Blood of the Wicked

Leighton Gage

The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: He shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.


Chapter One

Something took the helicopter and shook it like a jackal worrying a carcass. The bishop gripped the aluminum supports on either side of his seat and hung on for dear life.

'Clear air turbulence,' the pilot observed laconically, and resumed chewing his gum.

'Merda!' the bishop muttered. He regretted the vulgarity as soon as he'd said it.

'What's that, Your Excellency?'

The bishop's eyes darted to his right. In his fear and discomfort, he'd forgotten the microphones, forgotten the headphones, forgotten that the man could hear every word he said.

And what if he had? Was it not true? Was the helicopter not a merda, a great stinking, steaming merda? And who was the pilot, anyway? What had he ever done in his blessed life other than to learn how to fly the merda? How dare he criticize a man who might, God willing, be a future prince of the Church?

The pilot, whose name was Julio, and who wasn't criticizing anyone, had been distracted by a flock of vultures wheeling in graceful curves over the approaching river. He honestly hadn't heard what the bishop had said. He opened his mouth to repeat the question, then shut it again when he saw the cleric's mouth set into a thin line.

Julio had a paunch, sweat stains under the arms of his khaki shirt, and a habit of chewing gum with his mouth open, all of which Dom Felipe Antunes, the Bishop of Presidente Vargas, found distasteful. But it was nothing in comparison to Dom Felipe's distaste for the helicopter.

The bishop glanced at his watch, wiped his sweaty palms on his silk cassock, and resumed a death grip on the aluminum supports.

Forty-seven blessed minutes in the air. Forty-seven minutes.

'It won't be long now, Your Excellency.'

Was that amusement in the man's voice? Was he enjoying himself? Did he think fear was funny?

On the floor beneath Dom Felipe's feet there was a thin (he was sure it was thin) window of Plexiglas. He tried to avoid looking down, but some perverse instinct kept drawing his eyes back to that dreadful hole in the floor. They were over the river now, sand bars protruding through chocolate-colored foam. The sand looked as hard as the rock-strewn banks.

Do helicopters float?

A rowboat drifted in mid-river, two fishermen aboard, a huge net piled high between them. They looked up at him, shielding their eyes against the morning sun. One waved.

Reflexively, Dom Felipe waved back. Then a flash, like the strobe on a camera, caused him to snap his head upward and seek the source of the light.

Far ahead of him, beyond the bug-flecked windshield, the flash came again. He squinted and… yes, there it was. Sunlight of an almost blinding intensity reflected off an expanse of glass. It couldn't be anything other than the Great Window. And that meant that the brand-new church of Nossa Senhora dos Milagres was in sight.

The window was almost five meters in diameter and had come all the way from the Venetian island of Murano at a cost of almost 200,000 reais, not including the shipping, which, together with the insurance, had amounted to R$30,000 more. When the sun hit it just right-as it was doing now-the window would cast rays of glorious blue light all along the nave of the new church.

Dom Felipe made a conscious effort to hold that image, focusing on the blue light, as if it were a meditation. But then the pitch of the engine changed, dragging him back into his dreadful reality.

The Lord is my shepherd…

A landing spot had been marked out: a Christian cross in stones the size of golf balls, and just as white. A rectangle of sere grass surrounded it, hemmed by dusty palm trees. Yellow plastic tape ran from tree to tree, holding back the crowd. Men in the gray uniforms of the State Police were stationed at intervals along the length of the tape, their backs to the cross, keeping the landing area clear.

The crowd started moving like a living thing. Signs of welcome were raised. Others, already aloft, were turned to face the approaching helicopter. White and brown faces looked upward. And there were banners, too.

Dom Felipe bit his lip in vexation. The banners were red, blood red, the unmistakable standards of the Landless Workers' League. The league seldom missed an opportunity-no matter how inappropriate-to turn a gathering into a political event. The bishop knew that. Still, he'd been hopeful that, in this case, the consecration of the new church…

There was the slightest of jolts as the helicopter's skids met the grass.

It's over! Hail Mary, full of grace… Never again.

Julio pulled a lever and threw a switch. The engine died.

Above the swish of air from the still-spinning rotor blades Dom Felipe could hear, for the first time, the cheers of the crowd. He took off his headset, handed it to the pilot, and raised his right hand in benediction.

Insolently, the red banners waved back at him.

Dom Felipe suppressed an uncharitable thought and bent over to retrieve his miter, untangling the lappets before placing it on his head. Then he composed his features into a beatific smile and waited for the pilot to open his door.

Julio, unaccustomed to ferrying bishops, finally seemed to realize what was expected of him. He removed his headset, skirted the nose of the aircraft, and reached Dom Felipe's side just as the bishop opened the door himself.

Dom Felipe waved off the pilot's offered hand, put his feet on solid ground, and started searching the crowd for the face of his secretary, Father Francisco, the man who'd hatched the helicopter plot.

If Francisco thinks I'm going back to Presidente Vargas the same way he got me here, he's got another think coming. I'll return by car, he'll have to find one, and it had better be one with air-conditioning.

Francisco was nowhere in sight, but Gaspar Farias was. Dom Felipe could clearly see his corpulent body, wrapped in a black cassock, standing in the shadow of the vestibule. Involuntarily, the bishop scowled.

A choir of adolescents dressed in identical cotton robes was standing against the tape, a rectangle of blue in the multicolored collage that made up the crowd. The children were close enough to read the bishop's scowl and seemed to be puzzled by it.

With the skill born of practice, Dom Felipe forced a smile onto his lips. The youngsters' puzzlement vanished, replaced by beams of welcome. A woman in an identical robe, her back to the bishop, her face toward her charges, started to wave her arms and the children broke into song, their young voices murdering the English words, 'Why do the nations…'

Handel? A Protestant? Who in the world chose that?

Dom Felipe raised his hand in another benediction and silently mouthed words of thanks, conserving his voice for the sermon and for the all-important interviews that were sure to follow.

It was the dry season and, to make it worse, a great deal of construction was going on. From the air, the city

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