This is first chapter of THE WICKED CLAW (55,680 words), an adult novel that brings together urban fantasy, thriller, and historical elements. Pope Francis, powerful women, vulnerable men, the Secret Service and FBI, a sacred grove hidden in suburban Philly, and a Penn academic who is part fox and part fey populate this story. Loneliness and family, revenge and self discovery resonate through centuries and settings as the Pope's 2015 visit to the US unfolds.
If you are a literary agent or publisher who would like to discover the inspired mayhem that erupts when seven lethal, funny, fantastical characters kidnap the most popular man on the planet, please let me know. If you are an internet wanderer who found your way here, I hope you enjoy this opening chapter of THE WICKED CLAW.
Mariana’s head snapped up.
She had been sound asleep, dreaming of water. A fire hydrant was spraying her and all of the kids on her block, turning the blistering street into a riot of puddles. She was six years old, before the seizures started, before the headaches and blackouts and all the rest of the crazy shit. She was dancing and splashing in her bare feet, brown like the rest of her from the August sun. Her friends called her “Nut” because she got so dark during the summer. Everyone on the block thought she was pretty then. Pretty and normal and likely to marry a nice boy from the neighborhood.
The first seizure hit when she was in second grade, right in the middle of catechism class. Sister Consuela had just read “God made us like himself. This is an important gift from God” from the catechism book when her heart started to race, and she suddenly smelled the scent of the trees that her better off neighbors put in their living rooms at Christmas time. But, there were no pine trees anywhere near the school, and the windows were closed. She started to raise her hand to ask to go to the lavatory, when everything went dark and silent.
When she opened her eyes, her head was pounding and she was on the floor, with everyone looking at her. Sister Consuela was leaning down close to her. She whispered, “You had some kind of fit, Mariana. If you can get up, you need to go to the bathroom. You’ve wet yourself.”
That was the first time that she heard kids laugh at her. “Nut” quickly became “Nut Job” and later, “Mad Mariana.”
She never knew exactly what was wrong with her. Her neighbors blamed it on lead paint in their 3rd floor apartment, rat poop in their basement, and a roof that dripped God knew what when it rained. Her Mamina blamed it on the bad blood of that son of a bitch who fathered her and then took off. And her mother, who worked two jobs just to squeeze into the ranks of the working poor, had marginal health insurance with a sky high deductible that put an MRI and CAT scan out of reach.
Maybe it was because of the trauma of the first seizure, but the words spoken by Sister Counsela in that long ago catechism class, “God made us like himself. This is an important gift of God” became Mariana’s mantra as an adult. When she was denied a driver’s license because of her seizures, and a decent job because of her health record, and forget about a nice boy from the neighborhood, she would say to herself, in her head, “God made us like himself. This is an important gift of God.” By the time she was 25 and was barely surviving on welfare, she had taken to saying her mantra, and all of the rest of her thoughts, out loud.
That was when she discovered the shrine of Saint John Neumann in St. Peter the Apostle Church on North 5th Street, several miles from her mother’s apartment. A SEPTA driver had put her off the Route 15 Girard Avenue trolley because he said that she was causing a disturbance. Didn’t he understand that when her head hurt very badly, she had to talk louder so that she could hear her own thoughts?
It was cold and raining and too far to walk home. She didn’t know this Northern Liberties section of the city, and she had no money in her pockets. She tried not to cry, but she was so damn frustrated and angry. She had never done anything wrong. Why did everyone look away from her, or nudge each other when they saw her? Why did her heart race and she smell Christmas trees when it wasn’t even Christ’s birthday? And why, when she found herself lying on the sidewalk, did people just step over her?
“God made us like himself,” she struggled to say, but her tears and the rain choked off the rest of her words.
“And you are an important gift of God,” a voice said. “That’s what our catechism should teach.”
Mariana looked for the voice.
A priest was standing near a black wrought iron fence just by her. She had not seen him. She looked up into the rain. A stone church with a high bell tower ran almost all the way down the block.
“Saint Peter the Apostle,” he said. “My church and parish. Also Saint John Neumann’s Shrine.”
His hands were full of boxes that were getting soaked.
“I just picked up candles for the Shrine,” he said. “It’s in the lower level of the church. I could use some help with the door to get in there, if you have a minute.”
Mariana stared at him. He wasn’t looking away from her, nor trying to hide a smirk, like so many did, when they saw her.
“I’m Father Francisco Ibanez,” he said, “a Redemptorist priest. Most people call me Father Fran. The kids here at St. Peter’s School call me Cicso, behind my back. They think I don’t know it, but I don’t mind.”
And he smiled at her.
That was how she got the job as Maintenance Supervisor at the National Shrine of Saint John Neumann. She was a department of one.
And that was why she was sleeping in the last pew of the locked and deserted Shrine, as she so often did, after it closed at 6 PM. Her mother still worked two jobs, even though Mariana now helped with the rent and groceries. Her Mamina had died when she was 19. It pained Mariana that her Mamina had not been able to see her with a real job at a prestigious place like the Shrine.
There was no place and no one to rush home to. Plus, she loved the quiet and serenity of the Shrine itself.
Only, she was certain that she heard a noise. That was what made her pop out of her wonderful dream of water and fun on that August day, so many years ago.
Someone or something was in the Shrine with her.
Copyright (c) 2017 by James Hugh Comey