CONFESSION by Patrick Nicholson

     The man at the mike sat up abruptly and cast a glance across the studio at Clyde.

     'I want to confess to a murder.' That’s what the caller had said. He repeated it. 'I want to confess to a murder.'

     Mel knew anything was likely to happen when he sold the idea to the radio station. ‘Phone-in confessions?’ They were dubious at first. ‘Look, we live in a media age; everything is exposed on TV, radio, in the newspapers. The whole world is media-conscious. And people like talking about themselves.’ The young ex-priest was a hustler. They were finally convinced and agreed when he said that strict anonymity would be imposed on ever caller.

     The late-night programme was a success and he became something of a celebrity, notorious in a way because of the hostility of religious organisations. Listeners enjoyed other people’s verbal striptease on the air, although the confessions were mostly mundane. Domestic squabbles, petty theft, nasty habits, some spicy adulteries, a few perversions.

     Now this. ‘Tell me about it.’

     There was a long pause and Mel was about to jump in and fill the dead air time. Then, ‘Be patient, my friend. I will … in due course.’ He rang off.

     Probably just some sicko, Mel thought. He dismissed it from his mind. But a few nights later the caller came on again. ‘I want to confess to a murder.’

     ‘Who have you murdered?’

     ‘Nobody yet. It’s all planned, all worked out down to the last detail.’

     ‘Why?’

     ‘Another time.’ The line went dead.

     ‘I don’t like this,’ said Clyde, who produced the show. ‘I think we should let the police in on it.’ Although Mel was still convinced they were dealing with a weirdo he felt vaguely uneasy, for reasons he couldn’t figure. So he went along with Clyde and Clyde was backed by the station’s boss, only too aware of the sensitivity to the programme in some quarters. Lieutenant Jenner, a shop-soiled city cop who had seen just about everything in a long career on the streets, arrived at the studio and said he would sit in on the broadcasts.

     Another call. ‘Revenge, my friend.’

     'Revenge?' prompted Mel. There was a low chuckle, utterly devoid of humour. ‘Revenge. Bitter sweet. Or perhaps you could describe it as a judicial killing.’ Pause. ‘I want to confess to a murder.’ That was all. Jenner shrugged and put the phone down. ‘Next time we’ll try to set up a trace,’ he said, lighting a cigarette and dissolving into a fit of coughing. ‘God dammit, if I don’t give up on these things soon I’m not going to get my pension,’ he wheezed.

     ‘What exactly have we got here?’ Clyde asked nervously. Jenner fixed him with world-weary eyes that had nevertheless lost none of their perception during the years he had been doing battle with crime on the streets of Manhattan. ‘We don’t know yet. Maybe nothing. Maybe something. Maybe one guy’s way of getting his kicks. We’ll see.’

     For about ten days there was silence. Everything was set up for tracing the caller but Jenner was beginning to agree with Mel. ‘Perhaps he was just an oddball,’ he said one night. ‘I don’t think I can afford to spend much more time round here.’

     ‘Hold it,’ called out Clyde, who was monitoring the calls. ‘He’s on line one.’

     ‘I want to confess to a murder.’

     ‘Go on,’ prompted Mel. He looked over at Jenner, who was already trying to trace the call.

     ‘I’m going to destroy the man who destroyed the woman I loved.’

     Mel’s uneasiness was mounting. As gently as he could, in his most measured tone, he said, ‘Taking a life is wrong. You know that.’

     ‘It’s a two-way thing. He took my woman’s life. Retribution is just.’

     Mel said, ‘At the moment this is all in your mind. Think carefully of the rap you’ll take if you turn it into reality. It will seem very different afterwards.’

     The caller laughed his humourless laugh. ‘I have thought about it. Thought of nothing else for five long years. I’m ready to blow him to Hell.’

     ‘When?’

     ‘Soon.’ He rang off.

     ‘Damn, he got away again,’ said Jenner. ‘He’s either very lucky or very cunning.’

     There were no calls the following week or the week after, and then the weeks ran into a month and still there was nothing. Mel wondered whether the man had carried out his threat, if indeed he was really serious, or had thought better of it. He hoped the caller had heeded his advice. And he didn’t rule out his original theory that they were dealing with a crazy case.

     Jenner said, ‘I think I had better quit this surveillance. Headquarters aren’t going to give me my pay cheque much longer for spending my evenings here. Let me know immediately if anything happens, and I’ll catch your broadcasts anyway. He left, coughing, in a cloud of cigarette smoke.

     A few nights later, the incident comfortably out of his mind, Mel went to the rooftop parking lot at the end of the show, more than pleased with its growing popularity.

     ‘End of story, my friend.’ He saw a stocky man of about his own age in the gloom of the next parking bay. Instinctively he knew.

     ‘You? You’ve done it?’

     The man smiled. ‘Not quite,’ he said, lifting his arm. He was holding a small automatic pistol and it was pointing straight at Mel.

     ‘It’s taken me five years to track you down. I’d almost given up when I heard you on the air. Father Melvyn. She used to speak of you. Thought so highly of you. And when she needed you most you failed her. She came to you to confess to an abortion because it had been instilled into her that it was a sin. She wanted absolution – wanted it desperately – but you told her to come back. Come back! Come back in three days. She couldn’t handle it. She took her life.’

     Now Mel remembered. It was in his last days before he quit the ministry, having finally realised the Church was not for him and he was not for the Church. Emotionally he was a wreck. He was coming off crack and was suffering withdrawals. He wanted to get out of the confessional and be on his own. But he justified it. Didn’t they say the waiting made forgiveness even more meaningful, more wonderful? It was a device not unknown among fellow clergy. He would, of course, have absolved her if she had returned. He buried the guilt he had felt at the time and now this man had uncovered it and it was like a gaping wound.

     ‘Your turn to die without absolution.’ Mel saw his finger begin to tighten on the trigger.

     ‘Freeze!’ The man spun round and there was Jenner. He, too, had a gun.

     The man fired wildly in his direction. Jenner’s shot was more accurate, much more accurate, taking him neatly between the eyes. The force hurled him back against the parapet.

     Jenner walked over to Mel.

     ‘Why are you here?’

     Jenner lit a cigarette and coughed some more. ‘Call it an old cop’s hunch,’ he said when he had recovered his breath.

     He drew on his cigarette, looked over at the city lights and turned back to Mel.

     ‘I suggest in future you leave the business of confession where it rightfully belongs,’ he said after a while. ‘Take my advice: stop playing with fire.’


ENDS © Patrick Nicholson