Just over the first ridge of the Chino Hills, the tiny chapel was hardly noticeable, even from the air. The cast-iron archway over the driveway read ‘Sta. Isabella’. To call it a driveway was being generous. He doubted that dirt trail had ever seen a wheel, let alone a car. Nate didn’t drive anymore, but he wouldn’t have wanted to try the hairpin turn he’d seen on the path with anything bigger than a dirt-bike.
From downtown Los Angeles, he hadn’t flown thirty miles. In a car it might have taken him an hour, maybe more, even on the freeway. But he had places to be later that night, and he didn’t want any of the people he could get rides from to know where he was going or why.
The doors to the chapel were wide open, shedding a dull yellow light on the moonlit lawn outside. Nate set his feet upon the dry grass, in the shadows by the door. When he entered, he noticed the crucifix hanging above an altar at the far end of the church. The only light in the chapel was a baseball-sized, orange crystal light fixture behind the crucifix. It was almost too bright to look at, but the orange light reflected well off the white plaster, bathing the small interior in light which might be slightly dim for a human, but was more than enough for a vampire. He stopped between the four pews and knelt, bowing his head.
“Can I help you, sheriff?” a man in black robes with a priest’s collar asked.
Nate checked his clothes. He was wearing the uniform Dai insisted on. It was also his costume from his acting gig. The khaki pants and shirt bore the badges and patches of a sheriff. Only, instead of Los Angeles, the county on the insignia was ‘Midnite’, a town that only existed on television. The name on the tag said ‘Starr’, his character’s surname in the show. His real name was Silver.
“I’m not a sheriff,” Nate said. “I’m an actor. This is a costume. I am here to confess.”
The priest was one of two men in the tiny chapel. The other was a man wearing just a set of denim overalls, dusting the paintings on the walls. Each of the paintings depicted a woman. Perhaps Mother Mary, but Nate suspected they might be the Saint the chapel was named for. Nodding, the priest stepped to a small confessional Nate had almost mistaken for a coat closet. An alcove with open curtains sat to the side of an ornate wooden door. Behind the curtains was a small room just large enough for a single bench seat. Nate walked into the area behind the open curtains and sat on the bench. A window with close-set wooden bars was between him and the space between the alcoves. He pulled the curtain closed and waited.
The priest opened the door and sat in the middle alcove. After closing the door, he asked, “How can I help you, my son?”
“Like I said, I need to confess,” Nate said. “Is there something I’m supposed to say like, ‘Forgive me Father for I have sinned?’”
“Are you Catholic?” the priest asked.
“Do I need to be?” Nate asked.
“Yes,” the priest said. “If not Catholic, then Orthodox.”
“I’m Evangelical,” Nate said. “Or, I was.”
“I can’t offer you the Sacrament of Penance,” the priest said. “I’m sorry. I can offer my ear and anything you tell me will be between you, me and the Lord. But absolution through penance is reserved for those baptized as Catholic.”
Nate had always believed that to unburden his soul, all he needed to do was pray with sincerity. But his prayers felt unholy coming from the lips of a vampire. When Dai had suggested he confess to a priest, the idea of talking to a person who could be God’s ears seemed to offer some promise of hope. Nate didn’t come thirty miles for counseling.
“Can you see me?” Nate asked.
“I saw you come in,” the priest said. “Traditionally this is purely anonymous, but it’s really not. I saw you come in and I’m familiar with the voices of the people that do come to confess. To be honest, it’s not hard to see through this screen.”
“Then look at me,” Nate said. When he could see the outline of the priest’s irises in the whites of his eyes, Nate added power to his words and coerced the priest. “See me as a Catholic man—one who needs guidance to get the ceremony correct. Whatever I say, take it as truth and don’t panic. Don’t be afraid of me.”
“Start with ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been however much time since your last confession,’” the priest said.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been years since my last confession,” Nate said. He didn’t know how to quantify ‘never’ without bursting the priest’s illusion.
“Tell me your sins, my son,” the priest said.
“I’ve killed,” Nate said. He paused to wait for a reaction like a gasp or sharp inhale, but the priest remained calm. With that evidence that his coercion worked, Nate continued. “I’ve killed in the name of the Lord and I’ve killed in self-defense and I’ve killed those I’ve hunted for food,” Nate said.
“The work of a soldier can be forgiven,” the priest said. “There is no sin in defending yourself. There is no sin in hunting for your food.”
“My food is people,” Nate said. “I am a vampire.” Nate hoped his coercion to keep the priest calm held.
“I see,” the priest said. He was silent a moment. Even if Nate had coerced him to take his words as truth, the priest might need time to adapt his coerced beliefs to his reality.
“You’re safe,” Nate said. “I’m not evil, though I might be a monster.”
“I can’t condone murder,” the priest said. “You cannot see people as food if you seek forgiveness. To attain absolution, you must be penitent. To be penitent you must intend not to commit the sin again.”
“I never intend it,” Nate said. “When I first learned to feed, I did not have control over it. I have not killed accidentally in the past year. I have, however, killed three other vampires and two men in self-defense in the last month, but more than a dozen have fallen at my hands in total.”
“And how many of these were righteous?” the priest asked.
“I don’t know,” Nate said. “Certainly all but two meant to kill me. I am uncertain any of them were true threats. I am trained to battle my own kind at a level few are. I was a holy warrior, a vampire hunter, before I became what I am now. But, that title is misleading; that life was a lie. My teacher was a dark man and served a darker vampire. They are gone, and I am something different now.”
“A sheriff?” the priest ventured.
“I said the clothing is a costume,” Nate said. Dai, his queen and bloodmother, called him her sheriff and her enforcer and whatever else she felt like calling him at any given moment. These were details the priest didn’t yet need.
“But you speak like the law,” the priest said. “Either you still are a warrior for the church or you are a warrior for the government. You claim righteousness in your fights, which means you fight for a cause.”
“I do,” Nate said. “In all but two cases, I was fighting a war that was not my own and I believed myself to be following a benevolent leader.” The two exceptions had been his early attempts to feed before he knew how to control the bloodlust that accompanied the curse of the bloodeyes.
“Has your opinion changed?” the priest asked. “Is your general not kind? Is their cause against God’s will?”
“She’s a vampire and she’s a queen among us,” Nate said. “I would not call her godly, but she is not wanton. Her goal is peace among our kind in the city, and she enjoys the attention of those currying for her favor.”
“But she’s a vampire,” the priest says. “She condones treating God’s people as food, does she not?”
“People are food to us,” Nate said. “But we don’t kill, usually. The leadership before her was evil, without a doubt, and Dai is holy in comparison, but we are vampires and can never truly be in the grace of God.”
“The Bible is surprisingly unclear on the status of vampires,” the priest said. “I don’t have much guidance to offer. If you are a person, you must abide by the laws of man and the laws of the Lord. Have you considered placing your fate in the legal system on the matter of the murders you admit to?”
“I am a vampire,” Nate said. “There is no prison for me that is not death. No human can know our kind exists. The men I killed were the vilest of humankind. One was a slaver, a trafficker of women. The other was a druggist, a man who designed recreational drugs including some horrid variations of the date-rape substances.”
“And you are qualified to be judge, jury and executioner?” the priest asked.
“So I was taught to believe in the church I belonged to at the time,” Nate said. “Before I was a vampire, I believed myself to be a holy warrior, and when I acted in the name of Christ, I acted with impunity. I am less sure now of my standing with the Lord, which is why I am here.”
“You have a conscience,” the priest said. “Follow what you know and the Lord will guide you.”
“Is this the part where you tell me to say Hail Mary’s?” Nate asked.
“If I knew the measure of your sins, I could offer penance,” the priest said. “I don’t know how to measure what you’ve done or by which yardstick to judge it. You seem like a good man. Knowing that you are a good man, be confident that you can choose to do the right thing. And, foremost, try not to kill. Go with God, my son.”
“Thank you,” Nate said. “I have one more request.” The priest looked at Nate and when their eyes met, Nate added, “Forget I was here. Forget everything about vampires.”
The priest said nothing, turning his attention to the book in his lap. Nate took the cue to leave and set out to his true mission of the night: to find a killer.