Read Sign of the Cross Online

Authors: Anne Emery

Tags: #Mystery, #FIC022000

Sign of the Cross (8 page)

Crystal Green was a heavy, tired-looking woman with long, dun-coloured hair scraped back tightly from her round face. I made a motion for exclusion of the public. I wanted the courtroom cleared of the media and all spectators, including the victim’s supporters. Melvin objected, and the judge denied my motion. Crystal read her statement, describing in detail the effect the assault had, and continued to have, on her life. She said she feared men, was afraid of emotional attachment, and was destined to be alone as a result. She broke down several times, and Melvin was solicitous with a newly opened box of tissues.

I rose and asked whether the victim would like a short break before cross-examination. She gave me a tentative smile and shook her head.

“Ms. Green, you have stated that you’ve been unable to form a new relationship in the year or so since you were assaulted by your common-law husband, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know a man by the name of Darnell Johnson?”

Crystal’s eyes darted towards the Crown attorney. She didn’t speak.

“Ms. Green? I asked you if you know Darnell Johnson.”

“I know him.”

“How do you know him?”

“He... he lives in the neighbourhood.”

“Does he live with you?”

“He has his own place.”

“His own place. Is that also your place?”

Silence again. “Ms. Green, do you have a relationship with Mr. Johnson?”

“What do you mean, a relationship?”

“What did
you
mean when you testified that you have been unable to form a relationship?” I brought out a story involving her and a group of friends in a bar; Johnson showed up and physically dragged her from the building.

“Did you ask for assistance? Call out for help?”

“No. I knew he’d settle down once we got home. He don’t like me out with my friends.”

“I see. So you went home with him. Home being where?”

Silence. Then: “My place.” I waited. “Our place,” she conceded, in a small voice.

I paused for a drink of water. “Ms. Green, do you know a man named Clifford Trites?”

The woman gave a little cry and put a hand up to her mouth.

“Clifford Trites. Did you have a relationship with him in the past?”

Blaine Melvin was on his feet. “Not relevant, Your Honour.”

The judge roused himself and asked: “Relevance, Mr. Collins?”

“Your Honour, Ms. Green has testified about the impact this attack has had on her life. I am trying to explore her life a bit, in order to help the court assess the true magnitude of that impact.”

“Very good of you, Mr. Collins. But try to get to the point.”

“Yes, Your Honour. Ms. Green, you lived with Clifford Trites some years ago, correct?”

Her answer was barely audible. “Yes.”

“Did you have children living at home at the time?”

She looked at her supporters in the gallery, then lowered her head.

“My girl. Tiffany.”

“Was Tiffany living with you the whole time you and Mr. Trites were together?”

Crystal Green’s chin was trembling and she looked down at her clenched hands. I waited.

“No, she went to live with relatives for a couple of years.”

“How old was Tiffany when you sent her to live with relatives?”

Crystal turned to face the judge, but he could barely be seen behind the slab of oak. “Why is he askin’ me all this? What’s this got to do with anything?”

The judge’s voice came gently from somewhere on the bench. “Just answer the questions, Miss Green.”

When she looked at me I could see the pleading in her eyes, but I continued to stare at her, waiting for her answer. “She was nine. She came back when she was eleven.”

“And you stayed with Mr. Trites during this whole time?”

I saw a blaze of hatred and, possibly, shame in her eyes. “Yes! I stayed with him. You don’t understand.”

“Mr. Trites sexually assaulted your little girl, didn’t he, Ms. Green? Repeatedly, over a period of nearly two years.” The courtroom erupted: howls from the witness, shouts of disbelief from her stricken family, outraged objections from Crown counsel. The judge was sitting bolt upright, trying to control the court. I overrode the noise: “The man molested your child. You got rid of
her,
and stayed with
him.
This latest assault is not responsible for destroying your life, as you would have us believe. My client assaulted you, and he’ll do time. I’m hopeful that he’ll get the help he needs while he’s in prison, and I hope you get the help you need. But he is not responsible for all the other pain you’ve endured in your life. That started long ago. I ask the court for the minimum federal time, two years. Thank you, Your Honour.”

Over the ruckus, the Crown was asking for a publication ban on all the evidence, on the grounds that it would identify a victim of sexual assault, a child victim at that.

“I have no objection to a ban, Your Honour. It was never my intention that this should be public.”

My client got two and a half years. When I turned away from the bench, I noticed that Robin Reid had fled the scene. Disillusioned no doubt, but with whom?

My clerk was gone. But Father Burke was there. Sitting at the edge
of the public gallery, in civilian clothes, his face as pale as the envelope he gripped in his hand. He rose and came towards me with the envelope. His write-up of the Leeza Rae affair. I took it. His black eyes looked into mine and I was unable to turn away. His face was without expression but I knew he was spooked. Whether by me, or by something he saw in his own future, I could not have said. I was jostled by someone behind me and twisted to let the person pass. When I turned back, Burke had vanished.

Chapter 4

So taunt me and hurt me, Deceive me,
desert me. I’m yours till I die, So in love with you am I.
— Cole Porter, “So in Love”

I

The following Monday I reached Tyler MacDonald on the phone, and we agreed to meet that afternoon in the St. Bernadette’s gymnasium. I arrived soaked from a cold, wind-driven rain. Eileen Darragh caught sight of me and handed me a paper towel. She was dusting her photos.

“Cleaning house in your spare time, Eileen?” I asked her. She struck me as a woman whose spare time was limited. But it might well be filled with fits of tidying up.

“You should see the dust on the tops of these old frames. Would you watch the phone for me for two seconds, Monty? I’m going to run down the hall to find a proper cleaning rag.”

“Go ahead.” She smiled and bustled away. I studied the photos, dated between 1953 and 1979. It was hard to picture all these children — many of them my contemporaries — living in an orphanage while I was growing up a short distance away, rolling my eyes at the absurdities of my parents and never giving a thought to what my life would
have been without them. Some children smiled, some looked solemn, some forlorn. One boy was giving the photographer a particularly dark scowl. Eileen returned, short of breath, brandishing a rag and a jar filled with water.

“This will do the job,” she promised. “Oh, will you look at that? Georgie, making such a face. He was lucky to be alive; he should have been smiling from one little pointy ear to the other.” She clucked over the photo as she wiped its frame.

“Had he been ill?”

“No, he nearly drowned one summer. Our annual trip to Queensland Beach. And it was nearly our last, thanks to him.”

“There’s always one like that, isn’t there?” I remarked.

“Oh yes. I remember that day so clearly. I was eight. It was early August. We all had our bathing suits on under our clothes, we had our towels and sun hats, and we piled onto the bus they hired for us. The sisters had prepared a picnic lunch, and the priests hefted these huge picnic baskets onto the bus. I don’t know what caused greater anticipation, the swimming or the food! There were thirteen or fourteen of us I think, and the two priests. Father Burke was one of them. He was here for a couple of years, back in the late sixties, to set up the original choir school. It wasn’t at St. Bernie’s then, but he used to come to the orphanage to help out sometimes. And dear old Father Chisholm. I remember he had on this funny tie. The priests have these summer-weight short-sleeved shirts, black of course, and he wore a tie with a picture of a mermaid on it. A mermaid with cat-eye sunglasses and a cocktail in her hand. Sweet man, Father Chisholm. He died a few years ago.

“So we all headed out to Queensland. Oh, it was hot! Hard to imagine, looking out the window today. We paddled in the waves and made sandcastles, and drank orange pop. And peed in the water! The surf was quite heavy. Then, wouldn’t you know, we heard Georgie hollering from way out in the water. How he got out that far without anyone seeing him, I don’t know. He had everyone’s attention now, though. We’d see his head, then he’d go under. It was really frightening. Father Burke swam out to get him. You know how you hear about drowning people dragging down their rescuers? I can believe it. Georgie was only around twelve, and not all that big, but
Father Burke had quite a time getting hold of him and hauling him in. Georgie choked up a lot of water but he was all right. Naturally, the times being what they were, the priests lit into him and gave him h-e-double-hockey-sticks.

“They let us have the rest of our day, thank the Lord, but it wasn’t quite the same after that. Food was delicious, though. The sisters must have dug into their own pockets for it. It was only on the way home on the bus that we started to feel how sunburned we all were. One of the kids jumped on Father Burke’s back, fooling around, and the poor man looked as if he wanted to scream. And Georgie threw up in the back of the bus just before we pulled off the highway into Halifax. Father Chisholm shouted at the driver to stop, and he jerked the bus over to the shoulder. What came out of Georgie slopped all the way to the front where I was sitting. I screeched and pulled my feet up and my sandal flew off and into the mess. Father Burke said in a loud whisper: ‘You’d better tell Sister you lost your shoes at the beach, Eileen. It’s all right. You can come to me for confession. Say a Hail Mary now for the lie and get it over with. Whisper it in my ear.’ He lifted me over the back of my seat and sat me down beside him. He said: ‘And don’t be slurring any of the words together, or it doesn’t count.’ Then we all got the giggles. You know how kids remember things like that forever. Georgie wasn’t the most popular boy in the home, let me tell you. Didn’t have the beach trip again till two summers later.”

I asked what else Eileen might be able to tell me about Burke. Here was someone who had known him when he must have been in his late twenties. But her response was disappointing.

“Oh, I hardly knew him, really. The kids didn’t get to know the priests very well at all. They were quite remote figures to us, even the young ones, except for those rare occasions like the beach trip. Father Burke helped out in the office occasionally, doing what, I don’t know. But he did teach us music twice a week, and that was fun.” She focused her gaze on the gallery of photos. “I wonder what became of all those children. God love them.”

I was silent for a few moments, then said I had to go see Tyler MacDonald.

“Off you go, then.”

Off I went with visions of glory, for my client of course, not for me. If I hadn’t gleaned much new insight into Father Burke, at least I had a minor story of heroism if I ever needed it. “My Lord, I have one more witness to call, a man who cut short his appearance at a pediatric surgeons’ conference in Toronto to speak on behalf of my client, who, as we shall soon hear, is a saver of lives, not a killer. Dr. George McWitness will tell the court how, if it hadn’t been for Father Burke, Dr. McWitness would never have grown up to be the country’s top —” Sure. I hoped and prayed we would not get to that point. And I thought poor Georgie, if he had survived this long, was more likely known to police than to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.

One thing I noted: Eileen Darragh had managed to get Father Burke’s name into the conversation without once blushing. Eileen had been at St. Bernadette’s all her life. She had met Burke when she was a child and he a young man. A plain little girl who had been singled out for a few moments of priestly attention on a bus trip. The woman could be forgiven if she felt a bit proprietorial. This could be a godsend if we ever needed a supporting witness.

Tyler MacDonald was a tall, nice-looking kid in jeans and a Dalhousie University sweatshirt. I found him shooting baskets with some younger kids; he signalled that he would be through in a few minutes. I waited. Good thing I did. If not for Tyler, I would still be in the dark about the door-slamming episode involving Leeza and my client. But we began with the dance.

“Did Leeza Rae have a dance with Father Burke?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“What kind of dance was this, do you remember?”

“Waltz. But somebody may have cut in on them.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, somebody tapped her on the shoulder and took over dancing with Burke.”

“Who?”

“I can’t remember. I’m not absolutely sure it was him they cut in on. Sorry. But if someone did, he must have thought ‘oh, shit.’ Leeza was quite a babe, between you and me. Even a priest would be bummed out if he blew the chance to get hold of something like that.
But I don’t know; I was paying more attention to the girl I wanted to cut in on, at the far end of the dance floor!” He grinned.

“So, Tyler, are the priests well-liked around the centre?”

“Oh, yeah. Old Father O’Flaherty’s a hoot. And Burke, well, he’s a pretty interesting guy. All that music and Latin... but he also played football. Back in his high school and college days. We had a couple of touch football games and he came out and joined us. And he was going to be an architect, until he switched to something priestly and boring. I like Father Burke. It just takes a while to get to know him.”

“Do the other staff people like him, do you think?”

“Yeah, I think so. Once they get used to him.”

How was I going to approach this? “He’s kind of a striking looking guy. Not exactly cute and cuddly —” Tyler laughed in agreement “— but someone a woman might look at. Anybody have a crush on him, do you know?”

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