Also by Philip Kerr
ST. ANDREW’S CATHEDRAL,
APRIL 5, 1988
It was a bright cold day, but as if it were midsummer, I had given up my usual gray clothes of lambswool and thick flannel, and had been dressed for innocence in white cotton like all of the other children in the cathedral.
I was trembling, but not just because of the freezing temperature in St. Andrew’s; I was also trembling because there was a mortal sin in my heart—or so I imagined.
The gray stone interior soared above my neatly combed hair like the hall of some ancient castle, and the air was filled with the smell of candles and incense. As the church organ played and the weak voices of the choir mumbled strange words that might have been Latin, I walked slowly and reverently up the center aisle toward the Friar Tuck–size bishop with my small, sweaty palms pressed together as if I were a little saint—although in my own eyes I was anything but that—just the way my mother had shown me.
“You do it like this, Giles,” she had said, showing me exactly how. “As if you were trying to press something very flat in your hands that you must hold close to your face so that the tips of the fingers are just touching your lips.”
“You mean like Joan of Arc, when they burned her at the stake,” I asked.
My mother winced.
“Yes. If you like, Giles. But if we think about it, I’m sure you can find a nicer example than that, can’t you?”
“How about Mary Queen of Scots?”
“Someone who’s not on their way to execution, perhaps. Please try to think of someone else, Giles. A saint, perhaps.”
“Surely the saints are only saints because they were martyrs first,” I argued. “That means most of them were executed, too.”
My mother made an exasperated face. “You’ve got an answer for everything, Giles,” she muttered.
“A soft answer turns away wrath,” I said. “But grievous words stir up anger. Proverbs 15:1.”
Quoting the Bible was a useful trick I had learned in Bible class. We had to learn a text every week, and it hadn’t taken me long to work out that quoting from the Bible also had the effect of silencing critical adults. More usefully, it had the effect of deterring the unwelcome attentions of Father Lees. He tended to leave me alone out of fear of the text that I might utter when confronted with his priestly hands—as if God were speaking to him directly through my innocent mouth. Because of my knowledge of the Bible, my father called me Holy Willie and sometimes “precocious,” and told my mother that in his opinion teaching children what was in the Bible was a bad thing. She ignored him, of course, but in retrospect I think Dad was right. There’s a lot in the Bible that shouldn’t ever have been translated from the Latin or the Greek.
A long line of us boys and girls shuffled up the nave of the cathedral. We must have looked like one of those Korean Moonie weddings where hundreds of couples get married at once.
Of course, this was not my child wedding but my own confirmation—the moment I was to declare my desire to renounce Satan and all his works, and to become a Roman Catholic—and, for everyone else in the cathedral of St. Andrew’s, it seemed to be a very happy day. Everyone else except me, perhaps, because there was something about the ceremony I didn’t like; not just the pansy white shirt and shorts and school tie—which were bad enough—but something else, too; I think you could say I had a feeling of deep foreboding, as if something terrible were about to happen that was not unconnected with the commission of the possibly mortal sin I was contemplating.
I was twelve years old and being precocious meant I was also possessed of “a bit of an imagination”; that was how my parents described children like me who exaggerated some things and lied about others. Certainly, I had my own ideas about almost everything. These ideas were sometimes influenced by what I had read in a book or seen on television, but more often than not, they were simply the result of deep and often wrong juvenile thinking that was at least the product of an independent mind; any lies I did tell were usually told with good intent.
Thanks to Father Lees, I had been well schooled in the Roman Catholic catechism and in the meaning of confirmation, which you can read all about in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter two. Every Wednesday for the last month I’d been taken to Bible class where Father Lees had told us how, shortly after Pentecost, the apostles had been hiding away in some locked room because they were afraid of the Jews, when suddenly they heard a noise that sounded like the wind but was, in fact, the sound of the Holy Ghost. Next, small tongues of fire appeared like little blue butane-gas cigarette-lighter flames above the heads of the disciples and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak in foreign languages that, according to my older brother, Andy, was not unlike what happens in The Exorcist.
Now, I didn’t like ghosts and ghost stories any more than I would care to have been left alone in a locked room with Father Lees, and I certainly didn’t care for the idea of having any spirit—holy or otherwise—come inside my body and light me up “like a little candle for Jesus,” which was how the creepy priest described it to us in Bible class. In fact, the idea terrified me. Nor did I much like the possibility that I might never again be able to speak English, but only some baffling language like Chinese or Swahili that nobody else in Glasgow would be able to understand. Not that Glaswegians are easy to understand themselves; even other people from Scotland have a hard job with the accent and the lack of consonants. Speaking the English language as it is spoken in Glasgow is like learning to spit.
So I had made a plan that was going to save me from the strong risk of ghostly possession and speaking in tongues—a secret plan I discussed with no one other than my own conscience (and certainly not my mother) and that I now put into action.
When it was my turn to be confirmed, I knelt in front of the bishop and, as soon as he had anointed my forehead and slapped my face with his nicotine-stained fingers—rather harder than I’d been expecting—to symbolize how the world might treat me because of my faith, and Father Lees had given me the red grape juice and wafer that was the blood and body of Jesus Christ, I stepped around the granite pillar of the church and, while everyone’s eyes were on the boy immediately behind me who was now being confirmed, quickly wiped the holy oil off my forehead and spat the dry wafer off the roof of my mouth into my handkerchief.
One of my school friends saw me do this, and for quite a while afterward my nickname was “the heretic,” which I rather enjoyed. It gave me a wicked, worldly aspect that I fancied made me seem sophisticated. Apparently unconsumed hosts—which is what you call the wafer when you don’t actually swallow it—are very useful for the commission of satanic rites or devil worship. Not that I was interested in worshipping the devil. I think that even then—and possibly thanks to Father Lees—I saw God and the devil as opposite sides of the same grubby coin, although for a long time I think I managed to make a pretty good fist of being a good Christian.
Now, it’s said that no sin goes unpunished, and my own evil act was certainly punished because as I pulled the clean, folded white square of handkerchief from my trousers into which I was preparing to gob the body of Christ, something fell out of my pocket, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. This was my new St. Christopher’s medal, made of solid Hebridean silver, a commemorative gift from my mother that was engraved with my initials—including the initial of the saint’s name I had taken for my confirmation, which was John, who was the brother of James, and which was my own baptismal name—and the date of my confirmation. The medal was distinctive in several other respects, too; my mother had had the medal specially designed by Graham Stewart, who became, eventually, quite a famous Scottish silversmith. I even know what it looks like, because my brother still has the St. Christopher’s medal from his own confirmation, which took place a couple of years before mine: the head of St. Peter is a copy of a drawing by the celebrated artist Peter Howson.
Of course, the loss of the silver medal was soon discovered, and although my mother never found out the exact and probably blasphemous circumstances that accompanied its disappearance, for a while I was obliged to pray every night that I might find it again.
From the outside, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart resembled a prison. With its high windows, gray seamless concrete blocks, and a freestanding bell tower, Sacred Heart did not look like a promising place for a talk with the Almighty. I walked through the doors into the mercifully cool marble interior and was greeted by a handsome African-American wearing a priest’s collar and a welcoming smile. He informed me that Mass would begin in thirty minutes and confessions in ten near the Sacred Heart transept.
I thanked the priest and passed inside. I hardly wanted to tell him that it was a long time since anyone had heard my confession. I wasn’t even a Roman Catholic. Not anymore. I was an evangelical. And I was there to pray, not to attend Mass or seek absolution for my sins.
The prayer was a mistake. I should never have given it wings. As soon as I saw the weirdly modern stained-glass windows and the plastic figure of St. Anthony of Padua, I ought to have turned and left. Compared to the Catholic churches of my youth, this place felt too new for a talk with God about what was troubling me. But where else was I to go? Not to my own church—the Lakewood. That was a former basketball arena. And among the architectural eyesores that constituted the fourth-largest city in the USA, St. Anthony himself would not have found anywhere better than Houston’s Catholic cathedral to come nearer to God. I was certain of that much anyway, even if I was less certain that I wasn’t just wasting my time. After all, what was the point of praying to a God who—I was almost convinced—wasn’t there at all? This was what I had come to pray about. That and the state of my marriage, perhaps.
I picked a quiet pew facing the Sacred Heart transept, knelt down, and muttered a few holy-sounding words; looking up at the simple stained-glass window with its red, comically disembodied sacred heart, I tried my best to address the problem at hand.
“Breathe in me, o Holy Spirit, er . . . that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me, o Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy . . . Which it isn’t. How could my work ever be holy? I see things, o Holy Spirit—terrible things—that make me doubt that you could ever exist in a world as fucked up as this one. And I know what I’m talking about, Lord.
“Take that heart on the transept window up there. Oh, I know what it’s supposed to mean, Lord: it’s the Holy Eucharist and symbolizes the love that is God who, out of his love for us, became a man on Earth. Yes, I get that.
“But when I see that heart, I remember Zero Santorini, the Texas City serial killer who used to cut out his victims’ hearts and leave them beside the bodies on a neat little nest of barbed wire. (It was a nicely sadistic touch, the barbed wire—very Hollywood; it was useful, too, because it’s the thing that helped us to nail him. The wire was galvanized eight-inch field fence, and Santorini bought twenty-five yards of it from Uvalco Supply in San Antonio.) Sure, I can delude myself that I’m doing your work, Lord, but it really doesn’t figure that you could have been around for any of the seventeen poor girls Santorini murdered.
“It’s true that most of those girls were drug addicts and prostitutes, but nobody deserves to be killed like that. Except perhaps Zero Santorini. According to him, he actively encouraged most of those women to pray for their lives before he murdered them; and when you didn’t show up with a lightning bolt in one hand and your Holy Spirit in the other, he figured you’d given him the go-ahead to shoot them with a nail gun. The irony of the situation, of course, is that Santorini was looking for some sort of sign that you do actually exist; that in an extreme situation such as the one he had engineered, you might just have put in an appearance and allayed all of his very reasonable doubts.
“I believed his story, too. In a way, his actions struck me as kind of logical. He even took pictures of these poor girls as they knelt on the ground naked, with their hands clasped in prayer, which seemed to bear out his story. You, on the other hand—well, I’ve got a hundred good reasons to disbelieve you.
“If you are there, then all I’m asking for is some help to believe in you. I’m not asking for a sign, like Zero Santorini did. And I’m not asking for an easier life or an easier job. I’m just praying for the strength to deal with the life and the job I already have. The fact is that in my ten years with the Bureau not once have I seen you fixing something that needed fixing. Not once. And I just get the impression that if all the brick agents on Justice Park Drive stayed in bed one morning then this city would be in a bigger fucking mess than it is right now. I certainly don’t see you taking on the loonies I have to deal with in Domestic Terrorism, Lord: the white supremacists, the Christian militias, the sovereign citizens, the abortion extremists, the animal-rights and eco warriors, the black separatists, and the anarchists—to say nothing of the Islamists that the guys across the hall in Counterintelligence are having to keep an eye on these days. I don’t see you worrying about any of that, Lord. In fact, I don’t see you at all.”
I got to my feet. It was time for me to leave. The cathedral was filling up. A priest quietly approached the altar and lit some candles, and upstairs in the organ loft someone started to play a Bach prelude.
Leaving the transept, I walked back up the aisle to the south front, pausing only to collect the parish news bulletin from a pile by the door, and then I went out into the heat of a typical Houston summer evening.
Home was a new-built stone-and-stucco house southeast of Memorial Park on Driscoll Street. From the tower bedroom that served as my study, I had a good view of a suburban Houston street of reassuring ordinariness: a sidewalk lined with several palm trees scorched by the relentless sun and neat lawns that were nearly always smaller than the shiny SUVs parked beside them.
It was a nice house, but I couldn’t ever have afforded it on an FBI salary, which was why Ruth’s father, Bob Coleman, had bought it for us. In the beginning, Bob and I had got along pretty well; but that was before I was dumb enough—his words, not mine—to have turned down a well-paid position with a prestigious firm of New York attorneys to go to the academy at Quantico and train for the FBI. Bob said he would never have given his blessing to our being married if he had thought I was going to throw away a legal career out of a misguided sense of patriotism. Bob and I don’t see eye to eye on any number of issues, but my working for Big Government is just one more reason for him to dislike and distrust me. Then again, I feel the same way about Bob.
I dumped my stuff on the breakfast bar and kissed Ruth for longer than either of us was expecting, after which she let out a breath and blinked as if she had just turned a cartwheel, and then she smiled warmly.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” she said.
“You have a strange effect on me.”
“I’m glad. I’d hate to think I bored you.”
I went into the bathroom to wash up.
“Did you have a good day?” she called after me.
“It’s always a good day when I come home, honey.”
“Don’t say that, baby. It reminds me of all the things that could go wrong when you’re out of the house.”
“Nothing’s going to go wrong. I’ve told you before. I’m blessed.” I sprayed some antiviral sanitizer on my hands; I must have thought the stuff was an antidote to the kind of lowlife scum I spent most of my time trying to catch. “Where’s Danny?”
“Playing in the yard.”
When I came back into the kitchen, Ruth had the Sacred Heart parish newsletter in her hand.
“You were down at the cathedral?”
“I was in the area so I decided to drop in and see if Bishop Coogan was there. You remember Eamon Coogan?”
Currently the archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Eamon Coogan was an old friend of my mother’s from Boston, which is where my family had moved after we left Scotland.
I went to the refrigerator to fetch a cold beer.
“And was he?” she asked sweetly.
“I don’t know.”
She laughed. “You don’t know?” And then she guessed I was lying, because Ruth always knew when I was lying. After Harvard Law, Ruth had worked as an assistant DA in the New York District Attorney’s Office, where she had demonstrated a real talent for prosecution and cross-examination.
“Oh,” she said, “I get it. You went there for confession, didn’t you?”
“No.” I jerked the top of the beer bottle off and sucked the contents down.
“To pray, then.” She grinned. “Why can’t you go to our own church to do that, Gil?”
“Because it doesn’t feel like a church. You know, whenever I’m in there, I feel like looking for the commentary box and a hot dog salesman.”
She laughed. “That’s not fair. It’s just a building. I don’t think God needs stained-glass windows to feel at home.”
“Is anything wrong, honey?”
“No, but I think maybe I just answered your first question about what kind of day I’ve had.”
Danny appeared at the back door and, seeing me, launched himself in my direction like a human battering ram; I had time only to cover my balls with my hands before his large and surprisingly hard head connected with my groin.
“Daddy,” he yelled, and wrapped his little arms around my legs.
“Danny. How are you doing, big guy?”
“I’m good,” he said. “I haven’t been bad at all. And I didn’t hit Robbie.”
I caught a look in Ruth’s eye that seemed to contradict this spontaneous denial.
“The Murphy boy,” she said. “From across the street.” She shook her head. “They had a small disagreement.”
“I told you. I didn’t hit Robbie. He fell over.”
“Danny,” said Ruth. “We talked about this. Don’t lie to your dad.”
I grinned. “You stick to your story, kid,” I said. “Don’t ever fold under questioning.”
I turned the boy around, stroked his fine yellow hair, and gently pushed him further into the kitchen.
Danny went to the sink and washed his hands. Ruth was already serving dinner and this was my cue to remove the Glock on my hip. Ruth had nothing against guns—she was from Texas, after all—but she always preferred me to take it off before I sat down for dinner and said grace.
I said a prayer before every meal in our house, but on this occasion my heart wasn’t in it. Instead of our usual grace—“Great God, the giver of all good, accept our praise and bless our food”—I found myself uttering something less worshipful: “For well-filled plate and brimming cup and freedom from the washing up, we thank you, Lord. Amen.”
Ruth tried to control a smile. “Well, that’s a new one,” she said.
After we’d eaten, I put Danny to bed and read him a story and then went into my study in the tower, which is where Ruth came and found me later on.
“Can I fetch you another beer, baby?”
Ruth didn’t drink, but she didn’t seem to mind that I did. Not yet.
“No, thanks, honey.”
She stood behind me and massaged my neck and shoulders for a while.
“You seem kind of distant tonight.”
Suddenly I wanted to tell her everything—I had to tell someone—but I could hardly have done that without risking an argument. The church was an important part of Ruth’s life.
“You remember I told you about that motorcycle gang of white supremacists who call themselves the Texas Storm Troopers?”
“We’ve been running a wire on a bar the gang uses in Eastwood. Well, today I heard three of them discussing some murders that were committed back in 2007. Two black women were raped and murdered on the Southside.”
“I wasn’t going to tell you. But it was clear from their conversation that it was the Storm Troopers who carried out these murders.”
Ruth shrugged. “So, that’s good, isn’t it? Now you can arrest them.”
“We already sent someone up for those murders. A guy named José Samarancho. I worked Violent Crimes for a while when we first moved to Houston, remember? It was our task force that helped to convict him.”
“Then this evidence should help to clear him, shouldn’t it?”
She still didn’t get it, and I could hardly blame her for that.
“It would have cleared him if José Samarancho was still alive. They executed him last month up at Huntsville.”
Ruth sat down at my desk and pursed her lips. “That’s awful. But you mustn’t blame yourself, sweetheart. It’s not your fault at all.”
“Of course I blame myself. I’ve thought about nothing else all day.” I shook my head. “I was there when he got the juice. I was there, Ruth.”
She frowned. “But if he was convicted in 2007, you might have expected that he’d still be alive. I mean the appeal process can take years, even in Texas.”
“José Samarancho was a car thief. He was unlucky enough to steal a car that belonged to one of the two dead women, so his forensics were all over it. The car had been left in the parking lot where the Storm Troopers kidnapped the women. Samarancho stole cars to feed a drug habit that caused him to have blackouts; and when we presented him with the evidence that he’d been in the murdered woman’s car, he agreed he might have committed the murders and confessed to something he hadn’t done because I put it in his mind. His fucked-up brain even managed to dredge some drug-fantasy memory of his murdering the women and by some fluke he got the details right. He didn’t appeal the death sentence because he thought he’d done it and therefore deserved to die.” I shook my head bitterly. “Even while he was strapped to the gurney with the juice plugged into his veins, he was praying to the Lord to forgive him. The poor dumb idiot died still believing he’d committed two horrible murders and expecting that he might be going to hell.”
“So, what’s your point?”
“I don’t know.” This was cowardly of me, of course, but I thought it was best to defuse the situation, for all our sakes.
“Everyone has doubts now and then,” she said, squeezing my hand fondly. “It’s what makes faith what it is.”
She knelt down beside my chair so that she could put her head on my lap and let me stroke her hair.
“You’re tired and you’ve had a bad day, that’s all. Come to bed and let me make it right.”
“A bad day. Is that how you describe it when someone gets put to death on my call?”
“It wasn’t your call. You talk like nobody else was involved here. There were attorneys and—”
“I can’t excuse the part I played in that man’s death. God knows I’d like to.”
“But God can. That’s the whole point.”
“Maybe there is no God. Maybe that’s the whole point.”
“You don’t believe that, honey. You know you don’t.”
“Don’t I?” I sighed. “Actually, that’s something I think I do believe.”
The Houston FBI building was just outside the Loop—which was what locals called I-610—in the northwest part of the city. Close proximity to our only near neighbor, a Wells Fargo bank, might have made the people there feel a little more secure until you remembered that it was the FBI HQ in Oklahoma City that Timothy McVeigh was targeting when, in 1995, he detonated the bomb that killed 168 people and injured more than six hundred in revenge for what happened at Waco. I can’t answer for Wells Fargo, but our own security was tight. The seven-story FBI building was made from green-tinted quartzite and was clad in a special heat-reducing glass that was also bulletproof. And that’s a comforting thought in a state where people own more than fifty million firearms.
If mentioning this gun-owning statistic seems like my bitching about it, that’s because, like almost everyone in this hard-baked but quick-witted city, I’m from somewhere else. Houston is somewhere you go to, not somewhere you come from, and this is particularly true of people at the FBI. After graduating from the FBI Academy, most of us go where the Bureau tells us, and not where we would necessarily choose. Consequently, Houston is not a city that I or many of my colleagues know well. Not that there’s very much to know. The city of Houston is just a lot of overheated freeways, underground parking lots, roadside churches, air-conditioned shopping malls, isolated and bone-dry parks, country clubs for rich folks, and boxy high-rise buildings. Galveston is less than an hour south by car, but after the last hurricane, it’s hardly better than a ghost town. The Gulf Coast has little to recommend it but the road north back to Houston.
Approaching the shiny downtown skyline, you would shield your eyes against the reflected sun and, while comparing the cityscape to New York’s and Chicago’s, you might just consider that the need for control of city planning is even more urgent than the need for gun control. It was these tall buildings and not anything involving drugs and firearms that were the biggest crimes in Texas; and our own field office was no exception.
Inside, the FBI building has the cool, unhurried air of a museum. There’s even some indifferent modern art, a few behind-glass exhibits, and a gift shop where you can buy everything from an FBI pen or a set of gold FBI cuff links to a coffee mug. Elsewhere there is more or less all that an agent requires to make life more convenient: a barbershop, a hairdresser, a doctor, a dentist, a bank, and, of course, a well-equipped gymnasium. Thanks to Ruth’s father, she and I enjoyed a membership to the Houstonian Club and the use of a gym that was as big as a car factory, but they didn’t like you bringing guns in there. I never much like leaving my gun in the car, even when I’m playing tennis, so I preferred to begin my day with a workout in the office gym and then breakfast in the Bureau canteen. I was usually at my desk before eight-thirty a.m.
We’re a smart-looking lot in the Bureau. Unless we’re in the field, most men wear white shirts and quiet ties, and we polish our shoes and mind our manners, and to that extent we’re still Hoover’s children. The biggest difference from Hoover’s day is the number of women in the Bureau. We call them split-tails on account of the kind of skirts they usually wear. There are more than two thousand women in the FBI, including my own boss, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Gisela Delillo.
Gisela was from North Beach, San Francisco, and another ex-lawyer, like I am. I’m not sure what Hoover would have made of her, but I liked Gisela. Kind of. She was destined for one of the top jobs. As soon as I had collected my files and notes, I went down to her office for an informal weekly case review. She was ten years older than I am, but I’m still young enough to like that in a woman.
Gisela was sitting in the corner of a long leather sofa with her shoes off and her bare legs tucked under her shapely behind. She wasn’t particularly tall, but she had a very tall way of walking, like a ballet dancer with an attitude. Her hair was as black as crow feathers and heaped on top of her head. She looked like Audrey Hepburn’s dirty sister.
She had a cup of coffee balanced on the palm of her hand—a proper little cup with a saucer and a spoon. She took a noisy sip of it and nodded at a neat red espresso machine on her bookshelf.
“You want one?”
I shook my head. “You heard about the Storm Troopers?”
“I read the field report. You must feel terrible.”
“I’ll get over it.”
“That’s why we come to work, isn’t it? Because we’re optimists.”
“Right now my optimism needs glasses. And I’m not just talking about José Samarancho. There’s a lot of hate going around this city. And not enough peace and love. Reminds me. Let’s talk about Deborah Ann Blundy.”
“She’s the Black Liberation Army felon on the Most Wanted, right? Shot and killed a cop in D.C. back in 1975.”
“Since then, she’s been living in Mexico. Only we had a tip-off from someone who used to be in the BLA that she’s living right here in Houston. TheShaft and Super Fly generation of black separatists don’t have much in common with today’s black activists. But it is possible she’ll try to make contact with them. If that happens, I’m confident my source will let me know.”
“Okay. What else?”
“Did you read the E.C. I sent you about the HIDDEN group?”
“Yes. But remind me what it means.”
“Homeland Internal Defense Delivering Enforcement Now.”
“I can’t see that catching on in a hurry.”
“Okay, it’s not NATO or the IRA, but they’re just as serious. They’re all ex-military. They’ve got contacts and they’ve been trained to use the ordnance they’re trying to get ahold of. The Switchblade. Basically, it’s a tactical drone armed with a three-pound warhead and launched from a two-inch-wide tube you carry around in a backpack. You guide it onto the target via a little camera on the drone’s nose. You just fold it out and fire. With a four-foot wingspan, it’s not much bigger than a toy plane. Yours for just ten grand.”
“Who are they gunning for?”
“Seems they’ve got a beef with the Jews. They believe that the Gulf wars were fought at the behest of the Israelis and that all their buddies who were killed in Iraq were the victims of a Jewish conspiracy. It’s anabolic Christianity. Jarheads for Jesus bulked up with anti-Semitism, Internet conspiracy theories, American exceptionalism, and too much protein.”
Gisela sighed and drained her espresso cup. “Sure you won’t have one?”
“I think I will now. Our information is that they’re planning to fire one of these Switchblades at Congregation Beth Israel on North Braeswood Boulevard.”
“That’s a nice area.” Gisela placed a cup under the dispensing nozzle and pressed a button. The machine made a grinding noise and then vomited a stream of dark brown aromatic liquid.
“It is right now.”
“We got this case from RCFL, right?”
Gisela handed me the coffee cup on a saucer with a little napkin and a spoon.
“From Ken Paris?”
The Bureau has more acronyms than Dow Jones. If it didn’t, we’d be there all day and the bad guys would escape while we were still saying Regional Computer Forensics Lab. Ken Paris was a Special Agent at the RCFL, a few blocks north of Justice Park Drive. He and his team of geeks spent nearly all of their time copying data from a variety of digital devices seized in the course of criminal investigations and then analyzing it for evidence.
“Galveston police arrested some kids who were running an illegal service provider out of an old oil tanker moored in Trinity Bay.”
I sipped my coffee and paused for a moment. “They should put that machine of yours on a crash cart at the DeBakey Heart Center. Gives quite a hit, doesn’t it?”
“After Ken had image-scanned all the servers,” I said, “he started going through the accounts of their illegal clients. In addition to a huge amount of Internet porn, he found the HIDDEN website and their e-mails to and from an illegal arms company in Costa Rica. Army CID thinks that maybe these are the same people who stole a consignment of Switchblades from a military warehouse in California.”
“Tell me they don’t yet have this Switchblade.”
“I don’t think they’ve raised enough money. But now that their illegal Internet provider’s gone, I’d like to get a wire on the HIDDEN leader. A guy named Johnny Sack Brown. The only trouble is we think he’s using Skype for all his communications, which is peer-to-peer and offers no central location for us to get a wire on. At least that’s what Vijay in DCS Net is telling me.”
DCS Net was the Bureau’s very own point-and-click surveillance system—simply a matter of choosing a name and telephone number on a computer screen, and clicking a mouse to tap the phone. It worked on landlines and cell phones and provided near high-fidelity digital recordings.
“Now tell me what’s happening with those Earth Liberation Front people.”
I started polishing my spoon; I’d finished the coffee but it helped to keep my fingers busy.
“Get anything out of them?” she asked.
“I don’t think either woman is interested in a plea bargain. I showed them the CCTV footage of them setting fire to the Galveston Island ranger station and the housing development next to the bird sanctuary. They’re both clearly identifiable, but they laughed in my face.”
She nodded. “Okay. Now I’ve got something for you.”
“If it’s another coffee, I don’t think my heart can stand it.”
She shook her head. “When you first came to the Houston field office, you worked Violent Crimes, didn’t you?”
“I haven’t forgotten. I still get the interesting dreams.”
“Gil, I want you to go see Harlan Caulfield. He seems to think there might be some religious aspect to these serial killings.”
“Is Harlan looking to dump this on DT?”
“He’s looking for some new ideas, perhaps.”
“Are you sure about that? The last new idea they liked here in Texas was lethal injection.”
“An irrational attitude directed against any class of citizen could affect your security clearance, Martins. And you might try to remember that Harlan is from Texas.”
Where the fuck is San Saba anyway? Is it near anywhere?”
Harlan Caulfield leaned back in his chair and clasped his big hands behind his pear-shaped head.
“Is it near anywhere? San Saba is the pecan capital of the world, son. Otherwise it has no special characteristics.”
“I’m glad I asked.”
“We’ll make a Texan out of you yet, son.”
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
“How’s your stomach these days?” he asked, coming around the desk. He was holding a PowerPoint wireless presenter in his fingers.
“Are you about to show me some of your clients, sir? Because if you are, I think you need to offer me a caution first. Never did much like the sight of a dead body.”
Harlan grinned. “I knew there was a reason I didn’t like you, Gil Martins.” He sneered. “I’ll tell you when you’re going to see some heavy shit, okay?”
He pressed a button. A series of faces, male and female, appeared on the monitor of his PC.
“Kimberley Gaines, Gil Kever, Brent Youman, Vallie Lorine Pyle, Clarence Burge, Jr.”
But I already knew who and what they were. Their smiling yearbook faces appeared regularly on the front page of theChronicle; these five were the victims of a killer who was still active in the Houston-Galveston metropolitan area—all of them shot dead over the last sixteen months.
“What all of these people have in common is that they were all good people. And I do mean good people. Normally serial killers tend to prey on the weak, the disadvantaged, or the delinquent. But these five were not only upstanding members of the community, they were also a lot more than that.
“Kimberley Gaines was a member of the Unification Church and a registered nurse. A former Peace Corps volunteer, she recently returned from Haiti, where she’d been involved in a relief fund’s cholera treatment center. At the time of her murder, she was about to travel to Somalia as part of a United Nations effort to help the victims of a food crisis in the Horn of Africa.
“Gil Kever was the founder of a drug-and-alcohol rehab center for homeless people here in Houston. He was not a member of any church or faith-based initiative. As well as running the center, he also raised all the money. Two years ago Kever received a humanitarian award from the Texas chapter of the Drug Free America Foundation.
“Brent Youman was America’s only barefoot doctor. In China, where the idea originated, barefoot doctors are essentially farmers with paramedical training who act as primary health care providers at the grassroots level. Brent Youman was a fully qualified M.D. who walked around Texas treating people who couldn’t afford a doctor. Which is probably everyone who isn’t a member of the Houstonian Club.” Harlan frowned. “You’re a member of the Houstonian, aren’t you, Martins?”
“My wife, Ruth,” I said. “She’s the one with all the money. If it wasn’t for her, they would kick my ass out of there.”
Harlan closed his eyes and smiled. “You’ll forgive me if I hold that picture in my mind for a moment.”
I smiled. “Drop by sometime and we’ll have a game of tennis.”
“My days of playing tennis are behind me.” His eyes narrowed. “Brent Youman. Just before his murder, he’d been nominated for some prize for people who have made an outstanding contribution to public health. He won the award posthumously and it was presented in absentia at a special ceremony during the World Health Assembly.”
I shook my head and moved my BlackBerry at right angles to my pen and my notepad; there wasn’t anything really wrong with the way it was lying there before, but I can’t abide my stuff looking any other way than neat and tidy; besides, it was something better to do with my hands.
“Sounds as if he was a helluva guy.”
“You’re beginning to get it. Look, nobody deserves to be murdered. Well, maybe a few. But there are some people whose behavior leads you to suppose that they deserved better than a bullet in the head. Vallie Lorine Pyle and Clarence Burge, Jr., were no different. Vallie Pyle was the founder of Kidneys ‘R’ Us. That’s not a joke, by the way, but an altruistic kidney donation network based here in Houston. Since donating one of her own kidneys to a complete stranger, Vallie Pyle had organized the donation of almost seventy kidneys before she was murdered. Clarence Burge was a Catholic priest from Texas City. After Hurricane Katrina, he gave up the church and set up a construction company to rebuild schools that were destroyed. Working mostly by himself, he succeeded in rebuilding five.”
“What do the behavioral science guys have to say?”
“That the victims were picked because they were morally distinguished. That the perp is someone who hates good people. Or is someone jealous of their goodness, who would like to be good himself.”
“A crime like this makes a lot more sense if the perp thinks of himself as someone evil fighting against the forces of good. A sort of hellfire club, devil’s disciple sort of guy.”
“Which means what?”
“I used to be interested in that kind of shit,” I said. “You know, books about devil worship?”
“Are there any Satanists or devil worshippers around that you know about?”
“Oh, I’m sure there are. This is America and there’s a First Amendment right to practice any kind of religion.”
“I’m not talking about religion, Martins,” said Harlan. “I’m talking about witchcraft and shit like that.”
“Under the First Amendment, anyone has the right to call more or less anything a religion. Today the Salem witches could probably claim protection under the Free Exercise Clause, even if they were guilty. But there aren’t any such groups I know of in Texas that demonstrate predication—whose ideology would make them federal meat. But I can look into it for you, if you like.”
“I’m all out of good ideas on this one. Lousy ones, too, if I’m honest. So, go ahead.”
I collected my stuff off his desk and started to get up from my chair.
“Wait a minute,” said Harlan. “You don’t get to leave until you’ve seen the whole show.”
He picked up the PowerPoint presenter and started to move through some grisly-looking mortuary shots. All of the vics had been shot at close range several times with a small-caliber weapon—that much was plain from the entry wounds in their heads and faces. Brent Youman had taken one bullet through the eye, which had burst out of its socket like an oyster hanging off the edge of its shell. The exit wounds were rather more spectacular; the back of Vallie Pyle’s skull had been blown clean away to reveal a whole damn butcher’s counter of brain and tissue.
“They were all shot with a .22-caliber Walther,” said Harlan. “Firing a flat-nosed short round from a weapon fitted with a Gemtech sound suppressor. He almost always shoots at night or first thing in the morning and operates just out of range of any CCTV cameras.”
“So he doesn’t want to get his picture in the newspaper.”
“Oh, I’ll get him. Even if I have to walk around the city in a nun’s habit singing hymns, I’ll get this sonofabitch.”
I thought about making a joke about that and then flicked the idea away. Harlan was much too unpredictable to meet head-on with a joke about cross-dressing FBI agents.
“I see the first victim was shot on June 29,” I said.
“What about it?”
“It’s the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. In the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, it’s a holy day.”
Harlan handed me a printed sheet of paper. “Any of these other dates mean anything to you?”
I glanced down the list. “No.”
“You a Catholic, Martins?”
“You could call me an atheist who goes to church. Or maybe an agnostic. I don’t know.”
Harlan grinned. “My wife, Molly, is the one who’s sweet on Jesus. I just go along because it’s easier than having an argument and missing Sunday dinner. By the same token, she comes along to see the Astros although she stopped believing in them a long time ago.”
“That’s the kind of atheism it’s easy to understand.”
Harlan let that one go; the case for believing in the Houston Astros was, by any measure, indefensible.
“Which church is it that you go to, son?”
“The hell you say. Lakewood’s my church.” Harlan smiled again. “How come I never saw you there, Martins?”
“That’s a little like asking how come you never see me at the ball game. Astros would be glad of a regular crowd like the one they get at Lakewood.”
“Is that how you and your wife met? At Lakewood?”
“We met as law students at Harvard. We were neither of us particularly religious then. Until we lived in Houston. We started going to Lakewood Church because we were both believers then. Me included. Although in my case, I’ve really forgotten why.”
“Now I get it. You blame Texas for giving her the sweet talk about the Lord’s love, don’t you? She’s got her pussy all wet for Jesus and you figure it’s us who have messed her panties up.”
“Sure you do. It’s as obvious as a turd in a punch bowl.” He shook his head. “Let me tell you something, son. This has got nothing to do with Texas.” Harlan grinned. “Plenty of Texans don’t believe in God. Haven’t you figured it out? That’s why we have so many guns. In case he’s not there.”
In most churches I could have dozed through the Sunday-morning service and no one would have noticed. But Lakewood was an interactive sort of church, and the service was more like a Las Vegas show. It was loud and demanded lots of audience participation, singing or just bouncing with the joy of Jesus. When we’d first started going there, I liked that. But not lately. Personally, I couldn’t have felt less like bouncing if my feet had been nailed to the floor.
By contrast, Ruth was in a state of ecstasy. Her eyes were closed, a beatific smile illuminated her face, and her hands were raised in the air as if she were hoping to catch a few beams of God’s heavenly grace. She was putting her whole being into singing along with the choir and the twenty-piece rock orchestra—aka the Lakewood Church Worship Team—not to mention the huge and rapturous congregation that was also involved in this deafening act of modern worship. The words to all of the Lakewood worship songs—no one called them hymns, because you can’t sell hymns on a ten-dollar CD in the church shop—were streaming onto a giant screen above our heads, but Ruth hardly needed them. She knew the words the way I know a meaningful Miranda warning.
Of course, Ruth was hardly alone in her ecstasy. Near the front of the church, and just a couple of rows behind the pastor and the Barbie with a Bible who was his Alabama rose of a wife, it seemed that everyone was more than a little touched with the Holy Spirit. People were clapping their hands and touching their hearts and punching the air and shouting “Hallelujah!” as if they’d just won the Texas state lottery or sent a third man named Bush to the White House.
Everyone except me, that is. I sat down whenever I felt I could get away with it; and when I was standing, I was smiling a shit-eating grin every time one of my proclaiming neighbors met my shifty eyes. But it was Ruth’s eyes I most wanted to avoid. I sat down and bowed my head and hoped it might be mistaken for prayer.
Feeling an elbow dug in my side, I opened my eyes with a start and met Ruth’s penetrating stare; and satisfied that she now had my attention, she nodded at my crossed leg where the Velcro ankle holster carrying my baby Glock 26 was now fully exposed.
I shrugged sheepishly and placed my feet on the floor so the Glock was no longer in sight, but it was too late; Ruth was shaking her head. I had been judged and found wanting. Especially so on top of the even more inexcusable offense I had given the previous evening. While I was watching the Celtics on TV, Ruth had vacuumed my study and discovered my secret store of carefully arranged but forbidden books. Not a collection of choice pornography, but a small library of “new atheist” authors who argued that religion should not simply be tolerated, but actively exposed as a fraud by rational argument—guys such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Houston’s very own iconoclast, Philip Osborne. Ruth regarded these writers as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
“Honey,” she said, brandishing a copy of God Is Not Great, which I thought the best of all my atheist-porn books, “I can’t believe you’re reading this. I thought ours was a Christian home.”
“Ruth, it is. I see the tithe that leaves my bank account for Lakewood Church every month.”
“Not if you’re reading books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.”
“Do you really think that reading a book by Christopher Hitchens makes you an atheist? Reading the Bible doesn’t make you a Christian. There are plenty of atheists who read the Bible.”
Reluctantly, I turned the sound off on the game to give her my full attention, which I didn’t want to do as the Boston Celtics were my team, but there was now no way of avoiding this discussion. Not any longer. We both knew it was long overdue.
Ruth sighed. “And what if Danny asks you about atheism? And about Charles Darwin. What are you going to tell him?”
“You want to tell him that creationism provides all the answers, then that’s fine by me, that’s exactly what we’ll tell him. I think a kid needs religion when he’s growing up. I mean, I know I did.”
“And when you’re an adult, what? You put away childish things?”
“Look, what I believe is of no real importance here compared with what I am prepared to pay lip service to, for the sake of family harmony.”
“What if I wasn’t here? If I had a car accident and I wasn’t around anymore. What would happen then?”
“In a situation like that, who can say how anyone will react?”
“Is this what you’re telling me?”
“I was watching TV, remember? You’re the one who set this crazy debate into motion.”
“You think it’s crazy to talk about the moral welfare and education of our son?”
“It seems to me we’re having a fight that neither of us can win. After all, you can no more prove the existence of God than I can prove he doesn’t.”
For a moment Ruth looked as if she were trying to swallow something indigestible, and I felt sorry for her because I could see the dilemma she had—that we both had. Whereas before we had loved each other because of what we had in common, it was beginning to look as if we were going to have to love each other in spite of our differences. My own parents had managed this very well. Maybe that’s why I felt that this present difficulty was not at all insurmountable.
Ruth tossed Hitchens’s book onto the La-Z-Boy and went out of the TV room without another word. This suited me fine as the Boston Celtics were now back in front.
But then, right after Sunday-morning service, she started it all up again.
“Well, that was embarrassing,” she said.
“Actually, it wasn’t the gun I was referring to,” she said. “No, you looked like you were a million miles away. That’s what I’m talking about. We used to worship like a family, and I just had to look at you, Gil, to know that your heart was in it, too. But not anymore.”
She was right, of course. And I didn’t need to insult her intelligence by denying it. I sensed another argument was coming my way so it was fortunate Danny was already asleep. After 140 minutes of Lakewood, I could hardly blame him. I was looking forward to a Sunday-afternoon nap on a lounger at the Houstonian Club myself.
“Perhaps if we didn’t sit so close to the front, that might not be so obvious. I’d feel more comfortable if we sat at the back.”
“I like being close to the front,” she said. “It feels like I’m nearer to God.”
“I think God notices the cheap seats, too, don’t you?”
“Maybe we should speak to someone.”
“I don’t think holding hands with a Lakewood prayer partner is going to help, Ruth.”
“All right, then. Perhaps if we prayed together about this, Gil, just you and I. The way we used to pray.”
The last time Ruth and I prayed together had been when we were trying to have a child. Ruth’s idea, not mine. She’d suffered a miscarriage and took happy pills for a long time after that. She also experienced difficulty in becoming pregnant again, and she eventually thought the Lord might be of some assistance. This was what got us both going to Lakewood. We went to church and we prayed for another baby, although when I say we prayed for another baby we didn’t just do it in church, we prayed in bed, too. Whenever we made love, we would ask the Lord for his blessing, and there’s nothing quite as unerotic as that: the whole sex-prayer thing more or less killed our sex life. Having Jesus in bed with the two of us gave me a real problem and obliged me to take Viagra in secret, which is probably the only reason she got pregnant at all—but for Ruth, Danny was the miracle that proved God’s existence. Since then, we’ve been pretty regular at Lakewood. Which is more than I can say about our sex life.
“I’m certainly willing to give prayer a shot,” I said reluctantly.
Ruth sighed loudly. “What prompted you to read those books anyway?”
I shrugged and shook my head, although I knew perfectly well. I had started flirting with atheism more than a year ago, around the same time I had started an affair with a certain lovely Profiling Coordinator in Washington, D.C., where I had been given a temporary duty assignment. Ruth had chosen to remain behind with Danny. The Profiling Coordinator’s name was Nancy Graham, and she and I had met after a debate at Georgetown University—the subject of the debate was “There’s No Point in Praying,” and the two antagonists were the British journalist and antitheist Peter Ekman (for the motion) and the former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Mocatta (against the motion). Ruth knew about the Profiling Coordinator because I had stupidly told her and, for that very same reason, I hardly wanted to bring up the subject of Washington and the TDA again.
Ruth never ever mentioned Nancy Graham. But I knew the affair had hurt her deeply, and instead of seeking out a divorce lawyer as another woman might have done, Ruth had taken refuge in her religious faith. The affair was over, and I was deeply sorry for what had happened, and Ruth said that she had forgiven me for it, but I knew that the pain of my having had an affair was never far from my wife’s thoughts.
You might think that Texans are violent. Not a bit of it. The high incidence of gun ownership gives people some useful pause for thought. Most Texans are friendly, well-adjusted folk, endlessly hospitable and always polite. By contrast, the Scots are preternaturally aggressive. Many would pick a fight with a brick wall, which happens more than you might think. Scotland is the most violent place I’ve ever been. There’s something in the air, perhaps, that makes Scotland one massive fight club. If gun ownership was as easy in Scotland as it is in Texas, the population would soon be decimated.
When my family left Scotland in 1990, the country was in one respect not much different from the Scotland of 1590 because it was divided by religion into two bellicose and bigoted camps—Protestant and Roman Catholic. In this ancient feud it always mattered more what you were than who you were and, at the sharp end of the divide, things were every bit as bitter as anything in Northern Ireland. But while religious hatred was as deep as in that other conflict, the violence in Scotland was usually limited to the fierce tribal rivalries that continue to exist between Scotland’s largest football teams—both of them based in Glasgow—Rangers and Celtic. At “Old Firm” matches between these two teams the strictly segregated fans now hurl insults at one another where once they hurled rocks and bottles. But God forbid that you should be a Rangers fan who finds himself astray in Celtic territory or vice versa; and in such circumstances murder is not uncommon. For many decades sectarian football violence has been Scotland’s dirty secret and few of the tourists visiting there ever have any idea of the horrors that lurk underneath my home country’s threadbare and bloody kilt. I exaggerate, of course, but only a little. Then again, I am completely and utterly biased. And now let me explain why.
My father, Robert, is an orthopedic surgeon and, until his retirement last year, was a professor of orthopedic surgery at Tufts Medical Center. Prior to this, he was a surgeon at Glasgow Royal Infirmary and perhaps the leading Scottish specialist in the field of sports injuries. In 1988, when I was twelve years old, my father—a fairly prominent Roman Catholic—treated a famous footballer named Peter Paisley for a chronic knee injury that threatened to end his career. Paisley, a Protestant, played for Rangers Football Club. Following several operations, Paisley returned to the team and helped Rangers win the Scottish Football League title for four years in a row; but not before my father had received death threats from aggrieved Celtic supporters, not to mention an explosive device that almost blew off his hand.
I didn’t find out about the bomb until we had left Scotland forever, but I remember coming out of our house one morning to find my father’s Jaguar covered in graffiti. Soon after that, my parents and I, and my three brothers and two sisters, went to live in Boston where my dad had wisely accepted the position at Tufts. He has never returned to Scotland and probably never will.
The move was something of a wrench for us all. And it was only later that I was able to see how being a Catholic had defined me in the eyes of my Scottish friends. Of course, none of this mattered in Boston, and my religion soon seemed less important as I learned to think of myself not as a Scot, or a Scottish-American, or even a Catholic, but as just an American; in the USA what seemed to matter more than where I was from or what religion I practiced was where in life I was going.
After we came to Boston, my father stopped being a Catholic altogether.
After graduating from Boston College and Harvard Law, I went to work as an intern with a firm of New York lawyers, DLB&B, but I was already coming to the conclusion that I was more interested in working in law enforcement than in becoming an attorney. Nine-eleven only underlined that. DLB&B’s offices were in the old WTC 7, which was badly damaged when the North Tower of the WTC collapsed; it caught fire and fell some six or seven hours later, by which time I was quite certain that I wanted to serve my country in some way. The following Monday I put in an application to join the FBI.
After Quantico, I had four years working in Counterterrorism in NYC. All we did was work to make America safe. I even learned to speak Arabic. I can speak the language reasonably well—although my Italian is better—but I found it hard to read and write, which is what the Bureau wanted most: agents who could read intelligence documents in the language, so that was that. The Bureau always figures it knows best where a man’s talents really lie. And in 2008 the Bureau sent me to Texas to work in Domestic Terrorism.
After more than ten years with the Bureau, however, I’m still just a Supervisory Special Agent and nothing more. Fact is, I might be an ASAC right now if only I’d been willing to work in the Chief Division Counsel’s office, but being a lawyer with a badge wasn’t why I joined the Bureau. My boss, Gisela, is an ASAC—an Assistant Special Agent in Charge—and so is Harlan Caulfield; but the field office boss, the Special Agent in Charge, is Chuck Worrall, who doesn’t like me at all. And maybe, if I am being honest here, it’s not just because I didn’t want to work in the CDC’s office.
You see, Chuck is from Washington, and he was previously Nancy Graham’s boss. After our affair was over, Nancy Graham resigned from the FBI and it’s my opinion that Chuck held me responsible for the loss of a very promising agent.
From Lakewood we went to the Houstonian Club, where Danny went down the water slide and Ruth swam fifty laps. Ruth is a beautiful swimmer, very elegant, with a flip turn a dolphin would be proud of. I sat under an umbrella and read a newspaper and watched the other guys around the pool watching Ruth. She’s worth a look. In her swimsuit she has a physical grace and a presence that always reminds me of an Olympic athlete.
When Ruth was through swimming, she came and lay next to me under the umbrella. She played with the hair on my chest while I stroked her head. Ruth is a very loving woman. It’s not her who has the sexual problem, it’s me. It’s said that most men prefer their wives to be a lady in public and a whore in the bedroom. Well, I’ve got a saint in the bedroom, the kitchen—pretty much everywhere you can think of. You try fucking a saint. What else do you call it when the minute after you’ve fucked someone they start reading the Bible or saying their goddamn prayers?
When we arrived back at Driscoll Street, Ruth made meat loaf. After dinner, I played an Xbox game with Danny and put him to bed; then I watched TV and fell asleep in my chair. I didn’t hear the telephone ring, but Ruth answered it in case it was the Bureau. It wasn’t uncommon for the office to ring on the weekend given the DT caseload, but it wasn’t the office, although I might have wished it was.
“It’s Bishop Coogan,” she said, handing me the telephone.
It had been months since Eamon Coogan and I had spoken, and while I was surprised to have him call me, I tried to look more surprised than I was. This little pantomime was for Ruth’s benefit as I hoped to avoid a scene with her the moment the call was over; I guessed she would assume his call was connected with my earlier declaration of disbelief and that I had already tried to bring my doubts about God to the bishop. I pressed the speakerphone button on the handset so she could hear all of our conversation in the hope it might save me the trouble of a denial.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you on a Sunday evening, Gil. I was hoping I could ask you to come and see me. In private. There’s something important I’d like to discuss with you. I know it’s short notice, and you’re probably very busy, but would now be possible?”
I glanced instinctively at my watch. It was already seven-thirty.
“Nothing’s happened back in Boston, has it?”
“No, no. Nothing like that, Gil. It’s something I need to ask you about in your capacity as a federal agent.”
The bishop was South Boston Irish and, despite his having lived in Houston for several years, some of his vowels sounded as wide as the Charles River. When he said “ask,” he sounded like JFK.
“Yes, sir. But would you mind telling me what it’s about?”
“It’s hardly a subject for the phone, I think. Come over to the bishop’s residence in an hour. Just sound your horn and I’ll come out. I was thinking, perhaps, we could go over to O’Neill’s.”
It was just like Eamon Coogan to suggest that we go to an Irish bar.
“All right. I’ll be there in an hour.”
I rang off and looked at Ruth.
“What do you suppose that’s all about?”
“If you ask me,” said Ruth—much to my irritation, she could always mimic a Southie accent perfectly—“it’s perfectly obvious what it’s about.”
“It can only be about pedophile priests.”
“You don’t think it goes on here, just like in Boston and Chicago?”
I put my arms around her waist and kissed her back. For a while, she let it happen and then pushed me gently away.
“God, I hope that’s not what it’s about,” I said, wrinkling my nose with disgust. “It’s really not something I feel comfortable talking about. He’s my mother’s oldest friend.”
Brian O’Neill’s bar was the only Irish pub I’d ever seen with two palm trees out front, but inside things were more authentically Celtic, with the best draught Guinness in the city and perhaps the worst service anywhere west of Dublin. The place was popular enough, although, even by Texas standards, most of the bar’s customers looked as if they could have survived a couple of Irish potato famines.
No less in size was Bishop Coogan, who made any room he was in look small. He was sitting in a very fat-old-womanish way, all chubby-fingered and splay-legged, with the sleeves of his huge black jacket rolled up over his forearms and the waistband of his equally enormous black trousers riding just under his armpits. The priest’s collar around his neck was almost invisible under his chins. He looked like a sumo wrestler at a wake.
I set a second tray of drinks down on the table in front of him and one of the whiskies instantly disappeared. Now that our small talk about Scotland and Northern Ireland was exhausted, I was impatient for him to get to the point. I was especially intrigued by the old duffel bag he had brought with him.
“So, Bishop, what’s in the bag? Is it guns you’re bringing me or the loot from the Woodforest National Bank robbery? The Buick that’s parked on the drive in front of your house looks like the getaway car on that one.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Gil, but it’s just a lot of newspaper clippings, a couple of books, and some printouts off the Internet. One way or the other, I seem to be spending a lot of time on the Internet these days.”
“You and me both, sir.”
“The papers and the books are for you.”
Coogan unzipped the bag and handed me a paperback book titled All the Possible Gods. The author was Philip Osborne. As soon as I saw it, I laughed.
“Only an hour or two ago Ruth was giving me hell for reading this book. And several others like it.”
“Oh? Such as?”
“Dawkins, Hitchens, Peter Ekman.” I shrugged. “Sam Harris, Dan Barker, Daniel Dennett . . .”
Coogan chuckled. “That’s virtually the whole pantheon of disbelief you have there.”
“Why the hell do you want to give me this book?”
“Philip Osborne is a friend of mine,” said Bishop Coogan. “Or at least he was.”
“You say that like he’s dead.”
“He might as well be. He’s confined to the Harris County Psychiatric Center here in Houston. I visited him a few days ago and spoke with his doctors who described to me a case of psychogenic malignant catatonia resulting in permanent cognitive impairment. They’ve concluded there must be actual damage to the frontal lobe of his brain, although there’s absolutely no identifiable trauma that might normally have caused such a state of mental breakdown.”
Coogan’s familiarity with all these medical terms impressed me, at least until I remembered that before becoming a priest, Coogan had been a medical student at Tufts in Boston, where he had been taught by my father.
“So he didn’t fall and nobody hit him,” I said. “But you’re going to tell me what did happen.”
“I’m not sure I am. But I’d like to tell you what I know, Gil. And why I wanted to talk to you about it.”
“Go ahead, but”—I shrugged—“I don’t see how I can help. At the FBI we have jurisdiction over violations of federal law. And so far I can’t see there’s anything federal here. If you want, I can put you in touch with the right people in the Houston Police Department.”
“Fidelity, bravery, and integrity,” said Coogan. He was quoting the Bureau’s motto. “Perhaps I should go ahead and add patience to that little trio of the better human qualities.” He laid his hand on the book. “It’s not a bad book at all. As a matter of fact, it was me who gave him that title. Or at least recommended it as a title.”
“All the Possible Gods?”
“It’s from a quote by Stephen Roberts. He’s another of your so-called new atheists. As if they make any more sense than the old atheists.”
“I think that perhaps I’m not as patient as you think I am, Eamon.” I looked at my watch pointedly.