Read Sign of the Cross Online

Authors: Anne Emery

Tags: #Mystery, #FIC022000

Sign of the Cross (28 page)

My wife looked at him for a long unguarded moment, wondering, I knew, what it would be like to be with him now, with no need for other company. I had the fleeting impression that there was something intimate, something knowing, in their prolonged eye contact. But these were freighted moments for all of us. I didn’t dwell on it.

In the next instant, she retaliated.

“Bullshit. Did I hear the word ‘confessor’ in there? And what does
ragazzo
mean?” She gave him a look that would have reduced a less assured man to a quivering heap on the floor.

“Ah, that’s right. My memory is not what it used to be. Stress, you know. I told him we were busy here and you couldn’t come to the phone. I explained that I am your confessor and that I didn’t like what I was hearing from you. He wouldn’t either. And I believe I used the word
ragazzo,
which means ‘boyfriend’ or ‘boy,’ because he sounded very young. He got a little huffy over that, but I apologized. As I always do when I’m wrong.”

“So apologize.”

“When I’m wrong, I said.” Brennan smiled and raised his glass to us.

“How very Old World you’re being tonight,
Father.

“ Brennan nodded and went on with his meal.
“Delizioso.”

“Where did you learn to do that?” my wife asked, without looking overly impressed.

“I lived in Rome when —”

“Not that. Where did you learn to be so presumptuous and overbearing?”

“Ah. Well, it’s part of my calling isn’t it? God’s representative on Earth,” the padre said, helping himself to a piece of bread.

“From my limited reading of scripture, done mostly to pick and choose the commie bits, I did not find Jesus Christ — who, unlike
you, really
is
God — to be anything like you in high-handedness and self-assurance.”

“No? Not even when he went storming into the temple and overturned all those tables? Jesus wasn’t a little milquetoast, despite what you see in a certain class of religious kitsch. He was, after all, a carpenter in the days before power tools. But if you find me hard to take — and you, not being a shrinking violet yourself, seem to have no trouble putting me in my place — you should have met the parish priest I had as a kid in New York. Old Father Butler. He was forever finding me somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, and booting me home.”

Brennan stopped to refill his wine glass. “I remember one day when I was around twelve. He was out for his daily walk, patrolling the neighbourhood really, at six in the morning. He spied me and a few pals outside an abandoned building where we had gathered overnight with an illicit case of beer. He picked me up by the scruff of the neck and dragged me over to the rectory. The poor old housekeeper, who of course was up because he was up, was instructed to ‘phone over to the Burkes and tell them I have the little Christer here. If his poor mother hasn’t already died from worrying.’ He told me I was going to serve the seven o’clock Mass, and sing at the nine. And I was to sing ‘like the angel I know you really are, you little gobshite.’ He gave me a cuff on the head on his way out. You should have seen the smug look on his face when he got to see me prostrate myself before the Almighty on the day of my ordination.” Maura and I were quiet for a few minutes, trying to reconcile that image of abject submission with the Brennan Burke we knew.

I found it difficult to make dinner conversation when all I could think of was the ordeal of a jury wait the next day, with a result I could not predict. If I were to bet, though, I would not be betting the farm on my client. Burke seemed determined to avoid the subject altogether. I couldn’t refrain from one comment about the proceedings, however.

“What was it you said to Schenk, in Latin? I thought he’d be sticking the transcript under our noses the next day, but we never heard about it.”

“Oh, who knows?” Brennan answered offhandedly.

“You
know, so get on with it,” said Maura.

“I think I called him a prick. Or I said it was difficult for me to kick against the pricks, I guess is how you’d translate it. Doesn’t have quite the same connotation in Latin, but it felt right at the time.”

“You’re not exactly a ‘turn the other cheek’ kind of guy, are you Brennan?” Maura observed.

“I do struggle with that part of the Lord’s message, I’ll admit it. But, believe it or not, I’m infinitely more mellow in that respect than I was when I was a kid.”

“Little scrapper, weren’t you?” I said.

“My parents repeated the same thing till we nearly expired of hearing it —” and here, the Irish accent thickened — “‘Brennan was the last one of our boys we ever expected to become a priest.’ My brothers were much more likely prospects. But here I am. A kindly light, to lead you both.” He favoured us with a deceptively beneficent smile.

“Sister Dunne certainly has your number,” Maura remarked.

Burke rolled his eyes heavenward and shook his head. “She’s a tough cookie, I’ll say that for her. There was a news clip out of Central America some years ago; I saw it on tape when I came up here. A village being evacuated under armed guard, as the opposing forces reached the gates. You could hear the gunfire as they brought the children and their mothers out, and shoved them into anything with four wheels. If you looked closely, you could see Marguerite standing sentinel over the crying children, ready to throw her body over one of them if need be. Absolutely fearless.”

We sat around the table for a while making desultory conversation, but I sensed Brennan becoming restless, until he announced: “It’s time I was off.” St. Bernadette’s was only a few blocks away, but I said I’d walk over with him. Maura looked up at him as he stood in the doorway, and I could see the effort she made not to fall apart. Then he took her by the hand and pulled her towards him. He held her tightly for a few moments, gently released her and walked with me out into the night. I turned and looked at my wife, standing in the doorway, desolate.

When Brennan got to the sidewalk he stopped to light a cigarette. We went to the corner, turned left and walked east on Morris Street. The city was enveloped in fog, and the street lamps had a gaslight effect. A foghorn sounded in the harbour.

“A container ship leaving port? Wonder if I can catch it,” he said. “What would you do on your last night as a free man, Monty?” He spoke as if he were asking me what brand of beer I would order in a pub.

“Don’t talk that way, Brennan. Don’t talk about last nights.”

“Lots of things come to mind,” he continued as if I hadn’t spoken, “but some of them would just get me in more shit than I’m already in now. If such a thing were possible. Do you think a bit of female company would be in order for me tonight, Monty?” He looked theatrically at his watch. “Did I leave myself enough time to sweet-talk somebody into the crib? Maybe. But then, when I light up a smoke afterwards and ask her if it was good for her, she’ll probably answer: ‘No, Bill, if that’s really your name, I didn’t like it when you curled up in the fetal position and begged me to hold you. That got boring after a few hours.’”

“I know you’ll keep it together, Brennan. Marguerite isn’t the only tough cookie in the jar.” I hoped I sounded more confident than I felt.

We arrived at the church. Brennan took a deep drag from his cigarette, dropped it, and ground it out with his toe. “I’m going in here. To pray for the strength to handle what’s coming. ‘Out of the depths I cry to thee.’ If this works for me, then here is where I’ll spend the night. If it doesn’t, who knows what charges will be pending against me by morning? Go home Monty, to one of your houses. Wouldn’t it be grand if you picked the right one. But wherever you are, get some sleep. One of us will have to have his wits about him in the morning.” He gave my arm a little squeeze and unlocked the door of his church. I stood outside for a few moments, picturing my friend on his knees before his God. I could not begin to imagine the conversation. Then I headed back to Dresden Row to pick up my car.

III

The next day dragged by without a verdict. I was in the office all day and the tension was nearly unbearable. I had done my share of jury waits, but this was the worst. I didn’t want to think about what it was like for Brennan. I gave him a call when the jury was sequestered for
a second night, and asked if he wanted company. He declined in a voice that was barely audible. I assumed he would be spending much of the night in church again. If indeed that was where he had spent the night before.

The next day, Friday, the wind blew the cold autumn rain in sheets parallel to the pavement. We heard nothing all morning. I tried to concentrate on other cases but soon gave up the pretence. Rowan, too, paced uselessly around the office. I restrained myself from calling Brennan because I did not want to subject him to the unnecessary jangling of the phone. I did not think it a good omen that the jury was taking this long. It felt to me as if they were doing something they didn’t want to do, and couldn’t bring themselves to finish it off.

The call did not come until four-ten in the afternoon. I phoned Brennan and said I’d pick him up. On the way out of the office I asked Darlene to call Sue Drummond and Maura, and not to give up till she reached them.

Brennan’s face was the colour of Wednesday ashes when I opened the car door for him. Tension radiated from him in waves. He didn’t speak, and neither did I. After I parked, we pushed our way through the waiting reporters and entered the courtroom. Schenk was already there. Susan came in, followed by Maura, who put an arm around Brennan’s shoulders. He looked at her and tried to smile.

The jurors filed in. Not one of them looked at the accused man. A couple of the women and one of the men looked as if they had been weeping. I caught my wife’s eye. We both knew it was going to end badly.

As the press reports always say, the accused showed no emotion as the verdict was read: guilty of second-degree murder. I asked that the jury be polled and they stood one by one to confirm the verdict. Brennan looked at the jury box and smiled sadly, almost lovingly, at his jurors, as if granting them the clemency they had denied him. This would later be interpreted in one of three ways: acknowledgement by him that they had done the right thing in finding him guilty; appreciation for reducing the verdict to second degree; or absolution for their wrong — forgive them, for they know not what they do. I spoke to Brennan, assuring him I would see him as soon
as I could. Two sheriffs, one on either side, took his arms and led him from the courtroom. As soon as the door closed, I knew, they would have him in cuffs.

The reporters and the onlookers filed out. Maura, Sue and I stood in the courtroom in utter silence. The enormity of the verdict began to sink in. I could not shake the feeling that, if Burke had not insisted on waiving the preliminary hearing, this trial would have taken place a year or so after the charges were laid instead of within a few short months. A greater delay would have given potential jurors more time to forget what I suspected was very much on their minds: the fact that there were two murder charges, not one. They were instructed of course to base their decision only on what they heard in the courtroom. But how could they ignore what they must have heard every single day: “You’re on a jury? Oh, Burke, right, the priest who killed two women.”

Conviction on the charge of second-degree murder meant a sentence of life imprisonment, but Brennan would not necessarily have to wait twenty-five years to apply for parole. He could serve anywhere from ten to twenty-five years. I took some comfort from this, but not much. He could be in prison till the age of seventy. If he survived that long. And I was worried about the hard-nosed judges of the Court of Appeal. I thought the jurors had been sympathetic to him; they probably saw a lot in him to like, and they didn’t want him to go down forever. Yet, they couldn’t find it in their hearts to acquit him. They were convinced he had killed Tanya Cudmore.

Chapter 15

Somewhere up the coast near the Bay of Fundy
There’s a place called Dorchester town.
In a cell in a block behind the walls of the prison
There’s a man on a real come-down.
— Matt Minglewood, “Dorchester”

I

I made my way through the courthouse with dread. I had to face my client. And I knew that, given the late hour, the van would be waiting to take him to the Correctional Centre, where he would be warehoused for two or three weeks till he could be processed as a federal inmate. Then he would be assessed and shipped to a federal institution to begin serving his sentence. It spoke volumes about his future that I hoped he would be sent to the forbidding Victorian fortress known as Dorchester Penitentiary. There were places that were even worse, and Dorchester was less than three hours away, just on the other side of the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border.

He was sitting absolutely still in the interview room downstairs; his face lacked all animation. His eyes followed me when I entered on my side of the partition, and began speaking through the metal grate. “We’ll start the appeal procedure right away. Sue and I will sit down this evening.”

“Will I be out of jail while I wait for my appeal?”

I swallowed, and delivered the latest in a long litany of unwelcome opinions: “It’s very unlikely, Brennan, I’m sorry. The Criminal Code allows for release pending appeal but in practice it’s extremely rare for someone convicted of murder to get out. You see, you no longer have the presumption of innocence working in your —”

“How long before my appeal will be heard?”

“Several months at least.” He started to speak. I waited, but whatever it was died before delivery. “But Brennan, we’re going to try for release anyway. First, though, we have a hearing to determine your, uh, parole eligibility date. To see how many years you’ll have to serve before you may apply for parole.”

“Jesus Christ! I believe in an entire world of things that can’t be known through the five senses, but I can’t believe what I’m hearing today. We can’t really be sitting here discussing how many years of a life sentence I’ll have to serve for something I didn’t do.”

“I understand. But this is what we have to deal with. Immediately after the sentencing, we’ll set a date for your release hearing. We’ll do everything humanly possible to get you out.”

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