Son of a Preacher Man
by Danita Evangeline Whyte
Girls of Virtue Series: MILA
The Stories Behind the Stories
As a boy, Oscar Hoope always had an unexplainable wicked streak in him. After being unjustly imprisoned at fourteen, he decides to commit the rest of his life to crime. For years he is a wanted man, until he falls in love with a talented ballerina who makes his life more pleasant and his guilt less heavy to bear. But it isn’t long before his shady past catches up with him and all of hell is calling his name. Will he find grace before it’s too late? Will his father’s prayers be enough to redeem his diabolical deeds?
a short story
God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say.
Yes, to be sure, but He does what is still more wonderful:
He makes saints out of sinners.
– Soren Kierkegaard
chapter one: I want to be rich
Habakkuk Hoope was a poor, pious preacher who ministered faithfully to his small congregation in Indiana. Habakkuk’s father had also been a poor preacher and before him, Habakkuk’s grandfather had been a poor circuit rider preacher. Habakkuk suspected that unless God dropped some vast fortune on him, he would die poor, for he had few connections and was only supported by his church members who were also poor. But Habakkuk didn’t mind. He knew he had treasures stored up in the heavens and a mansion built by God waiting on him. It was for this reason that Habakkuk prayed each morning and each night. He taught weekly from the Book he believed in — the Bible. He told his four children about the Ten Commandments, the Cross, the first murder, and the Fall, of the giant Goliath killed by the boy wonder David, of the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ, and the miracles performed by the Son of God.
The three sisters: Faith, Hope, and Charity, eagerly heard the words of their father. Their angelic faces radiated with belief as they listened. But their brother was another matter, for Oscar was a troubled boy with an unexplainable wicked streak in him. His mother, Isabel Claire Hoope, had died while giving birth to him. She had been a saintly woman, always imparting words of wisdom and encouragement. Her death had left a deep hole in Habakkuk’s soul, but it had not caused his faith in God to diminish. Habakkuk had kept on preaching. Habakkuk had kept on praying. He remembered often the prayer he had prayed after picking up the living soul of his newborn son from beside her dead one.
“O benevolent God,” he said. “You give and You take away. Still, I bless Your Name. Thank You now for this joy birthed in the midst of sorrow. Be near my little son – Oscar Hoope – all the days of his life. May he be as good as his Godly mother.”
For the most part, Oscar was quite the opposite of Isabel. He was sullen and silent. He liked to sit alone with his thoughts. It pleased him to see other people hurt. Oscar was not entirely bad. Sometimes, Oscar tried to be good; but he was shadowy. It was this shadowy-ness that bothered his father. It caused Habakkuk to worry about his son. It made him say an extra prayer for his boy at night.
When Oscar was six he had a hard time keeping up with other boys his age. Charity discovered that his left leg was one half-inch shorter than his right leg. Despite being slower, Oscar got around just fine, but he had a slight limp that was never fixed. The older boys at the schoolhouse pointed it out and laughed at him, calling him “Limpo”. Oscar didn’t mind at first, but soon their jokes made him angry. He was careful to keep the anger inside, however, because Habakkuk had admonished him repeatedly: Be slow to anger. The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your wrath.
Hardly a day passed in Oscar’s childhood when Habakkuk did not observe him and wonder what was going on in that silent mind of his. Once, he got up the nerve to try to find out. Their conversation went something like this. “I’m a preacher,” Habakkuk told Oscar. “Before me, your grandfather was a preacher and before him, your great-grandfather was a preacher. I suppose you’re planning to be the same?”
“No,” Oscar answered, head shaking. This was how he always responded with the smallest words possible, shortening his sentences to phrases. Eyes shifting. Terse. Uninterested.
“What are you planning to be then?” Habakkuk asked.
“Dunno,” Oscar answered, shoulders shrugging.
Habakkuk eyed his son curiously. It was in these moments that he wished Isabel were still alive. She would have known what to say. “Well, you best start thinking about it,” Habakkuk said. “Whatever you decide, make sure it is all done for the good Lord.”
“Is the Lord good?” Oscar asked.
“Be serious!” Habakkuk replied. “Of course the Lord is good. All the time.”
“Why did He give me a limp then? Did you know they call me limpo at school?”
There was a brief moment of silence, then Habakkuk said, “It is not our place to question God’s doings. He alone knows what is best for us.”
Oscar thought about that for a while. He didn’t much like his father’s answer. It was his leg and he had a right to question why God had made it uneven. Oscar asked another question, “Why does God make some men rich and some men poor? Why isn’t he fair?”
A longer silence this time, then Habakkuk said, “The good Lord is fair, Oscar. He gives to all men what He knows they can handle. Again, it is not our place to question. We must only believe.”
“I want to be rich,” Oscar said matter-of-factly. “Whether God thinks I can handle it or not, I will be rich one day.”
Habakkuk did not quite know how to respond to this so he turned back to what he did best. Habakkuk kept on preaching. Habakkuk kept on praying. Each day, without fail, he pleaded with God to keep the soul of Oscar out of hell. He implored the good Lord to make his son into an honest man.
Oscar heard plenty of his father’s prayers, but they didn’t change him at all. He wasn’t interested in being an honest man. He wanted to be a rich man and he had no intention of working for his riches.
chapter two: everything but a child of God
At fourteen, Oscar joined AJ’s gang. Alton “AJ” Jackson was two years older than Oscar. He had moved with his family from Oklahoma to Indiana and had already served five months for stealing $2.50 in a highway robbery. Whenever he saw Oscar sitting alone, AJ made it a point to go over to him. He would stick both his hands deep into his pockets until the knuckles showed through the cloth, and they would talk. Actually, it was AJ who did most of the talking. Oscar did most of the listening.
The banker’s son, Redd, had also joined AJ’s gang. He knew all about code combinations and vaults and locks. The oldest boy, “Shady” Sayer, was eighteen. He had accidentally shot a man a year earlier, went to prison, and got out to brag about it. There was no one he hated more now than police officers and law enforcers. The fifth boy to join AJ’s gang was “Pistol” Pete. By means only known to him, he had secured a large stash of machine pistols and handguns. He had them buried in his neighbor’s abandoned farmhouse. Pistol’s father was Habakkuk’s only deacon. Pistol and Oscar had known each other for years. They were almost as close as brothers and spent many long nights talking about running away to big cities and how they would spend their riches.
Oscar’s first serious offense was an act to help avenge AJ. The schoolmaster’s son had caught him stealing cigars and promptly told. AJ had lied, but he was still fined $50.00.
Shady paid Oscar ten dollars to lure the schoolmaster’s son to the place in between the woods where he was waiting with AJ for him. As soon as they caught sight of them, AJ and Shady grabbed the schoolmaster’s son and pummeled him with their fists. They beat him until his cries stopped and his thin body lay limp in the dust. When they realized they had killed him, AJ opened the white trunk of Shady’s car and threw the body inside. Oscar had not participated in the fist beating. He had stood under the shades of the trees and watched. A sick feeling of pity for the schoolmaster’s son began rising in his heart, but Oscar quickly squelched it.
He didn’t ride with AJ and Shady to the lake. When they returned to the place in between the woods, Oscar knew the body of the schoolmaster’s son wasn’t with them. AJ thanked Oscar for his help. Shady drove them home.
The very next day, AJ and Oscar were paid visits by portly police officers and taken down to the station. “Speak the truth,” a startled Habakkuk Hoope admonished his son as he was taken away.
Oscar only partly obeyed his father. He told the police he had gone to the woods with the schoolmaster’s son. There had been an accident and the boy had drowned in the lake. A sense of loyalty kept Oscar from mentioning AJ or Shady. In another room, AJ told the police that he had been out of town. He didn’t know what had happened to the schoolmaster’s son. His lie seemed honest and was easily believed. AJ was released.
The police went to the lake to recover the body of the schoolmaster’s son. They found Oscar’s jacket under the tree where he had been standing. Oscar, they said, was a dirty bastard. Oscar, they said, had beaten the schoolmaster’s son. Oscar, they said, had killed him.
Habakkuk Hoope sat through the entire short trial, muttering prayers without ceasing. He refused to believe that his son, not yet a man, was a murderer. When the jury announced their verdict and the resulting punishment, Oscar was found guilty. They sentenced him to jail for ten years. Oscar heard the sobs of the schoolmaster and his wife as he was roughly led away in handcuffs. He also heard the shouts of his father, protesting the sentencing. “Oscar would never do such an ungodly deed,” Habakkuk cried. “Never!”
The judge was quick to reply, “You don’t know your son, Reverend. Oscar is everything but a child of God.”
Oscar put on a brave face as he walked by locked cell door after locked cell door, but a river of fear was rising inside of him. To be imprisoned. For ten years. He could hardly stand being told what to do. He could barely imagine the thought of being controlled and watched, every single second of every minute of every hour of every day. That river of fear morphed into a torrent of anger when he found out about AJ’s lies. Oscar wanted to beat and kill AJ now just like AJ had beaten and killed the schoolmaster’s son.
Oscar had to get out. He needed to get out. And once he got out, he vowed he would never see the inside of a cell again.
chapter three: hostility, distrust, and fear
Unless one finds religion while behind bars, rarely does prison reform someone. To lock up a soul that was born free, raised free, and freely committed his crime, is no just punishment; but a slow death. Like a caged lion, prison nurtures the wounded pride that comes with being captured, removes from the heart all lingering bits of remorse for its wrongdoing, and breeds in its place seeds of hostility, distrust, and fear.
Hostility toward the prison guards who watched them and escorted them and fed them. The prison guards who degraded them as they carried out their menial tasks. The prison guards who thought they were without sin and threw the first, second, and third stones.
Distrust toward their fellow prison mates who, despite being sentenced to the same fates, were too leery of one another to form a sincere brotherhood. Their fellow prison mates who cried themselves to sleep and cursed the day they were born. Their fellow prison mates who forgot and were forgotten. Their fellow prison mates who sharpened crude weapons in secret places and formed plans in hopes of breaking out.
Fear of themselves, for some were shocked their hands had been capable of carrying out their crime. They were afraid of what they would do when (and if) they ever got freedom. They were afraid of how much the world would change while they were locked away. The amount of good inside of a person is astounding. Equally astounding is the amount of evil that causes one to take the life of his fellow man, steal from his neighbor, and ignite fear in the heart of a stranger.
Oscar was the youngest mate in his ward. The remaining days of his fourteenth year of life dragged by. Then he was fifteen. Then sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen. His heart grew bitter and hostile toward those who had imprisoned him. His mind became mad with wicked inventions. He was restless; and fearless, too.
In prison, Oscar befriended veteran robbers and murderers and liars. They told Oscar their stories and shared their secrets with him. He learned that a successful bank robbery had to be carried out with the speed and surprise of a German blitzkrieg. He memorized old war tactics to solve lock combinations and break into vaults and safety deposit boxes. He learned how different tools could aid him in taking money – drills and thermal lances, plasma cutters and explosives. Prison taught Oscar about underground tunneling, scouting out a bank’s alarm system, shutting off security detectors, creating distractions, and setting up lookouts. Prison gave Oscar friends who hatched a way for him to escape by being wheeled out with the dirty laundry. Prison stripped Oscar of the little innocence he had left and gave him a mind to commit the rest of his life to crime. Prison gave Oscar no regard for life or love or the law.
Shady, Redd, and Pistol Pete were waiting to pick up Oscar when he escaped from prison at nineteen. Shady wanted them to leave town immediately. But what had happened to AJ?
“AJ’s become an honest man,” Redd said. “Married a girl and studying books to be a lawyer.” Oscar thought about the five years he had spent in prison for a crime he had not physically committed. He determined that AJ didn’t deserve to be a lawyer. He gave Shady and Redd some brief instructions.
One night, AJ left the law office where he was an intern. He was met with a bullet that lodged in his heart. The very next morning, police found his dead body dumped in front of his mother’s house.
Meanwhile, Oscar and Pistol Pete went to settle things with the judge. The one who had called him everything but a child of God. They drove by the small, prone-to-leak house of Habakkuk Hoope on their way to the big, polished mansion of the judge. Since Oscar had been imprisoned, Faith, Hope, and Charity had all married and Habakkuk was living alone. Oscar had a mind to drop in but decided not to. Habakkuk was much too holy and righteous to be bothered with a wretch like him.
When the judge’s wife returned home from shopping, she found their house ransacked. Most of their valuables were missing. She found her husband, who had been sleeping, still lying in bed. But he was dead with a bullet in his head and a bullet in his heart. Warm blood soaked the pillows, sheets, and mattress.
By the time the police had investigated both murders and sent out alerts, Oscar was long gone from his Indiana childhood home. He was headed to Chicago. Only trouble-making and villainy were ahead of him now. Oscar had never felt so free, yet so locked up.
four: a wanted man
They robbed banks in small towns on their way from Indiana to Illinois. Oscar and his gang planned their method of operation down to the last detail. Picking banks that had an easy escape route, they would scout out the area that surrounded it. They would wait until closing hours when fewer people would be around. Then one of them would rush inside, jump the counter with a crash, and swipe as much cash from the tills as they could. The tellers would always be caught off guard and terrified. At the sight of a weapon they cowered on the floor, fearfully agreeing not to move or tell. Oscar received just as much joy from seeing the fear on his victim’s face as he received from taking their money.
Sometimes they would leave immediately with the cash. At other times, if the police had been notified and were on their trail, they would hide their stolen riches in some inaccessible place to outsiders. After the heat died down, they would come back around and pick it up before heading to their next town. Jefferson. Madison. Terre Haute. Brazil. In Indianapolis, Oscar and his gang bought new clothes. They got rid of Pistol’s handguns and purchased new weapons from an underworld gunsmith.
Then it was on to Crawfordsville. Lafayette. Logansport. Go across the state border and head to Chicago. In Chicago, they rented rooms and hid their cash in inconspicuous locations. Their stolen car was thrown to a junkyard and they bought a brand new getaway. Orders were made for cigars and liquor and girls. For a brief time, they settled down, but they never settled in.
Oscar began planning his next heist. It would be his biggest yet at the Federal Reserve Bank. The vaults were housed in three highly secured levels underground. At nearly twenty stories high with a complex security system throughout the entire building, it was a huge task; but Oscar was undaunted. He recruited a circle of professional mobsters to help him dig the break-in tunnel. They worked in shifts during early mornings and late evenings from a nearby sewer system.
When they weren’t tunneling, Oscar and his gang took in the big city sights. They toured the art museums and observatories and explored Navy Pier. They saw the Cubs play at Wrigley Field. At the smoky bars, Redd and Shady played cards and drank and danced to “Jailhouse Rock” late into the morning. Pistol visited the zoo twice because he wanted to see a living lion. He got thrown out twice for trying to feed them and agitating the grizzlies. Oscar went with the mobsters to the Chicago Theatre and discovered the fascinating world of black-and-white cinema. A jazzy girl, who wore diamond bracelets up to her wrists and referred to Oscar as ‘mildly fascinating,’ dragged him to the Harris Theatre where they saw Suite en Blanc. It was Oscar’s first ballet and he found it enchanting. Even though they made many friends, they never let themselves become too acquainted.
After three months, the tunnel was finished. On the morning of the robbery, Oscar and Pistol donned dark suits and top hats. They walked into the bank with a jaunty air and talked confidently with the young, unassuming tellers about overseas investing and stocks and bonds and Wall Street. They joined a know-it-all guide on a tour of the bank’s Money Museum. They were shown a presentation highlighting the importance of the Federal Reserve System in a healthy economy. They were given a rich history lesson on the humble beginnings of the bank. Oscar and Pistol had their picture taken at the museum’s kiosk in front of a million dollars in hundred dollar bills. Then they left and waited restlessly for nightfall.
An hour before midnight, Oscar, Pistol, Redd, Shady, and the mobsters made their way through the tunnel and arrived at the vaults. Their job was made one step easier because the motion detector wasn’t working. Using tape, they quickly disabled the light detector. Redd had a duplicate of the key lock made before time. He cracked the combination lock. The mobsters taped the magnets of the fail-safe alarm to let themselves inside.
They worked swiftly throughout the early hours of the morning, opening over five hundred safety deposit boxes and swiping millions in cash, securities, and other valuables. They loaded the loot onto trucks painted to look like furniture delivery. In the late morning, the guards found out about the break-in and the tunnel was discovered. It was the jazzy girl who tipped the police onto Oscar. By afternoon, you couldn’t walk a block without running into an officer or government agent. By evening, Oscar’s picture was in the paper as Chicago’s most wanted man.
But Oscar had left Chicago. He left the state of Illinois. He arrived with the gang in West Virginia; they didn’t stay there long. At a bar in Ohio, the owner recognized Pistol’s face from a news report and called the police on Oscar and his gang. They all had a close escape through the back exit, killing three federal agents and an innocent bystander, as they fled. They stole an FBI car to get away in before abandoning it in tribal territory. Going on foot through the woods, a Kickapoo family gave them shelter in their lodge for a week until one of the mobsters brought them a car.
Oscar heard what people said about them in the papers. Mean words. Disparaging comments. Young Dillingers, they were called. And badder than Bonnie and Clyde.
Every now and then, when they weren’t hiding or on the run from their enemies of the law or stealing and taking people hostage, Oscar thought about leaving his shady job. He thought about living as an honest man. He often thought about the jazzy girl he had left behind in Chicago. He had liked her. He often thought about the ballet. He had really liked the ballet. Oscar sometimes thought of his poor, old father, Habakkuk Hoope; and he thought of his three angelic sisters.
But the thought of becoming righteous always frightened him. He had been dishonest for so long he was sure he had forgotten how to be honest. To be a good man every single day for the rest of his life. Oscar didn’t think he could live like that.
For now, he would remain a wealthy vagrant, a corrupt wanderer, and a crooked thief.
chapter five: close calls
The next few years were spent crisscrossing the states. They never stayed in one place for too long. Oscar tried to persuade Pistol, Redd, and Shady to take a trip with him to England, but none of them were interested. They went to California instead.
In California, Pistol fell in love with an Italian immigrant. He married her quickly so she wouldn’t be deported. They soon had two sons, Niccolo and Antonio. Having a family didn’t prevent Pistol from keeping up with the gang and his wife devotedly supported his illegal activities. She was soon traveling with them and aided them in making quick getaways.
Redd made sure they weren’t stingy with the money they stole. Whoever helped them was always gifted generously in return. Redd and Shady made anonymous donations in large amounts to churches and charities in Chicago and Indiana. In the Florida Keys, Pistol built his wife’s parents and two sisters a duplicate of the Villa Almerica Capra. But Oscar gave most of all. He sent thousands of dollars to Habakkuk Hoope and Faith, Hope, and Charity. He included a note that never told where his money came from, but always said he was doing well and hoped they were doing the same. He went back to Ohio and traveled through the woods until he found the Kickapoo family again. He gave them six gold bars as thanks for the shelter they had provided.
The gang had some close calls as well. Once, on their way from Florida back to Chicago, Shady was left to fill up their car while the rest went to get lunch. A plainclothes officer approached Shady, flashed his badge, and proceeded to ask suspicious questions. Shady promptly shot him and attempted to escape in the officer’s car. Five miles down the road, he was blocked by a squad of law agents who arrested him. Oscar and the others showed up about then and launched a bloody shootout which left several officers dead and several others wounded. The gang shot out the tires on the car that was carrying Shady. They all made a safe escape with only Redd suffering from a wound in his arm.
In Texas they raided a state police arsenal and made away with bulletproof vests, ammunition, and machine guns because they were running low on weapons. They tied up the security officer who had been on duty and set fire to the grounds on their way out. This time they weren’t so lucky in their escape. The police chased them to the Texas – New Mexico border where they exchanged gunfire amidst dented car metal, shattered window glass, and busted tires.
The police had clear aim at Pistol after his gun jammed. “No, I’m done for,” he told Oscar, who had dragged his bleeding body behind their car for protection. The back of his head was draining thick, sticky blood. Pistol turned to his wife bending over him, “Oscar, just get her out of here. I love you. I love you.” Then his mouth grew still and his eyes stopped seeing. Pistol’s wife immediately grabbed his gun and turned it to her head, but Oscar kept her from pulling the trigger. “Think about your boys, woman!” he yelled at her.
They had to leave Pistol’s body. Redd, Shady and the others caught up with them in Arizona. The death of their partner in crime hit them all hard. Oscar could feel his cruel heart and it was hurting. Hurting because he had lost a close friend and a soul brother.
Pistol’s wife went back to the Villa Almerica Capra replicate in Florida. The gang never saw her again.
A few months after Pistol’s death, Oscar was back in Texas with several of his Chicago mobsters. Using license plate numbers, they tracked down eight of the officers who had been on hand when Pistol died and killed them all. Oscar’s heart hurt less after this.
chapter six: night the stars stopped shining
Years passed before Oscar returned home to Indiana. He was thirty years young and finally beginning to grow facial hair – something which made him very proud. The small town he had grown up in was now a large town. There were more stores and fewer churches. The one-room schoolhouse now had over ten rooms with a full cafeteria and a government-funded playground. The jail that had once held Oscar captive now had a high, heavy barbed wire fence around it. The lake where the schoolmaster’s son had drowned was still there, but the trees had all been cut down and a public park now surrounded it.
Oscar surprised Charity at the post office where she had a job as a clerk. “My!” she exclaimed when she saw her little brother. “My! You’ve grown so much.” And she hugged him with tears in her eyes despite all the filthy things she had heard about him in the papers. Charity invited Oscar to dinner where he inquired about his other two sisters and his father and Pistol’s parents.
Even though his small congregation had shrunk to a tiny congregation, Habakkuk Hoope was still preaching faithfully. Pistol’s parents had heard about his unfortunate death through the news. They were saddened, but not shocked. His father had asked the police to let them have the body and Pistol was now buried in the local cemetery under the name his mama had given him – Clayton E. Luttrell III.
The dinner would have been a pleasant one if it hadn’t been for Charity’s husband. Charity was married to AJ’s brother and all throughout the dinner, he kept shooting looks of vendetta at Oscar. He barely said a word on his own and the answers that Charity pinched him to give were curt and mean. Early the next morning, AJ’s brother went to the police and told them that Oscar, Shady, and Redd were back in town.
The police called in the FBI. They immediately put together a plan.
Two nights after Oscar’s dinner with Charity, the gang was ambushed as they left the theatre. Redd was grabbed first. He promptly punched the two agents that were holding him and a brawl ensued. Sensing a trap, Oscar turned around to go back inside the theatre but the departing crowd blocked his way. Then the police fired on them. In turn, Shady shot into the crowd, which sent everyone into a stampede. Women screamed and men shouted. Police elbowed and shoved to avoid losing sight of their criminals. In the middle of the chaos, Oscar, Shady, and Redd separated and made a run for it.
An officer caught sight of Oscar escaping down the alley beside the theatre and went after him. The pair dodged between cars with Oscar always many steps ahead. A dark building loomed in front of him at the end of the alley. He dashed around to the back, took the shivering steps two at a time, twisted the handle, found the door unlocked, and slipped inside. After his eyes adjusted to the dimness, Oscar immediately recognized his surroundings. He was standing in the middle of an aisle with a row of pews to his left and a row of pews to his right. A table of flickering candles in front of the altar outlined a wooden cross. He was in a church and now glanced around anxiously for a place to hide. But it was too late. He heard his pursuer’s footsteps on the stairs. The handle turned. The door opened.
Oscar turned and fired once. The figure, made dark by the light of the moon, clutched his chest with a cry and crumpled to the floor. Oscar bent down to take the officer’s weapon, but there was none to take. The dying man’s fingers circled loosely around a worn Bible. Oscar looked down at the face and recoiled in shock. This was no police officer. The face was very old and very wrinkled and held a familiar saintliness. “O benevolent God,” the strained voice struggled to say; but eager Death could not wait for the prayer to be finished. The faithful soul of Habakkuk Hoope departed to meet his Maker.
Oscar’s conscience, which had lain dormant for so long, finally awoke as he bent over his dead father. He had killed people before. Yes, of course. Numerous times, in fact. He had done it so much that ending someone’s life had stopped bothering him. It had started to thrill him. It always made him feel powerful. But now he felt remorse for his crime. He felt grief. He felt regret. For the first time, he saw himself as most others saw him – cruel and cold, hateful and dishonest, ugly and sinful; a thief and a murderer. His heart was hurting again. His heart was hurting so badly.
The moon disappeared behind a cloud as Oscar staggered out of the church. The stars had stopped shining and all the world grew dark. Storm clouds rolled across the Indiana sky, then the clouds opened and rain fell hard. The drops hit Oscar with a vengeance. Murderer, they seemed to call. The faster the raindrops fell, the louder their calls became. Murderer, murderer, murderer, they yelled. Thunder was the next to accuse. MURDERER, it boomed. MURDERER. MURDERER. MURDERER! Oscar clutched his head and groaned in agony. He stumbled as he ran, glancing wildly around; for he was sure the violent storm was out to kill him.
Lightning flashed. Somewhere in hell, the devil danced over the wretch Oscar had become. Blind and lost.
chapter seven: second chances
New York! A big city full of dreams and the dreamers of dreams. Brimming with new beginnings, alive with possibilities, and full of second chances. Adventure waiting on every street corner. Hustle in the air and bustle on the sidewalks. People everywhere. Walking, walking. Barely stopping. And the cars always moving, beeping, honking, swerving. Fast food vendors behind their carts. Pretzels, hot dogs, and kebabs were being sold. Ice cream and pizza slices too. There’s Radio City Music Hall. Walk a little further and there’s Times Square.
New York. Home to the world – Chinatown and Little India, Koreatown and Little Germany. Home to the doctors and attorneys, the intellectuals and the actors, the Wall Street wolves and rip-off bankers. Home to the rats and cockroaches and grime and city sweat. Home to the filthy rich and the dirty poor; sinners, transgressors, and saints.
New York. The new home of Oscar Hoope who was intent on leaving his shady life behind. And the unexpected home of a young Canadian woman trying to get a job.
“Please, ma’am,” dark-haired Fionn Alesandra Larochelle pleaded. “I’m willing to do any job you have available.”
“The theatre only needs a janitor at the moment,” the lady behind the counter replied curtly. She clacked away at her typewriter without bothering to look up. “You don’t look like janitor material, miss.”
Fionn sighed. Of course, she had never cleaned anything before; but that was before she had left her comfortable life in Ontario, Canada. Her parents had been official government spies. When she was nineteen-years-old, both of them had died in a questionable, tragic house fire. Her malicious uncle had seized all of their financial accounts and sent her off to live with a distant cousin in New York City. Much to her dismay, when Fionn arrived in the city, this distant cousin had long since moved and could not be found anywhere. Fionn had been on her own for a year now, living in a women’s shelter and working random jobs where she was only needed for a short time. Life was very difficult. She only had a few sets of clothes and two pairs of shoes to her name. Worse than everything was the fact that she felt like a lonely worm in the big apple.
Now here she was at the recently renovated Ballet Theatre, hoping to get a permanent place to work. The lady behind the counter stopped clacking on the typewriter. She opened a file drawer, yanked out a single sheet of paper, and handed it to Fionn. “If you insist, miss,” she told her. “You can begin tomorrow. Come in at five. The public toilets and waiting hall need a good cleaning. The stage floor has to be mopped after each performance. The costumes have to be washed for the next day.”
Fionn threw herself into her work. The hours were long and the pay was only twenty-three dollars a day, but she didn’t mind because the theatre was a fascinating place to be. She observed while she swept up and wiped away. The more she observed the more she desired to learn to dance. She heard the directors set forth wondrous stories to be told without words. There was the rags-to-riches tale of Cinderella and another romantic story of young lovers, Franz and Swanilda. Another told of an Indian temple dancer caught in a triangle of eternal love and mystery and truth. Then there was The Nutcracker and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But Fionn’s favorite ballet was the enchanting tale of Swan Lake – a story of spells and magic, good and evil, betrayal and undying love.
The dancers were all French (save two) and they told Fionn of how thrilling it was to be on stage and enrapture the audience with a good performance. They also told her about the theatre’s owner, Oscar Hoope, who had saved the place from bankruptcy. He had bought it for one hundred thousand dollars from the previous owners, torn down all the old stages, and had a first class lighting system installed. He hired some of the finest teachers and dancers and soon people were coming by the hundreds to see them. Business was good, but there were also rumors about Oscar. Rumors that he had killed seventy-five men. Rumors that his money came through unseemly means. Rumors that he was a wanted man.
Oscar heard some of the whispers but ignored them. His past was in the past and he wanted it to stay there. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t help falling back into his old ways sometimes, for it was odd that whoever asked one question too many or stuck their nosey noses too far in his business always turned up dead a week or so later. He bought three cars, a magnificent mansion in New Jersey, and ordered a tailor-made collection of tweed suits from London – all under the alias of Walter Katz. He settled down and settled in.
Fionn caught glimpses of him sometimes as she went about her work in the theatre. And it wasn’t long before Oscar took notice of her too.
chapter eight: friendship
It was a wet night. The rain poured down in torrents much like it had poured down that fateful night when Habakkuk Hoope had died. Oscar hated rain. He hurried back into the theatre where he had left his jacket. Once inside, strains of music coming from the auditorium reached his ears and he went to investigate. Fionn was alone, but she had traded her brown boots for a pair of blue pointe shoes and was dancing quite smoothly on stage. Oscar walked slowly down the aisle between the rows of empty seats. He stopped midway and watched her dance.
Fionn was graceful and light. She made her footwork look effortless. Even though she had never danced before, Fionn knew that ballet was what she wanted to do – what she was born to do. The stage felt like home. Thrills rippled through her slender frame as she spun in circles – round and round and round – stretching one leg first and then the other, arching her back and neck perfectly, and reaching both arms far above her head. Ballet was magic.
Fionn imagined that she was in the role of Odette in Swan Lake on a spectacular stage at the French Ballet Theatre. She wasn’t in her pale green janitorial suit anymore, but a glittering white tutu with dazzling feathers. Shining pearls were threaded through her hair. All around her moved the talented cast. The bright lights flashed on overhead. The heavy curtains opened. The expectant audience waited in anticipation for an excellent show. Fionn was not nervous. She danced as if she had been dancing all her life. When she was done, she took a bow. The loud cheers of her imaginary audience quieted into the solitary clapping of one man.
“Very good, very good,” Oscar applauded Fionn. He walked down the rest of the aisle and onto the stage until they were standing face to face. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you dance here before. How come?”
Fionn was slightly embarrassed she had been caught on stage, but she answered confidently. “I work off stage as the janitor,” Fionn told him. “But I do love ballet so very much.”
“Pity! With such natural talent you deserve to be on stage,” Oscar replied. He took her delicate hands between his rough ones. “And you will be,” he added. “You will.” He smiled at her radiant face, but his eyes were shady.
The very next day, Fionn was no longer cleaning, but training backstage with the other ballerinas. As the days passed, Oscar’s friendship with Fionn deepened. He liked her sylphlike figure and her smile and her curious enthusiasm. He liked the fact that she did not ask too many questions. He liked her most for her innocence, which made the guilt he carried less heavy to bear. In return, Fionn liked Oscar since he had introduced her to a whole new life. He had given her something to do which she loved. She liked him most for his mystique because it tainted her chasteness.
The two read books on the history of ballet. They watched their favorite dancers on black-and-white film. They made frequent trips to Broadway and the movies. They took long walks on the Jersey shore at midnight when the moon was highest and the stars were brightest. It was in Manhattan while on a visit to that imperial lady called Liberty that Oscar asked Fionn to marry him. She said yes.
Their wedding was a small one at the courthouse. Fionn moved in with Oscar in his magnificent New Jersey mansion. A year later, they welcomed a daughter – Aly Scarlett Larochelle-Hoope; and for the first time in either one of their lives, they were both satisfied and completely happy.
chapter nine: they’re holding us hostage
Meanwhile, Shady and Redd refused to believe the police reports that Oscar was dead. A story had been published in the Indiana paper detailing how the police had cornered Oscar inside a church before lightning hit the building and set it ablaze. Oscar had burned to death and his body be unrecoverable. The minister of the church, the paper had reported, had also died in the blaze.
Shady and Redd contacted their mobster friends in Chicago. It took them nearly six months to track down Oscar’s whereabouts and his New Jersey mansion. Oscar didn’t suspect anything was amiss until Fionn called him one afternoon.
“Oscar!” she said frantically into the phone. “Please come home now. They’re holding us hostage.”
When Oscar arrived back home, he was outraged to find Shady, Redd, and two mobsters had forced their way inside his mansion and had guns pointed on his wife and daughter. Shady and Redd were equally outraged at the way Oscar had bolted on their gang and taken nearly all the money with him. They wanted him to return to the gang with them or they would have him killed. They would kill Fionn. They would kill Aly also.
Oscar had once found it amusing to be the one terrorizing people, to be the one making demands and giving threats, to be the one having others at his mercy. How unamusing it now was to be the one terrorized. Oscar had thought he was a changed man; but the unexpected situation made him revert back to his old, murderous ways.
Whipping out the pistol he always carried in his coat, Oscar flatly told them he wasn’t returning to the gang and fired into Shady’s chest. Redd fired at Oscar. Fionn screamed. Grabbing Aly, she dashed out the room and barricaded herself in a spare bedroom. Jumping over Shady’s fallen body, Oscar ignored the bullet wound in his shoulder, and chased the mobsters upstairs. When it was over, both of them were dead. Returning downstairs to finish with Redd, Oscar found he had escaped through a back window. At the bottom of the staircase, Shady was still squirming. Oscar walked closer and shot him once in the head. Then he sat down on the stairs and watched him die. Watched until his chest stopped heaving and his eyes stopped seeing.
Oscar’s hands were bloody now. His heart was thumping loudly. His head felt heavy. He couldn’t stop shaking. He sat on the stairs for what seemed like hours, then he got up and dragged Shady’s body into a barely used room. He hid Shady’s body under a pile of sheets in the closet. He shut the door and locked it.
Oscar went back upstairs. He grabbed the body of the first mobster and hid it inside the case of the concert grand piano. He shut the door to the piano room and locked it.
Oscar dragged the body of the second mobster behind a mirror in a dusty hall. He placed a large painting of the Little General crossing the Alps in front of the entrance to the hall. He came back downstairs. He dried up the blood off the shiny, marble floors. Oscar threw away his ruined clothes. He changed into a clean suit. He went to find Fionn and Aly.
Redd, the only one to have escaped alive from the New Jersey mansion, reached New York City in short order. He went to the authorities and turned himself in. Then he told them everything he knew about the wanted man they believed was dead. Redd told the police that Oscar was still very much alive.
chapter ten: trust me
When Fionn questioned Oscar about the men who had tried to take her and Aly hostage, he would only tell her that they were troublemakers. Oscar promised Fionn that he would always take care of her. He would never let anyone hurt her or Aly. He would always be there for them. “I just need you to trust me,” Oscar told Fionn.
“I do,” Fionn replied.
Fionn wanted to trust her husband; but is it possible to trust someone you barely know anything about? How can you believe in a stranger? Trust is such a risky thing because the truster must always be making oneself vulnerable to the trustee. Vulnerable to betrayal, to hurt, to dishonesty, to disappointment. “Trust me!” Oscar told Fionn and she would always reply that she already did. In her heart, however, Fionn wondered if she should trust him. How could she trust him when she did not have a reason to trust him? She finally told herself that she trusted him because she loved him even though she did not believe in his trustworthiness.
It was not even a month before the police swarmed their New Jersey mansion – a magnificent house that now held far too many secrets. It was a dark and rainy night when Oscar was taken away. He didn’t pull out his guns. He didn’t try resisting arrest. He heard Fionn’s protests as he was handcuffed. Nothing she said could make them release him. Nothing she did would make him come back to her.
The police had found their wanted man. It had taken years – much longer than expected – but he was in their possession at last. If injustice was the hare, then justice was the tortoise – slow and steady but always winning in the end. Oscar’s trial was short. He was given life in prison and locked away in solitary confinement forever.
chapter eleven: shattered heart
Fionn was beyond devastated after Oscar’s arrest. This is the problem with trust. When it is betrayed, it never just cracks. It always shatters into many pieces. So, it didn’t just hurt Fionn. It caused deep pain.
Oscar’s imprisonment damaged Fionn’s heart. She didn’t go to the theatre. She stopped doing ballet. She stopped dancing altogether. In a few days, the theatre was completely shut down. Fionn lay on the floor in her bedroom in the New Jersey mansion and cried for a day and a half.
She didn’t blame Oscar completely. If his past had stayed in the past, things might have turned out better for them. It wasn’t his fault that he had been dishonest. Oscar had wanted Fionn to believe he was a good man. It was her fault for not asking more questions. It was her fault for believing every word he said.
Fionn didn’t think she could go on. She didn’t have anything else to look forward to. It was little Aly’s cry that brought Fionn out of her misery. She stood up from the bedroom floor and walked down the long hall to the nursery. Aly’s wailing grew louder and louder. Fionn picked up her daughter. Aly stopped crying. They went to the window and looked out. Through the gray drizzle outside, a rainbow was spreading.
Fionn did have something to look forward to after all.
Aly Scarlett Larochelle-Hoope would become the center of Fionn’s life. All the love that was scattered in her shattered heart, she gathered it up, and poured it out on her little daughter. Fionn had high hopes that Aly could fulfill her dream and Oscar’s dream of becoming a “prima ballerina.” In the magnificent New Jersey mansion that had too many doors and far too many secrets, she began training her to that end.
chapter twelve: the last prayer
The prison doctor gave Oscar a checkup before he was locked in his 7×10 cell. He would be shut in a box with a steel bed and a sink which doubled as a toilet for twenty-three hours of a day, seven days of a week, fifty-two weeks of a year, every year for the rest of his life. Oscar didn’t expect the rest of his life to be much longer now. The doctor had said he had ischemic heart disease. Enough blood and oxygen wasn’t reaching his heart. The guard told the doctor not to worry about treating Oscar. They didn’t expect him to survive much longer. They didn’t want him to survive much longer.
Oscar couldn’t stand the confinement. The bitter fourteen-year-old version of him had once vowed to never see the insides of a cell again. Yet, here he was; and everything in him screamed to get out.
Mercifully, Oscar did not have to wait long. Three nights later, he awoke clutching his chest. His heart was failing. He was through with life and life was through with him. The end was near. He could hear the faithful, grave steps of Death coming down the corridor. An unnatural fear took hold of Oscar. He wondered if angels would welcome him once he departed. What brash audacity he had to think a group of divine beings would be sent to welcome the worst of men. It would probably be a horde of demons.
He could see their nasty, jeering faces. He could feel the heat from the flames they were in. “Come, Oscar!” they chanted eagerly. “Oscar, come! Come! Come! Come!” Oscar tried turning away but found he could not. He collapsed on the cold, hard prison floor, writhing in horror and pain. The flames were at his feet now, singeing his toes.
The pale, grim fingers of Death turned the lock and it entered the cell. The pale, grim fingers reached out to grip Oscar’s hand and take his soul. The flames leaped higher. The chants grew louder. “Oscar, come!” the demons yelled. “Come, Oscar! Come! Come! Come!” The fire was burning his legs now. In a moment it was on his knees. Soon it would reach his heart and then he would be theirs. A darkness, darker than dark, was blinding him. The smoke was suffocating. The devil was waiting.
Desperately, Oscar tried to remember the prayer Habakkuk Hoope had often urged him to repeat when he was just a boy in Indiana. He couldn’t die this way. What was the prayer? Habakkuk had said that God would hear it, even from the most wretched sinner; even from the worst of men.
God in heaven hear my prayer, keep me in thy loving care…
No, that wasn’t it.
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord, my soul to keep…
That prayer wouldn’t keep him out of hell.
Our Father, who art in heaven; hallowed be Thy Name…
No. No. No!
The devil prepared to claim Oscar’s soul from Death. “God!” Oscar cried with his last breath. “Take my soul! Forgive me of all my sins!” Angels rushed down on wings of glory. Swiftly they snatched the redeemed soul of Oscar out of the hands of Death and away from the devil’s grasp. “Oscar, no!” the horde of demons wailed. “No, Oscar! Come back. Come back. Come back.” But they could no longer be heard. The flames of hell rescinded. The darkness lifted. Fear was no more.
Bearing Oscar among them, the angels flew. Higher and higher until they were well beyond all power of hell. Higher and higher until earth had passed out of sight. Higher and higher until they reached that eternal, celestial shore where God Almighty resided and where Habakkuk Hoope was reunited with his wayward son.
A son plunged beneath the bloody flood of Emmanuel’s veins. All his sins washed away. All his guilty stains, lost.
Oscar, found out by mercy. His imprisoned soul no longer bound by nature’s night. A chain-less spirit standing righteously before the eternal throne, shamelessly claiming a crown.
Oscar, once lost, now found. Once blind, now full of sight. A wretch delivered. A sinner saved. His fears relieved by grace. Amazing grace that had also brought him safely home.