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NO EAST TARGET

 

Prologue

 

THE CLERIC ENTERED THE empty church and walked down the center aisle, hands clasped, mumbling a prayer. He reached the altar’s bottom step, smoothed his vestment, kneeled, and raised his eyes to the cross.

He begged the Lord’s forgiveness. Today, his country came first.

 

MASS HAD ENDED. The clergy and attendants walked to the rear of the church to bid good day to parishioners as they exited. The cleric, an ex-marine, loved both God and country. He had prayed and still struggled with anxiety over his decision.

There was no turning back now.

He smiled, nodded at an elderly man, and offered a handshake. He continued his rote greetings while his mind wandered. After his stint in Iraq, he’d sought a way to relieve his guilt and set his life’s purpose to doing something opposite of being a soldier. He went from taking lives to helping save souls.

Ten more people shook his hand. The cleric peered down the line, ran his fingers through a shock of sandy blonde hair, and became concerned. Where is he?

Leaning back, he could see his target in the line. He pulled a small photo from his vestment, cupped it, and confirmed he’d found the right person. His rate of breathing increased, as it always did when he was anxious, and a warm flush highlighted the lines in his leathery face.

As a Grunt in the Marine Corps, he’d been with numerous comrades on the field in their last days. Their ghosts often interrupted his thoughts, as they did today, to ask: why did you survive? Over the years, he’d found one answer: to become an instrument of God. But the nagging voices wouldn’t stop: how could you have killed an innocent?

More people passed out of the church.

He remembered the phone call.

 

“I read your military record. I know what you did. If it wasn’t for that unfortunate incident, your C.O. would have hailed you a hero.”

 

He thought he’d left it all behind.

 

“I have a need only you can fill.”

“Are you asking me to kill someone?”

“Nothing like any of that. You are the only one who can do this... the only one he will trust.”

“What crimes did he commit?”

“That will come after you agree.... If we don’t stop him, who knows how many other children will suffer.”

 

“Enjoy your day.” Another routine smile, nod, and a handshake.

He started when a palm touched his shoulder.

“You don’t look so good, Deacon. Do you need to sit?”

Deacon John knew him as well as anyone—but not as well as he might have thought.

“No. I’m fine.”

The man approaching now was older and heavier than he’d expected. The photo showed a younger person with a smooth complexion and a winning smile. Today his face sagged, and a scar cinched the skin over his eye.

How many children will I save...?

 

“Would this, in some small measure, lift your burden?”

“Yes, it would.”

 

The parishioner wore a drab brown suit, blue shirt and no tie. His oily, thinning hair clung to his scalp. A woman—he has a family—walked to his right; his hand touched her back to move her along.

The cleric held his breath. This genteel person with sad eyes is the target? He looks like a child’s kindly uncle. The man and his wife turned to him. He nodded to the woman, reached out, and clasped the palm of her husband in both of his. You can explain your sickness to God.

He peered into the man’s eyes as he squeezed the entrapped hand. “Have a good day.”

“The same to you, Deacon.” The man smiled. “Can I have my hand back?”

“Of course, of course.” He let go, still staring... still wondering if he’d done the right thing as the man left the church.

The deacon whispered the words of Pope Francis: “There is no sin God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away.”

He prayed that was true.

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