Saturday, July 12, 2014

“Tidying Up,” a short story by Chris Laing

After the funeral, Father Bernie Murphy sat in his usual place beside the Bishop’s armchair, which was filled to the brim with the Bishop himself, wagging a stubby finger at him.  “I’m counting on your discretion, Father.”
            “Of course, Your Excellency, but a few more details might help.”
            The Most Reverend Francis X. Brody directed a sharp glance at his youthful assistant, rearranged his bulk in his complaining La-Z-Boy and reached for his rye and water.
            Father Murphy remained silent and relaxed.
            Finally, his boss continued.  “Police were up there and interviewed the housekeeper, spoke to some parishioners, examined the ladder, etcetera.  Death due to misadventure, they concluded.  Apparently he fell repainting the rectory.  Imagine – at his age.”
            “He had a reputation for being frugal, Excellency.  I’ve heard that Father Lipinski even donated his monthly stipend to his parish.”  Father Murphy made a show of surveying the Bishop’s luxurious surroundings: leather furniture and Persian carpets. 
            “Humph,” from the old man.
            The young priest studied his Bishop, waiting in vain for a clue to his special interest in Father Lipinski’s death. “I’ll leave first thing in the morning, Excellency.”
            The Bishop extended his empty glass, motioning for a refill.  “Just snoop around, Bernie.  Tidy up. Make sure there are no … loose ends.”

Now off the main highway, Bernie slowed through Bridgetown, population 330.  He passed Hemingway’s general store where two women loaded their pick-up with supplies; one of them waved.  In the next block he located St. Mary’s Church; an old guy in coveralls weeding a rose bed stopped and stared at Bernie as he parked at the rectory.  He didn’t wave. 
            Bernie remained in his car, pondering the outwardly simple life of Father Stan Lipinski, still puzzled about the Bishop’s intentions in having him snoop around.  To his knowledge, the rumours about Stan and his housekeeper had been cleared up, so it couldn’t be that.
            Then he checked his image in the rearview.  Maybe too slick for the country, so he ruffled his hair.  He debated removing his roman collar, decided to leave it in place.  On the porch, he rang the bell, wondering, was there a loose end here?
            Bernie took stock of the attractive woman who opened the door, releasing the aroma of freshly-baked bread, all the more tantalizing because he’d skipped breakfast.  Mid-forties, he guessed, wearing tight jeans and a man’s white shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows and a yellow apron imprinted with Mickey Mouse ears. Her strong hands were white with flour, some of which streaked across her brow.  She wiped one hand on her apron, extending it to Bernie with a tight smile.  “Been expecting you, Father.  I’m Mary Rogers.  Come in.”
            She led Bernie into a reception room: stiff-backed chairs, threadbare carpet, a crucifix on the wall and a portrait of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus clutching a bouquet of red roses – the only color in this monk’s cell.  “Make yourself comfortable,” she said.  “Tea’s just made.” 
            Bernie watched her bustle away and raised an eyebrow at the undulation of her hips.  For his benefit? 
            Back in a clatter of teacups, she set a tray on the chair between them and offered a plate of chocolate chip cookies.
He gave her a Father Murphy smile, as sincere as he could make it.  “The Bishop’s concerned for you, Mrs. Rogers.  And your son, of course.  He wants you to know that a new pastor will be appointed soon.  And your job here is secure.”
            “That’s very kind of the Bishop.  Tell him we’re grateful.”  Her shoulders relaxing now.  “And call me Mary.”
            Bernie set his cup on the tray and leaned forward in his confidential pose.  “Tell me about Father Stan.”
            Mary stood abruptly, strode to the window and gazed in silence toward the church.
Eventually, as though in a trance, she spoke of a young husband who’d deserted her before their son was born.  And Father Lipinski’s many kindnesses over the years: her job, her small apartment in the rectory basement, his concern for her boy.  “Stan was a wonderful man, Father.  My son and I will miss him.”
            She resumed her seat and poured more tea.  Her words were those of a grieving woman, but to Bernie there was something else behind them.  It was only two days after Father Lipinski’s burial and she didn’t have that red-eyed, listless demeanor you often saw in the grief-stricken.  He also noted the faint yellow marks along her neck, nearly hidden by her shoulder-length hair.  And now he wondered if the rumors about Stan and his housekeeper hadn’t been cleared up after all.
            “Did he do all the maintenance himself?  Here in the rectory?”
            “Oh, indeed he did, Father.  He was quite a handy man.”

Sergeant Lantz met Bernie at the snack bar in the Bridgetown Inn overlooking the river along the main highway.  “It’s not part of my regular patrol, Father, but I live here in town so I caught the call.   I’m a member of St. Mary’s parish, too.  Poor Father Stan … best priest we ever had.  Helluva shame, that accident.  Told him he was getting too old for that kind of work.”  He slurped his coffee.  “And he was great with the young people.  Had a real touch.”
            Bernie had taken him through the details, the emergency call from the housekeeper, examination of the body and the ladder, the doctor’s report.  “Damn tragedy, Father.  A misstep on a ladder and a good man is taken from us.”
            Next, Bernie drove the fourteen miles to the Upton Regional Hospital where he met Dr. Chalmers the medical director, who’d signed the death certificate.  “I’m also the coroner for this region,” Chalmers said.  “I attended the scene myself.  Cause of death was obviously the broken neck he suffered in his fall.”  He tucked away the business-end of his stethoscope escaping from his coat pocket and leaned back in his chair.  “Such a tragedy.  Father Lipinski was popular, his death leaves a big hole in this community.”
            Bernie left the doctor’s office and took the elevator to the hospital’s top floor where he tapped on the door labelled “Director General”. 
            Sister Norbert was the superior of the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph and she ran this hospital.  “It’s so good to see my favourite nephew again, Bernie.”   She linked her arm through his, pecked him on the cheek and led him to a comfy couch.    Sister fussed over him, brought him a cup of coffee and settled down beside him. 
            Bernie patted her arm.  “Shame about Father Stan’s accident.”
            Sister Norbert drew back a little.  “Yes.”  She paused.  “I hope he made peace with his Maker.”
            Bernie held her gaze, appraising this long-time associate of the Bishop.  “I need a little favour.”
            She squinted at him.  “That Bishop’s got you up to some of his mischief, hasn’t he?  Now don’t try to bamboozle me, Bernie.  We’ve been friends too long for that.” 
            He grinned.
            “What do you really want?”
            It took some convincing but down in the medical records room, Sister Norbert slipped him the files he requested.  He read them cover to cover and thanked her. 
            As he drove the fourteen miles back to the rectory, the image of Father Stan Lipinski tumbling from the ladder kept him company.  And he thought: maybe it was time to remove the velvet gloves.

They sat at the kitchen table and waited while the cabbage rolls she’d offered for lunch warmed up.   
“I read the medical files at the hospital,” Bernie said.
            Mary Rogers frowned.  “I thought those records were private.”
            Bernie flipped his hand back and forth, then leaned forward.  “How’s your son doing?”
            She glared at him. “Leave him out of this.”           
            “About the ladder, Mary.  Someone might’ve … tampered with it.”
            She checked the timer on the stove, fingers tapping on the table.
            “Someone with a strong motive to stop Father Stan’s activities.”
            No response, her fingers still in motion.
            “And when that someone’s son was – ”
            “Enough!”  Mary’s eyes flashed like gun-fire, but she waited until her breathing slowed.  “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

It was late evening when Bernie parked at the chancery office and made his way to the Bishop’s residence.  “Sorry to be so late,” he told the old man.
            The Bishop waved away his apology and made a help-yourself motion toward the bar.  When Bernie had seated himself, the Bishop eyed his young assistant.  “Tell me.”
            “You might’ve given me more of his history, Excellency.”
            “Better you had an open mind.”
            Bernie paused.  “Mary Rogers won’t talk – it’s not in her interest."
            A nod from the Bishop.
            “But Sister Norbert is suspicious.”
             Bishop Brody massaged his sagging jowls.  “Nothing worse than a nosy nun,” he said.  A long sigh leaked out of him.  “Can we control this?  I’d be in your debt.”
            A fox’s smile twitched at the corners of Bernie’s mouth.  “Of course, Excellency.” 

Chris Laing is a native of Hamilton, Ontario. His first novel, A Private Man, was published by Seraphim Editions in 2012 and was a Finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award, Best First Crime Novel, for the Bloody Words Bony Blithe Award and for a Hamilton Arts Council Literary Award.  A Deadly Venture is the second novel in the Max Dexter Mystery Series and will be released by Seraphim Editions in Fall, 2014. 

His short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Hammered Out as well as a number of online journals. (See here, here, and here.)   His collection of short stories about growing up in Hamilton during World War II, West End Kid: Tales from the Forties, was self-published in 2013 and is available as an e-book here. Chris now lives in Kingston, Ontario, with his wife, artist Michèle LaRose.

See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Niagara on the Lake, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Stouffville, Sudbury, Toronto, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.  

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