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Blood on a Saint
 


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Blood on a Saint


  Blood

  on a Saint

  A MYSTERY

  ANNE EMERY

  ECW Press

  Chapter 1

  Monty

  “Burke fired her.”

  “Eh?”

  “The wrongful dismissal file. She was hired as a secretary at the church. Turned out she couldn’t spell, and she kept taking bogus sick days. So Burke sent her packing. Now she’s suing for damages.”

  Monty Collins’s law partner, Ronald MacLeod, pointed to one of the files on the desk, files that had piled up while Monty was out of town for the first week of a two-week trial.

  “Oh.” Monty picked up the folder. Befanee Tate. “Befanee? When did they hire her? I remember seeing a new face over there. I said hello on the occasions I was in, but I never actually met her.”

  “She wasn’t all that new. Four months ago.”

  “How much did they offer her as severance pay?”

  “Month’s salary.”

  “So what’s she complaining about? That’s more than a judge would give her if it went to court.”

  “She wants it all. Compensation for mental anguish, loss of reputation, punitive damages, you name it.”

  “Burke won’t be too happy about that.” Monty knew Father Burke well. The priest had a limited tolerance for this sort of aggravation.

  “You got that right. He asked for you, and I told him I’d bring it to your attention as soon as you got back. I’ll leave you to it.”

  “Thanks, Ron.” This was the Saturday of the Labour Day weekend. A lost weekend, but not the kind Monty had enjoyed before becoming a partner at Stratton Sommers. He was in the office, and he would be flying back to Toronto Sunday night for the second week of the products liability trial. “I’ll have a word with him next week.”

  “I’m sure he’ll be fine with that,” Ron said.

  “Right,” Monty answered. He was distracted by all the work in front of him. “Can’t say this Befanee Tate matter is the most urgent case on my docket!”

  “I hear you.” MacLeod headed for the door, then turned back. “Oh, and she claims the Virgin Mary appeared to her in the churchyard.”

  Monty rolled his eyes and tossed the file aside. He would see Burke at some point and reassure him that he had offered Befanee Tate more than enough in compensation, Virgin or no Virgin, and he could put it out of his mind. End of story.

  †

  The following Friday night Monty boarded the plane in Toronto and flopped into his seat for the flight home to Halifax, exhausted but relieved. The trial had come to a successful conclusion, the fourteen-hour work days were over, and he was on his way back to a saner, kinder, gentler way of life. He fastened his seat belt and nodded yes to the flight attendant when she came by with the day’s newspapers. He took the Halifax Chronicle Herald and proceeded to catch up on the news in his home town. On the front page, below the fold, was a photo of a crowd of people taking part in some kind of protest or gathering in a parking lot. He looked closer and saw some people kneeling, others carrying what appeared to be religious icons. One person was lying on a stretcher, with attendants at both ends. A bearded man in a long, belted robe appeared to be making a speech. A young girl with a round, pretty face and thin hair pulled back in a ponytail stood gazing at a statue. Monty recognized it as the figure of St. Bernadette in the churchyard on Byrne Street. There was often a group of people around the statue, devotees of the saint. But now there were tents on the site. And what was that? A cart — no, three carts — piled with goods of some kind.

  Looking over all this was . . . he was shown from the back, but Monty would have known him anywhere. The caption read, “Father Brennan Burke looks out at the crowd gathered in his Halifax churchyard in response to the claimed sighting of the Virgin Mary.” Neutral the prose may have been, but Burke’s posture spoke volumes to Monty. He could tell that the priest’s arms were folded across his chest; Monty could picture the profile, the hawkish nose, the lips clamped shut, the black eyes scourging the scene, the animosity emanating from him in waves. Monty let out a bark of laughter, which caused heads to turn in his direction. Then he read the piece.

  VIRGIN MARY APPEARED IN HALIFAX, WOMAN CLAIMS

  A carnival atmosphere pervades the once-staid grounds of St. Bernadette’s church, in the wake of a claim by a Halifax County woman that the Virgin Mary appeared to her above a statue of St. Bernadette. Pilgrims from as far away as Montreal and the eastern United States have travelled to the city, some of them sleeping in tents on the church grounds. There was a clash yesterday as two self-styled prophets strained to outdo each other in proclaiming the Word, and police were called when one tugged at the beard of the other and smote him with a homemade wooden sword. Souvenir vendors jostled for space in the parking lot and offered such wares as plastic rosaries, vials of “Lourdes water,” and even “Bernie Bears,” teddy bears garbed in the religious habit worn by St. Bernadette, the young French girl who, in 1858, reported receiving visions of the Virgin and then discovered a miraculous spring. Thousands claim to have been cured at Lourdes ever since.

  Befanee Tate says her attention was drawn to the statue initially when she saw a homeless man staring intently at it. Befanee had seen him frequently during the four months she worked as a secretary at the parish office. One day, she decided to approach the statue herself and, after a few minutes of silent reflection, she saw a form materialize and hover above the figure of Bernadette. At first, she said, she refused to believe it was the Virgin Mary, but later she could no longer deny the presence of the Mother of God. Asked whether the apparition had spoken to her, Befanee said she would be making a statement at a later time. Another woman, interviewed after a spell of kneeling before the statue, said she could “feel the presence of the heavenly mother” and felt at peace for the first time in her life.

  Father Brennan Burke, parish priest at St. Bernadette’s, tersely refused comment on the situation. But the church’s pastor, Monsignor Michael O’Flaherty, reached while on a retreat at Monastery in the eastern part of the province, said he would take a wait-and-see attitude to the hubbub surrounding his parish. “I hope and trust that people will comport themselves in a respectful manner until we see what is happening, and I will keep the pilgrims in my prayers until I return.”

  “Look at them!” Burke stood at the window of his choir school, the Schola Cantorum Sancta Bernadetta, glaring down at the motley crowd of pilgrims, seekers, gawkers, and hawkers. “Where did all these people come from?”

  It was the Monday after Monty’s return to Halifax, and Monty was waiting for Father Burke to wrap up his workday at the schola, where he taught traditional sacred music to church musicians from around the world. He and Monty were heading out for a draft or two at their local drinking spot, the Midtown Tavern. Monty’s wife, Maura, would be joining them later.

  “Many of them are well-known characters in the city, Brennan. Habitués of the courts and the wall in front of the library. And the mental health wards. You’ve given them a new home, Father.”

  “I’ve not given them any such thing. It wasn’t my image that appeared above the statue, for the love of Christ.”

  “Is that a backhanded confirmation of the claims, Father, an acknowledgement that there was an image? Should I alert the press?”

  “Oh, your bollocks, Montague. This is highly amusing to you, but highly aggravating to me. I can’t walk from home to my church or my choir school without becoming part of this carnival of charlatans.”

  They left the choir school and headed out for the brisk ten-minute walk from the corner of Byrne and Morris streets to the Midtown on Grafton. It was ten
minutes mostly uphill on the way there; sometimes it took longer on the way back, even with the downhill advantage.

  “An Irishman walks into a bar,” Monty said when they arrived at the door.

  “And?” Burke prompted him.

  “Just stating a fact.”

  “Two Irishmen walk into a bar. You’re an Irishman yourself, yeh gobshite.”

  “Half.”

  “All right, a half-arsed Irishman walks into a bar. We’re here. Anything else you have to say? No?” Catching the eye of the waiter, Brennan said, “Two draft, Dave, if you please.”

  “They’re already on the table, boys. Saw you coming.”

  “They say the universe is fine-tuned to support life. Here’s the proof,” Burke said with a sigh of contentment. “Thank you, David.”

  They talked sports with the waiter for a few minutes and consumed their first draft with pleasure. But the mood did not last.

  “I can’t take much more of this bedlam,” Burke remarked as he lifted his second glass to his lips. “The self-styled preachers in the churchyard, the hawking of the tawdry souvenirs, the transparently phoney claims of Befanee Tate that she’s been unjustly dismissed and visited by the Blessed Virgin, the cacophony of noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. What the hell is wrong with people?” He sank half his draft in one go.

  Monty had to feel sorry for the beleaguered priest — a man whose approach to religion was a melding of faith and reason, emphasis on the reason; a man who revelled in the complex intellectual gymnastics of the great philosophers; an intellectual who took the rational pathway to the irrational; a man who revered those who had reached the summit of human achievement: Plato, Aristotle, Mozart, Bach, Newton, Einstein. Now, all he was seeing around him was the irrational, the absurd, the loud and the loony.

  “This too shall pass, Father.”

  “Not soon enough.” He signalled Dave for another round and thanked him when it arrived. He picked up his glass and took a mouthful. “I don’t want to be associated with this, particularly if . . .”

  “If what?”

  “Well, nothing’s cast in stone yet.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “There may be a well-known . . . musician coming to visit the choir school, if the fates allow.”

  “Who?”

  “No point in telling you in case it doesn’t work out. And this sideshow in our churchyard does nothing to enhance our reputation and our chances of being included on the tour. I’m thinking of disappearing until this blows over.” He drained his glass and brought it down hard on the table. “I’m thinking of heading to Antigonish County for a spell in the monastery.”

  “What?” Monty halted the mouthward motion of his glass and stared at his friend. “You? A monk?”

  Then someone else chimed in. “Did I hear you correctly, Father, or am I having a psychotic episode?”

  Burke’s head jerked up at the sound of the familiar voice. “Ah. The MacNeil.”

  Maura MacNeil took her place at the table and stared at Burke. Her mild appearance — a sweet face, soft shoulder-length brown hair with a bit of grey, and matching grey eyes — sheathed a sharpness of mind and of tongue.

  Dave came by with a tray of draft, took a glass, and raised his eyebrows in inquiry.

  “Normally I would,” she said, “but I’m wondering what’s in the stuff tonight. I’m hearing some crazy talk at this table. But sure, I’ll have one. This pair of reprobates will ensure that I’m not drinking alone, so you might as well give us three.”

  Dave put three down and moved off.

  “What did I hear you saying, Father? Please repeat it and I’ll try to comprehend it as best I can.”

  “I’m going to enter the monastery.”

  “And thereby become the least likely monk in the history of the world.”

  The idea of the worldly, hard-drinking, sexually-been-there-done-that Burke removing himself from the world and living the life of a monk was inconceivable.

  “Time to take Father to the detox,” she said. “I wonder how many times that sentence has been uttered in this province, eh? Dad’s off to the detox.”

  “I’ll give you another sentence that’s been uttered frequently in this province and elsewhere in the world,” Burke replied, “and it’s a lot shorter and to the point.”

  “Now, Father, don’t be bitter. And don’t worry. The monks have done wonders with hard cases before you. You may come back to us boasting of a miraculous cure!”

  They did have a rehabilitation centre there, but that was not on Burke’s agenda. Monty knew his drinking history well. Burke had a considerable tolerance for booze but could give it up for extended periods without any adverse effects. He liked a drink, certainly. But he was not addicted.

  “Whatever it’s like in there, it can hardly be worse than what is happening on the grounds of my church these days.”

  “Now, Brennan,” she replied, “life should have taught you this much by now: there is always something worse.” And there was. Duty called upon Father Burke before he could flee to the cloistered life.

  He and Monty were walking across the churchyard two days after the session at the Midtown.

  “Brennan, watch where you’re — ”

  “Christ!” Burke stumbled and landed on his knees, hands flat on the ground. Monty could see his lips moving. A colourful string of curses, without question. He had tripped over a pair of crutches lying in the grass. He batted at the knees of his pants when he got up.

  “Leave them, Father. Dirty knees will send the right message to your public; you’ve been kneeling in prayer at the shrine.”

  “Feck off.”

  “Isn’t that a fine way for one of my priests to be talking!”

  No! His Grace, the Most Reverend Dennis Cronin, Archbishop of Halifax. But there wasn’t a trace of embarrassment on the face of his priest.

  “My apologies, Dennis. I allowed myself to be baited by one of my parishioners here, and failed to control my tongue. If you knew him, you’d understand. Your Grace, may I present Monty Collins. Not a bad fellow really, when all is said and done.”

  “Your Grace, it’s an honour to meet you.”

  “Likewise, Mr. Collins. I have seen you and I know of your legal work, but this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to be introduced. What do you think of all this go-ahead?” He made a sweeping gesture with his left arm, indicating the circus that had grown up around the church.

  Monty just shook his head.

  The archbishop was in his late fifties, tall, broad-shouldered, and handsome, with thick, fair hair going white and shrewd blue eyes behind a pair of stylish glasses. He wore a Roman collar and black shirt under a sports jacket.

  “Are you here to take in the festivities, Bishop?” Burke asked him.

  “No, I’m here to see you.”

  “Ah.”

  “How fortuitous that you should stumble into my path.”

  “Yes. I am here to serve in any way I can, on my knees or otherwise.”

  “Good man. Let me ask you this: have you ever heard of Pike Podgis?”

  “Say that again?”

  “Pike Podgis. Familiar to you at all?”

  “No. What is it?”

  “You don’t know?”

  Monty knew, but he was not going to help Burke out. More fun to see him floundering for a connection.

  “I know what a pike is,” Burke replied, “a long pole with a spearhead on it. You see them on monuments to the Rebellion of ’98 in Ireland. That’s 1798, Collins. Is that what you’re talking about, Bishop? If so, why — ”

  “No,” the bishop said, “it’s not a that. It’s a he.”

  “That’s someone’s name? Poor soul.”

  “You may want to reserve your sympathy. He’s a talk show host.”

/>   “Ah. One of those blathering individuals who gets people all excited on the radio?”

  “He used to be on radio. Now he has his own show on CTV. Nationally televised.”

  “Well, isn’t that grand. I don’t watch television, except for the odd football game or the World Cup. Or Midnight Mass from St. Peter’s of course, Your Grace. So I’ve never seen this fellow’s program.”

  “That’s about to change.”

  “How’s that, now?”

  “The Pike Podgis Show is coming to town and I want you on it.”

  “Are you well, Dennis?”

  “This man intends to run a show about religion and miracles.”

  “God help us.”

  “Exactly. Michael O’Flaherty is dying to take part, though he won’t admit it. But I don’t want him on there. Mike knows his stuff, but this Podgis creature will eat him alive. Do you know Rob Thornhill at Dal?”

  “Yes, I’ve met him. Teaches in the sociology department.”

  “Well, he’s your opponent. He’s taking the atheistic position, and you’re on for Holy Mother Church.”

  “This debate, will it be a reasoned, thoughtful — ”

  “I won’t lie to you, Brennan; it will be the verbal equivalent of mud wrestling.”

  “Then why on earth would we have anything to do with it?”

  “Because if we don’t, it will look as if we are not willing to defend the faith.”

  “We defend the faith every day, in our liturgy, our sermons, our service to the poor . . .”

  “A week from tonight, nine o’clock, ATV studio on Robie Street.”

  Burke bowed his head. “As you wish, Your Grace.”

  “Offer it up, Brennan. Sorry to stick you with this, but it has to be done. You should watch the show tonight to get some idea what it will be like.”

  “Life is short. I don’t want to waste any more time on this than I have to.”

  “Suit yourself, my lad.”

  †

  Burke might not be willing to lose an hour of the finite time he had left on earth watching the Pike Podgis Show, but Monty could not resist. And he had persuaded Maura to share the experience. Monty and Maura had been living apart for several years, but were spending a little more time together these days. So there was nothing unusual about Monty making himself comfortable in the den of the old family home on Dresden Row and calling Maura down to join him when he tuned in to the program for the first time in its six-year history.

 
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