Read Sign of the Cross Online

Authors: Anne Emery

Tags: #Mystery, #FIC022000

Sign of the Cross (9 page)

“Yeah, well, one of the girls maybe. Erin. When he first got here. She used to talk to him about her problems, whatever they were. But I don’t think she’s still moony-eyed over him. She has a boyfriend now. Girls probably go through that with any priest who’s not too old and doddering. Of course, people joke about the nuns being in love with him. Well, Eileen’s not really a nun — but her and Sister Marguerite. I think people would say that, though, about any sister or church lady, and a priest.”

“Any signs of it, though? Love?” I made a joke of the word.

“Well, Eileen gets a bit tongue-tied around him, but he’s the type that makes some people nervous, you know? Except Marguerite. Nobody makes her nervous. She could command a battle zone. She was stationed in some scary hot spots around the world, before she came here. Practically in the middle of a gun battle, I heard. Marguerite and Burke talk to each other a lot; sometimes they seem to be arguing, but it’s about stuff that only, like, one percent of the population would understand. He’ll stick his head in her office and announce: ‘You were wrong again. It wasn’t St. Augustine who said blah, blah whatever it was.’ She caught him up in the hall once, I remember, and spouted some Bible verse, Paul’s letter to the Fallopians or something. She said: ‘If you’d read it and understood it Father,
you’d be a better man for it. A humbler man.’ And he shot back something like he was already perfect in his humility. I didn’t get it, but it’s funny because neither of them ever cracks a smile at the other one. That’s not hearts-and-flowers stuff, though. I don’t really see much of that around here.”

“Just a couple more questions, about Leeza Rae. What was she like?”

“Screwed up. I’m sorry to say that about a dead person and all, but that’s it. Screwed up. She had this boyfriend, in prison somewhere. I think he even raped a girl. And Leeza talked about him as if he was a regular guy. He was going to marry her when he got out, and all this bullshit. He wouldn’t be getting out for years, so what was she going to do? Wait around for this creep, all through her twenties? I couldn’t figure her out. She used to crap on the other girls here, putting them down, how they looked, what they wore, all that. I steered clear of her, to tell you the truth. She used to flirt with me in a really gross way. Not just me, but the other guys too. In one way, you wanted to take her up on it. But you just knew something would go wrong. Some violent boyfriend would come out of the woodwork. And I guess one did.”

“How did she act around the bosses here, the nuns, Eileen, the priests?”

“Oh, she behaved a lot better in front of them. Didn’t want to lose her meal ticket. She was nice as pie to Eileen and Sister, and Father O’Flaherty too.”

“And with Father Burke?”

“I only saw her with him once. They had some kind of a fight. An argument. I don’t know what it was about.”

Oh, what now? “Tell me.”

“I was cleaning the windows in the conference room. The door to the next room opened and I could hear Leeza say ‘Fuck you.’ Then: ‘Let me go, you broke my fucking watch.’ Next thing I heard was Father Burke saying: ‘Don’t do anything stupid.’ He sounded really pissed off. The door slammed and she ran off. I went into the hall and watched her go. Burke yanked the door open, and looked as if he was going to go after her. But he saw me and went back inside the classroom. I didn’t know what to do, so I got on with cleaning the windows. You know, like the bartender who keeps wiping the bar,
pretending he didn’t hear anything. I looked out and there was Leeza giving the finger to somebody in the building and it wasn’t me. Father Burke must have been in the window too.” Tyler shifted in his seat. “I thought... I thought she had a couple of buttons of her blouse unfastened.” He turned slightly red. “But maybe I just imagined that. I wouldn’t be the first guy to picture her with her clothes undone. Sorry if I’m coming off as an asshole.”

What the hell was going on? “No, Tyler, you’re doing great. I appreciate anything you remember. Honestly.”

“It’s just that I feel, you know, as if I’m crapping all over someone who’s dead. Saying she was stripping off in front of a priest. It all happened so fast.”

I was not sure I wanted to ask the next question, but it would be better if it came out now rather than in a courtroom. “So, your take on it was that it was her doing, if any clothing was undone, and not something the priest did?”

“Oh God, no. Father Burke wouldn’t do anything like that. Or if he did, he wouldn’t be dumb enough to try it in a classroom where anyone could walk in. There are no locks on those doors. And Leeza was so, well, unpredictable, she might have done anything. Screamed the house down, who knows?” Tyler looked miserable. “Maybe I should have kept this to myself.”

“Did the police discuss any of this with you, Tyler?” I asked, dreading the answer.

“No, I didn’t get into it. I didn’t even think of it then. Everybody was just trying to remember what happened during the dance and afterwards. And Leeza was always flying off the handle at somebody. It just went out of my mind.” He looked at me. “I hope I don’t get in shit for not telling them.”

“You won’t. I’m sure if they want to talk to you again, they’ll call. One last thing, and I’ll let you get back to your life. When did this happen, this disagreement between Leeza and the priest?”

“It must have been February because I remember thinking I was going to have to finish the windows early so I could do some ordering for the dance during office hours.”

So, it had happened at most a couple of weeks before the murder. I thanked Tyler, tried to reassure him, and left the gym. Seething.

II

Defence lawyers must be the most patient, self-controlled people in the world. How else to explain the fact that the tabloids are not filled with story after story of lawyers murdering their clients in a fit of rage and frustration? Burke had been forced on me by my dear friend Rowan Stratton, who had succeeded in luring me away from my former job with Legal Aid, with all its lying, unreliable clients. Like Burke. An altercation with the victim, an eruption of strong feelings between them, seen and overheard by a reliable witness. The girl running away from Burke, who had obviously been gripping her wrist, and her with her shirt undone. This was textbook Criminal Law 101. Here’s the kind of thing you have to watch when you get out there practising law, kids. It’s hard to believe now, but clients think you’re the enemy. So they don’t tell you what you most need to know. But they’ll squawk to the police.

I was barely coherent as I made my way down the corridor towards the choir school, where the good priest no doubt sat, smirking and self-satisfied — No sign of him. I headed outdoors in the lashing rain, which did nothing to lighten my mood, and made for the rectory.

I was nearly out of breath, not from the short walk but from tension. Mrs. Kelly met me at the door. I hardly recognized my own voice. “Is Father Burke in, Mrs. Kelly?”

“Oh, no, not today.” She gave a doleful shake of her faded head.

“Where is he, do you know?”

“Jail.”

“What?”

“It’s his day for ministering to the prisoners, Mr. Collins. Wouldn’t you be terrified of those animals out there? Not him, though. Well, as the good Lord said: ‘Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ Father Burke sure lives up to the Lord’s holy word. I’ll tell him you called.”

“Will he be in tomorrow?”

“Oh, yes. He’ll be back by then. God willing.” She looked around. “I’m alone here today. It makes me jumpy. Lord knows who is going to come in.”

“What are you afraid of, Mrs. Kelly?”

“We had a break-in,” she confided.

“Oh? When was this?”

“New Year’s Day. The office was closed and everyone was over at the archbishop’s levee. That’s when it happened.”

“What were they after? Was anything taken?”

“Oh, I don’t know. They wouldn’t tell me that.”

“Well, did you notice anything missing? The silverware? The teapot?”

“Oh, it wasn’t here at the rectory. It was over at the archdiocesan office.”

“Then maybe you have nothing to worry about. Don’t forget to ask Father Burke to call me. It’s important. Goodbye now.” She nodded and swiftly shut the door. I heard a bolt click into place.

That night, Monday, was blues night. I was supposed to have my children with me that week, but they had been at Maura’s most of the past month. That was only because I had finally made the effort to hire someone to replaster some walls and sand the old wood floors, and the work still wasn’t finished. There was no point in having the kids shoved into the only room that had not been torn apart. I hadn’t wanted to leave our old place on Dresden Row, but, when Maura and I split up, I found a house I liked just off Purcell’s Cove Road on the other, much more affordable, side of the Northwest Arm. Its waters were a feature of my front yard. I had a dock and, for a while, a sailboat. But sailing left little time for my main avocational interest, music, so I sold the boat.

That way, even on a clear day with a brisk breeze and the sun dancing on the water, I could sit in a dingy room and jam with the little blues band I had started up two decades before. We called ourselves Functus. There were three guys and a woman I had gone to law school with, veterans of many a night spent listening to our local blues hero, Dutchie Mason, in a variety of never-to-be-yuppified bars where the smoke was so thick it seemed to be part of the bass line. When I formed the band I was single and lived like a single guy. Now, even though my marriage was in the bin, I did not want to become an
habitué
of the local pick-up joints. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have enjoyed it once in a while but, as an over-forty father
of two, I tried to preserve some dignity. Blues night, though, kept me from going raving, barking mad.

We were at my place this week. My forte was harmonica and slide guitar, although I sang from time to time. This was one of those times. I knew what I was talkin’ about when I wailed “Stormy Monday Blues.”

III

Blues night went a long way to calming me down and I slept well. But as I drove to the office the next morning, late, my blood began to boil again over that perfidious client I had taken on. I’m not much of a coffee drinker, unless I’m in spying mode, but I went to a Tim’s drive-through and ordered a medium double double and two big, fat doughnuts. At least the rain had stopped. When I walked in, Darlene was on the phone.

“Oh, just one second. He’s walking in the door. I’ll put you on hold.” She gestured to me with the phone. I went to my office, sat down at my desk, took a big gulp of hot coffee and picked up the receiver.

“Yes?” I growled.

“Father Burke here. You sound a little brusque this morning. Have a bad night? Mrs. Kelly left me a message —”

“How fast can you get over here?” I hissed into the phone.

“Well, I —”

“I’ll expect you in ten minutes.” Slam.

He arrived right on time, wearing his leather jacket over a black clerical shirt but no white collar. “Morning, counsellor.” “Shut the door.”

He closed the door and sat down, never taking his dark eyes off my face.

“Two weeks before the murder, you and the victim had a little set-to at the youth centre. You were grasping her arm, she told you to fuck yourself, and she ran from the room with her shirt half off. Strong feelings, strong words, physical contact, and the whiff of sex.
When I hear something like this, Burke, I hear a bell tolling the death of your defence. And you didn’t see fit to tell me about it?”

For the first time ever in my presence, Burke looked less than supremely confident. He put his head back and closed his eyes.

“Do the police know about this?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” he answered quietly.

“Then you didn’t tell them.”

“Right.” His eyes were still closed and he began massaging his temples.

I leaned forward and said into his face: “You told me you hardly knew her. Now, what’s the story? Were you, or were you not, having it off with Leeza Rae?”

His eyes flew open and he sat upright. “No. I was not.”

“Well then, how do you explain what happened? Why do I get the feeling that, if I stay on this case, I’m going to spend all my time running after you for explanations of things I should have heard about on day one? Now, tell me the truth. What was going on?”

“There was nothing going on between me and the young girl,” he began in a quiet voice. “It’s true we had an argument that day about that boyfriend of hers. A real piece of work. Sitting up there in Dorchester Penitentiary for the rape of a little teenaged girl. Leeza wanted me to go up to see the boyfriend. What is it? Two, three hours away? She knew I do prison visits once a week. He needed help, she said. What she really meant was she wanted me to start paying this clown regular visits, so when parole time came round, I’d be there to support a recommendation for release.”

This sounded plausible. But it would. Burke had had a month and a half to think it up.

There was a knock at the door and my client looked as annoyed as I felt. “What is it?” I snapped, and Tina, my secretary, poked her elaborately styled head in the door.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but what response did you want me to give Mr. Gillis on his offer to settle? You told me you’re turning it down but what do you want to say in the letter?”

“Just tell him no. We’ll be a while here, Tina, and I don’t want to be disturbed.” She apologized and backed out.

Burke was looking at me with a glint of amusement in his eyes. “You were saying?” I prodded him.

“Aside from the parole assistance the girl envisioned down the road, what she was really after was a regular ride up to Dorchester to see this gobshite. I would drive and pay the expenses, and she’d save herself a bus trip.” He seemed genuinely angry. “Can you figure that out, Collins? A girl still wanting to cozy up to a boyfriend who’d not only had sex with another girl, but had committed rape?”

“Why did she think you would even consider this?”

“Out of the goodness of my heart, I’m thinking. But if not that...”

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