Obit: A Mystery

Obit: A Mystery

by Anne Emery


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Obit: A Mystery by Anne Emery

Declan Burke fled Ireland forty years ago and never looked back. Now settled in New York, he thinks he’s put the old country behind him, until he reads the obituary of one Cathal Murphy. The obituary, he sees at once, is not about Murphy at all. It is a coded indictment of Burke’s own life. And an announcement of his impending death. Halifax lawyer Monty Collins investigates the obit with its allusions to Burke’s IRA past. Collins gets no help from Burke, who — good soldier to the end — keeps the silence of the grave. But Burke’s denial becomes harder to maintain following a burst of gunfire at a family wedding. The shooting brings another old soldier onto the field: Leo Killeen, the commanding officer of Burke’s former battalion in Dublin. But he also has secrets to protect. When a body is found in a rundown Brooklyn flat, Collins wonders just how far Killeen will go to keep those secrets under wraps. From the farms of Ireland to the tenements of New York City, Monty is confronted by a cast of enigmatic characters, including the owner of a nightclub frequented by the New York mob; a sultry chanteuse; and Burke’s hotheaded son Francis, whose resentment and dubious activities set the family on a road to destruction. Monty isn’t the only one who is surprised when he reaches the end of the road. Burke too must now confront the suspicion that he has been manipulated all along by an unseen hand.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781550229059
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 04/01/2010
Series: A Collins-Burke Mystery
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 820,310
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Anne Emery is an attorney and the author of Sign of the Cross. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Read an Excerpt


A Mystery

By Anne Emery


Copyright © 2007 Anne Emery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55022-905-9


He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

— William Butler Yeats, "Easter 1916"

March 4, 1991

"My old fellow aged ten years when he read this, Monty. See what you make of it."

The choirmaster was in my Halifax law office when I arrived the Monday morning after the concert. In civilian clothes Brennan Burke had the appearance of a military man, one regularly chosen for clandestine, lethal operations. With his hooded black eyes, silver-threaded black hair and austere facial expression, he was a formidable presence. He spoke in a clipped voice reminiscent of Ireland, where he had lived until the age of ten. That is when his family had fled the old country for New York, for reasons that had never been explained. The priest had come to Halifax eighteen months ago, in the fall of 1989, to establish the choir school at Saint Bernadette's. It had been quite a time. He and I had met when he was charged with two counts of first degree murder in the deaths of two young women. I am happy to say I successfully defended him against the charges, and found the real killer, who is now serving a life sentence in prison. All in a day's work for Montague Collins, Barrister, Solicitor and sole criminal lawyer in the corporate law firm of Stratton Sommers.

The priest pulled a piece of paper from the inside pocket of his black leather jacket and slapped it on my desk, and I directed my attention to whatever it was that had taken ten years off the life of Declan Burke. It was an obituary from the New York Times dated December 4, 1990. Three months ago.

"My brother Patrick sent it to me. He was visiting our parents. The old fellow was trying to fix something under the sink, and my mother was doing her customary scan of the death notices. 'Declan!' she calls out. 'Do you know a Cathal Murphy? Came over here from Dublin around the same time we did.'

"My father comes in to the living room and takes a look at the obit. The way Patrick tells it, Declan turned white and grew old in the time it took to read it over. 'Da, what is it?' Patrick asks, and tries to get him into a chair. 'Your face has gone the colour of your hair.'

"All Pat gets by way of an answer is: 'I straightened up too fast. You'd be white too if you had your mug parked under a sink all afternoon, then had to stand to attention for another dead Murphy.' And he stalks from the room."

I put up my hand to silence Brennan so I could read the clipping.

CATHAL MURPHY, 73, of Sunnyside, Queens, and formerly of Dublin, Republic of Ireland. He immigrated to the US in 1950 after working in Ireland as a Businessman. What is less well known is that he put in many long and arduous hours doing Volunteer work as well. Here in the US, Cathal quickly made a name for himself in the export business. His loyalty to his Uncle was never in question. He is survived by his devoted wife Maria, and his sons Tom, Brendan, Stanley and Armand. Predeceased by his brother Benedict and stepson Stephen. Those of us who had the privilege of knowing Cathal knew a man who enjoyed a good time, who was never shy about sharing a song or a drink. And if you said no, Cathal would share it with you anyway! He'll be sorely missed. When the members of a generation pass away, the family is often left with little more than its memories; the telling details are locked away in a trunk and never get out of the attic. A better way — Cathal's way — was to celebrate and live the past as if it formed part of the present, as indeed it does. He was fond of saying "nothing ever goes away." You're right, Cathal. Your spirit lives on in our hearts. We'll all be there to see you off, Cathal, dressed to the nines and raising a pint of Lameki Jocuzasem in your honor! Funeral arrangements will be announced when finalized.

Brennan resumed speaking the second my eyes looked up from the clipping. "How often would you say 'Republic of' in something like this?"

"Let me stop you for a second. What is it that has everyone upset? Is this someone your father knew? Someone he had a history with?"

Burke jabbed the paper with his forefinger. "What Patrick thinks, and I'm following him there myself, is that our father read this as —" he cleared his throat "— as an indictment of his own life. And an announcement of his death."

"What?" I exclaimed.

"Volunteer," he said then. "It's capitalized."

"So's 'Businessman.' You should see what gets capitalized here in the office. Lawyer, Adjuster, Report ..."

He ignored me. "The Irish Volunteers. Óglaigh na hÉireann, the IRA. That much is clear. All the more so when the word 'Uncle' is added. My father's father and his uncles were known to have played a role in the 1916 uprising. 'He is survived by his devoted wife Maria.' Maria, a name that could be Spanish like my mother's name, Teresa. As you know, she had a Spanish father, Irish mother. A possibility. We're told he was also survived by his sons Tom, Brendan, Stanley and Armand." He looked at me. "Those four names. Does anything strike you about them?"

"No. Aside from the fact they are all men's names, and one of them sounds like yours — but isn't — I don't see a pattern. They're not even all Irish."

"Right, but Tommy, Bren —" He paused. I waited. "Guns, Collins."

"Brennan, for Christ's sake! This just doesn't sound like you. I can imagine your reaction if someone else came up with this, this —"

"Fantasy, you're thinking. I know, but Patrick and I both think there's something here and he's not a fey kind of man either. And we weren't stocious drunk when we spoke about this on the phone. So bear with me. Tommy gun, Bren gun, Sten gun, Armalite rifle."

"Brennan," I began and put up my hand to fend off an interruption. "Surely it has occurred to you that you may be reading something into this, something that is not really there."

"It has occurred to me. I've dismissed that notion. It's here, I know it." He paused to take out a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket. I had given up telling him that Stratton Sommers was a smoke-free office; he found the ashtray I kept for him, lit up a smoke, and returned to his train of thought. "Predeceased by his brother Benedict and by his stepson Stephen. Now, disregard those two names for a moment. I admit they throw me off, because my father did not have a brother who died, and he certainly does not have a stepson."

I shook my head, moved the paper closer with my finger and skimmed the obituary again. "I'm more interested in the pint of 'Lameki Jocuzasem.' What in the hell is that?"

"No idea. Doesn't sound like a local brew, does it? Let's stop by the Midtown Tavern and ask one of the waiters."

"Let's not. I'd like to be able to show my face in there again some day. And the day after that."

What I did not say was that I would like to enjoy the upcoming New York trip my family and I had planned with Brennan Burke. He had been asked to officiate at the wedding of his niece, Katie, and he decided to extend his visit for a few weeks. I hoped his distraction over the death notice would be short-lived. Brennan certainly needed a break, after the year he'd just had. And I could use a rest as well. My holiday was to start the very next day. I had leapt at the chance of a month in New York when a complicated products liability suit had been settled on the courthouse steps, affording me the gift of several weeks with no obligations. I was determined to take advantage of the free time. My wife, Professor Maura MacNeil, had strong-armed someone into taking over her classes at Dalhousie Law School for three weeks, so we could give our kids a trip to New York City.

I mentioned my wife; I should have said "estranged wife." But I'm not one to give up easily. I saw the vacation as an opportunity to put an end to years of squabbling and living in separate houses. After all, if I could oversee the settlement of years of squabbling and costly litigation between the consumers, suppliers and manufacturers of defective concrete, which had caused the foundations of two hundred new houses to sink and crumble, how difficult would it be to charm my own wife back into my loving embrace?


Going to take a sentimental journey,
going to set my heart at ease.
Going to take a sentimental journey
to renew old memories.

— Bud Green/Les Brown/Ben Homer, "Sentimental Journey"

March 5, 1991

I called Brennan the next morning, the day of our departure, to confirm the plans we had made for our first evening in New York. I was catching a later flight with my family but we would be there in plenty of time to meet him in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House, where we would be seeing a new production of Norma. Our teenage son, Tommy Douglas, and his little sister, Normie, were not at all displeased that they would have the hotel room, with its pay-per-view movies and room service, to themselves while we were at the opera.

"You're bringing the family to the wedding," Brennan said. It was a statement, not a question. "It's at seven o'clock Friday evening."

"Did you inform your brother that four strangers will be showing up at his daughter's wedding and reception?"

"Everyone knows you're coming and, if they didn't, who'd notice you in a crowd of three hundred other people?"

I took that as the gracious invitation it was no doubt meant to be.

"So, Brennan," I asked, "have you issued an invitation to Sandra to join you at the wedding?"


"Why 'hardly'? She's an old friend of the family, through you, and you gave me to understand you'd be looking her up whenever we made a trip to New York. You're going to see her, right?"

He made a kind of noncommittal noise. He might or he might not; it was of no importance.

He had not seen Sandra Worthington, formerly the love of his life, in the quarter century that had passed since his ordination as a celibate priest. But I had met her; I interviewed her at her posh Manhattan apartment while conducting research for Brennan's trial. Then, after he was exonerated, Sandra showed up unexpectedly at a concert in which he was guest conductor. She had been overseeing repairs at her family's old summer home in Chester, and had driven to Halifax for the concert. Her arrival had rendered Brennan speechless. But once he recovered himself, he, Sandra, Maura and I had spent a couple of hours at the post-concert party, drinking, talking, reminiscing, bickering ... just like old times for all of us. Sandra had departed early, leaving Brennan to do his best not to look bereft. Now, it seemed, we were back to "Sandra who?"

Well, not quite, as it turned out. "You'll be seeing her tonight."

"I'll be seeing her, Brennan, or you will?"

"We all will. I called her. I ordered four tickets for the opera. Now, I'm busy here and have to sign off." Click.

* * *

It would be nice to say the journey to New York went smoothly, that nobody forgot a garment bag at home and had to go back, that we arrived in good time for check-in, that the airline didn't have to delay take-off for us, that the taxi ride from LaGuardia airport into Manhattan was cheap and quick and there was no traffic jam, and that everybody was in a relaxed holiday mood when we got to our hotel near Central Park. But I can't make any of those claims.

Maura and I began sniping at each other as soon as the "fasten seat belts" sign lit up on our departure from Halifax, and it wasn't about the travel snafus. When I arrived at her house on Dresden Row and went inside to help with the family's luggage, what did I hear but her on the phone to the Latin Lothario who had kept her company over the past year. I thought he had dropped out of her life — apparently not. She was giving him her entire travel itinerary. She and the kids — no mention of old Monty — would be arriving in New York at such-and-such a time; tomorrow she was taking the kids on the train to Philadelphia, where she would be participating in a law conference in her role as Professor MacNeil; they would be back in New York early Friday evening in time for a friend's wedding. She gave him the name and address of the hotel in Philly, but not the one in New York.

I quizzed her about this Giacomo. Was she perhaps expecting him at the hotel in Philadelphia? Or was she just hoping for a call? Did she not share my hopes that this vacation would lead to a reconciliation between us? My tone of voice was quiet, reasonable. Her approach, as always, was to treat a marital spat like a debate in her classroom at the Law School: "Collins. Do I understand you to have inferred, based on your shameful and inexcusable skulking around in my house and eavesdropping on a private phone call, that I have procured the services of someone who, according to your overheated fantasies, will fly into Philadelphia where I am sharing a room with our son and daughter, and consort with me in said hotel room without regard for even the most minimal standards of acceptable behaviour, standards so minimal that even you, on a slow night, might be able to live up to them, is that what you're suggesting?" That sort of argument. I've often wondered whether lawyers should be legally prohibited from marrying each other. Anyway, we had ranged far from the original conflict by the time things went nuclear at the hotel. The kids headed downstairs to explore the building and we let 'er rip. Good thing we had reserved a suite with two bedrooms. We were going to need them.

Be that as it may, Maura and I were together in the red-carpeted lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House that Tuesday evening, waiting for Father Burke and his date. I hoped things were going better for them than they were for us. Nonetheless, I had to admit my escort was looking delectable — if hostile — in an elegant black dress and a new hairdo. Maura MacNeil is a woman of unfashionably soft figure and sweet face, a face that belies her astringent personality. Tonight at the opera house her almond-shaped grey eyes were made up and looked enormous, her glossy brown hair was piled casually atop her head, and her generous mouth was stained to give the appearance that she had been gorging on raspberries all day. I was in my best suit and tie, wishing I were one of the stage crew so I could wear a T-shirt, hear the music, and get away from my spouse.

She looked ready to reload and start firing at me again when she raised her eyebrows and stared towards the door. I turned to follow her gaze. Brennan, dressed in a beautifully cut dinner jacket, with his black hair silvering on the sides, his dark eyes and haughty countenance, could have been the maestro for the evening. He cast an appreciative eye towards Maura and said something that escaped my hearing. He looked tense.

"Where's your date?" I asked him.

"Meeting us here."

"So you haven't seen her yet?"

"No. Where are Tommy Douglas and Normie tonight?"

"Watching movies in the hotel room. I had to promise Normie, who after all is named for the opera, that if it's really good, I'll bring her to see it sometime during our stay. Tom's dying to get out and see the city, but ..."

That's when Sandra swept in. She wore a long black skirt and a watered silk tunic in the palest of blue. A delicate necklace and earrings looked silver but were probably platinum. Her short, light brown hair was brushed back from her sculptured face. Yet even with hundreds of years of cool WASP breeding behind her, she looked less than serene. She and Brennan stood looking at each other, neither of them speaking.

"You look brilliant this evening, Sandra," Maura prompted, in an accent roughly approximating Burke's. Then, higher in pitch: "You're a handsome devil yourself, Brennan. Isn't it marvellous to see each other again?"

Brennan reached out, took Sandra's hand and gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek. "'Tis indeed grand to see you," he said lightly. "It's too bad you didn't have time for dinner beforehand. Perhaps after."

"Perhaps so."

She offered him a fleeting smile and came over to embrace me. In spite of the fact that our friendship had been formed in the stressful months before Brennan's trial, Sandra and I had shared some laughs, and I had heard tales from her past with Brennan, before his thunderbolt call to the priesthood. I had even scribbled a little twelve-bar blues on the subject.

Sandra turned to Maura, whom she had met briefly in Halifax, and the two women greeted each other warmly.


Excerpted from Obit by Anne Emery. Copyright © 2007 Anne Emery. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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