Authors: Michael Lister
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Hard-Boiled, #Religious
That night Father Thomas died in one of Steve’s jail cells.
The ME ruled it death from natural causes—though he noted in the strictest sense of the word there was nothing natural about cancer—but I would always wonder.
Three days later, Father Thomas was lowered into the ground in a small ceremony before a small crowd. Like most of us, he had lived a little life in obscurity––something that was made manifest nowhere more than in the smallness of the final farewell being bid him.
Sister Abigail had asked me to say a prayer, and I stumbled through it the best I could.
Afterward, she was crying so hard when I hugged her that she couldn’t say anything but “Thank you, John.”
Kathryn, though just as upset, was less demonstrative.
“I’m sorry,” I said as I hugged her.
The graveside was cold and windy, and as our faces touched they were too numb to feel.
“Because he died or because you helped arrest him?” she asked.
Stunned, I remained silent.
“That was a cheap shot, I know,” she said, “but it’s the way I’m feeling right now.”
“He didn’t deserve to die the way he did,” she said. “He was a good man who spent his entire life helping people. He was noble and honorable and” —she began to cry— “so very, very kind.”
Too cold to linger, most of the attendees had dispersed by now. Only Steve and Sister Abigail remained, but they weren’t speaking.
Without saying anything else, she turned and joined Sister Abigail, and the two of them walked with their arms around each other back to Kathryn’s car and drove away, leaving me to catch a ride with Steve.
“So you’re closing the case?” I asked.
He was driving faster than he should have, and I wondered if he was trying to put as much distance between himself and death as he possibly could.
“Too much physical evidence not to,” he said. “And with his confession, it’s ironclad.”
I shook my head.
“Give me one thing. One shred of evidence that says he didn’t do it, and I’ll keep it open.”
The early afternoon sun made the Explorer hot, especially in our coats, but he didn’t turn on the air conditioner. The sky was clear, the air clean and crisp, the woods on either side of the road quiet and peaceful.
“You gonna be able to make a case against Reid?”
“Think you’ll be able to show any Gulf Coast Company involvement?”
He shook his head. “But they’re not gonna get the abbey. That’s something.”
“Yes it is.”
We rode along in silence for a few moments.
“You know what?” he said. “I believed Father Tom’s confession. I think it
him. Now I still don’t know about all this demon shit, but I
know the truth when I hear it from a witness or a suspect
can see it in the evidence.”
I shook my head. “He dies the night he confesses.”
“Maybe that’s why he confessed. Knew his time was almost up. He wanted to make things right before he died. I shouldn’t have to tell you something like that.”
I shrugged. “It’s possible. I guess—I don’t know. Can I see the autopsy report?”
“Of course. What? You think I’m lying? You think I killed him to cover up something?” He shook his head. “I’m not hiding anything, John. Father Tom was our doer.”
“What about Tommy?” I asked. “You believe Reid?”
“Says he’s gonna produce the diary page for me, but I’m ruling it an accidental drowning. There’s nothing to suggest anything else. We’ve carried the case as far as we can. Now it’s time to let it go.”
“You seem anxious to do that with all the cases.”
“Fuck you, John,” he said.
“I’m just saying.”
“So am I,” he said. “Fuck you.”
“Sort of touchy about it, aren’t you?”
“You’ve been accusing me in one way or another since this thing started and I’m sick of it.”
He turned off the highway into the entrance of St. Ann’s, passing beneath the sensor lights Brad Harrison had installed on the gates. Everything was quiet and serene, as if the abbey had never witnessed a single act of violence.
“You would’ve done the same thing if our positions were reversed,” I said.
He took a deep breath and sighed, softening a bit as he did.
“This is good for you,” he said. “A valuable life lesson. Everything can’t be wrapped up in a nice, neat little package. This kind of thing forces you to face your limitations. Be a man about it. Quit pouting. Learn your lesson. Move on.”
He pulled up near the dining hall where everyone had gathered to eat and celebrate the life of a man they all loved and respected.
“Yes, sir,” I said, and saluted him.
He saluted back, but when he brought his hand down he gave me the finger.
I looked at the dining hall. Through the glass door I could see the small group awkwardly gathered around a large picture of Father Thomas, their nervous body language betraying their relaxed, supportive expressions. Not only were they in shock and filled with grief, but they were left with many unanswered questions.
“You going in?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“It’ll be far more comfortable for them if I don’t,” he said.
“You sure have been understanding, even sympathetic to the memory of the man you say killed your cousin.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, his anger flaring up again.
I shook my head at him. “Just that you’re as welcome in there as anyone.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, I just can’t.”
We were quiet a moment, and I looked down at the lake. Its windswept surface rippled like a miniature ocean seen from high above.
“Like you, I’ll keep my eyes open,” he said. “The case is officially closed, but that doesn’t mean I won’t still poke around in it for a long time to come. All this ain’t over. The Gulf Coast Company’s not gonna give up on this land without a lot more fight. And if Uncle Floyd had a daughter, I’d like to find her.”
That’s when it hit me. That’s why Father Thomas had confessed. He had done it to protect Kathryn, to save the abbey.
As I got out of the Explorer, Kathryn came to the door and waved us in.
“Come on in and get some food,” she said.
“No thanks,” Steve said. “I’ve got to get back to the station.”
We shook hands, I closed the door, and he pulled away.
“John?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“I’m sorry for how I acted,” she said. “I was just upset.”
I waved off her apology.
“What is it?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”
“So this is our last session together?” Sister Abigail said.
“I’m leaving,” I said, “but I’ll be back.”
“Not exactly what I asked, was it?”
“Yes,” I said, “this will be our last.”
“I’ll miss them. I haven’t felt the need to keep the clinical distance with you I normally do, and I’ve come to care very deeply for you.”
“We’ve been through it these last few days,” she said.
“You’ve helped me,” I said. “A lot.”
“I’m glad,” she said. “But I seriously doubt I’ve done much. So what shall be the subject of our final session?”
“Truth,” I said.
“Have you not been completely truthful with me, John?” she asked.
“Yes, to the best of my ability, I have,” I said. “But you, on the other hand, haven’t been completely truthful with me.”
She looked surprised. “I haven’t really said much. This is about you, not me, but I honestly don’t think I’ve been dishonest.”
“You know what I’m talking about, Sister. You’re far too clever not to.”
“You’re the one who’s too clever. You’ve completely lost me.”
I leaned to the side, stretched my leg out, and withdrew the photocopy of Floyd’s medical information from my pocket. “I think this is why Father Thomas went ahead and confessed.”
She looked perplexed. “What’s this?”
I handed it to her. She took it and gave it a cursory glance.
“Floyd’s blood type is O negative,” I said.
She shrugged. “Is it?”
I nodded. “Yours is A negative.”
She nodded, attempting but failing to pull off nonchalance. Her movements were stiff, her expression plastered into place.
“Kathryn’s is AB positive.”
“Is it?” she asked, her voice tight, her face pinched.
“It is,” I said, “which means there’s no way he’s Kathryn’s father. Father Thomas on the other hand is B positive.”
“Kathryn was his child,” I said.
Tears began to stream down her face. “I still can’t believe he’s dead.”
“You haven’t just been a mother and a father to Kathryn,” I said, “you’ve been husband and wife to each other. You really have been a family—naturally as well as spiritually. Someone said it was rumored you two used to be an item and I watched the way you took care of him when he heard about Tommy. You’re the only one who called him Tom and of course you fought like an old married couple.”
She smiled, wiping her tears and sniffling. “I guess we did,” she said, her voice softer now. “In a way, we’ve had it all here. It’s why we love it so much.”
I nodded. “And why you’ve gone to such lengths to protect it.”
She nodded her agreement. “Tom’s confession protected both Kathryn and the abbey,” she said. “It was something he felt he had to do. If the investigation continued, everyone would know about us, about Kathryn, and about Floyd not being her father. Not only would the abbey close, but she would lose everything.”
I thought about what she had said.
“Are you going to tell her?”
“Who?” I asked.
“Kathryn,” she said.
“Tom being her father.”
“I told you this was about truth. I think no matter how painful it is, knowing the truth is better than not knowing it, but I’m gonna let you tell her.”
“What if I—”
“Tell me about Floyd,” I said.
She hesitated. “I can’t imagine what you must think of me. It’s just like I told you, except when we had our one night together, I was already pregnant with Kathryn.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t demand a paternity test.”
She choked up again. “He trusted me,” she said, her voice trembling. She then let out a harsh, ironic laugh. “That’s what makes it a double sin. He just wanted it to go away.”
I waited while she pulled herself together.
“It’s painful to be confronted with what you’re capable of,” she said. “I feel so bad about what I did. It was horrible. Unforgivable. But if I had to, I know I’d probably do it again. I now know what I’m capable of. Of course, the truth is, what I was asking for and what he gave wasn’t much—to him I mean. At the time, the land, though beautiful, was some of the least valuable he had, and he had money to burn. The trust was basically some of the interest he was earning on just some of his money.”
When I didn’t say anything, she glanced at her watch. “Our time is almost over and I’ve done most of the talking today.”
“Still haven’t told the whole truth yet.”
She looked surprised and offended in equal parts. “What do you mean?”
“I’m talking about Tammy,” I said.
“You’ve lost me again.”
“Oh, I don’t think so, but we can go through the same routine as before. She was here to shut you down. She knew what this land was worth and she came to figure out a way to get it.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
“And you killed her.”
?” she asked in shock.
“The truth,” I said. “What you’re capable of. What lengths you’ll go to, to protect Father Thomas, Kathryn, and St. Ann’s.”
“Tom already told y’all,” she said. “The demon did it.”
“He was far too experienced an exorcist to try to perform one alone. Even if he suspected she might be faking, he wouldn’t really know until he began the ritual. Every exorcist I read about in the books he gave me said they always use a team. Father Thomas did too. He had people praying—Sister Chris and Brad Harrison that I know of—and he had you in the room with him.”
She started to say something, but couldn’t get it out. She began to shake.
“When I saw the tape, I thought someone came in during the exorcism and turned off the camera,” I said. “But later I realized, when it came on, Father Thomas was on the other side of the room. You turned it on for him too. You were there the entire time, assisting with the ritual.”
I paused, but she didn’t say anything. Tears were streaming down her cheeks again, tremors running through her body.
“Of course, I can’t know what happened after you turned off the tape, but I bet she began to reveal her plans for St. Ann’s, began telling you all she’d discovered.”
She sighed heavily, seeming to begin to slow her implosion. As if finally surrendering, her guard came down, her face registering her resolve. “She really was possessed. One of the signs is revealing hidden things. She revealed it all. Knew everything—and it wasn’t the result of research. She knew things no one did, things we’d said, things we’d done, things I hadn’t thought of in decades.”
I nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“Tom didn’t even know I killed her. Though, I think he began to suspect. I know it’s a big part of why he confessed. It happened like he said. She broke free and ran down the path. He followed her. I was much slower than them. I started for help, but thought she might say some of the things she had said to us in front of them, so I stopped and went after them. When I got to the clearing, Tom was unconscious and Tammy was lying across the way bleeding to death. I could tell she was dying. It was only in that moment that I knew I’d let her.”
“What’d you do?”
“Nothing at first. I was just going to do nothing, commit a sin of omission. Wait and let her die, but then I panicked when I heard noises at the cabins. My maternal instinct kicked in like you can’t imagine. Don’t ever underestimate what a mother’s capable of. I knelt down beside her, cupped one hand over her mouth and pinched her nose with my other one. She was gone within minutes.”
Sister Abigail’s voice had become flat, almost robotic, as if she were recounting a story she had heard many times and memorized, something that had nothing to do with her.
“When I heard voices on the path, I went to hide down by the waterway, but when I got down there and saw the boat, I got in it and paddled back up to the dock and ran to my room. I got in just before Kathryn came to my door.”
I nodded, thinking about the ways her story differed from what I had imagined.
“She would’ve died anyway. You can’t imagine what that thing had done to her. All I did was rush it along a little. That doesn’t make it any less wrong. I’m truly sorry for what I did. I am, but she would have died either way.”
“Neither you or Father Thomas caused any of her injuries?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Tom may have inadvertently, trying to restrain her, but no, we didn’t hurt her.”
I wasn’t sure I believed her, but I’d never know for sure. It was like Tommy’s death and the whole question of possession. There were many mysteries I would never solve, and learning to live with that was part of the lesson I was meant to learn and it was humbling.
“It feels so good to tell someone,” she said. “The past few days have been the worst of my entire life. Whatta you gonna do?”
“Let you tell Kathryn, then Steve.”
“What if I can’t?”
“How do you know?”
I smiled. “I know your strength. I know what you’re capable of.”