A small light shone in the back of the cathedral, the only illumination in the vast, domed building. The stained glass windows were shrouded in darkness; not a glimmer of blue or gold or red could be seen.
It had a ponderous, eerie atmosphere. Even the bishop felt its weight, as he emerged from the back of the church and began to walk slowly along the pews. He had just finished the final confession, and was shaking off the uneasy feeling it produced.
As bishop, Howard Halkitt heard few confessions; the priests heard most of them, but someone had to hear theirs, and if he wa
s in the cathedral he would often take on one or two more. It was always good to know what was going on in the hearts and souls of the congregation members, he thought.
This last one, though, was disturbing. The man in the little confessional was confused, angry, even a little crazy, thought the bishop. He seemed to be less interested in confessing and more interested in confronting. It was rare that a parishioner caused him enough concern that he wished he could easily call the police, or at least a psychiatrist.
But there had been no overt threat. He could only call on God.
When he reached the altar, Halkitt — if nothing else, an honestly devout man — looked up and began to pray for guidance. There was a sick feeling developing in his stomach. Was this man really disturbed? Would he hurt someone? Were any of the other members of the congregation at risk? What would God have him do?
As far as the bishop could glean, the man hated nearly everyone who was not white, heterosexual, and Christian. One of those. God knew there were a few of them out there, although they were, fortunately, reasonably rare in Saskatoon, particularly as the city grew and became more cosmopolitan and multicultural. Immigrants were starting to come into the community in larger numbers, and Halkitt could feel the city become more welcoming, and less suspicious. It was a good thing.
But then there was this man. He expressed himself in strange, clipped sentences, sprinkled with profanity and constantly asking the bishop to agree with his point of view. That was not exactly what was supposed to happen in a confessional.
Halkitt remained before the altar, thinking.
Then he heard steps….soft steps, creeping toward him down the carpeted aisle.
“Ed? Is that you? Paul?” asked Halkitt, turning around and expecting the janitor, or perhaps the St. Eligius priest, over his right shoulder.
“No,” said a voice that Halkitt thought he recognized. The steps came more quickly; hard breathing filled the air. Suddenly, there was a flash of gold, rising over Halkitt’s head, and a shriek of fury.
There were no more words. The heavy object, encrusted with gilt and precious stones, caught the bishop on the side of the head with a sickening thud.
He cried out, and fell to the floor. There was no time to call for his God.
The phone rang for the twentieth time in the past three hours, and no exaggeration. How, Grace asked herself, was it possible for the phone to ring that often on a Sunday night in Saskatoon? Full moon?
“StarPhoenix newsroom, Grace Rampling speaking.”
“Hi, Grace. My name is Bruce. I’m a member of the Pride Chorus. Do you have a minute?”
Did she have a minute? On this unusually busy news day, she still had four stories to write and police checks to do. It was six o’clock and the copy editor was breathing down her neck. She could hear the bustle on the news desk, as the front section was being put together. Those four stories were destined for that section. Deadline was 10 p.m. Grace sighed. How much longer was she going to be the weekend reporter at the newspaper? Damn it, she was already 30. It was time for Monday to Friday, and maybe a social life.
“Hi Bruce, how are you?” she said, resigning herself to an even busier night.
“I’m fine. Well, physically fine,” said a resonant tenor voice. “Look, something has happened, and I’m wondering if you’d be interested in doing a story.”
Everyone started their story pitches this way. Grace sighed, mentally, again. How can you tell someone if you’re interested in a story when you know nothing about it?
“Can you give me the short version? Then I could give you an idea about whether it’s newsworthy.”
“Well, our chorus…are you familiar with it?”
“We were supposed to sing tomorrow night at St. Eligius. Our director just got a call from the synod office —I think it was from the church secretary — to say they aren’t going to let us sing in the sanctuary. It was a concert, you know, not a part of a church service or anything, and now they’re backing out on our contract. I mean, we pay for the use of it, and everything.”
By this time, Bruce’s voice was rising and Grace could hear the anger in it.
“Bruce, do you feel comfortable giving me your last name?”
“I…I guess so. Are you going to quote me?”
“Probably, yes — unless you would like me to speak to your choir director. I would like to speak to both of you.”
The other four stories – well, at least three of them – would have to wait. A gay men’s choir being booted out of a church venue was not only a good story, it was also an important human rights story. Not much else on the story schedule would stack up against this one. There had been one possible arson that day, and some assaults, but not much out of the ordinary.
There was a moment of silence on the other end.
“OK,” said Bruce at last. “My last name is Stephens.”
“And the director’s name?”
“Tell me about the concert, Bruce. What were you going to sing? Was it religious music, or show tunes, or was it something … well, less church suitable?”
“It was supposed to be our usual spring concert,” said the singer. “We do Broadway tunes, both solos and full choir, light operetta numbers – Gilbert and Sullivan, that sort of thing – and a few pop songs. Nothing salacious. Honest,” he added, with a small hint of humour and mischief in his voice.
“Why were you going to sing at St. Eligius?”
“Third Avenue United was already booked. That’s one of our usual venues. We decided to try St. Eligius; it has fantastic acoustics. Ever been?”
She had, actually. Third Avenue was known for its incredible acoustics, but St. Eligius was a close second. While covering arts, she had seen many acts there -- mostly instrumental trios and quartets, but also heard a few singers. The effect was transporting. It was a beautiful church.
“I have. I take your point. What reason did the secretary give your director?”
“He just said they changed their minds; that hosting our chorus was not appropriate for the cathedral. Wow.” Bruce had to stop for a moment, his throat closing up. After all the milestones gay people had reached, the hard-won acceptance, he couldn’t believe this was happening.
“Bruce. It’s okay. It’s upsetting, Can you tell me what the fee was?”
“I think it was $500, but you’d have to ask Alan.”
“How many members are there in the Pride Chorus?”
“Fifty, more or less. All men, of various ages. We’re thinking of inviting women, and maybe trying a mixed gay-lesbian chorus, or maybe two separate Pride Choruses, but the choir started as a men’s thing…art mixed with support, you know?”
“Sure. Could you please give me Alan’s number? I had better get going, or I won’t reach anyone at the church. And your number, too, please.”
Bruce Stephens provided the requested numbers, then asked, tentatively, “how…what…I don’t know what I’m asking. How will the story be received, so to speak?”
“Most people who read the story, the sane ones, will understand the problem. I’d bet that will be about 80 percent of them. Try not to worry about that, Bruce.”
“I’ll try not to. I had to call, you know?”
“I know. Thanks, Bruce. I’ll be in touch.”
Grace hung up, seething. What was the matter with the church management? Were they mad? How could they do that to the city’s gay men’s chorus, or if it came to it any chorus for that matter, and on such short notice? And from the church’s perspective, did they have any clue at all about public relations?
A quick call to Alan Haight confirmed Bruce’s information. But calls to three numbers at the church office brought no answer. Balance, in news, is everything, and it was crucial to get the cathedral’s side of the issue. Grace thought for a moment, then leapt to her feet – it was already 6:45 – and, pulling on her parka and scarf, approached the madly-typing news editor, looking slightly pale and harried under the bright fluorescent lights.
“I have a story for you.”
“You have, I hope, four stories for me,” said John Powers, looking at her list, and then, expectantly, at her.
“I don’t think so,” said Grace. “We have a gay choir getting kicked out of a church. Catholic.”
“What? Which church?”
“The cathedral. St. Eligius.”
“The concert was supposed to be tomorrow. Pretty shitty for them to pull the plug at this late hour, plus pretty shitty to pull it at all.”
“No kidding,” agreed John, looking at his watch, and then at the four holes waiting for copy on the pages.
He grunted, and thought. John Powers was nothing if not a true newsman, and he smelled a story with legs. Unfortunately, he also saw vast tracts of white space in Monday’s paper.
“I’ll make you a deal. If you finish the fire story, you’re off the hook for the other three stories IF you deliver the gay choir. I’ll find some more copy from Canadian Press or the Leader-Post, or something. I hope.”
“Thanks, John,” said Grace, already dashing for the back door.
“Where the hell are you going?” he called after her.
“To the church. It’s right behind us, not even a block away. I’ll be back pronto. Can’t reach anyone by phone.”
“OK,” John yelled at her back.
Grace pulled her scarf around her thick auburn mop, put on her gloves and checked again for her notepad, cellphone and digital tape recorder. Pen? Door pass card? Check. It would be nice to get back into the newspaper building once the interviews were done. The security guard could not be trusted to answer the bell; and if he did, couldn’t be trusted to actually let you in without giving you the third degree, and Grace didn’t always win those battles.
It was cold, not that minus 25 in March is that unusual in Saskatoon. It was getting very dark as she walked quickly out the door, across the parking lot and down the mouldering alley toward the church office, skin already tingling and brown eyes watering in the icy breeze. She shuddered from exhaustion and cold; it had been a very long day already, and she hadn’t eaten for hours.
As she hurried down the alley, she thought how ridiculous it was that at the turn of the millennium, there was still this antipathy toward gay people. She thought the local churches were rather enlightened, but this showed otherwise. Certainly Third Avenue was open-minded, although that was a United church, and it was also something of a public arts venue. Still, that was no excuse for the cathedral management to behave as it had.
She arrived a bit breathlessly at the office door and knocked loudly. There were no lights that she could see, so it was unlikely anyone was still there. Still, she tried the door. It was locked, of course.
There was another door at the east end, so she trekked over to it and knocked again. Nothing. Damn it. She’d have to go back to the newsroom and start looking up the names of the priest, bishop and secretary, and try to find their home numbers.
Shifting her heavy bag from one shoulder to another, she turned back toward the alley, and started to hurry back. Wait, Grace told herself…what if someone is in the church? It was mostly dark, but she thought she could see one small light at the back.
A few steps took her to the beautifully carved, heavy wooden door, with its arched top and wrought iron trim, and as she went up to knock, she discovered that it was open. Grace felt a bit of a thrill; it wasn’t a fool’s errand after all. Someone was about.
Knocking again, she pushed the door open and walked in to the beautiful church. Stained glass windows ringed the sanctuary, she knew, even if they couldn’t be seen at present; and the wooden pews, oiled to a soft shine, glowed in the dim light. Church sanctuaries, at least the lovely ones, always awed her a little, despite her secular views on most things.
“Hello?” called Grace. “Hello…is anyone here? I’m from the newspaper.”
There was no answer, in fact no sound at all. It was eerily silent. Grace walked toward the altar, away from the dim little light — a reading light, perched over a music stand – and into the relative gloom.
Calling “hello?” rather more softly, Grace peered along the pews and peeked at the confessionals, wondering if a priest was cloistered inside one of them.
Then her foot hit something. Something soft, but not yielding. She almost tripped, but held her balance and realized it was not something, but someone — someone lying across the aisle.
Shocked, Grace let out a strangled yell, and looked down at a person in clerical clothing right at her feet.
Backing up with speed and suddenly breathing hard, Grace pulled out her cellphone, clicked a button to turn on the screen light, and pointed the phone at the person. A priest or some other high-ranking cleric lay in front of her, bleeding copiously from – the head? The neck? Gore was flowing and congealing on the floor.
Grace sank to the floor, her legs unwilling to hold her up, and tried not to throw up. Maybe he had fallen and hit his head, but maybe someone had done this to him. If it was the latter, was that someone still around?
Grace looked around furtively. Suddenly panicking, as the thought of someone watching her sunk in, she crawled into the closest space between two pews, madly pressing her phone’s buttons to dial John’s number.
He answered in one ring. Thank God.
“John,” she hissed. “Oh my God, John….I think there’s a dead guy in the sanctuary. He’s bleeding all over the place…can you hear me?”
“Grace? What the hell? I can just barely hear you. Are you all right?”
“I don’t know…I can’t see or hear anyone but I’m crouched in between two pews,” she whispered, as loudly as she dared.
“Do you know if he’s dead? Or are you guessing?”
“I’m guessing. I haven’t felt for a pulse or anything. There’s an incredible amount of blood, though.”
“I’ll call 911. And I’ll be right there.”
Grace hung up, then threw up. Retching and wiping her mouth, she looked over at the body again, took as deep a breath as her pounding heart would allow, then crawled toward the man lying before the altar, stretched out an arm, and found his wrist.
He was definitely dead.