Be careful what you wish for, his mother used to say. Yet how many times has Monty Collins wished for a client who is intelligent, articulate and tattoo-free? Now he has one, but it’s not long before his mother’s warning comes back to haunt him. Father Brennan Burke is the prime suspect in the killing of a foxy young girl whose body was found carved with a religious sign, a sign that points straight to the priest. With Burke remaining tight-lipped and evasive about his relationship with the victim, Monty has no choice but to secretly conduct a probe into the life of his own client. Never has Monty been so lost for answers, until a long-forgotten incident takes on new and ominous meaning . . . Winner of the 2006 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel
About the Author
Anne Emery is the author of "Barrington Street Blues "and "Obit." She is a graduate of Dalhousie Law School and has worked as a lawyer, legal-affairs reporter, and researcher. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Read an Excerpt
Sign of the Cross
By Anne Emery
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2006 Anne Emery
All rights reserved.
He looked into her eyes when she stopped him to ask If he wanted to dance; he had a face like a mask. Somebody said from the bible he'd quote. There was dust on the man in the long black coat. — Bob Dylan, "The Man in the Long Black Coat"
Gargoyles. I hardly notice them anymore. Gargoyles are a part of your life when you've spent your entire career in the criminal courts. The creatures you see leering out at you from the Halifax Courthouse on Spring Garden Road are technically known as grotesques, fang-baring faces that were set in stone when the building was constructed in 1863. A plaque on the building describes the "vermiculated" stonework; it looks as if worms tunnelled through it. I'm not surprised.
Thursday, March 1, 1990 was a typical day at the courthouse. I had managed to get my client off unexpectedly at the conclusion of a three-day trial on charges of assault, extortion and uttering threats against his old girlfriend's new boyfriend. His gratitude lay unspoken between us. He swaggered from the building, trailed by three teenage girls in leggings and stiletto heels.
"Congratulations on the acquittal, Monty!" I turned at the sound of a voice as I was leaving the courthouse and saw our articled clerk coming out behind me. Petite, sharp-faced and keen, Robin Reidwore a lawyerly black suit that looked too big on her. I nodded absently in response. "Though I have to say," she went on, "I didn't think much of the judge's remarks about our client. 'Well, Mr. Brophy, you're free to go. The system worked. If I see you in my courtroom again you may not find the system so benign.' What kind of attitude is that to take to a man he just declared not guilty?"
"It's the attitude of a judge who knows I outlawyered the prosecution and knows he'd be overturned on appeal if he convicted my client."
Robin and I left the courthouse and crossed Spring Garden Road to the city library, where someone had built a snow fort around the statue of a striding, heavily masculine Winston Churchill. I was on a hopeless quest for a children's book with a character named Normie. My wife and I, in the afterglow of a magnificent performance of Norma at La Scala, had named our baby Norma after the noble druid at the centre of the opera. With sober second thought, neither of us liked the name for anyone under forty. The best we could do was "Normie" after that. Now seven and wondering why she wasn't named Megan like everybody else, she had looked askance at my brave assertion that there were lots of Normies in the world. She issued a demand: "Find me a book with somebody named Normie in it. It can be an animal; it can even be a bug. But," she warned darkly, "it better not be a boy!" I was met with a sympathetic shake of the head yet again at the children's desk.
As we left the library, Robin returned to the acquittal of our client, Corey Brophy. "But Corey didn't do it, Monty! You demolished the Crown witnesses on cross-examination; their stories fell apart."
I looked at her with surprise. "Of course he did it. You haven't seen the file and you've never met the client. But that's over and done. Now, tomorrow we have — Well! I spoke too soon. Looks as if you're going to meet Corey after all."
Robin turned to follow my gaze across the street and saw my newly released client being manhandled by two police officers in the driveway of the courthouse. He twisted around and caught sight of me. "Are you just going to stand there, Collins? You're my lawyer, for fuck's sake. Get over here!"
I sighed and crossed the street. Short, skinny, and scabious with a patchy goatee, Corey was the picture of belligerence.
"What's going on, Frank?" I asked one of the cops.
"Mr. Brophy is under arrest for assaulting his ex-girlfriend."
"Corey, give me a call after you're processed," I told him. "In the meantime, keep your mouth shut. No statements." The other cop bundled him into the cruiser for the trip to the station.
"This must be a record for you, Monty," Frank remarked. "Your client reoffending —"
"— What is it, twenty-five minutes after he was released?"
I didn't tell him my record was a guy reoffending twenty-five seconds after his release; he had been overheard threatening one of the witnesses before he even left the courtroom.
I glanced at Robin as we started back to the office, and was about to speak when she said: "You've got that 'Robin, you're such a bleeding heart' expression on your face again. You think all our clients are guilty."
"And yet I defend them. Year after year after year." I looked into her eyes. "So come on now. Who's the bleeding heart?"
Yes, criminal practice had its aggravations. But at least with the usual run of petty criminals, I could forget their existence as soon as I was out of sight of the gargoyles. In the kind of case I dealt with, there was no mystery involved; you knew all too well what went on at the crime scene. You knew your client was there. Your only hope was that he had kept his mouth shut when the police showed up. Soon, although I didn't know it yet, I would be involved in a case I would not be able to shake when I left the building. Or even when I closed my eyes to sleep. For the first time in my career I would be flying blind, unable to fathom what was behind the brutal murder of a young woman whose body had been carved with a religious sign and dumped beneath a bridge. And the client? My mother had a saying: "Be careful what you wish for." For years — decades! — I had been longing for a client a cut above the poor, uneducated, hopeless, heedless, unstable individuals I usually represented. A client more like ... more like me. Well, I was about to have one. Be careful what you wish for.
The next day my firm's senior partner, Rowan Stratton, slipped me an envelope containing newspaper clippings about the murder and said we'd speak about it on the weekend.
The victim was Leeza Rae and she was twenty years old when she was killed. On February fifteenth, a Department of Public Works crew spotted her body on scrubby, rocky ground beside a service road under the A. Murray MacKay Bridge, still known, twenty years after its construction, as the "new bridge." It is one of two bridges joining the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The crew radioed the information to the Halifax Police Department just after three in the afternoon. Leeza was wearing an oversize black plastic raincoat with a hood. This had not been her attire when she was last seen alive, leaving a dance at St. Bernadette's Youth Centre in downtown Halifax. News stories gave the cause of death as a fractured skull, believed to have been caused by a heavy, blunt instrument. The police stated that the victim had not been killed in the spot where she was found; the body had been dumped there after death. One report quoted an unnamed source as saying the body had been "tampered with."
I skimmed the clippings and put them aside. Rowan had asked me not to discuss the murder with anyone until we spoke. Why the secrecy, I wondered.
Saturday morning was bright and crisp, a beautiful day for a family outing. I picked up the phone.
"What?" came her answer.
"Well, I see today is starting off like all your other days."
"And I see you are still in need of a remedial class in, one, when to call and, two, when not to call. It is eight-thirty in the morning. We are, or were, sleeping in today because the children don't have school. It's Saturday. Far be it from me to encourage mindless consumerism, but I think it's time to acknowledge the invention of an item known as the fridge magnet. I have invested in four of those for you and have utilized them to stick a calendar on your refrigerator. That calendar, had you consulted it, would have told you that this is the weekend, and you might then have surmised that we would be catching up on our sleep."
"For once I have to agree with you. You should catch up on your sleep. What do you do, by the way? Keep your tongue in a jar of acid beside your bed at night?"
"Why not? It would be more attractive than what I used to see when I opened my eyes in the morning."
"All right, all right, enough pillow talk. I was calling to see whether the kids might like to come with me this afternoon for a drive."
"They're with me this afternoon. Now let me go so I can get back to sleep and forget about this interruption." Click.
That of course was my wife. A failed social worker. Think for a moment about social workers. My perception of them is that they tend to be very accepting of human error, very non-judgmental, as they say. My wife, Maura MacNeil, had been in her last year of the Bachelor of Social Work program when it was decided that her "particular set of skills and abilities could be best directed to other challenges." That was one version of events. Maura's version was more succinct: "They turfed me out." She had directed her abilities to the law and was now a professor, teaching poverty law. Scourge of the right, she was hardly more popular with the left, owing to her stubborn refusal to accommodate herself to the emerging sensitivities of the nineties. Politically correct she would never be. She and I had been living apart for years.
So. No children for me today. I wrestled briefly with the temptation to go back to sleep myself, then spend the afternoon with cronies in the Midtown Tavern. Instead, I passed the day doing household chores that were months overdue.
That evening found me in the library of Rowan and Sylvia Stratton, who lived in an elegant house overlooking the sparkling waters of Halifax's Northwest Arm. The Strattons had come to Halifax from England at the end of World War II. My brother Stephen had married their daughter Janet. I considered Rowan an in-law once removed, especially since I was persona non grata with my own father-in-law. We had just had dinner, and Rowan was going to join me in the library. While I waited, I had another look at the news clippings about the murder.
Leeza Rae had grown up in a low-income suburb of Halifax. Her mother was in her teens when she gave birth to Leeza, and the father did not stick around. Leeza had had two stepfathers, and a succession of other men had drifted in and out of her mother's life. There were half-brothers and stepsisters on the scene from time to time. Leeza had not done well academically and had been suspended from high school on a couple of occasions. She stopped attending in grade eleven. Leeza spent all her free time, which was considerable, hanging out at various malls and convenience stores with people of similar background. She had a minor criminal record and a sporadic history of low-paying employment. At the time of her death she was working part-time at the St. Bernadette's Youth Centre.
In 1988, Leeza's boyfriend, Vic Stillman, was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for his part in the gang rape of a fifteen-year-old girl. He was in Dorchester Penitentiary when Leeza was killed. Two other boys had been incarcerated but had been released before the murder. A source close to the investigation was quoted as saying there was no known connection between the murder and the rape. Police were following several leads and were optimistic about making an arrest in the near future.
Rowan came in and made a stop at the sideboard to pour us each a glass of scotch, which he said went into the cask around the time I was admitted to the bar. He sank into a green leather club chair and pushed his greying blonde hair off his forehead. Rowan had the rosy complexion I often associate, probably wrongly, with the English. It gave him a deceptive air of benign goodwill. He got right to the point.
"I told you I had a rather delicate matter to discuss with you, Monty. Our partners can remain in the dark. For now, at least." He took a sip of his drink. "You have seen the press cuttings?"
"Yes. They haven't picked anybody up for it yet, have they?"
"No." Rowan was gazing out to the garden, which led down to the water. "There may be a religious angle to it. At least this man Walker seems to think so. A retired police sergeant."
"That would be Emerson Walker. They call him Moody. But why is he thinking anything? He should be playing golf, or opening a Tim Hortons, whatever retired cops do."
"One would think so. But he's taken quite an interest in this girl's death."
"Sounds like Moody, refusing to let go. I remember him from a few cases of mine. Once he got on to something, he bored into it with everything he had. He could get a bit obsessive, but he was usually proved right in the end."
"I haven't spoken to him directly. I have it on good authority, though, that he considers it some kind of religious killing."
There had not been a word of this in the newspapers. If there was something religious or ritualistic about this murder, the police were keeping it quiet. Then I remembered one report said the body had been tampered with.
"So, Rowan, how does this concern us?"
He looked at me intently as he spoke. "Walker has it in his head that the killer is a priest."
"I don't know what evidence he purports to have but something has led him, in error, to our client."
I leaned forward in my chair. "Who is it?"
"A clergyman of my acquaintance. A Roman Catholic priest by the name of Burke. He's from New York but he worked here in Halifax in the past. He is here again, at St. Bernadette's parish. Directs a choir school. These suspicions must be put to rest before they become widespread. So far, there hasn't been a whisper of this in public. And it is up to us to keep it that way. But we are not helped by the fact that this ex-policeman, Walker, is thick as thieves with the other priest at St. Bernadette's, an older chap by the name of O'Flaherty. Fine fellow, from what I hear, but not what one would call discreet. He, Walker and a couple of other gentlemen of a certain age often meet at one of the local doughnut shops and gossip over their coffee. I shouldn't think an old cleric's gift of gab is of much use to the police in normal times. But Walker will be all ears now, waiting for our client's name to come up. And we can assume it will, rectory life being what it is." Stratton looked at his watch. "There is no question of guilt here, at least on the part of our client."
"Tell me about him."
"He is the priest who started up the first choir school here back in 1968. Do you remember it?"
"He had been involved in something similar in New York City. He was familiar with this area, having spent some time in Chester during the summers when he was younger. That is where Sylvia and I first met him, in fact. Our summer place is close to where he used to visit. Some of the local choir aficionados discovered the New York operation and enticed him to come up and create a similar school in Halifax. It carried on successfully for a few years, I understand, but the effort petered out after Father Burke returned to the U.S. A group of us from the Anglican and RC dioceses formed a committee to get the choir school going again. St. Bernadette's had an available building, so that is where the school is now. Its real name is the Halifax Christian Academy of Sacred Music but everyone, including its principal and its music director, calls it St. Bernadette's. We Anglicans lost the battle of the names, but everyone is pleased to have the school up and running; there has been no internecine conflict.
"Anyway. The school admits children from grades four to eight; they do their other years in the regular system. The curriculum is top-of-the-line and the fees are quite high, as you might expect. But there is financial assistance available for a few talented students who are unable to pay the tuition. The children have only been at it for six months but they really are quite splendid."
"I'll have to check out the choir. And its director. This priest —" As I was speaking, Sylvia Stratton glided into the library.
"Priest? I assume you're referring to Father Burke. You should meet him, Monty. What was the story we heard about him years ago, Rowan? A cross and a fire? Something ghastly and mystical." She gave a delicate shudder.
"There was a fire when he was young, in New York. He must have got too close. I never heard the whole story but, supposedly, the image of his crucifix was burned into his skin. Great fodder for the parish bulletin, I gather. Not generally known up here, though, and that's the way he wants it."
Excerpted from Sign of the Cross by Anne Emery. Copyright © 2006 Anne Emery. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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