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Murder On The Mind
Murder On The Mind 46
* * *
We were late. The ham was in the oven and I already had my coat on, when Richard remembered the candy he’d bought Brenda two days before. I didn’t mind the delay. If we missed the beginning of the Mass, it wouldn’t be a tragedy.
Richard had the Lincoln waiting in the driveway when Brenda and I came out of the house. As usual, I got in the back seat. A funny feeling crept through me as I fastened my seat belt and the car started down the drive.
“Wait a minute, Rich.”
He braked. “You forget something?”
“Something’s not right.” I looked up and down the street, but I didn’t know what to look for. Tire tracks gouged the lawn in front of the hedge. Was my unease tied to the car that nearly hit me—could’ve killed me—the night before?
“We’re already late,” Brenda reminded us.
Something lurked nearby. Something. . . .
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”
He started off toward Main Street. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should be wary, but I didn’t know why and tried to ignore it.
“Did you read the newspaper article on the Basilica, Jeffy?” Brenda asked.
“Nope. Don’t know a thing about it.”
“It’s called Our Lady of Victory Basilica,” Richard said. “Only a few cities in the U.S. are so graced by a basilica.”
“So how did one end up in Lackawanna?” I asked.
“It was built with the pennies of Polish immigrants back in the nineteen twenties,” Richard lectured, “and was the dream of Father Nelson H. Baker, who headed the Homes of Charity. An orphanage, home for unwed mothers—that kind of stuff. He wanted to build a shrine to the Blessed Virgin.”
“Kinda snowballed, huh?” I said.
“A basilica is one step up from a cathedral,” he agreed. “Anyway, since building a big church isn’t a miracle, the Vatican couldn’t make him a saint, which is what the locals wanted, so he was posthumously given the title of Apostle of Charity. Decades after his death, he’s still revered.”
“Did you make all that up?” Brenda asked, giving him the fish-eye.
“No. I went online and read it.”
Brenda scowled. “Sounds more like you memorized it for a sixth-grade oral report.”
“She’s just astounded at your phenomenal memory, Rich.”
“Naturally,” he agreed as we stopped for a red light. Traffic was light, but I looked around anyway, searching for . . . I don’t know what. I still had that uneasy feeling in my gut. Probably the placek.
We arrived at the Basilica about fifteen minutes late for the Mass. The church’s large parking area was full on Christianity’s number one holy day, so we left the car on the street. The rain had ended, but the skies were still threatening. Braving the gloom, we walked the block or so and entered the main entrance.
The Basilica was packed. The fire marshals would’ve had a field day if they made a spot inspection. The pews, and every square inch of floor space, were jammed. To sit, we should’ve arrived an hour or more before the Mass.
I felt dwarfed by the soaring ceiling overhead, awed by the church’s grandeur and sense of holiness. The newspaper hadn’t exaggerated the amount of gilding, frescoes, and stained glass that seemed to decorate every square inch of walls and ceiling. Life-sized marble statues representing the stations of the cross lined the right and left aisles. The choir was situated somewhere high above us, at the back of the church, sounding like the proverbial heavenly host, and accompanied by a magnificent pipe organ. An usher bustled us down the left aisle, directing us to stop under the station of the cross titled: “Jesus Meets His Afflicted Mother.”
“Wow, this place is gorgeous,” Brenda whispered, and received a stern shush from Richard.
The singing stopped and the priest began to speak. I studied the altar and the oversized statue of Our Lady of Victory, her arm wrapped protectively around Jesus, depicted as a small boy. It reminded me of little Jackie . . . or Jimmy. No one had protected him from the terrors of life.
The priest droned on. It would take a long time just to get through Communion. Coming here had not been a good idea.
The air was close. I started to feel claustrophobic. As the choir broke into song, the woman beside me dropped her umbrella. I stooped to pick it up when a sharp ping sent marble shards flying from the mantle only inches from my head. I whirled to see Sharon Walker sixty feet from me across the church. Still dressed in the grubby jogging suit and a lavender ski jacket, her arms were extended in front of her, clasping a handgun, her eyes feral.
The muzzle flashed and Richard shoved me, knocking me into the woman beside me.
The choir still sang as bedlam erupted. Worshipers screamed, crashing into each other, struggling to escape. Sharon shouldered her way through the panicked crowd, heading for the back exit.
Stunned, I looked around. Richard was on his back, his beige raincoat stained scarlet. Brenda jerked with his tie, fumbling to open his shirt. “Call 911,” she screamed. “Call 911!”
I fell to my knees. “Rich?”
“She must’ve followed us—” he gasped, already deathly pale. “Don’t let her . . . get away.”
Torn, I didn’t know what to do. The singing had stopped, replaced by terrified screams reverberating around the vaulted ceiling.
“Brenda’ll take care of me. Go!” Richard said.
His fingers clutched our mother’s rosary. I gave his hand a squeeze and pulled away.
Then I was on my feet—smashing into people, pushing past them, heading for where I’d last seen Sharon, relying entirely on my newly awakened sixth sense.
She hadn’t gotten away. People jammed the exit to the parking lot, but I turned left, away from the crowd, heading down the stairs and into the church basement.
Sharon had bypassed the bottleneck upstairs, planning to cut through the warren of rooms under the main floor and get out the Basilica’s front entrance. I had to stop her. Not because the police wouldn’t eventually catch up with her—but because she’d shot my brother. If he died, I’d kill her myself—my own brand of justice.
I had nothing left to lose. I was tired of being a victim.
Dodging into the open doorway, I took in the rows of pews that faced a lectern in the large white empty space.
I ducked to the right into the ladies’ room.
I didn’t check the stalls—I’d lived with her aura for weeks. I could almost smell her.
The door at the far end of the long corridor was closed—locked? She was trapped.
What about her gun? In westerns, a handgun held six rounds. What make did she have? How much ammo did it carry? She’d fired twice. Was it a semi-automatic? Did she have a full clip?
A sign over the open doorway read: Father Baker’s Rooms. I crossed the threshold, the floor changing from white ceramic tiles to dated green-and-yellow asphalt squares. The bedlam upstairs masked my movements. I was close—the hairs on the back of my neck acting like radar.
“Give it up, Sharon! I’ve already been to the police. They know you were blackmailing Matt. They know about the lab report. They know Jackie is Rob’s son, not Matt’s.”
I ducked behind the wall. Now all I had to do was keep her talking until the police arrived. For all I cared, they could take her out with a SWAT team.
“You told Matt you named your son John Matthew after him because he promised to help you with expenses. In return, you said you wouldn’t tell his wife. But something went wrong. He told you he wouldn’t give you any more money.”
“He owed us—he was Jackie’s father.”
“Grandfather!” I corrected.
Bang. Another shot slammed the mahogany woodwork.
“You’re bluffing! You have no proof!”
“I know about the letter from the lab that tested Jackie’s hair. The cops know, too.”
/> “And they know about Claudia. You figured with her out of the way, Jackie would get his fair share of Matt’s estate. You wanted Matt’s money.”
“He owed it to us. He ruined our business.”
“You ruined it with bad management.”
I tried another tack. “You followed me here.”
“How’d you find me?”
“Rob’s brother-in-law is a cop. He tapped into the DMV files for your address.”
“You did everything right until today. I knew you killed Sumner, so you came after me. But you were stupid to try it in such a public place.”
Five down. What if she had another clip? Dumb move. If I was smart, I’d just wait her out—I had all the time in the world.
But Richard didn’t.
All that blood. . . .
My anger flared. “You shot my brother, you stupid bitch.”
“Like I care. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“What about your son?”
No answer. She hadn’t considered the boy. Maybe she never had. She’d killed Sumner in front of little Jackie.
Realization hit: the woman was crazy. Not temporarily deranged, as defense attorneys love to claim, but certifiably insane. I’d touched her madness the day before and never even recognized it.
“You tried to run me down last night, didn’t you?”
“You played right into Rob’s hands. Did he tell you to come after me?”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Rob told you about me, knowing you’d try some asshole stunt. He wanted you to get caught.”
“Rob cares about me—he loves me.”
“Then why’d he marry Linda? Why didn’t he tell Matt that Jackie was his son? How come he’s never helped you raise the boy? Because he doesn’t give a shit about you or his kid!”
Then it hit me: Sharon had only ever loved one person. Someone who’d loved her in return.
“What would your father say about all you’ve done?”
Her anger rose—I could feel it.
“He was so proud of you. But you let his company fail. Then you tried to save it by sleeping with your fiancé’s father. You got knocked up by Rob, and told his father the child was his. When he found out the truth, he cut off the money. So you murdered him—right in front of Jackie!”
“Then when I found out, you tried to kill me, but you botched it by missing me and shooting someone else—in front of hundreds of witnesses. Now you’re trying for thirds. Stupid, stupid, stupid!”
“Shut the fuck up!”
“It’s a good thing Jim Walker’s already dead, because this would’ve killed him!”
She fired six times.
The hammer clicked onto an empty chamber.
I flew into the side corridor, tackling her, slamming her onto the spotless floor as she struggled to reload.
The gun went skittering.
She dived for it, dragging me with her.
Though shorter than me, she was stronger, with two good arms. I grappled to hang on, but her legs flailed and she clipped me on the jaw. Stars exploded before my eyes. I couldn’t let her get that gun, but I was tiring. She kicked me loose and scrambled for the gun.
Sirens wailed. Police or ambulance?
On my knees, I dove for her back as she scooped up the gun. Grabbing a fistful of her short hair, I body slammed her—smashed her face-first into the floor. Blood spattered the gaudy tiles and she wailed, struggling to buck me loose.
I rammed her skull against the floor again and again, running on autopilot until her struggles subsided. She lay still, panting, as blood puddled around her battered face. I grabbed her gun, checked the clip.
I staggered to my feet, wiping sweat from my eyes. My broken arm ached and I swayed, afraid I’d pass out.
Running footsteps thundered. A uniformed cop popped into the open doorway, his service revolver aimed right at my face.
“Freeze! Put the gun on the floor. Now!”
With exaggerated care, I did as he said.
“Flat on the ground!” he ordered.
It took no persuasion—my knees buckled. Seconds later, he had me spread-eagled on the floor, patting me down. He wrenched my arm.
“Watch it, it’s broken! I’m wearing a brace. She shot my brother upstairs. She killed Matt Sumner.”
More running footsteps—the rest of the troops had arrived.
I closed my eyes.