“Who’s the exorcist for the archdiocese?”
“Yeah. When’s he coming?”
“Then who’d you ask?”
“Sacred Brotherhood of Francis Borgia.”
“Borgia? He’ll be lucky to keep his intestines.”
Maldonado stood up and went over to the table. It was spread with sweetbread, egg tarts, queijadas, and a jar of coffee milk. “I’m about to lose mine,” he told Barbosa. He opened the coffee milk, sniffed it, and screwed the lid back on. “Stuff’s bad. Where’d you get this?”
“Private stock,” said Barbosa. “He kept it downstairs.”
Maldonado picked up an egg tart and ate it. “He only stays in this house during Holy Week. That jar could be a month old.”
“Figured we’d get thirsty. No use wasting good coffee milk.”
“That’s the whole point. It’s not good.”
“Want some coke?”
“The fuck does that have to do with anything?”
“I don’t know. You didn’t like the coffee milk—”
“So you thought I wanted coke? Jesus. How long’s he been in there?”
“Anyway—about the coffee milk. It’s not that I didn’t like it. It was bad. In fact, it went bad a month ago. Don’t tell me I didn’t like it, like it’s a preference. No one could like it.”
Barbosa came over and helped himself to a few of the pastries. “Should’ve brought some wine,” he said.
Maldonado looked him in the eye. “Was Gallo really that wild?”
“Worse. Before I caught him, he burned all his clothes in the backyard. Smeared himself in shit. Said he was leaving to confess his sins.”
“And you called an exorcist?”
“Why else would he say that?”
“He’s dying,” said Maldonado. “Few years ago he got a brain tumor. You notice he blinks a lot?”
“Get a doctor?”
“Priest. A real one, so he can read last rites.”
“It’s Palm Sunday. Hard enough getting an exorcist, and they do jack shit.”
There was a rapping from the inside of the study door, then Father Tremblee’s voice: “Could you keep it down? We’re starting.” The two men looked at each other, holding their paper plates. Barbosa tried not to laugh. “Vade retro satana,” Tremblee began. “For He has stripped you of your power… Cast you into outer darkness… everlasting ruin…”
“You were in the study?”
Barbosa said yes.
“You tied him down?”
“Got the book?”
He frowned. “We’ll get it when this is over.”
“With Father Hacksaw in there? These ain’t real Catholics. They amputated a guy’s foot because it was speaking to them. That’s why you’re calling the archdiocese. I’m getting that book.”
“You think Herrera wants that book?”
“Hold on. Do I think Herrera wants what?”
“I heard you. What I can’t believe is you tied him down in the fucking study and left the book. Unbelievable.”
He crept to the door and found it locked. Barbosa shrugged. “I’ll tell you,” Maldonado said, “any man goes to Herrera with anything gets clipped.”
“That’s what I said. Coming back from Felt in a trash bag, with no kidneys.”
“The boss turning snitch is the last straw. To be honest, Gallo’s lucky he lasted. Doesn’t matter if his own body kills him. When he’s gone, he’s gone.”
“He’s gone soon. And I ain’t that stupid.”
“Santos might be.”
From the third floor, they heard murmurs on the landing. A purse dragged up the stairs. Then it began to rain.
“Did you lock the door?” said Maldonado.
It opened and the silhouette of Santos stomped in. He slammed the door shut and locked it in two places.
“Lord loves a leper,” mumbled Barbosa.
“There’s a crowd on the stairs,” Santos told them. “All them bothered velhas.”
“Think they’d bother you?” said Maldonado. “Left half your face on the pillow.”
Santos took off his jacket and hung it over one of the chairs. “What do they want?”
“The women on the stairs.”
“That’s old Joao’s mother, and I heard Mrs. Goncalves. They’re worried if Gallo goes, so does the bagman.”
“You got a haircut,” Barbosa said.
“Yeah, job interview. Tired of the parking lot bit.”
“Interview? You stripping at Cadillac’s now?”
“Must be selling his dandruff.” Maldonado gave him a squint: “Cops outside?”
“None that I saw.”
“Then go look. Or be condemned to watching me and Barbie eat these queijadas.”
Santos inched toward the table. With quick strikes, he grabbed the coffee milk and an egg tart and retreated to the corner.
“Put that down,” said Maldonado. “Trust me, you shouldn’t drink it.”
Santos unscrewed the lid.
“Just look at it and think about drinking it, all right? We don’t have time—”
In three large gulps, Santos swallowed the coffee milk.
“You’re making a mistake.”
“What, this?” said Santos, and he hurled his egg tart at Maldonado. The slender man ducked and the pastry plopped against the back of Barbosa’s neck.
He turned from the window: “You leper fuck.”
Santos went to his right and ran past the table into the bathroom. Barbosa chased him, but he was too slow and the latch clicked before he could reach the door. He beat his fist against it. “Once the old man gets exorcised, you’re next. Prick.”
“Should’ve brought wine,” said Maldonado.
The front door opened and there appeared a man wearing a cassock. In his right hand he held a black leather satchel.
Barbosa pulled his revolver. “How’d you open a locked door?”
After closing it, the priest looked squarely at him and said, “I’m Father Marques from Saint Tarcisius. The archdiocese asked me to administer last rites to Mister Gallo.”
“Who called you?” Maldonado said.
“The archbishop. He regretted he could not come personally, but today’s Palm Sunday.”
“Never heard of Saint Tarcisius. Is that in Gottasuckit, Rhode Island?”
“I’m not used to having pistols pointed at me. If you lowered it, I would be grateful.”
“Who’s outside?” said Barbosa.
“People from the neighborhood. They were curious and politely agreed to leave the house.”
“Put down the gun,” Maldonado said. Then he addressed Marques as though he were speaking to a child: “And you, put down the case.”
Barbosa frisked him, but found nothing and went back to the window.
“If I may say something,” said Marques. “Every second you detain me is a second Gallo is closer to death. You want to jeopardize his soul? Leave him to the Borgias? Why was I called in the first place?”
Maldonado glanced at Barbosa, whose attention had already drifted back to the front yard. “All right,” he said. “But if the study’s locked, we may need to kick it open.”
“You’ve never been to seminary. Mister—?”
“For your friend’s sake, hurry.”
“Show me the host.”
“If you’re performing last rites, I want to see the host.”
“It’s in my satchel.” Marques knelt down and loosened the clasps. “You know, this one isn’t mine. Got it from Father Correa…”
The droning of Tremblee continued in the study.
Barbosa spun around from the windowsill, but it was too late.
Santos heard four shots and a door kicked open. He stood on the toilet seat and peered out the window. It was three floors from where he stood to the ground. The drainpipe ran on the other side of the house, far out of reach. Then came a pounding from across the hall and another gunshot. The crowd below the porch began to swell; soon the police would arrive.
The coffee milk had started to nauseate him. After placing his back to the wall, he threw the latch. One more shot, followed by the breaking of glass, and then Santos saw an enormous hulking Gallo strangling a priest. They stepped together back towards the buffet table and fell over it. As he got closer, Santos saw Gallo’s skin was light blue and he was foaming at the mouth. The boss gave nothing more than a few grunts while throttling the priest, who fired another shot through Gallo’s stomach to seemingly no effect.
From the priest came a thin gravelly rasp, almost a hiss. Gallo moved his head to the side of his neck and bit off his ear. The priest’s legs kicked out a few times before Gallo collapsed on him and they stopped moving.
He saw Barbosa and Maldonado dead on the floor; the exorcist, in his purple stole, lay with his head smashed open. From Maldonado’s boot he took a knife, cut off a few of Gallo’s fingers, and pocketed the rings. He slipped out the wallet and in Gallo’s jacket, which he recognized as Barbosa’s, found the black book.
Herrera could use it. And maybe he’d been right about Gallo slipping. There were plenty of opportunities with a new boss. Hadn’t Herrera bought the Felt Club downtown? They listened to him on the Hill like they’d never listened to Gallo.
Santos fled down the stairs. The crowd was gathered by the street, so Santos went to the basement and out the bulkhead.
He’d parked the Nissan two blocks away. It was warm in the early afternoon. He watched families leaving the church down the street, the children clutching their palm leaf crosses, and he thanked God for His everlasting mercy.
— Max Thrax lives in Boston. His novella God Is A Killer (Close To The Bone) will be published in May 2022.