A sanatorium to heal wounds, mend limbs and fix shattered bodies.
That’s what the hospital means to most people. That’s what the hospital is all about.
Unfortunately, in the quest to alleviate the sufferings of the human condition, hospitals tend to gravitate to the other end of the moral spectrum.
How do you begin to console the wife of a heart-attack casualty? How do you comfort the parents of a hit-and-run victim who may not survive the night? What do you say to a middle-aged man about to undergo life-threatening surgery?
Sometimes, no amount of therapeutic expertise or medical statistics can fill in the gaps of the human heart.
But Christian chapels can.
A holy shrine to seek the comfort and hope that cold medical science cannot provide. It is a spiritual place, to seek the face of an unseen God and pray that His omnipotence is enough to work the miracles that hospitals cannot.
Hospital chapels exist in a netherworld. Between desperation and optimism, doubt and faith, sadness and happiness.
But this particular chapel is about to become the site of another sort of netherworld. A netherworld of unlikely confrontation...
* * *
The chapel was quiet. Illuminated only by the faint glow of candles at the altar, the rows of pews were empty. The embodiment of subtle but assured tranquility.
A sudden streak of lightning invades the dimness, lighting up the chapel for a split-second. The throb of loud thunder followed. The surreal sounds of torrents of rain beating against the chapel’s windows.
In this place of worship, something looked markedly out of place.
Right beside the candle-lit altar was a circular table. Two men were sited there. Facing each other, they exchanged nonchalant glances that betrayed a hint of tension.
The first one was a well-built man with a stern expression. Bearded with a messy pony-tailed hairstyle, he looked as if he had just walked out of a war zone. He was clad in a dark green tee with indigo-colored jeans, subtly discolored by traces of dirt and dried blood. His face gleamed with perspiration in the muted semi-darkness. His eyes were bloodshot.
The second one was noticeably younger. He had a smaller frame, but looked fit nonetheless. Unlike the first man, he was the picture of hygienic neatness. With a clean-shaven face and his hair neatly parted down the middle, he appeared calm and composed. He wore a dark blue jacket with the word ‘POLICE’ stenciled at the back.
“You like taking risks, policeman?” asked the first man.
“I try not to...”
“But you do take them sometimes, don’t you?”
The police negotiator leaned forward in his seat, resting both elbows on the table.
The hostage-taker smiled back, clearly pleased at the younger man’s response.
“Then we’re the same. We both hate taking risks. But in our line of work, we have to.”
“I suppose so...”
“You cops take risks to save lives. But we robbers take risks to put people in danger. Right?”
The negotiator pursed his lips, considering his reply to the rhetorical question. He chose a neutral stance. “That’s what the media would like us to believe.”
The hostage-taker just chuckled, rubbing his beard. “But real-life isn’t that simple...”
The negotiator folded his arms, nodding in mock agreement.
“Just imagine...” the hostage-taker mused aloud. “We’re two stooges in front of a media circus. They want to know the outcome of this story. Will it be happy? Will it be not-so-happy? Will it be tragic?”
The negotiator just cocked his head. “This is your show. Only you can decide how the story ends.”
To press home his point, the negotiator turned slightly in his chair. He considered the four frightened hostages huddled at the wall behind him. His gaze lingered momentarily on each individual. He noted the fear in their eyes. He smiled slightly to reassure them.
Then, he turned back to face the hostage-taker.
“Their lives are in your hands.”
“So is yours.”
“That means I have the power to play with chance...”
“If you want...”
The hostage-taker nodded, then reached for the revolver on the table. He lifted the gun, ejected the chamber and gave it a quick twirl with his left hand. It spun for two long seconds before he suddenly used his thumb to stop the rotation. All six rounds came flying out, scattering themselves over the table.
The other man just watched, curious to see what his opponent had in mind.
“We’re going to play a game, Mister Policeman,” he stated without a hint of emotion in his voice. “A game of calculated risk. It’s the kind of risk we both play with... all the time.”
The hostage-taker reached for a bullet, gripping it in-between his forefinger and thumb. He lifted it and brought it close to the negotiator’s face. The negotiator just stared at it, frowning.
He pulled it away from the negotiator’s face, then inserted it into a single slot in the revolver’s chamber. Then, he gave the chamber a slow spin and slammed it shut.
“Divide it by six and you have a 17% chance to blow your head off.” He placed the gun on the table and pushed it towards the negotiator. “Care to play?”
The negotiator glanced at the revolver. Then, at the hostage-taker.
“What are the rules?” the negotiator ventured.
“I have four hostages. We play this game in return for their release. Every time we pull the trigger and nothing happens, I let a hostage go.”
“Do I have a choice?”
The hostage-taker unexpectedly snatched up the revolver. He pressed the barrel of the .40 caliber handgun against the side of his head. He squeezed the trigger. A loud click. Nothing happened. He smiled in obvious triumph.
“No, you don’t have a choice.”
The older man set the gun down on the table again.
The negotiator took in a deep breath, grimacing as his mind raced through the situation.
“And because I’ve made it through round one without blowing my head off, I’m letting a hostage go.”
The hostage-taker pointed in the direction of one of the hostages, a woman. He gestured for her to go. She obeyed, rising unsteadily to her feet. She took a few measured steps, tensely passing the rows of pews.
As the two men watched, the woman finally reached the door at the other end of the room. She paused for a moment, turning back to look.
“It’s okay,” the hostage-taker reassured her. “Just go.”
* * *
The sound of the door shutting reverberated throughout the empty chapel.
The two men turned their attentions to each other, staring silently for a long moment.
The negotiator broke the silence first. “I’m here to save lives. Not to take them. If I play this game, one of us is going to end up dead. And that defeats the whole purpose of me being here.”
The hostage-taker just laughed. “Are you always this serious?”
The younger man just shook his head. “I don’t surrender to chance.”
“Neither do I! Problem is, we’re in this damn situation because of chance. You think I enjoy having a shootout with cops in a hospital?!? No. But, I had to defend myself. I had to run. And it was chance that cornered me in this chapel.”
Another streak of lightning.
“I understand that. Which is why I’m here. To make sure everyone gets out of here alive.”
Another roar of thunder.
“You don’t always have to believe in rules and regulations...” the hostage-taker said softly, leaning back into his chair. “Rules and regulations are for when things are under control. Right now, things aren’t under control.”
The negotiator leaned forward.
The hostage-taker sat up straight and waved a finger in the negotiator’s direction.
“Because it wasn’t your negotiating that got that woman out of here alive...” he whispered. “So, doesn’t that mean that chance is sometimes better than the rulebook?”
“Sometimes, yes...” the negotiator relented.
“At least we’re in agreement now.”
The negotiator just nodded. He was still feeling apprehensive about playing this game of Russian roulette. He had no choice. The hostage taker had released one hostage. It was only proper to return the gesture with something significant.
He reached for the revolver, then hesitated.
“Are you scared?”
“Yes, I’m scared,” the negotiator coolly admitted. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.”
“Good, I like an honest cop.”
“What about you?”
The hostage-taker averted his eyes, preferring to look at the candles burning at the nearby altar. Then, he shifted his glance higher, looking at the giant wooden cross mounted on the wall just beyond the altar. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Gloriously magnificent. A symbol of pain, suffering, sacrifice and victory all rolled into one.
The negotiator waited patiently for the man to answer.
A long minute passed.
“Yes, I’m scared. But if I have to die, I want to die here.” He turned his head and locked eyes with the negotiator again. “Jesus died on the cross. So I might as well die near one as well.”
“Are you a religious man?”
“I wish I was.”
The negotiator smiled. “An honest criminal. That’s rare...”
In one fluid motion, the negotiator lifted the gun off the table and pressed it against his temple. Then, without flinching, he pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He set the revolver down on the table.
“Very impressive,” the hostage-taker nodded his admiration. “You’re an unusual cop... to be so willing to follow through with risks.”
The negotiator grinned. “You’re an unusual criminal. To surrender his life to chance. And yet be so sentimental about it....”
“It’s funny how we understand each other so well.”
“You should have been a cop then...”
“Or maybe you should have been a criminal...”
They both laughed.
* * *
The older man lit a cigarette, took in two quick puffs and exhaled. “We sit here as friends. But, one hour later? Two hours later? We’ll be enemies again...”
The negotiator shook his head. “Not enemies. Just on opposite sides of the law...”
“Are we really so different?”
The negotiator paused to consider the question. Then, he smiled.
“We do what we have to do. Just that our circumstances are different.”
“Circumstances...” the hostage-taker sighed. “Something I’m not in control of...”
“Then why don’t you end this now, while things are still...”
The hostage-taker cut him off. “I wish I could, but like I said, I’m no longer in control of the situation. I’ll just like to savor the illusion for a while...”
The hostage-taker took hold of the revolver and aimed it at his head. Another click. Lucky again.
* * *
They were now down to only one hostage.
The hostage-taker pushed the revolver to the negotiator’s side of the table. The negotiator took a long hard look at it. Then, he pushed it away. The other man frowned.
“If the gun doesn’t go off, what then?” asked the negotiator.
“Then I let the last hostage go. That was the agreement. I never go back on my word.”
“No strings attached?”
“So, you’re going to let her waltz out of here. Then, you’re going to give yourself up?”
“It’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“Only because it’ll save your life...”
His cigarette waning, the hostage-taker took a long puff, then flicked it to the floor. It went out.
“Let’s get it over with.”
He pushed the revolver towards the negotiator.
This time, the younger man didn’t refuse. He gripped it tightly, then slowly pressed it against the side of his head. He swallowed hard. He had a bad feeling about this.
“Go on. You can do it.”
The negotiator’s forefinger rested lightly against the trigger. All he needed to do was squeeze, and it would be over. The whole thing. It would be over.
He breathed in hard. His chest felt tight.
A flash of lightning from the windows illuminated his tense features.
He squeezed the trigger. It all happened in slow-motion. The faint swish of the hammer slamming into the gun, striking the bullet in the chamber.
Then, a clap of thunder erupted, almost eclipsing the sound of the actual gunshot.
* * *
The police negotiator’s head followed the momentum of the blast. It jerked violently to the left, snapping his neck instantly. The .40 caliber bullet burrowed deep into his skull, exploding in a garish display of red as it exited the left side of his head.
Blood and brain-matter were sent smashing right across the altar, onto the cross.
The hostage screamed as the negotiator’s lifeless body thudded to the floor.
“Oh my God!”
The hostage-taker stumbled backwards, sending his chair crashing sideways. He was in a state of shock. His lips quivering, he shook his head forcefully.
The doors to the chapel burst open. The SWAT team swarmed in. Their weapons were aimed right for the hostage-taker.
He turned to face them, instinctively reaching for the pistol wedged in his jeans.
He never got the chance to pull it out. A hail of automatic gunfire cut him down, blasting the life out of him.
The violent sounds of the thunderstorm outside contrasted with the furious gunshots. The bullets punched holes in his unprotected body.
He staggered backwards, crashing hard into the altar behind him.
Candles were sent flying. They struck the floor, extinguishing themselves with soft hisses.
* * *
Lying limply on his back, the hostage-taker’s bleeding body soiled the altar’s white cloth. His head hung backwards, the life steadily draining from his damaged body. He was going to die. In a hospital chapel.
He strained his neck one last time, to have a last look at the bloodied cross behind him. He managed a faint smile, then closed his eyes...
Copyright © 2002 by John Ling