As a sinner enters the confessional, he glances about the empty church. Father Dan Rutledge waits patiently for Ray Cronin to begin his declarations of guilt. No one hears the squeak of church door as a tall shadow quietly enters and trains his weapon on the confessional doors. Moments later, Ray Cronin is dead, Father Dan Rutledge is barely hanging on, and the only thing everyone knows is that someone has already killed four priests in Dade County in the last six months.
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Say Three Hail Marys and DieA John Austin Adventure
By John Michael McDermott
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 John Michael McDermott
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe jetliner circled far beyond the fringe of the coastline. John Austin, Auty to his friends, gazed out his window seat at the white-crested waves far below. From this distance they appeared almost motionless atop the sparkling blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Auty would not have admitted it to anyone, but he was totally immersed in the anticipation of seeing Rosie Rutledge again. She was never far from his mind. While in Madison, he had managed to suppress his feelings quite well by focusing on his law practice, winning big cases and taking his reputation to even greater heights. But now that their reunion was imminent, thoughts of Rosie had escalated to an all-encompassing level.
He knew they needed to reach an understanding about where their relationship stood and where it was headed. Having so little communication over all those months hadn't set well with him. There surely would be accusations hurled back and forth. He knew they were both at fault, with plenty of selfishness to go around. He confidently believed once they got beyond the blame game, their bond would be stronger than ever.
The plane banked toward the shoreline heading for Sarasota- Bradenton International. Auty, looking across the aisle and out the window, recognized his beach house in the distance. The expansive gray tile roof and stands of coconut palms at the four corners of his Florida residence were easy to identify even though he had spent only ten nights in the structure since it was built just over a year and a half ago. Cringing, he reflected how his new residence had come to be. The old beach house had disintegrated with two humongous explosions so powerful they had spewed mortar, wood and glass high into the air and out into the Gulf. On that wretched day, Auty had deferred his morning jogging ritual to loll in bed with Rosie until after she left for Tampa. The would-be assassins watched him enter through the front door after Rosie departed, but didn't see him exit to the beach by the rear door. Shockwaves from the detonations knocked him to the sand, leaving him dazed as fingers of heat and fire reached out as he retreated to the safety of the Gulf of Mexico. But Auty was alive. Thanks to his and Rosie's diversion, he was alive.
When his head cleared, he knew immediately Tom and Gary Fielding were responsible. After all, the Fielding brothers had every reason in the world to want Auty dead. Their estranged father had left his multimillion dollar estate exclusively to his only granddaughter, Maggie Lanier, and to Auty on the condition they survive the old man for at least 180 days. The clock was running, and the Fieldings were willing to do anything, including murder, to secure what they believed was their rightful inheritance.
A coastguard helicopter had pulled Rosie and Auty from a wintry black sea that now appeared so beckoningly serene. Looking down at the Gulf of Mexico where the Fielding brothers perished that night, he remembered Rosie's screams for help as the sinking boat began to list. With hands and feet bound, she lay helpless on the cold slimy deck of the Fieldings' fishing vessel as the seawater rushed over her. Auty raised Rosie's head above the churning sea and she gasped what might otherwise have been her last breath. For what had seemed an eternity, he managed to keep himself and Rosie afloat in the numbing cold water until their rescuers found them and they were finally safe.
"Sir, please bring your seatback to its upright position." The flight attendant's reminder brought him from that momentous night to the present. He complied. The jetliner was on the ground and at the gate in a matter of minutes.
Taking his black leather carryon from the overhead compartment after retrieving a small suitcase for the woman seated in the row behind him, Auty was one of the first to exit the plane, and once outside the terminal he recognized the double-parked silver Lincoln of Marshall McGreevy.
"Hey, counselor," Auty said, greeting the man behind the wheel. Auty extended his hand as he entered the passenger seat after shedding his sport coat and tossing it and his carryon into the back.
"John Austin, welcome back to Sarasota. I trust you had a good flight. No more luggage, John?"
"I did have a good flight, and this is all I brought. I have a closetful of clothes at the beach." He fastened his safety belt. Glancing over at McGreevy, Auty immediately noticed his formerly convex stomach had all but disappeared.
"You're looking great, and trim, Marshall."
McGreevy's usual ruddy complexion showed instead a deep tan, a look Auty had not seen before. "I'm feeling better than I have in years, John. My wife finally convinced me the firm could survive without my being there twelve hours a day. You could learn from me." McGreevy looked Auty's way. "Now, I'm in at nine and out at noon — play golf six or seven times a week. Makes me wonder why I didn't listen to her sooner."
Auty inhaled the stale scent of cigars inside the Lincoln. "However, you're still smoking those big stogies, Marshall?"
"I'm working on it, John." He appeared to catch the expression of doubt on Auty's face. "No, really. I haven't made any significant progress, but one change at a time is all I can handle."
In the grill room at the Sabal Bay Country Club they ordered drinks and lunch. McGreevy had a Beefeaters martini straight up and Auty opted for his Guinness. Raising his glass, McGreevy offered a silent toast, and then took a long sip of the martini, almost draining the glass. "That corner office is still waiting for you, John, any time you're ready to make the move."
"Marshall, I don't think ..."
McGreevy caught the cocktail waiter's eye and pointed to his glass.
Auty, meanwhile, redirected the conversation. "I'm going to Pelican Bayou in the morning to see Maggie. I phoned her before leaving Madison and she doesn't have any classes tomorrow."
"She's turned into quite the young lady, John. I saw her in my office two weeks ago for our quarterly meeting, and then we had lunch here. She asks excellent questions about her account and the investments I select, with her approval of course." McGreevy popped an olive into his mouth from the plastic sword in his drink, and then continued. "Maggie still mentions how noble it was of you to renounce your share of her grandfather's estate. That's a huge chunk of change you gave up, making Maggie an even richer young woman."
"You know what Ed Fielding wanted to give me was merely a way to ease his conscience for what he did to my parents. Maggie would have been set for life even without what Fielding left me."
"You're absolutely correct, John, but you were still very generous."
"How's her portfolio doing? I imagine you're taking a rather conservative approach."
"Even with interest rates the way they are, she's earning over two hundred thousand a year. We got her out of the stock market at the perfect time, just before the decline."
"Not bad for a nineteen year old college student," Auty grinned. "It must take you a month to earn that much."
McGreevy belly laughed, drawing the attention of others seated near them. "Look who's talking!"
The waiter brought McGreevy another round as Auty nursed his Guinness.
"So tell me about your big case, John." McGreevy leaned back in his chair, getting comfortable in anticipation of Auty's story. He sat upright moments later when their meals arrived.
"Oh, there's nothing much to tell, really. My associates handled everything quite adroitly. In fact, they did all the litigating. I just helped with the preparation and stayed in the background."
"You're too modest, John. I heard your closing argument was almost poetic. There wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom — including the judge — and your client received a sinfully large settlement."
"It's what she deserved, but where did you hear about that?" Auty had a perplexed expression on his face.
"From your secretary. I just happened to call your office the day after the trial ended."
Auty smiled, sipping the foam from his second Guinness. "She never mentioned your call."
"What about the other case, the pro bono one?" Auty's grin widened as he set his glass down. "You heard about that, too?"
"Got press coverage down here, but I want to hear the entire story from you." McGreevy relaxed his posture and waited for Auty to begin.
"I have to confess, Marshall, I had fun with that one. There's a University of Wisconsin physics professor with a condo on the twentieth floor across from the State Capitol Building. He invented a laser device, something for which he hasn't found many practical applications yet. I believe, however, a movie studio graphics department contacted him, and appears quite interested in the potential it has. NASA also contacted him and flew him to Houston a couple times, but that never got off the ground. Last December he projected an image of the infant Jesus onto the capitol lawn. The atheists jumped on the separation of church and state bandwagon and brought suit in federal court, but the public totally embraced his effort."
McGreevy worked on his sandwich while listening intently. Auty managed to get in a couple bites of red snapper between sentences.
"Merchants took out ads in local newspapers thanking the professor for bringing business to their shops. A high-tech company presented him a fifty thousand dollar grant so he could continue his research. Downtown churches kept vigils round the clock and their choirs merged to sing Christmas carols throughout Advent and on Christmas Eve. My office looks down on the capitol lawn and I saw everything that was going on. People came from hundreds of miles away to sing Christmas carols, leave poinsettia plants, genuflect and pray. Artists were sketching the image. Teachers brought students on field trips. The international media and wire services covered the phenomenon, amazed at how orderly and well behaved — almost reverent — everyone was. The judge couldn't find any reason to side with the plaintiffs, or even rule the likeness of Jesus created a public nuisance — although she seemed to try her damndest."
"Federal judges are pseudo kings and queens," McGreevy sneered, popping another olive into his mouth, "but go on with your story, John. You already know my position on that topic."
Auty put down his fork. Leaning in, he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone. "The professor admitted to me he was just having some fun with the atheists. He plans to project the Nativity Scene in the same place in December, and told me he'd have an even bigger surprise for Easter Sunday."
"Good for him!" McGreevy laughed heartily. "You have some real crazies in Madison."
"You don't have to tell me, Marshall. It's called Mad Town you know. Who knows, though, he just might win the Nobel Prize for his invention some day."
"I wasn't referring to the professor, John." McGreevy motioned for the check.
Auty glanced at his watch.
"Thank you for reminding me of the time," McGreevy said, pushing his plate away. "I don't mean to rush you, John, but I've got a short meeting at the office at two, followed by nine holes of golf. Your car is in the basement of our parking garage, freshly detailed, serviced and ready to go. I'll drop you there."
Auty pushed away from the table while chugging the last of his Guinness. "I'm ready, Marshall. Rosie's flying into Sarasota- Bradenton sometime this afternoon. I'm expecting her at the beach house and I should get over there before she arrives. Freshly detailed, eh? Thank you."
"Remember what I told you when we first met? I do things first class or I don't do them." McGreevy paused. "How is Rosie? I assume she's still the consummate flight attendant. I was derelict not asking about her."
"As far as I know, she's still in love with her career, and we barely have time to talk, Marshall, but we leave each other text messages or send quick emails. We've both been so busy I can hardly believe we've only had a handful of meaningful conversations since I went back to Madison. Maybe neither of us is ready to make a commitment."
"I thought for sure you two would be rock solid by now, especially after all you went through together! You're barely thirty, and she's what, twenty-five, twenty-six? Hell, I'm surprised you're not married."
"I guess neither of us was willing to compromise. Our careers kept getting in the way."
"What's wrong with you, John?" McGreevy said sternly, balling his napkin on the table. "Compromise is the name of the game. I shouldn't have to remind you of that. For God's sake, John, you're a lawyer — the best."
Chapter TwoAblast of musty heat greeted Auty when he opened the door of the beach house. Once inside, he checked the thermostat, which registered eighty-seven degrees. Switching on the air conditioning, he lowered the dial to sixty-two, then drew the drapes, cranked all the windows, and slid the screen door in the kitchen to let in the Gulf breeze. Opening the refrigerator, Auty stood momentarily, savoring a waft of cold air before walking outside onto the deck. The slanting sunrays bounced brightly off the Gulf, making him squint. The refreshing salt spray offered immediate deliverance from the oppressive warmth inside. The view of the Gulf reminded him of his last trip to Florida and the extraordinary times he had with Rosie — from the very first day he spent with her at the beach to their bittersweet parting when she returned to her flight attendant career in Tampa and he to his law practice in Madison.
The rolling waves and the salt spray steered his thoughts to the last night Rosie and he shared at the beach house. He'd hated letting her go. Why hadn't he spoken up — raised the concept of where their relationship stood and where it might be heading? Of course, she could have brought up the subject herself had she been prepared for a commitment, he reasoned. Nevertheless, McGreevy was right — relationships are all about compromise. The question was whether he and Rosie were willing to yield — to take the first step. That final night with her was still etched in his mind. After she left for Tampa, he returned to the water's edge, sitting in the sand until the last glimmer of light segued into darkness and the tide rushed to meet him, washing away the sand castle she built. He should have told her how he felt about her, but something kept him silent.
Auty had guaranteed Rosie this trip would be a new beginning for them. There was no pressing reason for him to return to Madison — no big trial on the horizon. Although his caseload had been passed on to his partners, he had taken the time to meet with each and every client, assuring them they would be in good hands with his replacement counsel. His intention was to handle the remaining loose ends over the phone, and be available to his clients if necessary.
Auty knew Rosie was finishing a torrid schedule that had afforded her virtually no free time. Two weeks ago her itinerary had taken her to Milwaukee and a one hour layover, but Auty had a pretrial hearing he couldn't miss. Otherwise, he surely would have made the short journey east to see her, if only for a few minutes.
Laughter from a group of children splashing in the surf jarred Auty from his reflection. Today the shoreline was packed with hardy sun worshipers, joggers, walkers and swimmers, in spite of the especially hot, humid weather. A handful of surfers were taking advantage of the rising tide, weaving in and out among pelicans riding the crests of the waves.
The ringing of Auty's cell phone took him into the kitchen away from all the action on the beach. Stepping inside, he answered.
"John Austin speaking."
"Auty, this is Charles Rutledge."
"Excuse my abruptness, but I must speak to Rosie."
"Rosie's not here, Charles, but I'm expecting her soon."
"I'm afraid I have terrible news."
"What is it?"
"Someone shot Dan last night at St. Anthony's." Rosie's father's voice quivered as he spoke.
"My God! What's his condition?"
"Not good. It's not good, Auty."
Auty heard Rutledge take a deep breath and blow it into the mouthpiece of his phone.
"He was hearing confessions. A bullet ricocheted off something and grazed his temple. Another struck him in the shoulder and a third passed near his lung. He came through surgery, but he's lost a lot of blood. His condition is very critical, but his vitals are better than they were even a few hours ago."
Excerpted from Say Three Hail Marys and Die by John Michael McDermott Copyright © 2012 by John Michael McDermott. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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