gulls raced one another to reach his bit of charity, screeching, honking, and carrying on the way that they do.
   “There you go you noisy little beggars, eat hearty now,” he called down at the sand, as the wind blew the hood of his jacket back off of his head. What was left of his hair went flying every which way in a cascade of salt and pepper. He reached up behind his neck and pulled the hood back over his head, making sure to cinch the cords tight and push the stay beads up to hold the hood in place.
   “Getting damn cold out here,” he said out loud to himself as he checked his wristwatch for the time.
   “I’ll second that,” replied Arthur Donnelly, as he walked up behind the shivering priest, visibly startling him.
   “Oh for goodness sake Arthur, you nearly frightened me to death,” Father Willet said, his right hand spread wide against his chest. “How does someone your size manage to sneak up on anyone anyway?” Father Willet held out his hand for his friend to shake, which he did vigorously as the two men exchanged a warm greeting.
   “You’re just getting old Billy, hell so am I,” Arthur said laughing as he did so.
   “I suppose you’re right of course. Hey, at least nobody has to wipe our chins at supper,” Father Willet teased affectionately.
   “Well, that is a blessing Billy boy! I’m pretty sure my Alma wouldn’t put up with that for long anyway,” Arthur added chuckling.
   “Give her a little more credit Artie, the poor woman’s a saint and you know it! And for the record, she’s been cleaning up after you for years, you old geezer,” Father Billy said cheerfully.
   He covered his mouth with his hand, attempting to hide the evil little grin that his eyes had already betrayed. The two men walked together past the restaurant and toward the end of the pier. When they reached the end, they both leaned forward on the rail and stared out across the bay at Alcatraz. They were silent for several minutes, just watching the water and enduring the strong onshore breeze. It was only just two in the afternoon, but sunshine and heat are scarce in San Francisco in late November, especially with the fog, the constant cloud cover and what not.
   “At least it not raining,” they said together.
   Arthur punched his friend lightly in the arm, “Owe me a coke,” he said, just like they did when they were kids. Billy Willet and Artie Donnelly had grown up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood some fifty years earlier.
   They had survived the Great Depression together living just one floor from one another in the same brownstone apartment building, not far from Ebbet’s Field. In a time when there wasn’t much of anything to go around except hard times, the boys had managed to keep out of any real trouble. A feat accomplished mostly by the grace of God, but also due to a truly fanatical love for the game of baseball. As children Artie and Billy would skip school when the Dodgers were at home and stand outside the ballpark listening to the game from the sidewalk below. They would make up stats while they listened to the public address system announce each batter, and the crowd cheer and jeer, inning after inning. After awhile they would pester passing field ushers through the wooden fence for the score and actual details of the game. Sometimes they would have to duck into an alley, avoiding a beat cop or truant officer who might stroll by on his rounds. Only to reappear on the sidewalk after they disappeared around the corner, just in time to hear the crowd roar again. They would eat their sack lunches of bread and cheese and then stand outside old man Valenti’s fruit stand looking as pitiful as they could until he tossed them an apple or a pear to share. It may not have been a day at the Ritz as outings went, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. It didn’t matter though, they were happy just to be near all the action. At home they had had to endure the prejudices of their fathers, who had brought the timeless feud between the English and the Irish with them to the new country.
   Artie Donnelly’s family had immigrated to the USA from Ireland in nineteen hundred and fifteen, right in the middle of World War One. They had left behind a life of abject poverty, trouble, and sorrow in the little village of Shannonbridge, County Offaly, and set all of their hopes and dreams on a new start in America. Billy Willet’s family had arrived only a few weeks earlier from Great Britain, Manchester to be exact. And in the twenty some years that their families lived as neighbors in the same building, their fathers had not said ten civil words to one another. Pigheaded as that may have been, the feud did not keep the two boys from becoming fast friends.
      The two lads together were actually quite a sight. Artie being a whole head and set of shoulders taller than wee Billy, a fact that William Willet would have fought over if he heard it said out loud. Actually in contrast to the obvious physical realities, of the two, it was the fiery, ill-tempered William Willet that was known as the fearsome part of this odd pairing. Whenever there was a threat of trouble, it was young Billy who would take charge, telling Arthur to stand tall and look as menacing as possible, while he himself would act as manic as possible. This defensive tactic would save them from countless beatings over the years. They were the oddest of pairings and became the most steadfast of friends, the original eek and meek.
   In nineteen hundred and thirty-five the boy’s lives went in completely opposite directions. In a bizarre twist of fate, the mild mannered and gentle Arthur Donnelly applied to and was accepted to West Point. While the cantankerous and brash William Willet entered St. John’s Seminary in Boston Massachusetts. Years later, after having served unknowingly within fifty miles of one another during the Korean War, the two friends were reunited. It was when Arthur and his new bride Alma attended Mass at St. John’s Cathedral in Fresno California for the very first time since moving east from Rochester New York. As fate would have it, this also happened to be the first solo Mass performed by the Church’s newest recruit, one Father William Willet. And keeping true to his passionate nature, the new parish priest inadvertently introduced the flock to his less than perfect style of communication (a style that they would grow to love in the years to come) when he spontaneously bellowed in front of God and the congregation, “Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle, look what that damn cat dragged into my Church” after spotting his childhood friend sitting in the second row. Following a collective gasp from several parishioners, and a smattering of finger pointing and turning heads, Arthur Donnelly replied with equal gusto.
   “For pity sake Billy, they’re going to have to change the color of your collar to yellow and give these poor people fair warning!”
   Their little exchange inspired a fifteen-minute giggle fest that would forever endear the two of them within the community that in the end, they would each devote their lives to…
   “You need to start punching me in the other arm you big ape, this one’s plum wore out,” exclaimed Father Willet.
   “And for your information, you can’t have any coke, diabetes, remember?”
   “Oh yeah, sorry…Say, when is this Grover fella supposed to be here anyway,” Arthur asked impatiently, folding his big arms in front of him, as he started to feel the chill.
   “He should be along any minute, he likes to make an entrance, keep your shirt on King Kong.”
   “Oh hell Billy, he’s probably sitting at the bar in the restaurant watching us freeze our tails off while he sips a Brandy Alexander!”
   “Maybe…we’ll give a few more minutes before we go inside and wait. Actually, I could go for a toddy right about now myself, my knees are starting to knock!”
   “You been following that series of articles that his newspaper has been running for the last couple of months,” Arthur asked?
   “You know I have Arthur, don’t be coy, it’s why we’re here, right,” Father Willet snapped.
   “Sorry, no offense Artie, I’m just old and cold,” said Father Willet, apologizing for his snit.
   “None taken, I’ve known you too long to be cut by that sharp tongue of yours,” Arthur replied, waving his hand as if to erase the remark from an imaginary list.
   “To be honest, I am surprised that Grover has been able to keep this tight a lid on everything and still get the Katz story out,” he continued.
   “Well, so far so good, but people are starting to get nervous, I don’t like it,” Arthur said, picking at his fingernails with his pocketknife.
   “You know, I was actually hoping that they could have broken the Katz story without having to mention her at all,” Father Willet said, more to himself than to his friend.
   “Come on Billy, you knew that wouldn’t be possible under those circumstances. Why, that man was lit up like a tikki torch and he still has a better complexion than you or I do. Too many people saw that happen, that’s a fact that is going to be hard to hide for very long. No, the most we can hope for is that your friend Grover will continue to bury the details in the back pages. She doesn’t need to be front page news anyway,” Arthur said as he turned his back to the wind and leaned against the pier railing.
   “We’ll see,” Father Willet said.
   “But, beyond the legions of curious cats we may have another problem, a potentially dangerous problem,” Father Billy added, turning to face his old friend.
   “What other problem,” Arthur asked?
   “That son of a bitch, Villa Cruz,” hissed Father Willet.
   “Billy, your vows, remember? You might want to tone it down a little bit, I hear tell that the Almighty is omni-present,” Arthur teased. Father Willet ignored his friend’s comic retort.
   “That old bastard is going to try and use the Lopez girl to further his own career, I just know it! He desperately wants a red Cardinal’s robe. And he could very well make quite a name for himself with this child, a name that could echo within the halls of the Vatican itself one day!”
   “What are you raving about,” Arthur asked, exasperated?
   “Don’t you see he wants to be center stage in front of the world, and unveil the first legitimate miracle worker of the modern era? Not since the Christ himself, or the twelve Apostles have people witnessed occurrences of this magnitude, the raising of the dead for Heaven’s sake! And now, given the speed of modern communications, her image and her story could be broadcast around the globe, possibly compelling millions to seek the faith in the process. You have no idea what catnip that is to a power miser such as Monsignor Villa Cruz," Father Billy lamented.
   “My God, with the right kind of spin, he might actually parlay this into a campaign to become the next Pontiff,” Father Willet said in a hushed voice, as if he were afraid of being overheard.
   Arthur stared at his friend as he slowly began to comprehend the possible consequences of such a future. Not so much for the Church or its hierarchy, he didn’t pretend to understand the politics of such a succession. But he did understand the possible reality such a future brought for a scared little girl. Tina Lopez would be robbed of any chance for a normal life, well, normal within the confines of her infamous abilities. The kind of normal life that he, Alma, and Billy had tried to provide for nearly ten years now, ever since that day in his melon fields. Remarkably, her secret had remained in tack in spite of the increasingly frequent occurrences within the central valley community.
   Up until now the rumors remained safely within the boundaries of a relatively small social circle. The good Father championed the cause, keeping the faithful in line and Tina’s anonymity in place. But the Katz trial had exposed them all to the penetrating light of the mainstream media, tempting some with instant celebrity. Folks were folks, and the two friends knew it was only a matter of time before someone would falter and jump at a chance at fifteen minutes of fame. Now, they’re only hope was with a man who had made a career of being first to the punch. He was a lifelong newshound whose photograph might as well be in every dictionary right next to the word journalist.
   “So what do you think Billy boy, can we count on your friend to support the cause?”
   “I don’t know Arthur, I just don’t know.”
   Before Arthur Donnelly could utter another what if question, the two men caught site of Grover Gateway walking toward them. He was wearing a long overcoat that hung below his knees. A full head of wispy brown hair blew backwards in the strong wind, his hands stuffed deep into his coat pockets. Arthur watched in amazement as this nearly ninety year-old man made is way toward them briskly, taking long sure strides. He marveled at the shape the man was in, feeling a slight pang of envy as he strode up to meet them. Grover Gateway arrived where they were standing and extended his hand to Father Willet.
   “Billy, good to see you again my friend,” he said, giving Father Willet’s hand a good tug.
   “Good to see you to Grover, you’re looking well. I see you’re still baffling the medical community with your incredible health. Is it possible that you are actually getting younger as you age,” Father Willet replied, blatantly schmoozing!
   “This is my closest friend in the whole wide world, Arthur Donnelly,” he continued, introducing the big man to Grover Gateway.
    “It’s a pleasure sir. I hope you don’t mind, but I did a bit of research. You’re quite the land baron around these parts, or so the county records indicate,” Grover said, complimenting his new acquaintance on his good fortune.
   “It’s a living,” Arthur replied, shaking the man’s hand heartily.
Grover reached into his breast pocket and removed an ornately decorated silver flask. He skillfully uncorked the container and offered it to Father Willet.
   “Little edge against the chill Billy,” he asked his collared friend.
   “Don’t mind if I do,” Father Willet replied, taking up the flask and helping himself to a nice long swig. Wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his jacket he handed the flask to Arthur.
   “Artie?” Arthur took the flask and raised it in his benefactor’s direction.
   “To your health gentlemen, you’re a fine American Grover Gateway, a real life saver,” he said, taking a healthy pull as well.
   “Ahhhhh, mother’s milk,” Arthur exclaimed as he handed the flask back to Grover. The elder of the three took a man sized swallow of his own, then recapped the flask and returned it to his coat pocket.
   “All right now, let’s get down to it,” Grover Gateway said decisively.
   “Gentlemen, I am not one to come to a meeting unprepared. You should know that I am well aware of the history of the situation that brought us here today.” Grover turned his gaze toward Father Willet exclusively.
   “I am also keenly aware of your concern about that holier than thou pop n jay, Villa Cruz in Los Angeles,” he said, directing that comment at the good Father.
   “He is the reason that I chose to meet out here in the open, among the screeching birds and barking seals. Too many eyes and ears inside small rooms and public buildings if you know what I mean,” Grover said, looking at each of the men for a moment to make sure they got his meaning.
   “Look, Grover, I appreciate the fact that you’re well known for your preparation and attention to detail, but really, I…” The old newsman held up his hand cutting Father Willet short.
   “Don’t get preachy with me Billy, you’ll ruin my generous mood,” Grover snapped.
   “I am not without compassion, and I share your dislike for the Monsignor.”
   “Meaning,” Father Willet said slowly, a little miffed at being slighted, his face turning into a giant question mark?
   “Meaning, I want to help. I have no desire to drag a ten year-old child through the gutter of public scrutiny and curiosity. Besides, I don’t believe in miracles, I’m too old and too bossy,” he said, winking at the two men.
   “The fact is I have spoken at length with KC, my girl on the scene. It appears that now she believes in them enough for the both of us! Apparently that child has bewitched her somehow, I don’t know, you tell me,” the old man said scratching his forehead, then running his fingers through his thick hair.
   “You and your ‘angel of the valley’ may have ruined my best reporter, it’s a damn shame,” Grover said acidly. Arthur and Father Billy stared at the man trying to get a read as to whether or not he was kidding!
   “What the hell, right is right, and I’m getting too close to finding out for myself who had the better plan, Christ or Milton!” exclaimed Grover Gateway, waving his hand at the two of them in a flamboyant gesture of surrender. Arthur glanced over at Billy with a puzzled look on his face.
   “John Milton,” Father Willet said answering Arthur’s silent question.
   “The author of ‘Paradise Lost,’ a famous novel about English penal colonies in Australia,” he further explained. Arthur nodded as if he might have heard of it, but he had not and he waited for his friend to continue.
   “There is a wonderful line from the book, one that’s quoted often.”
   “It goes something like this, I would rather rule in hell than serve in Heaven.”
   “Mr. Gateway seems to be unsure of the folly of such a statement. Perhaps he will seek my counsel one day before he takes that leap into purgatory,” Father Willet finished, shooting a sideways glance in Grover Gateway’s direction.
   “Oh, I see,” said Arthur meekly.
   “So, are you with us Grover, or are you here to tell us that you have a higher responsibility to the masses?” the priest asked, raising an eyebrow suspiciously.
   “Do find yourself compelled to keep the world in the know at any cost, just because they have the right to know?”
   Father Willet found himself in a stare down with the powerful old tycoon, waiting for the axe to fall. The savvy old newsman pulled the remnants of a cigar from his pocket, a Corona-Corona, and then tucked his head in close to his body, shielding the stogy as he lit the far end. He drew deeply on the cigar as he puffed it back to life, the bright red ash glowing and then changing to a deep crimson color.  He removed the stumpy cigar from his mouth and let out a long plume of the fragrant smoke. Placing the cigar between his teeth he bit down hard on the thick, tightly rolled, deep chocolate brown cigar.
   “OK, here’s the plan as I see it,” Grover said breaking the uncomfortable silence. Stepping in real close to the two men, he placed a hand on each of their shoulders. He had to reach a bit to get to Arthur’s.
   “Stoop on down here Goliath,” he said to Arthur Donnelly.
   “First, you let me deal with Villa Cruz. I have some contacts that you’re better off not knowing. And I’m sure that they will able to redirect the Monsignor’s curious nature.” Grover studied the queer look on Father Willet’s face.
   “Don’t worry Billy it’s nothing sinister, just an exchange of money is all. The Vatican is a business like any other, and for the right price any obstacle can be dealt with, right?” Father Willet smirked and nodded his head in agreement. It was a reality that bothered him a little, still holding on to the notion that serving the Lord was a completely spiritual vocation.
   “Second, KC will continue her feature on the Katz incident, but we’ll keep the Lopez girl’s name under wraps as long as we can. We’ll have to print the facts, all of them, and let the piece run its course. But believe me, in the court of public opinion, without a name or a face to reference people will lose interest quickly. We’ll concentrate more on the gory details of that rat bastard’s exploits he should fry for his crimes anyway as far as I’m concerned!”
   “Third, I want to provide some security for the Lopez family, to keep the competition from stumbling onto KC’s trail of informants and witnesses, agreed?” Grover asked, making eye contact with both men. They nodded a silent affirmative. Arthur waved his hand in front of his face trying to minimize the effect of the smoldering cigar.
   “Oh, sorry,” Grover said, taking the cigar from his mouth and smashing it out on his overcoat. Placing it back in his pocket he said smiling, “I’ll save that for later.”
   “Thanks, I was getting a little light headed,” said Arthur, using his pinky finger to remove a little crust from the corner of his eye.
   “OK, fourth, and last. Billy, you and your friend here are going to need to make sure that there won’t be any more leaks from your community!”
   “There can’t be another nurse who saw this or a cop who saw that coming forward, eager to tell what they know. Whatever you have to do to assure that doesn't happen again, I suggest you do it. Maybe that fella down your way, Sheriff Cardwell, can help you two keep the lid on this for a little while longer. Trust me, if any of this gets to the TV guys, then it’s over, all bets are off! I’ll release this story so fast it’ll make your heads spin! I can’t risk my paper’s credibility and allow the television affiliates to paint a picture of deceit and collusion on the face of the by God San Francisco Daily News! That cannot happen gentlemen, are we clear?” They exchanged glances and harrumphed an agreement in old man speak. Grover Gateway stamped his feet on the wooden deck and shoved his hands into his coat pockets shivering slightly.
   “Man its cold out here! Who’s idea was this anyway,” he asked jokingly.
   “Come on, I’ll buy the first round boys,” he offered. That being said, the three wise men started toward the restaurant and the comfort of a leather booth and a few whiskeys between them.

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