Read Sign of the Cross Online

Authors: Anne Emery

Tags: #Mystery, #FIC022000

Sign of the Cross (7 page)

II

I wasn’t getting a lot of useful information about the last hours of Leeza’s life. And I knew virtually nothing about her death. What had been done to her body to convince the police, or Moody Walker at least, that this was a religious killing? The details would not be available from the police unless, well, unless my client was charged with the murder. But the police were not the only ones who had seen the victim’s body. The technicians at the morgue would have seen it, as would the pathologist who performed the autopsy, and the people at the funeral home. Stratton Sommers often used a private investigator for surveillance and matters that required clandestine activity. But the
Burke file was not being circulated around the office and I suspected Rowan would not want to bring in a private eye. I decided to handle this my own way.

If there was one person in the world I could rely on to do something right and keep quiet afterwards, it was my wife. Estranged wife. She may have been the one person in the world I did not want to be in the same room with for more than five minutes, but I had faith in her abilities and her discretion. Maura knew a number of people who toil away at the kinds of tasks the rest of us take for granted, necessary but unpleasant work that we may not want to hear about. She was frequently at the side of underpaid workers in their struggles for better conditions and job security. Did she perhaps know some of the people who had handled Leeza Rae’s body once the police and the crime scene people had finished with it?

To maintain solicitor-client privilege, I would retain Maura as a lawyer working as part of a team for Burke. That way, nobody could say we had waived his right to confidentiality by revealing something to an outsider. I called the rectory but Burke was out. I heard from him an hour or so later.

“Hello, Father Burke.”

“What can I do for you, Mr. Collins?”

“I’m not comfortable operating with so little information about the murder scene. If there were religious or ritualistic aspects to the killing or to the scene, I want to know what they were.”

There was silence at the other end of the line. Burke eventually spoke. “Yes?”

“I do not want to stir anything up when I go looking for this information. Nor do I want your file going outside a very limited orbit.”

“Right.”

“So what I would like to do, with your permission, is retain someone I can trust to be very discreet. My wife.”

“Some class of husband-wife confidentiality, you mean?”

“No, that’s not what I mean. She is a lawyer and a law professor.”

“Ah.”

“She would be one of your solicitors, so there would be no breach of confidentiality. And she has ways of getting information out of
people without them realizing what she’s doing. Finally, and this is crucial, she keeps her mouth shut. Except when she’s tearing strips off me.”

He laughed, in a rather unpriestly manner. “Sounds like my kind of woman.”

“I meant she can be very, well, assertive. Verbally.”

“Yes, I get the picture. She gives you a tuning now and then, does she, Montague? More women should be like that. The world would be a finer place. Do what you think is best, counsellor. And if you ever want to get information out of me, send her over.” Click.

I took that as my authorization to retain Maura on his behalf and I wrote an ass-covering memo to that effect for the file. Now it was time to endure the sort of verbal abuse that a lawyer expects to receive from a judge, or opposing counsel, but that he hopes he will not have to suffer from the person he once pledged to love and honour until death. I dropped in at my wife’s office at the law school.

Maura MacNeil was admittedly an attractive woman. She was probably twenty-five pounds over her ideal weight and, to give credit where credit is due, she didn’t give a damn. She had dusky brown hair to her shoulders, grey, slightly almond-shaped eyes, a generous mouth, and a deceptively sweet face: the “pretty face” that people are apparently not supposed to mention — for reasons I have never understood — in connection with a zaftig figure.

It had been a while since I’d been in her office but the place never changed, except for the addition of more and more books to the piles on the table and floor. The wall to my left was covered with banners exhorting people to wake up to poverty, injustice and exploitation; wickedly funny cartoons lampooned the exploiters and their lackeys in government. The wall opposite contained gorgeous photos of her native Cape Breton, and a poster of the Men of the Deeps, the coal miners’ choir, of which her dad was a member. The men wore their helmets and their lights were shining. Alec “the Trot” MacNeil’s daughter was writing furiously at her desk.

“Good morning, Professor,” I began. “What’s the rule against perpetuities? I’ve forgotten, and I need it for a case I’m working on.”

She looked up. “Oh, it’s you, Collins. We’ve all forgotten the rule against perpetuities. Nobody needs it. So move on to your next point.”

“I need you.”

“Well, I don’t need you. But your children do, so I guess you’re going to be a part of my life into perpetuity, aren’t you?” “Looks that way.”

She got up from her desk and cleared an armload of journals from one of the chairs. “Well? You don’t have to stand there. Have a seat.”

Emboldened by what I perceived almost as kindness, I ventured a compliment. “You look bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked today.”

“I have a fever of a hundred and four!” she retorted.

Shit. I decided not to waste any more time. “Listen, Maura. I’d like to retain you on a murder file I’m working on.”

“Murder? You don’t get many of those at Stratton Sommers.”

“I’ll explain. Can we get together? Maybe you could bring the kids over for dinner tonight.”

“Is your place still all torn up? How long does it take to get some floors refinished? I don’t relish sitting there and getting dust all over my arse, just for the privilege of eating overcooked spaghetti and listening to you.”

“So,” I sought clarification, “you’re inviting me to your place then.”

She sighed. It never ended. “Six-thirty. The kids will be hungry.”

Maura lived downtown on Dresden Row, in the place we had shared as a family. The house was a typical Halifax variation of the Georgian style, grey with double-hung windows trimmed in white, and distinctive five-sided Scottish dormers. I was there on time, with a bottle of Australian wine and all the fixings for ice cream sundaes for my children. They, at least, were happy to see me. My wife and I were able to agree on one thing, our kids.

Tommy Douglas was shorter and thinner than I was, but he had my dark blonde hair and blue eyes. A fine-looking lad of sixteen. We had named him after T. C. (Tommy) Douglas, the eloquent and witty Baptist minister who, as premier of Saskatchewan, had faced down the doctors to become the father of universal free health care in Canada. Normie was a little girl who made her way through the world by crashing against it at full speed. She had big, near-sighted hazel eyes, and I cannot count the pairs of eyeglasses we bought and she lost. Her nose was spangled with freckles and she had fat curls in a rich shade of auburn. Her hair was a big part of our mornings because she tended to twirl it in bed; you could tell whose week it was to have the
children by the size and complexity of the tangles still in place on Normie’s head. My wife, out of the mainstream in many ways, was an old-fashioned mother who believed a child’s hair and nails spoke volumes about the quality of the home. “You look like a motherless child” meant face, hands, and hair were not suitable for public viewing. If it weren’t for Tommy Douglas and Normie, Maura MacNeil and I would have been rid of each other a long, long time ago.

We were civil in the presence of the children and sometimes it was easy to forget for a few minutes that we were not a family anymore. When the young ones went off by themselves after dinner, I got down to business. “I’m hoping you know somebody at the morgue.”

“I won’t say who I’d like to see in the morgue, because I wouldn’t really mean it, but don’t tempt me like that again, Collins.” She smiled and sipped her wine. I waited. “I could probably drop in and see how things are going for some of the people I know over there. If I just happened to be visiting a sick friend at the hospital, angel of mercy that I am, what could be more natural than to pop over to the morgue and say hello? What is it you want to know?”

“You heard about the body found under the bridge a few weeks ago.”

“Yes, I heard.”

“Apparently, the body was desecrated in some way, and the police suspect a religious angle to the murder.”

“Really!” She put down her glass. I had her full attention.

“Moody Walker — you know who I mean — he’s retired now, but he thinks the girl was killed by a priest.”

“Whoa!”

“I think the police are looking further afield than Walker is. They may be more open to thinking it was an impostor, or someone pretending to be a priest. But Walker has his sights set on —” I nodded in her direction “— our client.”

“Our client is who?”

“A Catholic priest by the name of Burke. He’s from New York. Ever hear of him?”

Maura shook her head. She was brought up Catholic, although, like her Trotskyite father in Cape Breton, she had numberless grievances against the church, and enjoyed nothing more than airing them
when offered the slightest encouragement. She did, however, find much to like in the social gospel. I could see the pros and cons of Holy Mother Church warring within her as we spoke, but she knew how to stick to the matter at hand.

“Why Burke?”

“The victim, Leeza Rae, was a part-time staffer at St. Bernadette’s Youth Centre. She knew Burke casually as a result. She also would have known the other priest there, Father O’Flaherty. She was last seen alive at a dance at the centre. Valentine’s Day. She may or may not have danced with Burke —”

“Wouldn’t that be a hot time? Hubba hubba,” Maura put in.

“You may want to reserve judgment on that. Anyway, he gave a statement to the police.”

“Wasn’t that good of him.”

“Oh yeah. If you knew Burke, you’d think he would be the last person on the planet to give anything up. Very acerbic and difficult to talk to. I can barely get a civil word out of him. But there he was, offering himself up to the police.”

“The layman might take that as a sign he is innocent.” We shared a laugh, and I poured us both another glass of the Shiraz.

“And yet, this priest works with children at the choir school several days a week. He’s fairly brusque with them, but not brutal. The only time I ever saw him lighten up was when the children were singing. And they were singing beautifully. You really ought to hear them. He obviously knows what he’s doing. The beatific smile on his face, he looked like a different man.”

“That’s what the cops did then. Softened him up with Mozart. I’m told they carry small cassette tapes in their night sticks, for the hardened choirmasters among us, and he rolled over for them. So why isn’t Father O’Flaherty a suspect?”

“I’m not sure. He’s older, for one thing. Not ancient, but seventy anyway. He’s short and slight, and I think a young girl could easily fend him off.”

“Which is not the case with Burke, I take it.”

I shook my head. “Burke is in his late forties, maybe fifty. Tall, muscular, in good shape. I’m not sure I could fend him off myself.” I paused. “I got the impression Moody Walker was predisposed to
suspecting Burke. Maybe he knows something we don’t know. He was quite prepared to regard the priest as a sicko. Which brings us to your mission. Something was done to the girl, or to the body. Perhaps the killer left a signature. I’m hoping you’ll be able to ferret out exactly what this was. The people at the morgue, and at the funeral home, would have seen it. We have to know what we’re dealing with here.”

“Time to get chatty with the body snatchers. I’ll try to bury my inquiries in a string of other bullshit, so they won’t know what I’m after.” She was thinking ahead.

“And Maura, I don’t have to tell you —”

“No, you don’t. I shall maintain my silence even in the face of the most exquisite... music in the world.” She drained her glass. “Grab a cab. I’m going to bed. Pick your car up in the morning.”

III

The next morning was Friday and I was in the Spring Garden Road courthouse for the sentencing of a client named Ricky Wellner. Our articled clerk, Robin Reid, came along with me. Wellner had been convicted of assault causing bodily harm to his common-law wife, Crystal Green; she had two fractured ribs and needed stitches in her lip. This was far from Wellner’s first violent offence. The case had been adjourned so a pre-sentence report could be prepared. I had set up a meeting with the Crown prosecutor, Blaine Melvin. He was looking for five years; I suggested nine months. He wasn’t buying that.

“Keep Ms. Green off the stand,” I urged him, “and we’ll take two years. Wellner is better off with federal time anyway. He’ll be able to tap in to some programs and get the help he needs.”

“I’m not surprised you want her kept from the stand, considering the picture she’ll paint of your client,” the Crown replied, “but Crystal is going to get up there and read her statement.”

“I’ll have no choice but to go after her on cross-examination, and it won’t go well for her.” I rarely cross-examine someone on a victim impact statement but I couldn’t let this testimony pass unchallenged. “Save her, and her family, the grief. Take the two years.”

“Oh, I don’t think we have anything to fear from your cross, Montague.”

Another sentencing was wrapping up as we entered the courtroom. The upper part of the room was painted a light cream, with dark wainscoting below and wooden beams criss-crossing the ceiling. The bench, and the tables used by the clerks and counsel, were in the same sombre shade. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II gazed coolly at all who entered, an incentive perhaps to the males to doff their caps before the judge bellowed at them to do so. His Honour Judge Ivan Thomas was slumped on the bench, his white head barely visible; he glowered at the stunned-looking young man whose fate was in his hands. The judge’s voice boomed from the bench: “Break, enter, and
leave,
Mr. Willis, break, enter, and
leave.
Don’t dally at the liquor cabinet and pass out in the victim’s house. We’ll have to amend the Criminal Code so you’ll know what to do next time. Do you have anything to say? No? Six months. Next!”

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