At 2:00 A.M. Matt Devine stepped outside the radio station, glad to find the parking lot deserted for once. What a guilty, if rare, pleasure. Staying an hour after his radio show ended meant that the loyal fans who gathered to greet him at 1:00 A.M. had given up and gone away.
He took a deep, liberating breath. Signing photos for fans in the wee hours was not a favorite part of his radio-shrink job.
Only four vehicles squatted on the otherwise empty parking lot. Each hugged a light pole, parked by staff members who knew they’d be among the last to leave and wanted as much light as possible against the dangers of the lonely night.
Wanting as much light as possible against the dangers of the lonely night. Sounded just like what his call-in clients craved.
Matt grimaced. Life was a metaphor, especially when you earned your living as a radio shrink. Still, he glanced carefully around. There was one particular “fan” he hoped never to see again. She made a habit of jumping him after he got off work in the wee hours, both here at WCOO and before that at ConTact, the hot line counseling service where he’d honed his phone advice technique.
Each parked vehicle reminded Matt of its owner: the producer/ radio personality known as Ambrosia’s late ’70s red Cadillac convertible; Dwight the technician’s beat-up mini-van; Keith’s decidedly downscale aging Toyota hatchback with its spindly tires about as wide as a ’60s necktie and that’s all.
Then there was his transportation.
Locked and tilted toward one of the sentinel parking lot lights the Hesketh Vampire’s convoluted silver silhouette looked like it belonged in a movie. The British custom motorcycle was borrowed wheels, but it could make a faster escape than the Volkswagen Beetle that was recently his, courtesy of Elvis. Or Elvis’s ghost. Or one of Elvis’s whacked-out impersonators. Or fans.
After his most recent unscheduled encounter with the woman Temple had nicknamed—Ouch! “nick” was the name of her game, all right—Kitty the Cutter, Matt felt safer with the ’cycle’s speed and agility, although more exposed on the bike than in a car. He still wasn’t sure that the phantom biker he glimpsed now and again wasn’t Miss Kitty. Then again, it might not be. If not, who was it? How about a ghost?
Matt smiled at his own fears. Monsters and ghosts. He was acting like a kid scaring himself with the dark. Except that it was indeed dark at this hour, and getting darker. Another metaphor.
He stopped thinking, an occupational hazard in both the radio talk-show game and his old vocation of priest, and went over to the streetlight-turned spotlight to unlock the bike, don his helmet and gloves, then spur the metal steed into the dull roar that would soon become a whine as it hit the streets and cruising speed.
* * *
Like any performer coming down from a late-night show, Matt was in no hurry to head home to the Circle Ritz.
He found himself pondering the mysteries of human, and more often inhuman, behavior after an hour of hearing everybody’s miseries. Now he had his own lethal mysteries to ponder. The current crop made his recent search for his lost stepfather look like a cakewalk. Poor Effinger, the ultimate loser; outclassed by an uppity hitwoman.
At least he assumed that was what Kitty O’Connor was. An odd, sadistically seductive hit woman, with a modus operandi of introducing herself to her victims. And, in his case, she had an even odder price. Or was it only his case? Was he part of a longtime pattern with her?
She had been Max Kinsella’s Waterloo years ago, when he was still a teenage tourist propelled into the lethal jig that politics, bombs, and the IRA had played for decades in Ireland. Now Kinsella, all grown up, was Matt’s personal bane, ever since he’d come back and taken Temple back, not that Matt had ever had her. It was easy to blame Max for Kitty’s brutal entrance into his own life. And wrong.
Wanting to resent Kinsella for every loss in his life, Matt tended to overlook one key fact: Kathleen O’Connor had first approached him during his hunt for Effinger. To this day, she still didn’t seem to know that Matt had become infatuated with Temple while Kinsella was among the missing. So Kitty was stalking him long before she could suspect any connection between him and Max, via Temple. She still seemed blind to the faint outlines of a former romantic triangle, and Matt would do anything to keep it that way. Temple must be protected at all costs. That was probably the only issue he and Kinsella would agree on.
The howl of the Vampire’s famously loud motor mimicked the chaos of his thoughts. The bike almost took its head like a willful steed. Soon the powerful motor was idling in another parking lot, this one utterly empty, except for the cold puddles of blue-green night lights.
A large, low building huddled like a bunker in the moonlight.
Matt locked the bike, hung the silver moon of his helmet on one handlebar, where it reflected its twin sister in the sky. Then he ambled across soundless asphalt to the sidewalks leading into the man-made Garden of Eden beyond the building.
Well, part Garden of Eden, he corrected himself. The other part of the Ethel M candy company’s famous cactus collection was Garden of Gethsemane. Garden of thorns. Where Jesus had spent his last hours before submitting to the mockery of trial, torture, and death.
Naturally, an ex-priest in Las Vegas needed to find someplace lone, harsh, and absolutely natural for contemplation. The area was meant for self-guided tours, kind of like life itself, and was a no-man’s-land at this hour, even in around-the-clock Las Vegas: 24/7, like they said. Everywhere was getting onto Las Vegas time nowadays: twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Somewhere in that blur of time, Sunday had been swallowed up. Were God interested in creating Las Vegas, which Matt was pretty sure He would pass on, as He had on Sodom and Gomorrah, He’d probably skip taking the seventh day of rest off. Las Vegas and the Internet never slept.
Matt’s footsteps ground slightly against the paved walks someone had slipped into his Garden of Woe when he wasn’t looking.
When he’d first moved to Las Vegas, straight from leaving the priesthood, Matt had come here often, especially in the punishing summer heat. It reminded him of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness before he began his ministry, and struck him as fitting that he should tarry in a cactus garden at the end of his own ministry.
Tonight, though, Matt found that someone had paved purgatory (if not put up a parking lot, as the song said) since his last visit. Instead of raw sandy footpaths, broad sidewalks meandered among the cactus specimens. He couldn’t read the small identifying markers impaled in the ground by moonlight, but the plants’ bristling forms were somehow even more satisfying half-shrouded, their exact identities hidden.
A handsome wooden bench was now the centerpiece of second. His body. His virginity. The unblemished record of his priestly chastity. Since coming to Las Vegas, Matt had actually come to consider his sexual inexperience an encumbrance in dealing with a secular world. Kitty O’Connor wasn’t, as she pointed out, ugly, so why agonize over it? She probably wouldn’t kill him anyway, because once having forced him to do what he didn’t want to do, she’d want him to live with the aftertaste. Why not? The answer in his gut was simple: because it didn’t matter the issue or the history or even whether it was him or some other guy or girl: forcing someone against his will was coercion, and in the sexual arena, it was assault, molestation, rape.
So was that any worse suffering than the Passion of Christ and Way of the Cross? Identifying with Jesus was hubris, or delusion, but the issue Matt faced was simple self-sacrifice. What made his innocence so precious that one hair on one other person’s head should be harmed by it?
Kitty the Cutter had sliced right to the heart of the matter: pride. He was proud that he had left the priesthood not a fallen priest but a mistaken one. Why not be proud that he’d honored his promise of chastity, along with obedience and poverty? Maybe because—although any kid knows what being obedient and poor meant, being powerless—Matt had never really understood what chastity meant. Or, rather, what not being chaste promised.
His Achilles’ heel. Achilles was another of mythology’s indestructible demigods with one small, nagging vulnerability. No wonder the world had embraced the notion of a destructible God who chose to share human frailty, if not fallibility. Although even Jesus had hesitated in the Garden of Gethsemane. If this cup…
But…blasphemy! He wasn’t Jesus. He wasn’t here to prove he was either godlike or frail. He was here to…what? Do the best he could. Be the best he could be. Be in the army? Army of God.
Dying for the Cause was an honored act for both messiahs and martyrs. Living for a cause was sometimes trickier.
Matt had often thought that the old-time religion had emphasized too much self-abnegation. The Good Friday psalm came to mind, Jesus intoning as he walked meek as a lamb toward the Cross, “for I am a worm and no man.” Such self-abasement would not go over well with the human potential movement today.
It wasn’t going over with him now that he’d encountered someone who truly wished him ill. Ill in the sense of making him sick to his soul.
What did he most lose from caving in to Kitty the Cutter’s demands?
He wouldn’t respect himself in the morning?
No: the idea of being ignorant and vulnerable in the hands of his worst enemy. Pride again.
And worse. Since he had started admitting his sexuality, he had discovered it was a headstrong force. Could a man will his body not to respond when stimulated even by someone he hated and feared? Wasn’t that what torture victims attempted so valiantly? Is that why the line between love and abuse was so narrow in certain warped fringes of human behavior, including torture, including, sometimes, intimacy?
And last, but so very far from least, was something he had pretended was past, and wasn’t. That was his love, passion, hope for Temple. No matter how much he had forced his rational mind to move on, he had never lost hope that she would be his manna in the desert, she would be the one and only to lead him beyond his past and into a fully sexual future. To think of experiencing his first sexual act with someone as much the opposite of her as Kitty the Cutter…that was blasphemy. Better he should have succumbed to the strange, lazy moment on the threshold of Janice’s bedroom the first time he met her. Better some careless, but so very human, hormonal tango than deliberate surrender to a woman who was antilove, antilife, antisex if she used it as a weapon. An anti-Christ, in fact.
And yet, she could kill. And if she killed anyone because of him, then any innocence he kept was lost beyond redemption.
A foot scraped the walkway.
Matt looked up into the dim light of a distant lamp.
A dog stood there, big and dark. Great Dane maybe.
He swallowed, aware of how isolated he was, how isolated he had made himself. This could have been Kitty herself.
Before he could think, the dog turned and trotted off.
Probably it was as surprised to see him there as he was to see it.
Anytime. Anywhere. Anything. Anyone.
That was the lesson of the Garden.
The Judas kiss was always waiting somewhere.
Copyright © 2001 by Carole Nelson Douglas