When Father Jake Austin is assigned to his hometown of Oberlin, Ohio, in July of 2002, he has been away for a long time. A physician and a war veteran before entering a Catholic seminary, he is now a member of the Camillian Order. He takes comfort in his vows of obedience, poverty, chastity, and service to the sick.
Jake arrives just in time to attend his high school reunion, where an encounter with his high school sweetheart forces him to question his commitment to the priesthood. Before the night is over, one of his classmates will be dead, a second gravely wounded, and a third hospitalized. The carnage at the reunion comes on the heels of what appears to be an unrelated murder at the quarry. Overseeing the investigation is Jake's former football teammate, Chief of Police Tremont "Tree" Macon, who is unwilling to rule out anyone as a suspect, not even Jake. As he struggles to prove his innocence and to find his footing in a town that remembers him as a hellion, Jake searches for threads that will connect these brutal attacks.
The war may be long past, but in some ways Jake is still waiting for his DEROS: Date of Expected Return from Overseas. Can he put aside his own demons long enough to find the living, breathing devil who stalks his classmates?
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He strode to the bar and flagged down the bartender.
"Jack Daniel's on the rocks for me. What'll it be, Jake? I'm buying."
After the day I'd had, I felt like I could have chugged an entire Mason jar of Mr. Daniel's fine Tennessee whiskey. I'd just walked into my turbulent past, however, and it was prudent to remain in control until I got the lay of the land and a handle on my own emotions. Prudence was a virtue I'd acquired out of necessity over the years after taking my lumps at the School of Hard Knocks.
"Ah … a ginger ale, thanks."
"I hear the Shirley Temples are really tasty and come with tiny paper umbrellas." Tree peered down from his six-foot-six-inch vantage point. "Back in the day, your beverage of choice was anything short of rubbing alcohol. This a priest thing? Your collar's off now, Father. Relax."
"It has more to do with my class prophecy, 'Most likely to get a drunk and disorderly.' " I shrugged. "I used up my quota of both after the war, so I take it easy now. I'll grab a drink with dinner."
"Okay. That's probably a good thing, because you were a handful back in school when you were on the sauce. Booze flared up your temper like gasoline on a bonfire. I sure as hell don't want you in my drunk tank tonight." Tree frowned and his eyebrows moved down and in, narrowing his eyes to slits. "Anything else I should know about you?"
"Plenty, but some other time. Let's mingle."
We squeezed through a gauntlet of humanity past the hors d'oeuvres table. Although the Bee Gees recommended "Stayin' Alive," definitely sensible advice, the aroma of fried cholesterol drew folks to the bacon-wrapped shrimp like moths to a flame.
Tree was on a mission, glad-handing and backslapping his way to job security. While he commanded the spotlight, smiling and chatting up the crowd, I lurked in his shadow, watching an eerie 35 mm-filmstrip version of my 1970s life.
We met couples who had been married so many years that they'd begun to look alike, more than a few divorcées, and the occasional trophy wife showcased in designer clothing and sparkling jewelry. If one or two of these wealthy folks belonged to my parish, the church collection basket would runneth over.
The redheads in the room drew my attention. I half expected to see the woman who'd dashed from the confessional. The ladies in the ballroom, however, were decidedly older, stockier, and probably bottle-red.
As Frankie Valli insisted that we were all too darn good to be true, Tree guided me through a haze of perfume, across the raised dance floor, and toward a table.
"Let's park it awhile, Jake."
As we neared, I recognized Emily immediately. My chest tightened and my knees turned to Jell-O.