A Different Heroism by Jane Lebak (2/99)
Ken entered the church with steps that added nothing to the silence. The long aisle guided his eyes to the altar and the crucifix hanging on the wall behind it even as the bright light of noon diffused through the beveled glass. Windows lined both sides of the airy building. The white walls and light wood of the pews proved his expectations wrong: he'd expected dark, ornate and cramped quarters that would leave him woefully underdressed in his jeans, t shirt and jacket.
In the front of the church, third pew on the left hand side, before the tabernacle where light streamed in a side window, a priest knelt in prayer. Ken walked with measured pace. His hands were clenched.
Stopping at the edge of the pew, Ken took a deep breath.
The priest pivoted to see who had come, then knelt up straighter.
Ken said, "Hi, Joe."
The motion as Joe turned away tapped his dangling rosary against the back of the next pew. Joe caught his breath, almost spoke, then came out with, "Nobody interrupts a conversation with the Blessed Mother."
Ken raised his hands and backed off.
He took a seat across the aisle and waited. His heart raced, and trying to calm down Ken forced himself to imagine Joe as he had been seven years ago instead of who he found now. He couldn't. Even a glance burned it into his mind: the habitual squint, the shorter hair, the manner Joe had of looking directly at the person to whom he spoke, and the thinner face. From where he sat, he could see Joe's fingers trembling as they passed over the black beads. After five minutes, Joe made the sign of the cross, replaced the rosary in his pocket, and edged himself back onto the bench. With a sigh, he turned to Ken. He sounded as if he'd rehearsed his words. "It's good to see you again."
"Yeah, me too." Ken's chest tightened. Joe seemed to be staring through him, and the juxtaposition of those very familiar piercing eyes and the black priest garb caused Ken to lower his gaze. "The woman at the rectory said I could find you here."
Joe said, "You usually can." The words fairly echoed in the church, and Ken shifted in his seat. Even two years after Joe's ordination, this was the first time he had visited a parish where Joe had been assigned. Unsteadily, Joe added, "What happened--is everything all right with the team?"
"Yes and no. We're all doing okay. But Dr. Nambu wants you to come back to help with some of the newer team members."
Joe stood and made his way to the aisle holding onto the back of the next pew. Ken couldn't stop staring at the fairly pronounced limp and shuffle that even months of physical therapy hadn't erased--but at least Joe could walk. When he reached the aisle and stepped toward Ken, their eyes met, and this time Ken didn't flinch. Joe said, "I'm no use to the team any longer."
Ken muttered, "You can pray for us."
"Believe me," said Joe, "I do."
A shattered Kagaku Ninjatai had left Cross Karacoram in a wrecked Godphoenix with its gunner barely alive. A medical team had begun treatment onboard the ship the moment they'd landed, but within the hour the doctors passed the word back to Nambu that Joe wouldn't survive the night. They initiated comfort care only and allowed nature to take its course.
With Joe still alive the next morning, under Nambu's orders the doctors began seventeen hours of surgery. After they left the operating room, they intoned that their most aggressive efforts had only prolonged the end by a week.
Joe stayed in a coma fifteen days. The doctors said that if he ever awoke, he'd most likely have very little vision and no motion in either leg. For once, the prognosis proved correct. When Joe awoke after the final battle with Gallactor, he couldn't see at all from his left eye, the right one unfocused spontaneously, and he was paralyzed from the waist down. His hands trembled so badly he couldn't write or hold a cup. It took another week to get him off the respirator. During the next five weeks he underwent surgery as often as his body could endure it while the doctors attempted to repair first the life-threatening problems and then the serious ones. The nerve damage could mend only with time, and never fully.
Nambu ordered a complete regimen of physical therapy, mostly to give Joe something to do. The team visited when they could spare time from their task of flushing out the small pockets of Gallactor holdouts and finding their abandoned mecha-in-progress before other terrorist groups did. Gallactor was splintering, disassociating from one another while each laying claim to the name and the heritage. The team told him that by cutting the heads off the hydra, leaving the beast in smaller and smaller separate wriggling pieces, they were finally winning the war. They could finish his vendetta on his behalf. Joe said very little, just listened to their fraudulent cheerfulness and stared unseeing at their forced smiles. Nambu had informed him of a trust fund that would care for him financially the rest of his life. He'd been told he could never drive again. He knew without being told he could never rejoin the team.
His vision began to clear after a few weeks, and with a magnifying glass and plenty of patience, he could read a newspaper article one letter at a time. The hospital staff located some large-print books and left them in his room, but Joe never touched any of the trash fiction. Sometimes the nurses found even the newspaper in flutters of crumpled pages across the room. Why read about racing if he could never race again, or about the rebuilding of the world when he couldn't rebuild himself? All the issues had become either too small or too far away to do more than frustrate him, and the ones he did care about he couldn't help any longer.
The nurses were proud the first time Joe flexed his feet. Joe ignored them and concentrated on moving his legs. His eyes continued to improve, although the right one still lost focus periodically and he still needed a magnifying glass to read. His physical therapy sessions left him in an exhausted sleep every afternoon, and then he found himself restless every night. Bitter remarks punctuated every conversation, every sentence. His visitors dwindled.
The night of July 31st, ten weeks after Cross Karacoram, trying to focus his good eye on the flashing blurriness of the television screen, Joe heard a trio of children in the hospital hallway chanting softly. A regular tap sounded like a skipping rope. Closing his eyes, he was able to listen more closely. They sounded like they were saying, "Take and read...take and read...take and read..."
Joe turned on the light and pushed the button to shut off the TV and raise the head of his bed. What the hell--he wasn't going to get to sleep anyhow. Reaching over to the bedside table he found a half dozen books with unappealing titles, a Bible courtesy of the Gideons, and a battered copy of The Lives of the Saints. He took up the last, and using his magnifying glass he pored over the entry for that day, Ignatius Loyola.
Joe didn't get any sleep that night as he devoured the book one letter at a time. By the end of August he had finished the entire volume, and several days later, steeling himself, he finally picked up the Bible. Again he opened at random. He found Mark 3:13. "Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted, and they came to him."
Joe shut the book and lay still in his hospital bed for a long time. He had no more use in this world. The team couldn't use him, and that had been his focus for so long. They visited so infrequently now that he could hear the renewed pain in their voices every time they saw him. The racing world had gone on without one more driver competing for titles and sponsorships. The world didn't need him to save them any longer. By extension, God didn't need him to do anything--Joe knew he had done all he was supposed to and ought to have died up on that mountain. But what he'd just read belied that: God called those he wanted, not those he needed. And maybe, just maybe, Joe had survived for a reason. Maybe someone wanted him after all.
Nearly a month later, Ken walked in to find Joe concentrating on a biography of Ignatius Loyola. Ken settled back in one of the chairs near the bed, asked about the hospital routine, and filled him in on what the team had been doing lately. Joe listened blankly for a while, then said, "Why tell me all that?"
"Come on," Ken said. "You'll be back on the team before you know it." When Joe protested, Ken sat forward and leaned against the hospital bed. "Don't give up so easily! You're improving all the time."
"I may never walk again," Joe said. "I can't even see you where you're sitting. We both need to face reality."
Ken shook his head. "You belong on our team."
"That's over." Joe closed his eyes. "Everything changed--it's insane not to adjust to where we are. I hate it as much as you do. I want to keep going, but I've been shut out of my calling."
Ken snorted. "And your new calling is to hang out reading--what is that?" He grabbed the book. "Some religious nut?"
Joe said, "He started out as a soldier. He got injured, and by the time he recovered he'd turned around everything he believed. He founded the Jesuits and totally reformed the Catholic church. He did a lot of good in the world."
Ken tossed the book back on the bed. "All these religions are just the same- using God as an excuse. Sorry--I'd rather read about real heroes and have you working with real doctors. And I'll bring you some good books next time I visit."
Joe started to say, "Maybe it's heroism of a different sort," but then Ken changed the subject.
In total, Joe spent ten months in the hospital. He celebrated his nineteenth birthday by learning to maneuver his own wheelchair and Christmas by awakening from emergency surgery to remove a four inch blood clot from his lung. During the spring his vision had stabilized enough that he got fitted with his first set of thick-lensed glasses. By the time the doctors and physical therapists pronounced him recovered enough to live on his own, he had regained the ability to walk with a cane and was restored to eighty percent vision in his right eye, fifty in his left, with the hope of further recovery. What never would recover was his visual field, limited to eighteen degrees rather than the full one-hundred eighty or even the twenty he'd need not to be considered legally blind. Although they didn't help as much as the glasses, he now could wear contacts. His hands had steadied enough that he could sign his own release forms.
With little ceremony and wearing clothes that sagged on him, Joe returned to Dr. Nambu's mansion where he met Eric Getz, his replacement. He spent a lot of time in solitude, and even when relaxing with the others at the end of the day he maintained a veiled silence, quiet and serious. Someone showed up unfailingly every Sunday to drive Joe to church, but the others never asked him what he was thinking. The fine lines around Joe's eyes said more explicitly than they cared to hear that he'd endured pain he wouldn't quickly forget.
When the team went on missions, Joe strategized with Nambu from the control room. The team found it easy to relate to Joe, since he'd endured these combat situations before, and his direction coordinating the team was no less effective because of the distance.
After another month had passed, Joe approached Nambu quietly and said he was leaving the team for good.
Nambu quickly summoned Ken on the bracelet, and Joe tensed. Nambu said, "Are you unhappy here?"
"I'm wanted elsewhere." Folding his arms, Joe looked aside. "This is hard enough--I can't explain."
"I think you ought to. We can still use you on the team."
As Ken opened the door, Joe said, "You say you want me here still, but there's someone else who really does, and I've refused long enough. I have to go now."
Ken said, "Who is she?"
"It's not a she." Joe folded his arms, shifted his weight, took a deep breath and said, "I've been accepted to the novitiate in the Jesuit order. The introductory retreat begins in a week. I've made all the--"
Nambu said, "The Jesuits?"
Joe kept his eyes away from Ken.
Ken said, "Why? For God's sakes, Joe--"
"That's exactly why." Joe's voice dropped. "I've thought about this and prayed about this for a long time, and I knew you wouldn't--"
"You damn well better believe I don't like this!" Ken's eyes flared, but Joe still wouldn't look at him. Ken grabbed his shoulder and spun him so they stood face to face. "Who got to you? Who's been brainwashing you?"
Joe's eyes narrowed. "Spend ten months in a hospital and you do a lot of thinking, Ken."
"But you didn't even talk to me!"
Nambu said, "Ken, please." The quiet of his voice brought Ken away from Joe. Nambu folded his hands. "There's nothing I can say at this point except we'll miss you, and good luck."
Joe said, "I may change my mind still--they say the first year's an eye opener."
Joe turned so he could see him, but this time Ken averted his face.
"Do you want me to tell the rest of the team for you?" Nambu said.
Ken said in a low voice, "Were we ever your team?"
As though Ken hadn't spoken, Joe said, "I'll do that myself." He shrugged almost naturally. "I thought you ought to find out first."
Joe found the order's stringent daily ritual and brilliant sparseness more appealing than he had guessed--almost like his Kagaku Ninjatai training--and he found himself oddly tickled by the idea of being Joseph Asakura, S.J. No one walks away from an Ignatian retreat unmoved, and the first four weeks gave him a whirlwind experience of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises that left Joe breathless for months. His letters and phone calls home showed the difference not as much in the way he expressed himself as in the observations he began making about the world around him. Even as his leg and vision continued to heal, his words became gentler and his reactions less temperamental.
He and his instructors knew he'd make a fantastic Jesuit, but he grew to loathe the idea of hiding away in a university to teach for the rest of his life, and he refused to be a missionary. When he thought about the priesthood, he saw himself working with people who sincerely needed him. After the first year, Joe transferred from the Jesuits to a diocesan seminary where he could become a parish priest. Utoland City's Catholic minority had very few priests to minister to them, and especially in the inner city more priests were needed. When he settled in there, he lived only ten miles from Nambu's mansion on the seacoast.
After three years in diocesan seminary--five years after Cross Karacoram- Joe invited the team to attend his ordination, which they did. At the small celebration afterward, all three newly ordained priests received their first assignments. Joe got an associate pastorship at an inner city church. Everyone congratulated him, although when Joe said his first Mass, everyone but Ken attended.
Monday night, Nambu had called a meeting of all ten--the five Gatchaman members and the five junior members--and announced briefly that a local branch of Gallactor had located Joe and marked him as a target. Their informant wasn't sure when the strike would come, but the locals were determined to have blood. "More for revenge and the symbolism than anything else," Nambu said. "Obviously neither Joe nor his church poses a threat."
All six of the new members knew Joe. Each of them had been introduced with the awe of a child meeting a legend, but by the end of the evenings even the most starstruck had overcome the trembling. Joe didn't wear the black or the collar on his visits back home. Ken always avoided being alone with him anyhow.
Nambu said, "Utoland City's splinter group is so small they'll probably lose interest in him once we've made it clear we'll step in to protect him--the one thing they don't want is a full-scale battle with the complete Kagaku Ninjatai because they know they'll lose. Frankly, the more distant branches only view the locals as a liability because they're in our back yard, so they won't interfere if we shut them down. Regardless, Joe's in danger. I'm unsure of the best way to bring Joe back here until the danger passes. I'd like you to decide that among yourselves."
In the living room afterward, Jinpei said, "I'll drive over there and just tell him what Hakase told us."
Eric Getz said, "He's not going to agree to that." Over the noise of the various "why"s going around the room, he said flatly, "I wouldn't agree to it either."
Jun said, "He's got so much going on there, and they need him so much, I don't know what we could say to take him away."
Ken said, "As if he does anything there that's important."
Jinpei said, "Remember what he said, that he got the parish closest to the gates of hell?"
Junior Swallow Hiroshi Miyagi said, "I thought he meant the freeway," and Jinpei laughed.
The conversation continued in that vein, the different team members making suggestions which after voicing they realized wouldn't work. Ken maintained a stony silence, arms folded, standing at the window. When Jun solicited his opinion, he opened his hands and shrugged.
"You could show some concern," she undertoned. "I think you should be the one to approach him."
Ken's eyes widened. "Me?"
"Yes, you. You've never been there to see him, not even once, and don't think he doesn't realize it. He never says a thing about you, but it's obvious."
Ken folded his arms again. "My presence isn't going to convince him to come home any more than yours will."
"It might shock him enough that he realizes how serious we are," Jun said.
Jun got to her feet and stood with her hands on her hips. "Or do you not care at all if he lives or dies?"
"Of course I do!"
"You'd never know it!" She advanced across the room, each step punctuating the end of a sentence. "You've never been there. Not once. He called that night to say he'd gotten his own parish--he sounded just like a little kid. It took him only six months to get that assignment. Were you happy to hear about it? Who drove him over to see it that night? Me and Jinpei, that's who. You weren't there to see the disrepair that church was in, and you weren't there to see how his eyes lit up anyhow. Who went over that weekend to paint the outside and weed the yard? Ryu, Jinpei, and I did. Where were you, detailing your plane?"
Ken's face had reddened, but he clenched his jaw and said nothing. The other team members stared wordlessly as Jun stopped an arm's length before him. "You don't even care that he's happier now than I've ever seen him! When we were there that day, he and Ryu were trying to take down that ridiculous iron fence the last pastor put up around the church, like it was a prison. You don't think we could have used your help? It was roasting hot, and he's out there half blind and unable to walk, and he's pulling up fences! We gathered about twenty bystanders, and you should have seen him with the young guys in the crowd. They were the ones who helped us out, not you!"
Ken said, "I hope you have a point to this hysterical tirade."
"You'd better believe I do." Jun's voice dropped. "You weren't there for him all along--he's been at St. Augustine's a year and a half, and now it's your turn. Tomorrow morning it's your responsibility as leader of the Kagaku Ninjatai to get over there and somehow convince Joe he's got to come here for his own safety." She turned away.
No one else spoke, but Ryu had something of a grin on his lips.
Ken said, "I'll go talk with him, but it's not going to address the real problem."
Jun said, "You can say that again."
Ken kept finding himself a few steps ahead of Joe on their way out of the church. Joe walked slowly now, although there was nothing of pain in his stride. It hadn't always been that way. Joe guided Ken through a small preparation room, the sacristy, where there was a side exit. Ken held the door for him, and Joe fixed him with a look simultaneously amused and injured.
"I generally get the door for myself," he said as he made his way down the stone steps.
Joe still had his lean, muscular build, but nowadays he had more of the lean than the muscular. Ken loomed large beside him, although he hadn't changed all that much from the days they'd fought side by side. Joe had lost weight. Almost as if he could sense the analysis, Joe turned to Ken. Ken found it unnerving how Joe had to look right at his face whenever they spoke--without any peripheral vision, he'd done that ever since his return from the hospital. Staring into him like a video camera, Joe said, "All right, now that we're outside, what's your real reason for being here?"
Ken said, "We need your help with the new team members."
"That's not your real reason. There's nothing I can do for them now--I don't know if I'd be able to hit the side of the church with a gun, and I can't drive on the city streets, let alone take the G-2 into combat. I'm not a strategist and never was. You've got something else on your mind."
Ken sighed. "Gallactor's marked you."
Joe thought a moment. "They might have--I get a death threat a week here. Some of the gangs are hooked up with the drug dealers, and they wish the Great Awakening would just roll over and go back to sleep."
"Get serious, Joe. Taking out the Condor would be a potent symbol if they could do it."
"And it would be only symbolic, too." Joe chuckled. "Gallactor's gotten so small-minded now with no one unifying them. They did kill the Condor back on Cross Karacoram. It went down and never arose since then--except as Eric and now as Hoshi on the junior team."
Ken waved him off. "They want you dead, Joe."
Joe shrugged. "I have something to take care of in the church basement- come with me."
Ken followed him around the outside of the church toward a rusted railing and a set of steps leading underground. As they walked, Joe pointed to one of the dozens of frost heaves cris-crossing the parking lot. "Can you believe they want thirty thousand dollars to repave this? There's no way we could raise that kind of money in this parish." He chuckled. "We convinced the folks at Home Depot to donate some sealcoat and brushes, and the youth group is scheduled to have a driveway repair class one night this summer, courtesy of me. I'm selling it as a job skill." Joe looked at Ken. "See--repairing Hakase's driveway turned out to be some good after all."
"And to think we thought at the time it was only a clever way for him to keep us out of his hair for thirty-six hours." Ken chuckled. They'd finally reached the steps, and Joe led him down. Once in the basement, a hall the size of an auditorium and filled with lunchroom tables, Joe called, "Mrs. D?"
An old woman wearing an apron rushed from a small room off to the side, which Ken realized was a kitchen. "Father Joe--"
Joe jerked a thumb at Ken. The woman's eyes widened, and she looked at Joe with a tremendous smile. "Oh, thank heaven--come on, we're running late already!"
"You see," Joe said as he followed Ken into the kitchen, "we really were praying for you to come, even though we didn't know at the time it was you."
Mrs. D handed Ken a tremendous bag of carrots and a peeler. Ken said, "What am I doing?"
Joe patted Ken on the shoulder as he passed. "We serve lunch in about an hour, and it's a four person job, three person minimum. Two people bailed on us this afternoon, leaving me and Mrs. D to run the show ourselves." He was already washing tomatoes in the sink. "You're welcome to eat with us afterwards. Tuesday's rice and beans day."
Ken found himself caught up in the preparations without any protest. When the first people arrived, Joe left the kitchen and collared four of the young men. He had a grin as he showed Ken how much of the rice and beans to put on each of the plates, and then he finished off each plate with a helping of salad and a thick slice of Italian bread. The four "waiters" Joe had recruited took the full plates from the kitchen along with cups of orange or apple juice.
"Why don't they just come to us?" Ken said.
"Too much stigma, like a school lunchroom." Joe worked pretty quickly, and he didn't spare a moment to look up at Ken as he spoke. "The younger ones like playing waiter, and that keeps everyone's dignity intact. It's important."
They said nothing to one another during the initial lunch crush, and when the flow of people ended, Joe made plates for Ken and himself. They made their way into the lunch room where more than seventy men, women and children were having their meals.
"We do this every day." Joe had a sudden tired look. "Jun showed us how to set it up, and whenever she upgrades the equipment at the Snack we get the old stuff. If it wasn't for St. Gus, some of these folks wouldn't have a solid meal some days. Half this parish is under the poverty level, and the rest aren't much better off because their jobs only keep them from qualifying for government help." He closed his eyes and said grace in a whisper, then looked at Ken in the seat across from him.
Ken said, "It's just not a good part of town?"
Joe shook his head. "This neighborhood got hit during the war with Gallactor. They didn't have the kind of money or prestige that Nambu's neighbors have, so the insurance companies either jerked them around or didn't pay as much as they should have. It's taking nearly ten years for some of these buildings to be restored. A lot of the kids had parents killed in the disaster. It's hard for them."
Ken looked at the crowd. "So you don't charge for the meal?"
Joe shook his head. "How can we? It doesn't matter if they come here on Sundays, even. I'm sure a couple of folks are taking advantage of us, but the majority of them really need the help. And it insures that I get time for one meal a day too."
A lanky boy with a shock of blond hair and a red armband came up behind Joe and took the seat beside him. "Hey, Asakura--who's this? The mighty Gatchaman?"
Ken choked on a mouthful of rice.
Joe said, "Masa, for the last time, even if Gatchaman leaped through the church window in full uniform, I wouldn't tell you it was him."
"But you wouldn't lie to me, would you?" The boy turned his large smile to Ken. "You know he used to be Condor Joe on the Kagaku Ninjatai?"
Ken took a drink of water. "You don't say?"
Masa nodded eagerly. "And I keep hoping they'll come show up one day--but Asakura said it'd be a cold day in Hell before Gatchaman showed his face here. But you're going to get me on the team someday, right?" He'd directed the last to Joe.
"I'd rather see that enthusiasm on CYO basketball." Joe tousled the kid's hair. "I can't get you into the Kagaku Ninjatai, but I can write you a letter of recommendation to the seminary in about ten years."
"Yeah, yeah...but they could use me too!" The kid jumped off his seat and with a flourish drew a six inch knife from his belt.
Ken's eyes widened.
Joe said, "You know you're not supposed to take that in here."
"I know, but Anatol and Milos brought theirs in yesterday, and--"
"And this is still a church. We're going to have another talk about this at Thursday's youth group." Joe suddenly wore the expression that had been able to scare his opponents when he'd carried no other weapon.
Masa stepped backward. "Hey, don't we do a good job for you?"
Joe looked at Ken. "Masahiro's friends formed a gang of their own and called it the Archangels, and the church is their territory--I got into all sorts of trouble with the Bishop over that."
Masa puffed up a little. "And there hasn't been a single break-in or any graffiti since we started. We go with Asakura every night to Frederick's to get the extra bread, and no one hassles him."
Joe looked amused. "So far they listen to me and there hasn't been any bloodshed."
Masa said, "I'd have gotten that one guy--"
"--except that you know who you have to go to for Confession." Joe gave the kid a blood-chilling smile. "How does fifty rosaries sound for penance?"
Masa said, "You killed people."
Joe said, "War is a lot different from life in a gang. I've explained that before." He put out a hand. "Hand over the knife. I'm not kidding."
Masa handed it to him hilt-first. Joe set it on the table alongside the plastic fork, and Masa walked away with his shoulders hunched. Joe watched the boy retreat for a moment before calling across the hall, "Remember you're serving Sunday at nine!"
Ken said, "You talk about the team?" In the general roar of conversation, his voice barely carried to Joe's ears.
Joe said nothing.
"That's probably why Gallactor found out about you."
"Gallactor already knew my name and what I look like-- after they figured out who I was, in an hour with a fax machine, Katse made sure of that. Gallactor slapped wanted posters over every flat surface in the city. A few parishioners have even asked me to autograph their copies. In some respects my parishioners are trusting their souls to me, so telling them was a credibility issue."
Ken glowered. "It doesn't impeach your credibility that you were knee-deep in blood seven years ago?"
Joe tried to look bland. "No more than it impeaches St. Paul's credibility that he was part of murdering St. Stephen. They can respect the fact that I've changed."
If anything, Ken looked even angrier. "Not enough that they wouldn't sell your life on the street for ten bucks. How many of these guys are ex-Gallactors themselves? The real ones from the war?"
Swallowing, Joe said, "A few. But--"
"And you don't think every two-bit criminal in Utoland City wouldn't slobber at the chance to up his standing by taking down the famed Condor Joe? It won't matter to them that you're not any kind of fighter any longer."
Joe's eyes flashed, but he steadied himself. "That kind of criminal wouldn't dare--they're superstitious. There's a stigma to killing a priest."
Ken snorted. "And you think they wouldn't try?"
Joe took a deep breath and then spoke slowly. "Trust me on this, Ken. It takes a distinctive kind of fanatic to shoot a priest through the heart."
For a moment, Ken sat disarmed.
Joe shook his head. "I know what I'm talking about. Anyhow, it wouldn't serve anyone to kill me because the killer couldn't brag about it afterward. I'm an Asakura, remember? The Mafia families remember the Asakuras--they admired them when they were strong, and now they admire them even more because they're dead and not a threat. Throw in a Sicilian's knee-jerk respect for the priesthood, and--well, word went out on the street long ago that if anyone so much as spit within fifty yards of me, he'd end up in so many pieces no one would ever find enough to bury." Joe looked a little uncomfortable. "The church keeps getting large extremely anonymous donations that keep it from bankruptcy, and I can't tell if they're Mafia or Nambu, and there's no way to ask."
Ken looked ash white. "What about the security risk?"
"Am I a security risk?" Joe's lips pressed tight together. "With seven-year old information, is that what I've become? Gallactor shanghaied me into their headquarters and worked on me for days. I didn't say anything then, but I'm a security risk now?"
Ken leaned forward and smirked. "If they kidnap a couple dozen of your disciples or whatever the hell you call these people, you'll sing like a violin."
Joe's jaw dropped, but he held his breath before he could snap a response.
Ken added, "Didn't you see that a ten year old just asked if I was Gatchaman?"
"He asks Jun the same thing when she drives me for groceries every week." Joe's eyes smoldered. "Jinpei and Ryu get it so often that Jinpei actually started saying yes. I met up with some folks from the track circuit last month, and he asked them."
Ken's hands were trembling, and he clenched his fists in his lap. His face had whitened even more. "And he called you Asakura--aren't you Father Asakura now?"
The two of them had their glares locked. Ken looked explosive, and Joe's voice came utterly devoid of inflection. "I don't insist on it. Quite a number of these kids don't know if their fathers are alive, dead, or in prison, and their fathers would say the same about them. One of us could have said the same about his own father, in fact, so I think some compassion is called for. Some of these kids were more than abandoned or neglected; they were outright abused. Like one of us did, they grew up with no idea what a father should be. Why should I wave a title in front of their faces if it only drives a wedge between people who'd otherwise be friends?"
Ken stalked from the table and threw his empty styrofoam plate into the trash, then got some more water. The makeshift cafeteria was emptying. It was a quarter to two. A volunteer was bringing a dented metal trash can from table to table and clearing away the debris. By the time Ken returned to his place, his pulse had calmed to something near normal and his hands had unclenched. Joe had his face in his palms.
Standing at the end of the table, Ken said, "Do you think your fatherless band of Archangels is going to protect you from Gallactor?"
"I wouldn't want them to get in the middle."
"Then you have to come with us."
Joe looked up, and Ken startled to see the weariness in his eyes. Joe spoke softly. "I say two Masses here every Saturday and five on Sunday--in three different languages--and I'm the one who keeps the cafeteria running, and I've got to be around to keep the kids in line at the youth group. Gallactor won't care who they strike. If I leave, another priest has to come cover for me, and they'll kill him instead. Gallactor will probably try to wire a bomb in the boiler room and blow the whole place to kingdom come without checking who's inside. At least if I'm here, I'll know what to look for."
The volunteer watched as he pulled the plastic bag from the trash can and knotted it slowly. Joe glanced in his direction, and the volunteer quickly shoved in a fresh bag and hauled the full one from the room.
Ken said, "We can keep you safe."
"And be the cause of whose death?" Joe's eyes steeled. "Or are you one of those people who thinks there's no greater love than to lay down one's friends for his life?"
Ken said, "What's gotten into you? First you die up on a Cross and now you've got some kind of messiah complex."
"I never claimed to be a Christ figure!" Joe stood from the table and stood face to face with Ken. "I never was and I'm still not--Jesus rose from the dead once, and I've already done it twice."
Ken said, "So you're doubly wonderful?"
Joe made his way toward the abandoned trash can. "I've got responsibilities here, and I can't leave or more people may get hurt."
Ken turned away. "Then I've got nothing left to say to you."
He didn't hear Joe respond, if he did at all. With his eyes on the door, Ken determined to leave without a look back, but instead he stood still. All he heard was the silence--the crew cleaned up in the kitchen, but no one else remained at the tables. The volunteer hadn't returned. Just him and Joe.
He turned back. Joe had his eyes shut.
Ken said, "You're wasting your life."
"How dare you--" Joe's voice dropped half an octave and he struggled for a moment before continuing. "What are you saying--that you'd rather have had me in hell seven years ago?"
Ken snorted. "Hell, hell, hell. You knew you were going to hell back then--how many times did you say that to Katse's men: I'll see you in hell?"
Joe looked pale. "I didn't have any idea back then. I honestly didn't care. My whole life was a little hell of its own, and I didn't know any better because--"
"--because we were fighting a war--"
"I'm still fighting a war!" All motion silenced in the kitchen as Joe's voice rose in volume. "I feed seventy-five people a day! I know how hard you're working- but I found someplace I'm necessary, someplace I'm fulfilled! Why can't you accept that?"
Ken folded his arms. "You ran away. We promised we'd die together."
"But that ended on Cross Karacoram!" Joe's eyes flared and he started cramming empty plastic plates and cups and forks into the can. "Haven't I given enough? I lost my car, my vision, my balance, my birdstyle, and my best friend--isn't that enough to justify listening to what's going on inside? This is where I belong! So it's not as glamorous or exciting as your job, but I'm still in the middle of a fight every day."
Ken smirked. "You didn't look like you were fighting when I walked into the church. If you think that's a war, then you maybe you really did die, promise or none."
Joe grabbed Masa's confiscated knife and hurled it into the can with a clamorous bang. As he turned back, he was shaking, eyes blazing and fists clenched. "Do you remember back when they destroyed Crescent Coral, how Jinpei and I nearly drowned? When you dragged me to the surface, there was nothing I wanted more than a breath of air. Nothing. It was everything. Then I woke up to myself six months after Cross Karacoram wanting something as totally as that breath of air. But you'd rather I kept holding my breath, denying and denying--"
"Oh, please." Ken folded his arms and straightened. "You're right about one thing, because you have given up everything. And for what, Joe? I don't see any God waltzing through your life restoring your sight or your balance or giving you back anything for what you threw away in the first place."
Joe's eyes glimmered ferociously. "Don't worry, Ken. God won't be outdone in generosity."
Ken choked on a laugh and looked off at one of the cafeteria walls. "I'll say. You got this cute, cushy little life here for yourself. Well done."
Joe stepped forward, fists clenched at his sides. "I woke up and said a Mass and then started the day by counseling someone who's just lost her husband, a happy couple who want pre-marriage sessions, a man whose wife is wasting away through Alzheimer's, and a crack addicted single mother who's desperately trying to clean up before she loses her kid." He forced himself to turn and keep shoving garbage into the can. "Then on a typical day there's lunch where I hear from three girls who dropped out of school and are upset that they don't look like supermodels and that Soucy's hired a guard who stops them from shoplifting."
Ken said, "Everyone has to deal with these things--this is life, Joe."
Joe hadn't heard him at all. "I have to mediate two choir directors who don't speak the same language dueling for practice time with one organ that's always a little bit flat, a parish secretary who desperately needs a new typewriter, and two parishioners who own rival copy shops and are waging a holy war to get our business. I'm the only priest in the area to minister to the county jail, one hospital and two nursing homes--don't touch anything!" Ken had reached toward the table, and Joe imposed himself between Ken and the trash can. "I don't need your help, if that's what you think you're doing. Believe it or not, I'm not dead, and I'm not an invalid, and I'm not insane."
Joe kept clearing off the table as if he couldn't stop. "Of course this is a war--and I'm the all-powerful Father Joe who's supposed to have the answer to everything. I have to reassure old ladies who missed Sunday Mass because of a heart attack that it wasn't a sin, and at the same time I have to try to get the people who are shooting one another in the streets to realize they have to stop." Joe was gasping between sentences. "Everyone here is going to heaven or hell, and I'm standing at the fulcrum. And you're standing here telling me I'm running away? That I might as well be dead?"
Ken had caught his breath.
Joe kept his back to Ken, and he leaned on the metal can with both hands. "This is the truth, Ken--I miss you so much it hurts. But if that's what you think of me, I'd prefer if you never came back again."
Ken's jaw locked. Joe looked at the can half full of trash, let out a deep breath, then walked past Ken to the stairs. He pushed open the squeaky door to the fresh light of the parking lot.
Joe took the steps slowly, and Ken didn't pass him. At the ground level, Joe looked around until he found the group of kids playing at the makeshift basketball court. That was where he headed.
After a moment, Ken headed toward his car.
"Hey, Asakura!" Masa was one of the kids on the court. In a voice loud enough to cover the whole parking lot, he shouted, "You're on my side--Gatchaman is on theirs!"
Ken turned and looked at the kids. Joe was standing at the edge of the court, arms folded. "I was just leaving," Ken called.
"No fair--we need someone else, and you're tall!" One of the kids sprinted across the lot and grabbed Ken by the arm. "You're not afraid of Father Joe, are you?"
Ken said, "Not at all."
As Ken reached the court, Joe glared at him. "Try not to dunk on the kids."
At first they didn't speak to one another as they played. Then as the game went on, Ken stripped off his sweatshirt and Joe loosened the collar. Ken found himself watching Joe in surprise--when Joe got moving, the limp hardly showed. Although he tended to pass rather than take jump shots, he could lay up the ball with fair accuracy despite his limited field of vision. Only once did he pass to someone who wasn't there, and the kids laughed and said he was passing to Jesus. The kids trash-talked to one another when Joe wasn't near, but his presence instantly brought them up short. To his surprise, Ken didn't see any hard fouls. The only time one of the kids swore, Joe stopped the game until the boy did ten push-ups.
"Court rules," one of the boys whispered to Ken. "Anyone who swears has to do that. In the beginning, we used to get Father Joe doing push-ups a lot!"
Ken chuckled. When the game resumed, his team wisely decided he ought to be the one guarding Joe. That was when they started making short remarks to one another again, and when the game ended, Joe passed Ken the ball. "Not bad for a dead man, huh?"
Ken looked aside.
The scrawny blond boy knocked the ball from Ken's hands. "Hey, I stripped the ball from Gatchaman!" Masa shouted. Dribbling the ball, he did a victory lap of the court.
Joe folded his arms. The boys took their basketball and ran across the parking lot to the street. Ken watched them until he couldn't use that as an excuse any longer. Without looking at his watch, he knew it was only 2:30. Anyplace he said he had to go would sound like the lie it was.
Joe said, "If you want a shower, there's one back at the rectory."
Ken nodded. In silence they headed toward the tiny building behind the church.
Ken said, "Japanese, English and Italian?"
Joe glanced over his shoulder. "What?"
"The three languages on Sundays."
"Japanese, English and Slavic. And I can give Communion in twelve languages by now. That's nearly enough for this neighborhood."
When they had almost reached the door, Ken said, "I don't really think you gave up."
"Of course you do." Joe shook his head and studied the gouges in the pavement. "Jun's all but said as much, and that's why you've stayed away. You can't bear seeing what I've turned to." He looked at Ken. "I expected it from Nambu, not you, and then Nambu didn't give me a hard time at all. This isn't a terrible life, Ken. I wish I could prove it to you. I'd probably have gotten here even if I hadn't been injured--that was only God's way of hurrying it along."
Ken said, "I don't believe that."
Joe said, "This isn't the war I wanted to fight when I started. But it's worthy, and it's important. When you find something worth doing, isn't it worth doing the whole way? Why are you fighting to save the world if not for the people who inhabit it? And how else can we get to the people but by meeting them where they are?"
Ken said nothing else. Joe led him into the building by a wooden door with a crack running through it, and at the front office he introduced Ken to a short woman in her fifties, his secretary Teresa. While Ken stood at the door, Joe went to the coffee pot and poured a cup, then offered one to Ken. Ken took his without comment. Leaning against one of the large windows, Joe closed his eyes as he drank. "This is the only vice left to me," he said with a chuckle.
Teresa said, "It's something to enjoy about ordinary time--he gave up caffeine for Lent."
Ken smiled. "Joe was always difficult to live with until he'd had that first cup of coffee."
Teresa said, "Try working that way for seven weeks."
Joe said, "That was your sacrifice for Lent." She laughed at him and handed over a stack of messages he flipped through squinting. One he paused and read twice. "There goes my evening."
Teresa said, "Marya Ruthene?"
Joe shook his head. "I even talked to her last Sunday and she said she was fine." He replaced the stack in his inbox. "I'm going to be in conference with Ken for a while, so don't let anyone through unless it's God--or Marya's family--and even then see if you can get God to call back."
Joe pointed out the rooms as they moved through the small building. There was a tiny library and a slightly larger conference room on the ground floor, and in the basement apartment Joe had the bathroom, a minuscule kitchen, the bedroom, and an unfinished boiler room with a washing machine. The entire basement had the same worn vinyl flooring.
Looking at the bedroom, Ken said, "Your trailer was bigger."
"I don't mind."
Joe pulled out a towel and tossed it to Ken, who added, "And it could use a coat of paint."
"Paint is ten dollars a gallon. I'd need two cans. Twenty dollars is eighty pounds of rice." Joe shrugged. "No one comes down here but me anyhow."
When Ken emerged from the shower, Joe was removing his contact lenses and replacing his glasses. For some reason the change brought Ken up short -maybe it was the distortion of Joe's eyes--but then Joe left him and got into the shower himself. Ken looked around the room. A ragged-edged corkboard stood on the wall where it had possibly remained for the last twenty years. The touch of Ken's hands brought away a gritty coating of desiccated cork. Joe had tacked up notes carefully printed in wavering small capitals, but what drew Ken's attention were the photographs. Joe and the other two priests ordained with him occupied the upper left hand corner. On the right hand side was the photograph of Joe with his parents. Some other photographs seemed to be groups from the church itself, the youth group, the choir, and other gatherings Ken couldn't identify at all. Right in the middle was a shot of the team from last Thanksgiving, even Nambu and the junior team. Only Ken was missing. When Joe had been assembling the group for the photo, the phone had rung, and Ken had gone to answer it. He'd stayed away until the pictures were finished.
Ken heard the shower turn off, and he sat on the edge of the bed trying not to look at the crucifix nailed to the wall. A Bible lay open on the bedside table, the even columns of words marked and underlined, notes scrawled in the margin as if it were a textbook. He closed his eyes and listened to the silence of the rectory.
"Are you planning to stay much longer?"
Ken started. Joe had returned soundlessly to the room and leaned in the doorway with folded arms. Ken said, "I was going to head home now--you said you had plans for tonight?"
Joe half-closed his eyes and shook his head. "Taking a walk to the precinct lock-up downtown. It seems one of my parishioners delivered a baby in her bathroom and promptly drowned her in the toilet."
Ken swallowed. "Then you're sure you won't come with me."
"Positive." Joe turned to him. With a window full of slanting sunlight at his back, he stood half in shadow. "This is my home--I have to defend it. Wouldn't returning with you be the running away you accused me of in the first place?"
Ken lowered his eyes. "I shouldn't have said that."
Joe breathed deeply.
Ken said, "Hakase might want to speak to you when I tell him what you've said."
"I'll tell him the same." Joe started to reach forward, then hesitated.
Ken finished the gesture by grabbing his hand. "It was good to see you again. I'm sorry I didn't come sooner. If you don't mind, I'd like to visit again, maybe if you need a ride somewhere."
Joe tried to smile. "That would be all right."
Ken went to the steps, and as Joe followed, he said, "You don't have to--I know the way out."
For a long time after hearing Ken get in his car and drive away, Joe sat in the chair in the corner of his room, eyes closed, lips moving softly.
Joe shut off the alarm clock fifteen minutes before it would have rung on Sunday morning. By 5:00 he had already showered and dressed, and now he stood in his kitchen waiting for the coffee to brew. The drops emerged from the percolator one at a time, and he squinted at the brewing coffee uneasily. His heavy glasses still didn't make the image clear. He'd realize when the coffee finished by the sound of the steam, but he watched anyhow.
Eventually he'd have to give up coffee--at four dollars a pound, he could hardly justify the luxury much longer. Lent had coincided with the day he'd run out of coffee, so he'd clenched his teeth and called it a sign from God. Jun must have sensed, somehow, because on Easter morning she'd arrived with a gift from the Easter Bunny, enough coffee to keep him well stocked through summer. Looking at it now, he had the sinking feeling of a guilty pleasure. He was pretty sure God was asking him to give it up because every time he thought about it, he tried to come up with a way out.
Pushing the glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose, he grinned sardonically. The coffee and the contact lenses--those were the last two big expenses he ought to eliminate from his budget. He'd never had much faith in budgets, and he'd laughed when they made him take a business administration course in seminary, but he really needed it running the parish. His tendency would have been to add up all the expenses at the end of the year and say those were his projections to begin with, but the diocese didn't allow it. This church was too poor to make the numbers work--Joe had taken his diocesan salary, pathetic as it might be, and thrown more than half of it into the parish's income column. That put Joe's personal income well under five figures, but sacrifice got easier once he started translating the dollars into pounds of rice or beans or spaghetti. During the difficult moments, Joe tried to imagine the fifteen or twenty faces who would be denied food so he could have coffee, heat, or a longer shower (thank goodness Ken hadn't noticed the bell timer in the bathroom). The cafeteria put them in the red nearly every month. It didn't matter. Joe always found a way to make the numbers work without the humiliation of raiding the trust fund his vow of poverty had enabled him to turn down graciously. No one needed to take care of him--and maybe someday he'd use that money to build a bigger church so he didn't have to say five Masses to a packed house every Sunday. For now the parish struggled without the help, but Joe figured after staring down Gallactor gunbarrels for three years, he wasn't about to let a little addition and subtraction stop him.
Eyes red from lack of sleep, Joe drank his coffee and ate breakfast (toast, very little margarine) staring at the wall. The Bishop had taken the Gallactor threat seriously when Joe had spoken to him, but the security system he had ordered wouldn't get installed for a few more days. Too late--the hair on Joe's arms stood on end with an instinctual sense that the strike would come today.
Even Father Ron hadn't had an easy answer to the Gallactor threat when Joe phoned him. Several more calls through the week hadn't unearthed a solution either. Father Ron Leyton had worked as the hospital chaplain seven years ago, and for those many months he had visited every day with Joe, debating or listening to and eventually praying for and with him. Joe considered himself lucky to have had the same spiritual director all these years. It had been Father Ron who suggested Joe's discipline and integrity made him perfect priest material, although Joe had huffed sarcastically at first.
"I'm not the kind to pull off any miracles," Joe said.
"Don't underestimate God," Father Ron had said. "Sometimes he brings miracles from normal people being true to themselves."
It would take nothing short of a miracle to diffuse this situation. Anyone else would find it so easy to just close the church doors today and hide away in a mansion until the specters subsided and he could feel secure in a newly armored church. Easy and ugly. The parish needed Joe. The congregation couldn't run away with him, and he couldn't ask them to stand firm in their daily lives if he himself wouldn't. Confrontation was the only way to end the menace.
After morning prayer, Joe made his way into the church to prepare for the first service. The doors and windows remained locked, and he locked them again behind him. Then, eyes glimmering in the early morning light, he began his search.
After he'd checked the sacristy and the altar area, Joe heard a knock at the door. His heart pounded, and he looked around instinctually to find something he could use to defend himself. "Yeah," he muttered, "I'll go into the drawer full of knives I've confiscated from Masa's friends. That's a good example."
The knock came again, followed by, "Hey, Asakura! Open up!"
Joe sighed with relief as he went to the door and found Masa and three other boys wearing red armbands flanking another priest with a round face and grey hair. Masa said, "You know this guy?"
"Father Ron," Joe said, "you met my bodyguards."
"You aren't Gatchaman, are you?" Masa said. Then he looked at Joe. "We found him parking his car and didn't know if he should be here. There were other guys hanging around last night, but we stayed away like you said. What should we do about this guy?"
"He's fine." Joe looked at the boys. "You should be home watching cartoons- it's not even seven yet."
Laughing, the boys tore off down the steps and vanished into the darkness.
Father Ron removed his coat and accompanied Joe back to the sacristy. Although older by three decades, he walked more quickly than Joe did. "I figured with all that might happen today, you could use an extra ally."
Joe's eyes brightened. "Will you concelebrate the Masses?"
Father Ron nodded, and Joe unlocked the closet where he kept the vestments, first checking for telltale wires. When he caught Father Ron's look, he said, "I already dismantled one bomb this morning. In the boiler room. Set to detonate right at nine. That's probably all they planted, but there's no point in recklessly opening any of the cabinets." He felt his hands tremble, and he shoved them into his pockets. "At least Ken saw me before it was too late--he won't feel guilty if it happens. Nambu even sent me a t-shirt made out of birdstyle material. It's bulletproof, so I'm wearing it now. I don't know. When I was in the war, I was nowhere near ready to die, but it never frightened me. It's ridiculous, isn't it? Now I'm about as prepared as you can get."
Father Ron came up behind Joe. "Turn around. Close your eyes."
Joe did. The other priest laid his hands on Joe's head and prayed aloud. As he did so, Joe felt warmer. He tried to breathe deeply. He'd gone into battle before--the skills were buried, not forgotten. The strength had to remain somewhere inside, diverted to other tasks, but maybe he could summon it still. Even after Father Ron blessed him and lifted his hands, Joe still could feel the touch against his hair. In an unsteady voice, he thanked him.
"Have you ever received the anointing of the sick?"
Joe chilled. "Last rites... I've given it plenty of times."
The other priest smiled. "You know better than to call it that, or to save it for the last minute. And you certainly feel you're in danger of death." There in the sacristy he heard Joe's confession. Before a candle they lit together, he anointed Joe with the chrism and intoned some of the most solemn prayers in the Catholic faith. Silence became palpable between his words. The flame danced on the candlestick. These were the elements that made up reality: heat, light, God, life, and death. Joe's vision kept sparkling, and his throat ached.
The first Mass of the morning, in Slavic, went without major problems. Joe found he had trouble with the spotlight over the lectern--sudden dizziness and a blinding headache left him shaken until the Lord's prayer. Joe's nerve damaged hands trembled the way they had six years ago in the hospital. I'm not used to the stress any longer, he thought. I told Ken I'm fighting a war, but it's not really like a war. Father Ron noticed, but Joe focused stonily away from him. This wouldn't be the Mass they hit anyhow--the 8 AM service was always the only one with half the seats taken. At any of the others, Gallactor could have the church full for maximum impact.
Between the eight and nine services, Joe returned to the boiler room to make sure the bomb remained dismantled, and Father Ron angled the spotlight away from Joe's eyes. While Masa and another boy were suiting up as altar servers, Joe noticed three of Masa's gang standing at the back door behind the ushers.
"Why the guard?" he said.
"The guys we saw poking around last night," and Masa's eyes narrowed.
"Good--now go back and tell them that even Saint Michael the Archangel would have to sheathe his sword in my church, got it? No weapons." Joe's eyes stared straight through Masa as the boy tried to protest. "That includes you--you could be hiding a machine gun under those vestments and I'd never know it, so you're on your honor."
Masa smirked. "You're wearing vestments too."
Joe said, "And I'd remove them in a heartbeat if people suspected I was armed. You've got two minutes before we start--go!"
Masa tore off toward the back of the church.
The Mass began as usual. Joe's heart pounded, and he wondered if he weren't risking more than he stood to gain. A bomb beneath the church filled to capacity could kill two hundred people or more, the kind of headlines Gallactor liked to write for themselves. His eyes still hurt, and for a moment he wished he'd worn the glasses instead of the contacts.
A short chirp caught his attention.
While the lector read the first reading, Joe raised his eyes and scanned the congregation. With vision that worked only like a poorly focused security camera, at first he didn't find anyone in the standing-room only crowd, but momentarily he noticed a civilian-style Jinpei, then Ryu, Jun, junior Swallow Hiroshi, Eric, and finally Ken standing at the very back. Two more of the junior team members sat together on the side. That meant there was probably another junior in the basement and the last one on the roof.
Heart pounding, Joe scanned the congregation a second time. There...there...another one...he could see enough of them now. They had the look. At least five Gallactors in plainclothes right in the middle of the crowd.
God, help me.
The lector finished the second reading, and the choir sang the Alleluia. Joe made his way to the lectern and read the Gospel. His hands were trembling and his voice nearly so. His pulse raced.
At the end of the reading the congregation sat. Joe looked at the notes he'd prepared for his homily, then set them aside. His stomach churned. It took a moment and several deep breaths, but then he had his pulse under control and everyone's attention. In a steady voice, he said, "If you do away with the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word, if you give your bread to the hungry and relief to the oppressed, your light will rise in darkness and your shadows become like noon. That line from Isaiah is the reason I entered seminary, and it's appropriate now because this may be the last Mass I say among you." The congregation stirred. He looked around at a crowd out of focus even as he removed the stole from his vestments. "Not by my choice--but these situations seldom are. There are currently at least ten members of Gallactor in the congregation." The people rustled like a windswept autumn forest as they turned around to see who it was. Joe unfastened the collar of his vestments with unsteady fingers and removed the white and green garment, leaving him standing in all black at the lectern. He took a deep breath and said, "Gallactor, step forward."
No one moved. Joe said, "I know why you've come. Do me the courtesy of showing yourselves."
A man's laughter rang through the church, and Joe tried to focus on the individual who stood. "So, the great Condor Joe still has his eagle's eyes."
Joe said, "The rest of you too."
His heart sank as more men got to their feet and moved to the center and side aisles. He had to scan the church several times to count them all- twelve. "That's quite a large number of men to kill a priest. You could have come any day you wanted and left everyone else untouched--you knew where to find me. But today when your bomb failed to ignite, you were left with little choice but to come inside and accidentally hear the word of God."
The ringleader advanced up the aisle, and as he did so, several of the men in the congregation leaped to their feet. Joe could see Jun, Ryu and Jinpei do the same. Ken had moved halfway up the aisle already. Masa and the second altar boy rushed down the altar steps brandishing knives. "Hold it!" Joe still had the microphone. "Everyone stop this now--this is a house of God, not a wrestling arena! There will be no bloodshed in this church--that's an order! I don't care who you are," and he looked directly at Ken halfway back.
In the abrupt silence, Joe said to the ringleader, "I'll go with you. But let the people leave unharmed."
"It's not them we want." Six of the Gallactors had come almost to the altar by now. "They can go if they wish."
Joe turned to the second altar boy and said, "Make sure to get the blessed sacrament out of this church if they try to burn it down." The boy nodded. He said softly so only Father Ron heard, "On my tombstone, 2 Samuel 1:23." Then Joe looked out at his parishioners again. "You can go. I don't want anyone else hurt. It's me they've come for."
Still, nobody from the congregation moved.
And suddenly, his heart pounded. This is their fight too--Gallactor hit this neighborhood hard. They still have the scars from ten years ago. Half the parishioners are probably armed to begin with. If they shoot me, my people are going to tear them apart.
Joe said, "Let the children leave."
A few of the mothers left with the children. The light had blinded Joe even more than before, but he stood steady. Father Ron had come up alongside, and Masa had backed up the steps until he stood right in front of him. Resting a hand on Masa's shoulder, Joe guided him out of the way and descended the steps. "You can have me," he said. "No one else gets hurt."
"Yeah, whatever, Father Condor Joe." The ringleader reached for Joe, and Joe put out his hands. They bound him rapidly.
Heart pounding like crazy, Joe felt his stomach tightening. He was sweating, and his breath came unsteadily. God, I can't do this! They'll break me! I'm not up to this!
Joe's breath caught. Even now he could still remember the feeling of Father Ron's hands on his head, and now he felt something else, like someone standing right behind him with hands resting on his shoulders. Seeking out the eyes of the Gallactor ringleader, he trembled and fought the urge to back away into that supernatural grip for good.
Don't be scared. The feeling inside began to bubble in his throat like hidden laughter. You're so brave. I'm with you.
Joe looked calmly into the Gallactor's eyes and said, "Let's go."
The warmth inside had spread from his stomach and throat all the way to his hands and his feet. For a moment, Joe wondered if this was joy and why on earth he'd be feeling it.
One of the Gallactors lifted his gun and whipped Joe across the face, knocking him backward to the altar steps. A second one raised his rifle and brought it down hard on his stomach, leaving Joe curled and gasping. But even then, lying in a fetal position, eyes screwed shut and teeth clenched, he still felt the warmth, the presence, the hands on his shoulders. The sensation flowed in and out with every breath, and even though they were beating him, kicking him, he only could think, Stay with me--you're still with me--
When they stopped, Joe lay still. With his eyes closed, he imagined the presence surrounding him like a candle flame. The whole church was silence.
"Come on, Condor." The ringleader's voice broke through, yanking Joe up from the ground by his bound wrists. Joe stumbled, and two Gallactors caught him. "It's time to take you outside and shoot you like the dog you are."
Sagging in their arms, Joe tried to get his feet under him and stand again. They were dragging him forward, and now he was able to walk with them. The warmth burned in his throat and behind the eyes he couldn't raise to look at the people he'd leave behind.
Abruptly the Gallactors stopped.
When they didn't start walking again, Joe looked up and found the center aisle packed with people.
"No," he whispered. "No bloodshed. This is a house of God."
The people standing in the aisle didn't move. The Gallactors tried to push their way through, but the congregation stood with their arms locked and their jaws clenched. Like a human chain they encircled the terrorists, pressing in so close the Gallactors couldn't raise their guns or do more than push in futility against the wall of people.
Raising his eyes, Joe met faces he recognized, all of them set, grim, and unrelenting.
I am with you.
The hidden laughter frothed inside, and slowly Joe smiled at them.
From the lectern, Father Ron said, "Give it up, Gallactor. You can't have him."
"Let us go! We'll kill you all!" The ringleader turned to Joe and somehow managed to pull a knife from his belt. "I'll cut his throat where he stands!"
A flash of white, and suddenly the three Gallactors surrounding Joe fell away. Joe stumbled to the side as their support vanished, and when he looked up, he saw Gatchaman holding the ringleader with his arms pinned behind. On either side, Eric and Jun had two of the others.
Joe's eyes widened.
Chaos exploded in the church as people moved in and disarmed the other men. Joe wavered and suddenly found himself supported by Masa. The boy used his knife to cut the bonds on Joe's wrists while cheering madly as the remaining Kagaku Ninjatai subdued their opponents.
Joe found Ken and shot him a glare.
Ken said, "I said to use non-lethal force. I won't let them martyr you."
Inside, Joe felt the presence whisper, See?
The next thing Joe realized, he was sitting on the old sofa in the sacristy, his head between his knees and a cold wet paper towel on the back of his neck. He raised his head and looked around.
"Do you know where you are?"
Ken knelt beside him still in uniform, and Joe stared at him momentarily. Scanning the room a face at a time, he found Father Ron, Masa, Jun, and Eric. He tried to sit up, but as he did so his vision swam.
"Keep your head down." Ken laid an arm across Joe's shoulder. "Do you know where you are?"
"In the sacristy--where do you think we are?" Joe looked at Masa, who had discarded his altar boy robe in order to more clearly display his red Archangel armband. "Kid, you have the most amazing assortment of cutlery."
"Hey, I saved your life back there, so don't go taking this from me. I can't believe they didn't know it was a sin to kill a priest!" Masa suddenly grinned. "Asakura, it's Gatchaman! It really is!"
Joe closed his eyes. "You'll never get me to admit it."
Father Ron laughed. "You're all right--you've got a large number of very concerned people out there. I'll go tell them they can stop worrying."
Joe's head shot up. "I've got to finish--"
"You stay there. I'll finish the Mass for you. Just sit. You've done enough." Father Ron rested his hand on Joe's head and took a deep breath. "Be glad you're alive and try to take it easy."
Joe looked at Masa. "Go finish serving. I've got archangels of my own here."
Masa wriggled back into his robe and followed Father Ron.
Jun said, "The ambulance should be here soon."
Joe startled. "Did someone get hurt?"
"Yes, you, silly." Jun came closer and hugged him. "You took a pretty good pounding out there."
"They couldn't hurt me." Joe tried to breathe deeply and feel for injuries. "Nothing hurts--I'm fine."
"I don't believe you. You need to get checked out."
Eric said, "Don't underestimate him. Joe, you do us Condors proud."
Joe said, "Condor persistence--it comes along with the Condor luck."
Jun said, "Hoshi's got it too--she was down in the boiler room when two Gallactors went to check on their malfunctioning bomb." Turning back to Joe, she said, "Do you remember your ISO ID number?"
Joe rattled it off. "Now are you satisfied that I haven't been knocked senseless?"
"Your skull's thicker than that--I need it for the insurance forms."
As Eric chuckled, a police officer entered the sacristy. Jun guided him toward Joe and then dragged Eric out with her.
Joe watched them leave, then sat back on the couch with a sigh. The presence still flickered inside, though not as strongly as before.
The officer said, "I'm sorry to do this, but we need your report on what those guys did so we can charge them."
Ken's eyes glimmered. "You've got about two hundred witnesses outside."
"But I can't pass up the opportunity to speak to Father Joe Asakura." The officer smiled at Joe. "My kid's told me all about you."
Joe shook his head.
"I have a Saint Michael medal in my cap." The officer was withdrawing it from the hat band even as he spoke. "Do you think you could bless it for me?"
Joe said, "I'm beginning to think you don't really need my report at all." He took the medal and whispered a few words, then made a cross over it with his hand. The officer beamed, thanked him, then asked a couple of questions. After he left, Joe sank back onto the couch. He could hear Father Ron beginning the consecration in the body of the church.
Ken said, "They won't try again."
"I figured as much. I think the whole local coven must have shown up here." Beside him, Ken settled back onto the couch, and the worn cushions sagged. Joe laughed. "You didn't realize, but no one can ever climb out of this couch once he sinks in."
"It is pretty old," Ken admitted. Joe didn't move. After a silent moment, Ken said, "What was the deal about blessing the medal?"
"Oh, anyone can bless anything, but some people like it more when a priest does it or someone special to them. When we were ordained, the Bishop gave all three of us rosaries blessed by Mother Teresa."
Ken nodded. "How does it work?"
Joe chuckled. "I'm not quite sure myself."
After a momentary silence, Ken said, "The other priest looked up that verse you wanted."
Softly Joe said, "I'd want the names changed."
Ken swallowed, and Joe closed his eyes. Nearly a minute passed. Ken said, "I had you all wrong, you know."
Joe didn't answer.
"I kept thinking of you as working one hour a week when you had to do your church service. Everyone going around telling you how holy you were and what a higher calling you had while you sat like an executioner passing judgment and telling us we were all going to hell. Quoting scripture rather than thinking. Oh, and asking for money."
Joe said, "I wish these people had enough money that I could ask for some. It'd be good to offer meat more than once a week in the cafeteria."
Ken shook his head. "No, let me go on. I hated that you left our team for that kind of life. I should have seen for myself before deciding that."
Joe laid a hand on Ken's arm. "I know. Not so long ago, I'd have thought this was nuts too."
Ken sighed. "It's so hard to think that you went on and became better than all of us."
"No, not better. Not at all." Joe tried to sit forward. "Different, not better. A calling is just a calling--either you get it or you don't."
Ken said, "So you don't think we're all going to hell?"
"No." Joe looked Ken right in the eyes. "Not at all."
Ken smiled a little. "I got you some paint."
Joe's eyes narrowed. "That's eighty pounds of rice."
"I knew you'd say that. I've also got eighty pounds of rice in the trunk of my car." When Joe laughed, Ken said, "And I'll help you paint downstairs when you're feeling better."
"Thanks." Joe shook his head. "You're still a member of my team."
After a moment, Ken said, "I appreciate that."
Jun showed up in the door. "Ken, the ambulance is here."
"I'll walk out on my own. No stretcher." Joe started edging forward from his seat. "Tell them to wait out there."
Jun glared at him, and he glared in return. She left.
Ken said, "I'm going to go with you, just to make sure everything's okay. But, before that--"
Joe studied Ken.
"--I feel silly, but maybe you should bless the birdrang or something."
Joe burst out laughing. Ken reddened. "No," Joe said. "I have a better idea. You stand up." With Ken standing before him, Joe took both his hands and laid them on his head. "Now you bless me."
Ken jerked his hands away. "What? How do I do that? What do I say?"
Joe looked confused momentarily. "I normally say something like 'I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.' I guess you wouldn't want to do it that way, though."
"No, I'll do it. It can't hurt." Ken put his hands back on Joe's head, and Joe felt the warmth again. "I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."
Joe said, "Amen," and made the sign of the cross.
Ken helped him to a stand. Joe said, "I really don't have to go to the hospital." But as he took a step, he stumbled, and Ken caught him.
"Why don't we go there anyhow?" Ken chuckled and helped Joe walk to the doorway. "I hear a lot of good things can happen in a hospital."
"He found him in a desert land
And in the wasteland, a howling wilderness;
He encircled him, He instructed him,
He kept him as the apple of His eye.
As an eagle stirs up its nest,
Hovers over its young,
Spreading out its wings, taking them up,
Carrying them on its wings,
So the Lord alone led him."
I've written two other stories with Father Joe, but this was the first and in some ways I don't think I'll ever top it.
Author's note: I had a little help here from history. I took situations from the conversions of St. Augustine and St. Ignatius Loyola, Joe's disposition owes a lot to the Cure d'Ars, and Mark 3:13 was the verse St. Teresa used to discern her calling. The passage Joe cited to the congregation is Isaiah 58:9-10. I couldn't see a way around the Catholic tech talk. This story has a soundtrack: "Waiting for Lightning" and "More to This Life" by Steven Curtis Chapman from the album More To This Life, "Growing Young" by Rich Mullins from the album The World As Best.... vol 2, and "On the Other Side" by Michael W. Smith from the album i 2 (eye).