Winner, 1st Place, LDStorymakers Conference 2010 First Chapter Contest, Mystery/Suspense Category
Father Patrick lay on the pavement outside the parish office, his skin ashen, his trim graying hair disheveled, his purple stole wrapped around his throat. Numb with shock, Molly willed herself to look away again, to ground herself with the limestone cobbles, the smell of fresh-cut grass, the echo of the officers’ measured footsteps. But the details only made the horror more surreal.
To her right, her coworker Kathleen sobbed again. Molly slid an arm around her shoulders and wished she felt the same surge of grief — or anything beyond shock.
Uniformed officers cordoned off the area near Father Patrick and the open office door. She always locked that door. Molly checked the doorframe: no scratches or other signs of forced entry. Had she forgotten?
Her stomach slowly sank. Had she left the office subject to some crime of opportunity, and Father Patrick stumbled upon it? With all the rumors of a criminal organization at St. Adelaide, they always expected a tragedy. But not this, not robbery, not one of their priests, not random violence.
Kathleen’s crying broke into jagged gasps. Someone had to talk to Chicago PD, give the gruesome scene context. With Kathleen in hysterics, it had to be Molly. Because this was her fault.
Father Patrick might have thwarted the robbery, but he’d paid dearly for her negligence.
A policewoman gently towed Kathleen, still weeping, down the hallway. Another officer led Molly through an arched portal to the car park.
“Name and occupation?” he asked.
She took a deep breath and opted not to give her nickname. “Mary Malone. The parish secretary here at Saint Adelaide.”
The policeman noted that in his pad. “You know the victim, then?”
“I do. Father Colin Patrick. Are you sure it was a robbery? I mean, I know there are no signs of forced entry, but —”
“A CSI fan, huh?” The policeman smirked.
“I used to be in law enforcement.” Molly let her tone rebuke his lack of professionalism.
The officer missed the reproach. “Oh yeah? Whereabouts?”
“Ireland. Now, about Father Patrick?”
“Explains the accent. And yeah, looks like a robbery. So you found your pastor —”
She shook her head. “Father Fitzgerald is our pastor. He should be in the confessional.” Confession had brought her here on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. She never expected to find . . . She didn’t have to see the supine figure to remember the sickening pallor, the dead set to his eyes. “Father Patrick is his assistant.” Molly winced and corrected herself. “Was.”
She looked down. The first change of many they’d have to make now.
From the steps of Holy Name Cathedral, Special Agent Zach Saint scanned the downtown street corner. His boss’s meeting with the archbishop was taking too long. Hadn’t the archbishop agreed to this idea three weeks ago when Father Patrick was killed?
Zach turned back to the building and brushed the grit from the bullet hole in the cornerstone. Eighty years ago, the head of the Irish mob was gunned down here. Now, the archbishop was making the final call over whether Zach could join a parish across town — and the battle against organized crime so infamous in Chicago.
But he’d be the first to do it in this capacity. He tugged at the white plastic collar insert.
“Quit playing with that.”
Zach looked to find Assistant Special Agent in Charge Reginald Sellars glowering up as he reached the base of the cathedral stairs. “You see other pastors messing with their collars?”
“You try. It chafes.”
Sellars rubbed one temple, like he was massaging away the headache that was Zach Saint. “Aren’t you used to it?”
“Um, no.” Some misunderstanding about the nature of his LDS mission must’ve convinced the Bureau he’d make the perfect Catholic clergyman with an intensive course at a Chicago seminary. “Now the archbishop is okay with a Mormon pretending to be a priest?”
The heavyset African American shrugged. “He liked your little reference to Matthew.”
“Mark. And if he liked it, he shouldn’t have kicked me out.”
“Whatever.” Sellars held out a manila folder as Zach ambled down the stairs. Zach held up a hand to refuse the files. Alongside his crash course in catechism, canon and communion, he’d studied the profiles and pictures of the parish’s criminal contingent since Father Patrick’s murder. If he didn’t have the suspects memorized by now, it was too late. He traded Sellars the contents of his wallet for a license and credit cards in his cover’s name: Timothy O’Rourke.
Father Timothy O’Rourke. After three weeks of playing a priest, he was prepared to root out the priest-murdering mob in St. Adelaide parish. Sort of. Tomorrow, he’d be helping to give Mass — if his cover passed muster with his immediate superior in the parish. “Did the archbishop say anything about the other priest?”
“Fitzgerald’s staying in the dark. Apparently he’s got ‘ardent probity.’ Whatever that means. Probably better this way — in case he’s with them, too. Oh, and apparently he’s a control freak. Likes to run the whole Mass show.” Sellars jerked his chin toward the cab at the curb. Zach loaded his suitcase in the trunk.
“For the record,” Zach said, “I still don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Then back out. I had a guy hand-picked for this job till D.C. came up with this crazy scheme.”
Zach narrowed his eyes. Sellars harped on his pet agent every time they’d met. Like they weren’t all part of the same Bureau. “You know I was made for this job.” Zach meant the FBI, but Sellars could think what he wanted.
Sellars ignored him, still sneering. “Your best bet is the office. If they’re laundering money through the church, the parish office has to know — so cozy up.”
What did he look like, a rookie?
“Archbishop says you have eight weeks,” Sellars continued. “And from what Patrick managed to tell us before they got to him, could be less.”
Eight weeks? Agents could spend eight months — eight years — infiltrating a mob and still fail. The archbishop wasn’t giving them half a chance. Zach shook his head and got in the cab. “Where to, Father?” the driver asked.
As Zach gave the address of the parish across town, he could only hope the parishioners would accept his cover that easily.
Molly stepped into the church vestibule behind a tall man clad in black, surveying the chapel interior. The chill settling over her wasn’t only from the cool of the building. Three weeks to prepare, and she still wasn’t ready for the change she dreaded most. The new priest was early.
“Sorry?” she called in greeting before remembering the Irish convention only served to confuse most Chicagoans. Even after five years, lifelong habits died hard.
“Yes?” The man turned, and Molly froze. It wasn’t just his strong jaw or deep-set blue eyes. Wasn’t there canon law against ordaining a man handsome enough to stop a woman’s heart at a glance?
The white square of his collar confirmed her initial assumption. “Father O’Rourke?”
“Yes.” His laugh made his response a half-question.
“Oh, but you’re so . . .” She searched for some word to explain her surprise. Other than handsome. Or attractive. Or — “Young. Did they just drop you here?”
“Yep.” An enticing gleam warmed his knowing gaze. “And what was your name?”
“I’m sorry. Molly.” As she’d feared, her pulse quickened at his firm handshake.
“Nice to meet you. Is there something I can help you with?”
Now that was amusing. “I should be askin’ you that — I’m the parish secretary.”
The spark in his eyes flickered. “Right. I guess this is all kinda new to me.”
“I’m here to help.” She moved to pick up his backpack, but he beat her to it. He grabbed his suitcase and she led him out, careful to keep a sensible distance between them. She’d never swooned over a priest before; she wasn’t about to start.
Molly paused at the arched open-air hallway to the office. She should get his keys. But that would mean walking through the place she’d found Father Patrick, and she still couldn’t bring herself to approach that spot.
The parish house it was. Father O’Rourke fell in step with her in the car park, and she suddenly appreciated just how tall he was. Molly was far from short, but the priest was nearly a head taller than she, and broad enough in the shoulders that, despite his height, he wasn’t the slightest bit gangly. Not many men made a woman of her stature feel delicate.
“I take it you work in the office?” he asked.
“I do. Have you spoken with Father Fitzgerald yet?”
“Not yet. What part of Dublin are you from?”
“Father O’Rourke, are you assumin’ because I’m Irish, I’m from the only Irish city you know?” She winced mentally — she shouldn’t tease a priest who made her heart beat a slip jig on sight.
He returned the codding tone. “No, I assume that because of your Dublin accent.”
“Good ear.” Molly stuck to a more neutral answer. She showed him into the nondescript brick cottage and set his backpack on the table. “Father Fitzgerald’s out now, but he’ll be back soon. Father Patrick’s room is over there. Was.” She lowered her gaze at the slip before gesturing at the now-vacant room. “You could start gettin’ settled.”
The silence stretched long enough that she dared to meet Father O’Rourke’s eyes again. “Molly, I’m sorry. I know it’s hard to lose someone.”
“Thank you.” Molly made herself flash a smile. She had yet to find the “proper” time to mourn the parish’s loss — her loss. She changed the subject. “Father Fitzgerald’s mobile number is there.” She pointed to the message board by the kitchen telephone. “And the office number, and mine. Give me a ring if you need anythin’.”
“I will, thanks.” Father O’Rourke grinned, and yet again there was something teasing, something tempting in his eyes. Something more than friendliness?
Molly turned away. “I’ll let you settle in.” She hurried to put distance between them. He was a priest, after all. It wouldn’t do her any good to go forgetting that.
Zach forced himself to look away as Molly left, her dark curls bouncing around her shoulders. Meeting a beautiful — no, gorgeous — woman first thing didn’t bode well for his cover. And of course she had to be Irish. Like they were setting him up. How closely did a priest work with the parish secretary? He was supposed to cozy up to the office staff, after all.
Flirting with the parish secretary probably didn’t fall under his priestly duties. He had plenty of experience not flirting with Irish girls after two years surrounded by them, and as an experienced FBI agent, he knew how to focus on the case at hand — even if his last assignment had entailed a lot of flirting to get what he needed.
Hadn’t he seen enough James Bond movies to know sometimes the beauty was also the villain?
Then again, maybe that was the perfect reason to flirt with her. He resisted the urge to peer through the yellowed lace curtains to watch Molly’s graceful, springing step. She could be the key to his success.
The government didn’t normally get involved in the affairs of any church, or in any run-of-the-mill murder. But when a priest, having possibly laundered money through his church for the mob, was murdered hours before an appointment with the FBI, the Bureau would make an exception. Between threats of racketeering charges and losing tax-exempt status, the archdiocese had to comply with the FBI’s wishes. They had no choice. And neither did Zach.
Now he had to lie to innocent people and look like the perfect patsy to take Patrick’s place with the mob. Maybe meeting Molly was the first step. Sellars said to get in with the staff.
But flirting with her first thing might seem suspicious. Zach sank onto the threadbare couch with its tacky afghan and dug through his backpack for a distraction. Dog-eared and well-worn, the secondhand Bible was a last-minute find. His real scriptures weren’t suitable for a Catholic priest, with the Protestant King James Version between the covers, “Zachary Tyler Saint” on the front, and “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” on the spine. But the New Testament was basically the same, even with a stranger’s notes and the lingering mothball scent from the thrift store.
He flipped open the Bible, but instead of reading the words, his mind wandered back to the memory of Molly’s deep blue eyes.
Flirting with her could backfire. It could mean big trouble.
He knew Fitzgerald and the parishioners would test his cover, but would the parish secretary be the real danger?