Omega Days (Volume 1)
Author:John L. Campbell

Omega Days (Volume 1) - By John L. Campbell


San Francisco - The Tenderloin

Xavier Church sat on a bowed, second-hand sofa while a window fan pulled evening air into the tiny living room. The apartment was small and furnished from thrift shops, but it was clean. Jesus stared down from every wall, featured in the last supper, his moment of crisis in the garden and many other scenes. Crucifixes and ceramic Virgin Mary’s were everywhere.

He sipped at a glass of lemonade, listening to Mrs. Robles puttering and stalling in the kitchen. Across from him an 80’s era television sat silently on a metal stand, reflecting his image in shadow tones. Staring back at him was a once-handsome man in his middle forties with

close-cut, graying hair, wearing the black suit and white collar of a priest. The collar seemed at odds with his boxer’s build, and the cruel pink scar which split his dark brown face. It started above his left eyebrow, snaking down the side of his nose and across his cheek before hooking back in to end at his chin. Not handsome anymore. Not since he was seventeen, when LaRay Johns caught him outside an Oakland 7-11.

Mrs. Robles finally returned to the living room carrying something wrapped in a dish towel, cradling it in both hands and setting it gently on the coffee table in front of the priest. Only in her thirties, she looked twenty years older, worn down from a hard life here in the Tenderloin. She was still in her work clothes, the uniform of a cleaning company, one of her three jobs.

“I find this in his room, Padre.” She perched on the edge of a chair and clasped her hands tightly in her lap, watching him with eyes red from crying.

Xavier lifted the edge of the towel, revealing a black, short-barreled revolver. “Did you ask him where he got it?”

Mrs. Robles nodded. “But he no tell me. He curse at me, tell me to mind my business. But I know he get it from those boys.”

The woman didn’t need to tell him who those boys were. It could only be 690K, the Latin gang which controlled this part of San Francisco. The 690 represented an address, supposedly where their founding member – a gangster now long dead himself – had made his first kill, an apartment building which his followers had turned into a shrine and where no one dared live. The K stood for killers. They were as ruthless as MS-13, and dreamed of one day rivaling the size and reach of that infamous gang. Recruiting young was their specialty, the random murder of an innocent their initiation. Xavier knew them well.

“Has he been going to school?”

She shook her head.

Xavier let the dish towel fall back over the pistol. Years of running the parish youth center and providing counseling for inner city families had taught him many things. One was that by the time a gun came into the house, it was usually too late. He hated the idea, hated the pessimism which had steadily crept into his life, tainting his views on everything and souring his belief in the goodness of people. He prayed for strength, but the thought that mankind as a whole was happy in its race towards damnation, content to abuse and destroy one another, had taken hold and grown in him. He hated his own weakness most of all, his inability to fight back against this cancerous attitude.

He forced a smile at Mrs. Robles. “Let me talk to him.”

She smiled back and came to him, taking his hands in hers and squeezing them, and then left the room. Xavier saw the gratitude in her eyes, the belief that he would actually help her son, and he felt like a fraud. Voices in Spanish came from the other room, one soft and the other sharp, angry. Then a fourteen-year-old boy slouched into the room, head down with his hands in his pockets, being prodded along by his mother. He dropped into an armchair across from the priest, crossed his arms and looked away. Mrs. Robles stood in the kitchen doorway, nervously smoothing her uniform apron.

“Hey, Chico.” Xavier used the boy’s nickname. “I haven’t seen you around the center for a while. You don’t like boxing anymore?”

A shrug.

“You should come by Saturday night. The fight’s on pay-per-view, and we’re all going to order pizza and hang out.” No reply. “Your friends miss you.”

“They’re not my friends. Just a bunch of losers.”

“You’ve got some new friends now, huh?”

Chico crossed his arms tighter, still not looking at the priest.

“Is that where this came from?” Xavier gestured at the lump under the dish towel. “Want to talk about it?”

The boy glanced at the table. “Not really.”

Xavier looked at the boy, a skinny adolescent in need of a haircut, trying desperately to grow a mustache. He wore baggy jeans and a long sleeve, plaid flannel shirt buttoned to the neck and down to the wrists. Some styles never changed. The priest noticed that his left sleeve was dark and reddish just below the elbow.

“What happened to your arm?”

Another shrug.

“Roll up your sleeve for me, Chico.”

He hesitated, then unbuttoned the cuff and slid the flannel up past his elbow, wincing. A blood-soaked bandage was wrapped around his arm, and at the sight of it his mother gasped and crossed herself.

“What happened?” asked Xavier.

“I was coming home from school.” He looked at his mother and curled his lip. “I did go today, I wasn’t lying. I cut through an alley and got jumped by a homeless guy. Crazy fu… guy bit me.”

Xavier saw that the boy was sweating. “Take a ride with me to the ER, Chico. We’ll get it looked at, just to be-”

The apartment door crashed open, wood splinters flying, banging hard into the wall and smashing the glass frame of Jesus ministering to children. Two men rushed in, not much older than Chico. One was bigger, his head shaved bald, the other more stocky with slicked back hair. Both had ‘690K’ tattooed in small black characters at the corners of their left eyes, and both held black automatics at arm’s length, turned sideways.

Mrs. Robles screamed and moved towards her son, but Slicked Back pistol whipped her across the face, sending her to the floor. Xavier started off the couch, but the gangbanger turned the automatic on him. “Sit the fuck down!”

Chico Robles swore and charged them, but the bald one punched him hard in the side of the head, knocking him to his knees. He straddled the fallen boy from behind and took a fistful of his hair, jerking his head back.

“So you a little bitch, huh?”

Chico cried out as Baldy twisted his hair.

“You was supposed to meet Chato, let him watch you do someone, show me you had balls. That was two days ago.”

“I was gonna do it, I swear!”

“Yeah, sure you was.” Another jerk of the hair, another cry. “You pussied out like a little bitch.”

“Do him, Perro!” Chato yelled, keeping his pistol pointed at the priest.

Baldy – Perro – shoved his own gun against the back of Chico’s head. “Ain't gonna be no bitches in my set.”

Xavier held up his hands. “Wait. Take a second, Perro, think about it.”

The gangbanger looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “Bitch, no one gave you permission to use my name.”

“Yeah,” said Chato, taking a step closer, prodding the air with his pistol.

“He’s just a kid, man,” said Xavier, glancing at Chato’s gun. The opening of the barrel looked big enough for a train to come out of it. “You made your point, he’s not good enough for you. Why not split?”

“Shut up, Padre,” snarled Perro. He gave Chico’s head a rough shake and leaned in close to the boy’s ear. “After you I’m gonna do the priest, and then your mama. Me and Chato both gonna fuck her first, though.”

“Yeah, yeah!” yelled Chato. “Do him, Perro, do him!”

Perro clicked back the hammer of the automatic. “Goodnight, bitch.”

An all too familiar rage boiled inside the priest, and Xavier did nothing to hold it back. His hand shot out, snatching the revolver out of the dish towel. It came up quickly and he pulled the trigger twice, knocking Chato against the wall. Perro looked up in surprise and swung his automatic towards the priest, firing, as Xavier turned the revolver on him. The crash of Perro’s gun was deafening, the white of muzzle flash at close range blinding as something whispered past the priest’s ear. He pulled the trigger of the revolver, once, twice, three times, four and clicking. Perro was still firing, and something hot kissed Xavier’s cheek. Then the bald gangbanger was falling backwards, tipping over the TV and going down with it in an explosion of glass and plastic.

Silence then, with only the thumping of his heart in his ears. Xavier was standing, didn’t remember getting to his feet, and his nose burned with the scent of cordite and the sharp tang of blood. He stood with his arm outstretched, blinking, the revolver hot in his right hand, suddenly heavy. He let it fall to the floor and stared at his hand, while something warm and wet ran down his cheek and neck.

Chico cried and crawled to his mother, taking her in his arms and stroking her hair, yelling for her to wake up. The frightened faces of neighbors appeared in the hall beyond the open doorway, voices speaking urgently in Spanish as in the distance sirens began to wail.

Father Xavier Church felt his legs give out and he collapsed back onto the couch. He couldn’t stop staring at his hand.

Red and blue lights flashed in the street in front of the apartment building, squad cars and ambulances packed in tightly, uniformed officers warning away the curious. The ambulance carrying Mrs. Robles and her son, who refused to leave her side, had already left. Near the steps of the building, a man with white hair and a windbreaker zipped up to his priest’s collar stood talking with two detectives, one a black sergeant and the other an Hispanic lieutenant. They had just finished telling the older man what had happened.

Monsignor Wellsley glanced over to where Xavier was sitting at the back of an ambulance, a medic applying a bandage to the side of his face where a bullet had carved a red furrow.

“The men he shot?”

The sergeant jerked a thumb at the apartment building. “Both dead. He got one in the chest and the throat. The bigger one caught a single round in the forehead. The other shots went wild.”

The lieutenant gave his sergeant a look. “Thanks for the graphics, Tommy. Father, they were both known gangbangers, and it looks like they came here to execute the boy. Your priest got them first.”

The monsignor looked again at Father Church, who sat quietly, staring at nothing. “What happens now?”

The detectives looked at each other. “We’re in pretty strange territory here, Monsignor. It looks like a clear case of self-defense, or going to the defense of another. But a priest as the shooter is a new one for me.”

“Is he going to be charged?”

The lieutenant shrugged. “I can’t say what the DA will do with this, Father. But I really don’t want to book him tonight. We’ve got the weirdest calls coming in, and we’re pretty busy. I’d just as soon release him to you, if that’s okay.”

The sergeant nodded beside him.

“I don’t see him making a run for it,” the lieutenant said. “If the Church will take responsibility for him tonight, and make sure he comes in tomorrow morning to make a statement, I don’t see any reason why he can’t go with you.”

Wellsley shook their hands. “Thank you, Lieutenant. We’ll be available for whatever you need.”

The cops nodded and moved away quickly, in a hurry to be off on other business. The monsignor walked over to the ambulance, where Xavier just looked up at him and shook his head. Wellsley thanked the paramedic, who told him it wasn’t a serious wound and to treat it with Tylenol. He put an arm around his priest and guided him through the emergency vehicles.

“Let’s get you home, Xavier.”

Monsignor Wellsley had produced a Valium from somewhere and ordered Xavier to take it before he went to sleep in his room at the rectory. His dreams were dark, twisting corridors filled with gunfire and screams, and several times he came to in the night, groggy and disoriented, certain he heard helicopters overhead and screaming outside his window. Sleep quickly pulled him back down each time.

A headache was waiting when he awoke, daylight filtering through the curtains and turning the small, simple room a faded yellow. The memory of last night was waiting too, and he immediately tried to pray, as he had every morning since his late twenties, searching for an answer, some understanding, not daring to ask forgiveness

He couldn’t do it. The words sounded false, and he had the unshakable feeling that he was praying to a God who had already turned away. Instead, Xavier sat on the edge of the bed for over an hour, the headache making his eyes hurt, replaying the scene in the apartment. He heard the gunfire, could smell the blood, saw it splattered on peeling wallpaper and soaking into cheap carpeting. He sensed that he had walked off a cliff, one from which there could be no return.

And just like that, he knew he wasn’t a priest anymore. He waited to feel the great emptiness which would come with that knowledge, the void left in the place of his faith and vows, but there was nothing. And that was even more frightening, for it suggested that his faith had left him long ago, and made him wonder if it had ever really been there at all.

Xavier put on jeans and sneakers, then pulled on a black sweatshirt with fading letters which read St. Joseph’s Boxing. On most men it would have been baggy, but on Xavier it could not conceal his broad ‘V-shape’ of wide shoulders, back and chest muscles. He visited the hallway bathroom, the mirror revealing bloodshot eyes and a face which looked aged overnight. Three Tylenol later, he went downstairs.

The rectory was quiet and empty, and even the secretary was not at her usual post, a desk near the front door. On the dining room table was a note from the monsignor, asking him to please stay in the rectory and not use the internet or answer the phone until the bishop and the Archdiocese could be consulted.

The beat of a helicopter close overhead made him look at the ceiling and think about his dreams. He went to the kitchen, where he found Father Frye standing at the sink and looking out the window. The smell of coffee filled the room, and he poured himself a cup. Frye, a man in his eighties, didn’t look away from the window.

“Where is everyone?” Xavier asked, adding a packet of Splenda and stirring.

The old man waved a hand. “Some sort of emergency. Been gone since last night.” Frye was all but retired, and too old to go out much.

“What kind of emergency?”

A siren yowled in the distance, and the old man shrugged. “Can’t say. I couldn’t find the TV remote, and I’m too old to figure the damn thing out without it.”

Xavier smiled over his coffee and switched on the small flat screen mounted to a wall in the corner of the kitchen. The volume was down. A reporter was saying something on screen and gesturing at a tank in the background. Then the tank fired silently, making the reporter duck as the camera jerked to the right. A crowd of people a block away was surging up a smoky city street, backlit by burning cars. Xavier joined the old man at the sink. “What are you looking at?”

“Sister Emily,” he said. “I think so, anyway. My eyes aren’t so good anymore.”

A small, walled garden separated the rectory from Sisters of Mercy, the convent next door. Out on the grass, in front of a flower bed, a small, stooped woman in a pale blue and white nun’s habit was standing wearing gardening gloves, facing away from them. On the grass nearby was a basket with rose shears sticking out of it. The nun’s arms hung limp at her sides, and she was swaying back and forth.

Father Frye squinted. “I don’t know if she’s praying or just daydreaming, but she’s been that way for a while now. Lord, I hope it’s not a stroke.”

Xavier looked at the old nun. She didn’t look natural. “Maybe-”

The BOOM of an explosion rolled over the yard, and both men jumped as a cloud of black smoke rose from somewhere beyond the convent. Sister Emily’s head snapped up at the sound.

They both started towards the kitchen door, but stopped short when they saw the images on the silent TV screen. A shaking camera showed a San Francisco street – a trolley car burned in the background – filled with police cars and military vehicles stopped at odd angles. A crowd of people were moving towards a small cluster of cops and soldiers, who were firing into them. Only a few went down to the gunfire, and the crowd pressed forward. The cops and troops began backing up as they neared, and on the left side of the screen a single officer was suddenly jumped by people who bore him to the ground and began tearing at him with hands and teeth.

Xavier stared at the images, disbelieving, and was slow to notice Father Frye going out the back door. “Sister Emily?” the man called. “Come inside, dear.”

The younger priest tore his eyes from the screen and followed him out. Father Frye was walking across the grass towards the nun. Sister Emily turned at the sound of his voice, and Xavier saw at once that the front of her habit was soaked with blood, one of her cheeks torn nearly away and dangling by a flap of skin. “Dear God,” he whispered.

“Sister!” Frye saw the wound and ran to her, and she reached for him as he arrived. She growled, gripped him by the arms and sank her teeth into his face. The old man screamed as the smaller nun took him to the ground and bit him again, this time in the throat, her hands clawing at his arms as he tried to fend her off.

Xavier sprinted towards them and grabbed Sister Emily by the waist, pulling her off. A piece of Father Frye’s throat came away in her teeth and she snarled, trying to twist around. The old woman was nearly weightless in his powerful arms, and he flung her high and far. She landed with a crunch of brittle bones and rolled, as on the grass the old man lay on his back, pawing at his throat and gurgling as jets of blood sprayed into the morning air. Xavier went to him, dropping to his knees, but already the blood was losing strength, and the old man stiffened, staring at the sky with empty eyes.

A growl came from behind, and Xavier turned to see Sister Emily on her feet once more, stalking towards him, a rib jutting out of her side and her head hanging to one side on a fractured neck. Her eyes were milky and her hands were raised, fingers clutching as she chewed a piece of skin which still had whisker stubble on it.

The bang of a wooden gate made him turn, and he saw more nuns entering the yard through a stone archway from Sisters of Mercy, half a dozen of them, each covered in blood and horrific wounds, one missing an arm, another most of her face. A hand clutched at his shoulder and he jumped away a second before Sister Emily’s teeth snapped at the air. The arriving nuns gave out a collective moan and moved towards him.

With a last glance at the man on the ground, Xavier ran back to the kitchen door, slamming it behind him, fingers fumbling to turn the lock in the knob. Moments later the nuns were at the door, thumping against it with fists and bloody palms, streaking the glass, moaning and glaring at him.

Xavier Church had seen dead before, in hospitals and tenement fires, drug overdoses, the destruction left by drive-by shootings, and in the small apartment of a poor Hispanic woman and her son. He knew it when he saw it, and though it was impossible, he was seeing it on the other side of the kitchen door. That moment of disconnection from reality pushed over into the realm of madness when Father Frye appeared behind the cluster of nuns, his throat open to reveal a torn larynx, eyes cloudy. Frye moaned with the rest of them and crowded against the door.

He backed into the kitchen, unable to take his eyes off the people – if that’s what they were, he thought – on the other side of the glass. On the TV behind him, a news image showed Red Square in Moscow, as rows of troops fired into a mass of people which moved relentlessly forward. The Kremlin was burning in the background.

Father Church turned and ran through the rectory, to the corner of the front room where the secretary’s desk sat. Behind him came the sound of breaking glass, followed by enraged snarls. He looked at the row of hooks where the keys for the rectory’s vehicles were kept. The hooks were empty. The sound of cracking wood came from the back of the house, and Xavier bolted out the front door, into the street, and into a world quickly coming apart.