Poughkeepsie, p.8
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       Poughkeepsie, p.8

           Debra Anastasia
 

  “When I was here before wasn’t she a…um…” Livia didn’t know how to make the word hooker politically correct.

  Beckett laughed. “So, yeah, I had to bang the whores that day. I always make sure the merchandise is quality, right? Well, the other two were these lifeless bitches that only moved when they freaking sneezed or coughed, so they were out.” Beckett shook his head. “Then Eve walks in, strips naked, and starts dancing like a goddamn showgirl. So I’m here, drooling, when she comes up behind me with a knife she pulled out of her fucking hair. It was insanely hot.”

  Livia looked doubtful.

  “So I’m sitting in that damn chair, ready to die, and I say to her, ‘You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I’m so damn glad you’re going to kill me instead of some brainless, toothless druggie.’” Beckett smiled again at the memory of his almost-murder. “Then she traded the knife for her lips, and now she works for me.” Beckett put his hands behind his head and flexed his giant biceps. “She won’t tell me who hired her to come here. She’s the deadliest person I’ve ever encountered. I still think she might kill me, but I can’t stop looking at her.”

  “Well, good luck with that,” Livia said. “I wouldn’t want her pissed at me. She saved us tonight, no thanks to you.”

  “You’re lucky Eve has a kind heart. I would’ve just watched the show out there.”

  “A kind heart, eh? And you would’ve just watched them do whatever it is they do to me and my sister?” Livia didn’t buy it.

  “Before, maybe. Now, no,” he said.

  In light of her new status, Livia tried again. “Where can I find him?”

  “Whitebread, you won’t find him until he wants to be found. He’s the best in the woods—silent, quiet, and patient. No one can find Blake.” Beckett nodded, seeming to agree with his own words. Then he stood. “I can tell you no one will touch him. Not now. The only person who’s a danger to Blake is Blake. And maybe you.” Beckett headed to the office door, a signal that the conversation was over.

  Livia stopped the door with her hand and insisted on hugging Beckett. He hesitated, but hugged her back. “An anonymous donor recently funded the purchase of an organ for Our Lady of the River,” he told her softly. “I’d find out when that’s going to be delivered.”

  He stepped back to open the door, and Livia had to remind her feet to move. She was captivated again by this complicated man.

  Perhaps he took her reluctance to leave as fear, but Beckett surprised Livia by walking her and Kyle to the car. Mouse closed his phone and stepped out of the way as Beckett opened Kyle’s door for her.

  “Don’t come here again. Ever,” he said, but instead of a threat, this sounded like a declaration of affection.

  As Livia looked up at him, she saw Eve literally watching his back. Her hard stare held a tiny layer of concern.

  “Beckett, you can kiss my ass,” Livia countered. “I’ll be here if you need me—or if I need you.”

  Beckett winked before growling angrily, surveying the parking lot, and turning to go back inside.

  8

  Midnight Mass

  KYLE FINALLY LOOKED AT Livia when they’d driven a respectable distance from Beckett’s pulsating black hole of evil.

  “Um…” Kyle looked pale.

  “Yeah.” Residual fear backed up on Livia like a clogged sink.

  “Okay.” Kyle put her eyes back on the road. “I feel like I want to puke. You?”

  “I think I’ve tamped it down. Did we just witness something awful?” Livia rubbed the back of her neck.

  “I don’t know what that was.” Kyle gripped the wheel and appeared to shrug it off.

  “What did RoboBlonde say while I was in talking to Beckett?” Livia couldn’t imagine what Kyle had been thinking.

  “I think she was practicing her cursing in Russian while she sharpened her throwing stars.” Kyle raised her eyebrows and shook her head. “I’m not kidding. What did the human steroid have to say? Has he seen your man?”

  “You think Beckett’s on steroids?” Livia asked.

  “I didn’t see a World Gym in there, did you?” Kyle answered.

  Livia sighed. “Blake hasn’t been there and, according to Beckett, I won’t be able to find him,” Livia said.

  “Well, great. I’m glad we dangled our asses over the jaws of death to earn that little nugget. You didn’t perhaps get Beckett’s cell number so we can avoid this in the future?” Kyle gripped the steering wheel again.

  “Wait, I also found out Beckett donated an organ to Cole’s church.” Livia felt hope caress the sides of her heart.

  “Yuck. Which organ?” Kyle looked horrified.

  “A pipe organ. A musical instrument, dumbass.” Livia smiled, and her body considered relaxing a bit.

  “Oh. Oh! Cardboard piano man gets a crack at a real keyboard. I get it now. You’re the dumbass,” Kyle said as she dug her cell phone out of her pocket.

  “I guess it still has to be delivered,” Livia continued. “Hang a right here. I want to drive by the church and see if I can wake up Cole.” Livia barely finished the sentence.

  “You sound more scared of Cole than you did of the drug den.” Kyle flipped open her phone and began texting with one hand.

  “His boss is powerful.” Livia took a deep breath and tried to make herself feel lighter after the darkness that she and her sister had just experienced. It was 11:15. What does a sort-of priest do at this hour?

  Kyle’s texting consumed her as she pulled into the empty parking lot.

  “What are you typing?” Livia did not share Kyle’s obsession with electronic contraptions.

  “Currently, I’m texting Debbi, Michelle, Karen, and Sam. This incident boosts my street cred.” Kyle’s text was in all caps.

  “Oh, pardon me. I didn’t realize you were straight-up gangsta,” Livia mocked.

  “Whatever. I had some bastard’s finger in my mouth tonight. I’m milking this story for all it’s worth.” Kyle hit send.

  “Don’t tell anyone about Blake, please.” Livia covered Kyle’s phone so her sister would look her in the face.

  “I won’t. Listen, can I stay here while you frisk the Pope?” Kyle’s cell phone vibrated with replies beneath their hands like an anxious puppy.

  “Fine, but we’re putting the top on the car.” Livia reached over Kyle to pop the rear hatch.

  After much grumbling and some heavy lifting, Kyle was back in the covered car with her fingers flying over the minuscule keyboard again. Livia took a gulp of night air, and thoughts of Blake flooded her mind. Is he cold? How are his hands? Where is he?

  Livia put her concern for Blake on hold. To help him I have to find him.

  Visiting Beckett had been a physical challenge; seeing Cole would be a mental one. As Livia headed to the church, she noticed the stained glass windows were hardly visible in the dark. She studied them for a moment. The windows had so many fragile pieces, yet fused together they were strong enough to keep the sacred things inside the church safe. As she contemplated, she saw a small glow light up the corner of the window directly in front of her. Blake.

  She had no idea why one illumination in the dark night filled her mind with his name, but she ran to the front doors. Another light flickered inside. The church is on fire. Blake!

  Livia burst through the huge, creaky doors and grabbed the bowl of holy water off of the font in the foyer. Livia’s heart raced as she turned to see a man with his hands full of flames.

  Livia threw the holy water on him and extinguished the candles he held. Cole looked curiously calm in the remaining light from the wall sconces.

  “Welcome to midnight mass, Livia.” Cole’s words were appropriate, but his tone held enormous frustration.

  “Damn it. I mean, darn it. I thought the church was on fire. I’m so sorry. How do you clean up holy water? Is it like communion? Do you have to lick it off the floor? Can I help you?”

  Why can I not stop talking? Livia watched as Cole set the d
ripping candles on a small table. If I die of embarrassment, they can have my funeral right here.

  “I’ll just wipe it up with towels,” he said.

  Cole left her, but soon returned with some very regular-looking bath towels. Livia took the one he offered and apologized again for her gaffe. After they blotted for a few moments, Cole took sat back on his heels. Livia wiped up the last drops and copied his motion.

  “You’re here about him,” Cole stated.

  Livia nodded and tried not to let her cracked heart show in her eyes.

  “I prayed for you. Did you know that? Of course not. I’ve prayed for him to have someone like you since before we left foster care. Maybe it was a selfish prayer. I didn’t want to have to worry about Blake out here. And now you are here—an answer to prayer—and I resent you,” he said. His eyes held an ominous contempt that eerily reminded Livia of Eve the RoboBlonde.

  “I don’t trust you with him,” Cole continued. “I’m certain you’ll ruin him. You’ll want to make him be something other than what he is. He can’t change, Livia. He can’t be a normal husband or father—or man. He’ll never hold a job. He won’t provide you with a cushy house and a decent medical plan.” Cole’s anger was at odds with the peace of the darkened church. The wall candles flickered as if the change in energy had moved the air.

  “How dare you? How dare you, of all people, not have faith in him?” Livia shot back. “All that negativity? You believe it. That’s what he is to you? A burden?” Livia’s mouth stayed open with the shock of his words and her bravery.

  Cole stood and jerked the holy-water-soaked towel from her hands. He covered his mouth with a shaking fist, seeming to search for the right words in a trunk filled with wrong ones.

  “I’m sure the weeks you spent with him gave you an endless wealth of knowledge, but when you’ve gotten him out of your system and moved on, I’ll still be here. I’ll still toss and turn if he hasn’t turned up. I’ll still care if he eats. So wallow in all the self-righteousness you feel is necessary, Livia. He’s homeless. Homeless,” Cole said.

  Her name sounded like a curse coming from his tight lips, and the word homeless could have passed for a terminal illness.

  Livia hated her stupid tendency to cry when she was angry, and she tried not to let the tears make her incoherent as she spoke. “He has a home, Cole. He has a permanent home in my heart.”

  “Take your melodramatics and leave.” Cole bristled. “My congregation should be here any minute. I have to change.”

  As she turned to leave, silently cursing Cole, Livia noticed the loft overhead. Livia walked slowly up a twisting spiral staircase. The loft was about the size of a small kitchen and opened to the church below. Just enough room for an organ. Fresh boards revealed how the floor had been reinforced. Livia wanted to feel a connection to Blake here, but it was just an empty space. She glanced out the small window that would give the future organist a peek outside—to see when the bride or the coffin arrived.

  Tonight the parking lot still held only Kyle’s car. Cole’s congregation had about fourteen minutes to assemble. Either he preached to a group of faithful Indy car drivers, or he hoped to save the souls of the candles.

  Livia was about to descend the narrow stairs when she saw a snaking, slow-moving column of people walking down the sidewalk. The column originated in the building next door.

  Livia took the steep stairs carefully. Even so, the quick descent made her a little dizzy. As she returned to the foyer, she found Cole dressed in a fresh, dry shirt. He scowled when he saw Livia still there.

  All these people are coming to church. They’ll want holy water when they enter. “Cole, the holy water!” Livia stage-whispered.

  He snapped to attention. “You get the bowl. Quick.”

  He leapt over three pews in a row and slid into a carefully concealed supply closet. Livia clambered up the aisle and found the overturned bowl. They met at the font. Livia settled the bowl where it belonged as Cole poured in new water from a plastic bottle.

  “You’d think that stuff came in something fancier,” Livia commented, forgetting his anger in the rush of a common goal.

  “You’d be surprised what’s in the containers around here,” Cole responded, seeming to forget his anger as well.

  Their eyes met and Livia watched as the anger reappeared to make them hard. But the anger melted again almost instantly when an older man eagerly pushed open the church’s front door.

  “My congregation is from the retirement community apartment building next door,” Cole explained. “We do a midnight mass every Wednesday for them. I’m sort of practicing being a priest. I know that’s not how it is done, but Father Callahan is very unconventional. He wants me to experience the whole process before making a lifetime commitment. I guess I’m young blood for the retirement community who support me very much. They’re willing to be my experimental congregation. They enjoy the clandestine meetings that give me a boost in my confidence. Not that this is any of your business.”

  As his friends entered, he finally went forward like a proud mayor, touching parishioners’ shoulders and calling them by name. He teased the men and flirted with the women. A few of the people who entered had some sort of mobility problem. No wonder the column moved slowly. Cole guided wheelchairs and held arms in support.

  Unlike a line at an amusement park, these people waited with serene peace. They were used to waiting and obviously loved Cole like he was their own child. Livia made a decision and walked out the door.

  “Hi, I’m Livia. Can I help you to your seat?” she asked a woman in a wheelchair.

  The lady smiled with her whole, crinkled face. “Yes, dear, aren’t you beautiful? I’m Bea, and I park next to the third pew on the left.”

  Cole froze as Livia pushed Bea into the foyer. After a moment he nodded once in her direction and went back to tending his flock. Livia looked at the long train stretching out into the night and decided her sister needed to pitch in. Livia waved to the waiting parishioners as she headed out to the parking lot. A filthy song bled out from around the windows as she banged loudly on Kyle’s roof. Kyle jumped and glared.

  Kyle hit the automatic window button and turned down the radio at the same time. “What the hell, Livia? You scared the shit outta me.”

  Livia’s eyes bugged at her sister’s comment. “Kyle McHugh, why would you play that horrible song outside a church? Who taught you your manners?”

  Kyle closed her phone and gave Livia the finger. “You did. So don’t act all high and mighty. And last time I checked this church was empty.”

  Livia stepped aside so Kyle could see the line of people on the sidewalk behind her.

  “Holy crap, what’s happening here? An emergency bingo meeting?” Kyle asked loudly.

  Livia shushed her. “Just get out and help me. It’s midnight mass.”

  Kyle got out and walked at Livia’s side toward the building. “I’m sorry? Midnight mass? Did Christmas Eve just sneak up and bite me on the ass?”

  Livia squeezed Kyle’s arm in the way she hated. “Just help me get them inside.”

  To Kyle’s credit, she followed Livia’s lead and they became mobility’s version of a bucket brigade. Kyle was welcoming and friendly from the door of the retirement complex to halfway up the sidewalk where Livia took over. Livia made small talk and introductions until she met Cole at the church door. Cole’s eyes grew softer every time he saw Livia with another church member. As the last patron made his way through the church doors, Kyle pulled Livia aside.

  “Please don’t make me go in the church. I don’t want to go to mass.” Her eyes were frantic.

  “Kyle, we went to eight years of Catholic school. You can handle one little mass.” Livia reached for her sister’s arm again.

  Kyle skittered away. “Livia, I’m positive that church will blow up all action-movie style if I put one toe in the door. I haven’t been such a perfect Catholic school girl.”

  Livia held her palms open in disbe
lief. “What have you been up to? I swear we’re having a long conversation as soon as this night’s over.”

  Kyle continued as if Livia had not spoken. “And also the old people are freaking me out. They smell like moth balls, one guy pinched my ass, and I think that last one…” Kyle peeked around Livia to give last gentleman in line a smile and a little wave. “He just crapped his pants.” Kyle’s whisper had gotten squeaky.

  Livia rolled her eyes. “You’re ruining the beauty of the moment. Fine. Go back to the car, but play some less hellish music. No cursing.”

  Kyle kissed Livia on the cheek and skipped off to her car. Livia closed the church doors and scanned the room for a spot. Bea had a space next to her just Livia’s size, so she waved and smiled her way to the seat.

  Bea was still in a chatty mood. “Livia, what brings you to our little clandestine service? It’s not advertised.” Bea had put on pearls and makeup for the occasion.

  “I had to give a message to Cole,” Livia leaned in to explain. “I had no idea this went on in the middle of the night.”

  Bea practically glowed as she looked at Cole. “This little church has been so lucky to get Mr. Cole. He’s like our adopted son. He has yet to choose a path for certain, but we really like to let him feel how proud we all are of him.” Bea nodded in the direction of the altar door. As if on cue, another older man entered, dressed in priest’s vestments. “I’m surprised Cole let you stay. What we do here is slightly unconventional.” Bea looked suspicious and in-the-know at the same time.

  “I’m in love with his brother.” Saying this out loud to Bea felt like jumping out of an airplane—thrilling and irreversible. In that instant Livia knew her love for Blake was as real as the church walls around her.

  Bea took in Livia’s face with wise eyes. “Why, yes. Yes you are.”

  The old woman patted Livia’s hand with her cold, soft one. On impulse Livia grasped Bea’s hand to warm it.

  Bea smiled again. “You’re a nice girl, Livia. Love is sacred. Hold onto it. I know a lot at my age. Everything else fails you—money, possessions, sex. But love never fails.” Bea touched a locket around her neck with her free hand. “Would you like to see my Aaron? You’ll have to help me. I can’t work these hands so well anymore.”

 
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