Official Site of Author Robert S. Levinson








Home
Back
About Bob
Meet Bob Events
Quote / Unquote
Photo Album
Interviews
Links of Note

 

Google

ASK A DEAD MAN
By Robert S.Levinson

PROLOGUE
Always the same dream.

Milly O'Malley's pub is just the way she last saw it that dismal Belfast evening, a fake castle full of false gaiety, the locals inside working overtime to deny the reality of the frequent deaths on the narrow cobblestone streets outside.

The chilling breeze at her back will turn colder than a British soldier's stare and cut clear to the bone later, when they finally shepherd her home, but now it surrenders to the warmth of camaraderie as she pushes past the swinging doors and takes comfort from the tobacco clouds and stale lager air and the thick crowd of locals drinking, bragging over darts and warm beer, having a laughing good time, as if all of life were easy and uncomplicated.

From the ancient jukebox against the rear wall, next to the drawn curtains that hide a short corridor leading to the toilet and the back entrance, U2 is somehow making it sound like happier times.

The kitten cradled in her arms stirs to the music and makes a noise as she acknowledges a finger salute and a smile from eager-faced Danny O'Malley behind the time-scarred bar.

She starts sweeping the room with her eyes, briefly wondering about the solitary drinker at the bar, a stranger, sitting in a way that gives him an overview. He wears a blank expression and a frayed hounds tooth jacket and is trying to fit in.

She catches him staring at her.

He averts her gaze by diving his eyes inside his beer mug. After another moment, he sets down the mug on the counter and wipes his prominent lips with the back of his hand.

The regulars at the tables pushed tight in the center have noted her arrival and, as usual, are not being the least shy about exploring her lean, athletic body or passing fractured smiles and side of the mouth whispers shielded by their cupped hands.

She knows how pleasing they find her and wears their inspection with a barely disguised pride while searching about for Frankie.

In another moment, she spots him, leading five other lads in heavy conversation at a somber, back corner table. His face is in three-quarter profile and he is unaware of her arrival, lost in the intensity of his words.

Even in the bad overhead light, Frankie shines as her own beautiful boy.

As she plays with the thought, the Drinker crosses in front of her, heading for Frankie's table. He stops a foot or two away, hands resting in the pockets of his jacket, and quietly waits to be noticed.

One of the lads nudges Frankie, who turns away from the group and stares up at the Drinker. His smile is offhanded. The man responds with his own tense, tight grin as he casually pulls a Luger from his pocket and fires without aiming.

The bullet smacks into Frankie, knocking him backward over his chair and onto the floor.

Except for her screaming, the harsh sound of the shot has killed every other noise in the pub. The kitten springs from her arms, lands on its feet, and hurries to Frankie.

The Drinker is striding away, heading for the front door, holding the Luger in a way that says he's ready to use it again.

She is incapable of movement as he brushes by her, but only for an instant.

She wheels around and charges after him.

In a single motion, the Drinker turns and uses the barrel of the Luger to smack her aside.

She stumbles sideways, trips, and falls awkwardly onto the sawdust covered wooden floor. She shakes her head clear and forces her eyes open in time to see him disappear through the swinging doors.

The bartender hurries to her side, gets down on his knees and reaches for her hand, his words assuring both of them that she'll be just fine and not to worry. She looks past her shoulder and sees the kitten licking blood off Frankie's hand. One of the lads picks it up by the scruff of its neck and then doesn't quite know what to do with it.

Another lad heads in her direction, while the three others take hold of Frankie and speed him out past the drawn curtain alongside the jukebox. Sinead O'Connor is singing something she has heard a million times before but, right now, doesn't know by name.

She wants to run after them, after Frankie, but she can't make her body work. Her mouth is open, but she can't put words to her thoughts. There is more to see, but her eyes no longer cooperate.

Always the same dream.

Always, she wakens to the same old sweat and confusion of a new life without Frankie.

* * * * *

Hardly three weeks after the shooting, Frankie's older brother, Liam, comes calling on her, his cap in hand, a crack in his voice, tears staining his cheeks, like he really cares about their loss or her suffering.

Finally, unable to contain herself, she explodes. "Stow it, Liam. I'm not up for your kind of truth."

"Which is what, Bright Eyes?"

Liam knows how much she hates hearing him use one of Frankie's pet names for her. Why he does it. Ever Mr. Hyde to Frankie's Dr. Jekyll. Others see it too, but tolerate Liam because of who his brother was and the McClory family's abiding commitment to the Cause.

The Troubles are over now, maybe; maybe, for good; even Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams preaching the gospel of peace and the brotherly love to come with a cease fire nobody truly expected this side of Heaven. But not yet this animal, Liam, or any of the boys who once fell in line behind Frankie, the "Thirty Two."

They are outcast toughs who practice violence in the name of a free and united Ireland. All of them up from the dirt of Catholic Belfast and most break their backs in the shipyards when they're not breaking heads for the six counties. Mercenaries for hire. Skilled and well-paid killers called "Plowmen." Anyone's life for the right price and, sad to say, Frankie a hero among them since he was a boy; ultimately, their leader.

Yet, if he had not been, she never would have met him and it would have been one more of the great loves that never happen, that most women experience only in the innermost caverns of the soul.

There would have been no Frankie and Bright Eyes.

She freezes at the thought

No Frankie and "Face?"

"Face," the other pet name Frankie could always make sound like a poet's reward, the one Liam resents most and never uses as a taunt.

"Which is what?" Liam repeats. "My kind of truth?"

The beatings Liam took over the years have frozen the lower part of his tightly drawn face, and he wears a constant smile. A bramble bush mustache offsets what the Brits left of his lips. A drunk surgeon had botched the reconstruction of his nose. Liam is not yet forty and looks a hundred years older.

"You wouldn't know the truth if it reared up and bit you in the ass, so how do you expect—"

"Right. Like I do expect too much from you?"

"Like you expect from all the girls?"

"And what's that supposed to mean, Bright Eyes?" And, a wicked wink, as if she is another of the young women he bought with a pint or two of ale and lots of hokum about his bravery confronting the damned U.V.F., the double-damned U.D.A., the double-damned, bleeding Brits.

She has seen evidence of Liam's handiwork, in the library, at the grocer's, the black and puffed faces, welts even careful dressing can't hide. But the women never speak out about his tortures, too fearful of the consequences that come in bedrooms and back alleys.

"He is what he is," Frankie told her shortly after they married and he brought her home to Belfast. "Not nothing I could say to Liam or nothing I could do will ever change that, hard as I might try."

"How can you stand to be around them, and not only Liam? Any of those bloodsuckers who take themselves for strutting saints."

"The end justifies the means. Wasn't the first to say it, Face. Won't be the last. This killing will go on, both sides, until someone takes the first steps at looking peace square in the face."

"Who? Who'll take the first steps?"

"Ask a dead man."

"What kind of answer is that?"

"Right now, the only answer, unless you have a better solution."

She did, one to keep to herself until it was the right time and she could confess the awful truth that put them together, about Walter Burkes and the Service and—

Instead, she appealed to him, "Tell me, again, Frankie. I need to hear it from your lips again, that you've never murdered anyone."

"Not by my hand, Bright Eyes, but don't I always say to you that giving commands makes me as responsible as him with his finger on the trigger or lugging a ton of Hell to Kingdom Come explosives? I could never deny giving the commands any more than I would retreat from sharing the bloody blame, but that's ground we already been over enough. The admission of guilt has you in a mood to reconsider being Mrs. Frankie McClory, there's trains running as regular as my heart goes out to you. And I would die without you, as surely as you had your own finger on the trigger."

He always said it so confidently, the part about the trains.

He knew what her response would be, maybe even better than she.

She always reacted with a small, spontaneous gasp at the notion of leaving him, and he would sweep her up into his arms and carry her off to their own private world of lovemaking. Gentle, torrid, never twice the same, always surprising, astounding in the way it released her emotions, made her believe in herself as much as she believed in Frankie.

Liam has grown impatient. His voice snaps her back to his intrusion. "Tell it, Bright Eyes. Tell me what it is I expect from the girls, or do you need more time to think up something? I'm waiting on you, girl-o."

She changes the subject. "Tell me why you've come into my home, Liam, then go, please."

He makes himself comfortable, slumping into the cushioned chair Frankie always took for himself, and says, "We got a job in America and need you in it."

"I never lifted a hand for Frankie, why should I do it for you?"

"Doing it for me is doing it for Francis. Before they come on after him with a pair of wings, he told me himself he'd be putting the job to you. Here's a golden chance to grant your departed Frankie one last need."

"I don't believe you, Liam."

"You say I'm lying?"

"I say Frankie never asked me to be involved in the business."

"He taught you how to use a gun?"

She lies with a nod. "To protect myself."

"How about to protect your loved ones?" He might be smiling at her. With that face, no way to tell.

"Who? You?"

"That day comes, pigs will shit gold bricks. Does the name Osborne set off any chimes in your belfry?" Her breath catches in her chest. "Judge Noah Osborne? His sainted wife, Dorothy, and the children? Peter and David and Raleigh and the wee girl, what do they call her? Cookie, is it?"

"Bastard!"

"Don't tell me ma and I'll owe you one."

"Speak to me."

"You mean say what I expect from you?" Liam makes a no need to answer gesture. "We got us a job calls for letting a nigger who fancies himself a world leader get acquainted with one of our Plowmen. We need to send on across some tools for the Plowman to do his work. You make the delivery for us to the Osborne home where you once lived and you're out of it."

"Mr. Mustamba is going to Pasadena?"

Mother Mary and Joseph!

The name just slips out.

Maybe, Liam has missed it; he's painting a corner of the wall with his gaze.

"Did I say a name?" The bastard heard, all right.

Thinking quickly—

--"You said a color."

"I didn't say he was a black man. I said he was a nigger, which is the truth. When he's a dead nigger, we have us a tidy sum to keep on with the struggle."

"To line your own pockets, you mean." He shrugs. "Why the Osbornes?" She can't manage her voice. It betrays her concern.

Liam feels himself for cigarettes, lights up and blows a jet stream of smoke across the room. Teases her with time. Finally, lets the hum under his breath turn into words. "Your judge heads some greeting committee bowing down to the nigger chief. So we got us a perfect place to store the tools, convenient and safe, up until the Plowman is ready for them."

She wants to ask, How do I make contact with the Plowman? Is the Plowman someone I know?

She needs the answers for Barney Sullivan, who'll get them to Burkes, who'll—

This is the wrong time.

"Go to Hell, Liam. I won't do anything to put the Osbornes at risk."

Liam cackles. "They're in it, with or without you around, Bright Eyes. If we choose someone else for the job, who don't got the same worries about them Osbornes as you, think what could happen to your old family..."

"A threat, Liam?"

"Call it whatever you will and, meanwhile, you're there in Pasadena, California, U.S. of A. and seeing to their safety...Look, you want to sleep on it a few days and come on by with your answer?"

"Once and only once?"

"You mean, will we invite you to help us again? Girl-o, do a good job and we'll let you work with us any time you want."

"This one time and never again."

"You drive a hard bargain for a free trip home."

"I may decide to stay in America."

His hand sweeps the air in front of him. "I won't be the one begging for your return."

"If the Osbornes are harmed, if they're hurt in any way, I'll come after you, Liam."

"So long as I come, I don't care who's first."

The way he says it frightens her. She clamps down on her back teeth and shows nothing. "Bastard."

He blows on the burning end of his smoke to raise the glow, finds a viewing range, and inspects it for Lord knows what. Nails her with his feral gray eyes and makes a chalk mark in the air between them. "I do this for him, Bright Eyes, for Francis, for him what we both loved dear. What he asked for, otherwise, I had me own way—"

He zips a finger across his throat.

* * * * *

Two days later, she meets for the last time with Barney Sullivan, an Irish patriot who lost an arm standing up to the Brits and found a deep hunger for peace instead of revenge.

Unable to get anyone in or out of the I.R.A. to pay attention, especially not the Thirty Two, he was ripe for plucking by the Service, Sullivan explained to her early on. These were Americans, so it wasn't like going over to the enemy, only to people who shared his need to end The Troubles, and end soldiers coming out of the night shadows in infrared goggles like stalkers from another planet, pointing self-loading rifles with image-magnifying sights at every wind noise and whisper that might be an armed patriot, often killing women and children in the name of self-defense.

They met frequently at Milly O'Malley's after she had settled in as Frankie's wife. Whenever there was news to exchange, she found an excuse to be with Frankie, or Sullivan found her and gave her a signal while she was out marketing.

Sullivan was a Milly's regular, dragging himself in every night around nine, looking and smelling like leftover stew and playing the sot, so anybody watching would figure theirs for friendly chat at the bar, while Frankie plotted with his mates at a rear corner table overhung with smoke.

Her final meeting with Sullivan is different.

She is returning from the grocery, within sight of the Peace Line separating her neighborhood from the one next door, hands laden with shopping bags, when the cop stops her, calls her by name, and says she has to come with him to the station.

People watch and make noises and, fearful about stirring up the soldiers backing the cop's action with aimed machine guns, only throw out angry words. The cop broods and insults her, does not try to help her with the groceries on a half mile march under a blazing sun that makes her sweat with more than fear.

She sits on the only chair in one of the cramped, dimly-lit isolation rooms for almost an hour, ruefully guessing how much Catholic blood has been washed from the walls and mopped off the concrete floors.

The door squeaks open. She expects to be joined by thugs in uniforms, government sanctioned gangsters who will hurt her for whatever truths they want out of her, or just for the sport.

Instead, Sullivan darts inside. He closes the door behind him and gives her a finger salute. "I got your signal and had to organize the safest way to gab," he says, exposing crooked, tobacco-stained teeth black at the gum line. "Something to do with that damn bleeding Liam's visit, I suppose?"

She collapses with relief, struggles to get her breathing to normal, and, once she finds her voice, says, "These bloody walls have ears, too."

"Our walls, our ears. Except to top brass, I'm a carouser caught out late-late with too much Bass on his breath." Sullivan raises his arms and does a turn like a model showing off an outfit. He looks like he's been rolling in the gutter before they took him in; smells like the gutter, too. "So, tell me about Liam..."

When she has finished relating the story, Sullivan stretches the rose blooms on his cheeks with a smile. "Fits with the puzzle pieces we already got, so I'll get the news to the Guv and you don't worry yourself about a thing."

"Now I'm worried," she says, adding a look to the sardonic edge of her reply. "The Guv is a king-sized asshole."

Sullivan draws back, barely moves his head left and right, runs his fingers through what's left of his thinning gray hair.

He studies her like she's crazy, the stump of his left arm tapping nervously against his body.

"Serious, girl. Don't you make light. Mr. Walter Burkes always knows what he's doing, so you go and do what Liam McClory says knowing you'll be looked after. You got my word and you'll have the Guv's word on it."

Well, Burkes can fool others in the Service, but he could never convince her he was more than a despot pretending to have all the answers, like the eleventh commandment was Thou Shalt Believe Burkes. Tell that to Moses, not her, who knows someone like Burkes wouldn't last out a week giving orders to Frankie's bunch. The Thirty Two would take only so much before dropping him off in some dark alley, a bullet air-conditioning his brain, and go on to celebrate over a pint of Guinness at Milly's.

"I learned the hard way, Barney; taking somebody's word only leaves the gate wide open for somebody else, somebody wrong, to pass through," she says, her voice rising. "I've met other people in the Service who did that, took somebody's word. They're dead now."

Sullivan signals her to lower her voice and looks at her dumbly, obviously resenting the inference about Burkes.

She waits out the urge to shout. "I'll put it to you as straight as I know how, Barney." Her whisper is dagger sharp. "You get word back to Burkes. I want the Osbornes to have round-the-clock protection starting the minute I leave Belfast. You tell him it's the deal-breaker. If Burkes says it's no go, you tell him I'm a no go."

Sullivan, looking like he has swallowed a skunk, says all he can do is relay the message.

* * * * *

Liam comes calling a few hours after she is back home, demanding to know why she's been picked up by the cops.

"Where'd you hear?"

"What difference it make?"

"No difference. Where'd you hear?"

He circles her like a bullfighter, then leans against a wall and finger-snaps a stick match to light his cigarette. "So happens you was seen being picked up. We got calls."

Something in his eyes tells her there is more to it than that. She moves into the cover story Sullivan has worked out with her. "Was one of the callers Barney Sullivan?"

Liam's face gives away nothing. He makes her wait for his answer. "Matter of fact, yes. Says he was out for a stroll when the RUC bastards come to fetch you."

"Then Barney was lying to you."

"Your old drinking mate? Lying to me?"

"Lying. He was on a bench, either coming or going, when they waltzed me past the barbed wire. Looked like he had drunk all the Lough and half the North Channel."

Liam swallows half the cigarette with his next drag, fills the room with smoke. He looks around for his memory and shrugs. "Maybe how it was, Sullivan told me when he called..." Takes another drag. "At any rate, still need to hear about you."

The smug bastard isn't going to acknowledge she has caught him in a lie. Well, tit for tat. "The cops wanted me about Frankie. They made me look at a lot of photographs, mug shots, sketches, hoping I would find the one who shot him."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

"Nothing about your impending journey to Pasadena, California, U.S. of A?"

"Nothing."

"Funny, them being interested in Francis now. All they could do to keep from yawning when it happened. Like they ever bleeding care when it's one of our own takes a bullet...What do you say to that?"

"Nothing, Liam. I say nothing." She has decided to take the offensive. "You here to put the shadow on me some more? That what this visit is about? If so, ask the questions you really mean, then get the bleeding hell out of my sight."

His eyes narrow with distemper. "Don't you be challenging me or telling me what to say, Bright Eyes. This ain't Francis you're dealing with now, and you're in no position at all to—"

"I don't have to go to America, Liam. You and the Thirty Two doubt me for any reason, you choose someone else to take your bloody baggage. Remember, it was you approached me. I'm doing it for Frankie, and I'm doing it to be gone for good from here; forever."

"It can't be soon enough for me, girl-o," he says, in a voice to freeze the fires of hell. "First, though, we need you to do some sightseeing after you're settled with your precious Osbornes."

"You're asking for more than we agreed, Liam!"

"I know that, Bright Eyes. But ain't me doing the asking. Is for the cause that's bigger than us two and any nigger you choose to name."

"Why can't your bloody Plowman do it after we make contact and I deliver to him the—"

He interrupts. "Why can't cows fly? Girl-o, I do what I'm asked and you do as you're told. Then, we're finished one another and I don't ever need set these tired eyes of mine on you again."

"Piss on you, Liam!"

"Fun with somebody else, but I'm not meant to be your wall. You may of blinded Francis to what matters, but rest assured you don't even raise a pimple on me."

He grinds his cigarette into her hardwood floor with a boot heel and eases out like the snake he always was.

* * * * *

That night, she has the dream again.

Milly O'Malley's pub is just the way she last saw it that dismal Belfast evening—

No way of knowing about the meeting Liam is having at the same time, with the Plowman he is hiring to—

"Kill her like I killed her old man?"

"More to it than that," Liam says, explaining what he has in mind.

"Easier ways doing it here and nobody the wiser."

"Except the Thirty Two needed convincing she's a traitor like I say. So, after this business with people she knows come along, I said send her to the states as a test and have you stick to her tighter'n glue. If she meets up with someone, does anything suspicious on the train ride, like I expect..." Liam aims a finger gun at the Plowman and clicks off a thumb shot.

"And if it don't happen?"

Liam repeats the gesture. "Nobody wiser, excepting for you and me."

"Christ, you are the cold bastard, McClory."

"But warm to the cause, Donahue. You do what you do for the money. I always done it for love."

"Love for country or love for killing, McClory?"

"Who wants to know?"

The Plowman gestures indifference, and leads the conversation to the matter of his fee, the bonus he'll expect for killing her—

--While she is asleep, dreaming the same dream.

Always the same dream.

Awakening to the sweat and confusion of a new life without Frankie.

CHAPTER 1
KC knew about renegade priests. She had met enough of them in Belfast, even got drunk with some on occasion and had to discourage a few whose curious hands roamed too freely under the influence, but none had ever come on to her like Father Shanley.

Jim.

She encouraged him.

By the time the train crossed into California and they were carrying on like old friends, she had decided it was more than the Sex Thing he was after.

She knew she had to kill him.

That or be killed herself.

The Service had taught her never to take chances, take no prisoners, either, after it had stripped her of her humanity.

Survive or die.

Never hesitate to pull the trigger.

You can apologize for being wrong, the world is a textbook of mistakes, but there's nothing you can do if you're dead.

She had first noticed him stealing glances at her in the connector bus from the Sandman Inn in Vancouver to the Amtrak station in Seattle, frequently tugging at the ecclesiastical collar digging into his wrestler's neck, but it wasn't until the train was well underway and the billboards whizzing past began advertising the advantages of living in Oregon that she allowed him to pick her up.

She was relaxing in the nearly vacant club car, concentrating on the monotonous hum of the train in motion, nursing the vodka and tonic she had ordered to take the edge off the trip she'd let Liam McClory bully her into making, when she looked up from an old People Magazine and saw he was getting ready to make his move.

The priest unwound from his seat, pocketed a Bible and straightened his jacket before stepping forward to her, preceded by the heavy scent of a cologne he must have bathed in.

"You mind a wee bit of company?" he asked.

And winked.

He appeared to be ten or twelve years older than she was, in his late thirties, and five or six inches taller at six feet something.

He was broad shouldered, muscular in a way that gave the impression his cheap, piously black suit was ready to burst at the seams, and frequently tugged at the ecclesiastical collar digging into his thick neck. He wore his dark, rugged good looks as casually as the immense, ornately carved wooden cross dangling from his chest.

She let him hover momentarily, made it appear she was weighing his inquiry and his wink; filled her lungs and let the air sneak back out, priming herself. "Not at all," she said at last. Invented a smile. "Please. Company'd ld be wonderful, Father—"

"Shanley," he said, pretending not to have seen KC gesture him toward the cushioned bench seat across the table and maneuvered for comfort on the seat alongside her. "Father Shanley to me church, Jim to me friends. And, who might you be?"

"I might be Kate McClory," she said, working to sustain her smile.

Father Shanley appeared to exult in the news, as if a papal messenger had just delivered him a red hat. He rolled the name around in his throat several times, acquiring a taste for it. Finally, he rewarded KC with an approving nod. "A lovely Irish name. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Kate McClory."

"Thank you, Father."

"Jim."

The waiter took his drink order, another double shot of Jameson's, straight, no ice, with a beer back, but they had no Guinness and he settled for domestic, a Bud. He reviewed the scenery and the weather for her until the waiter returned, mixing in several jokes that sounded like part of a slick routine he'd used before, the smooth salesman measuring his client.

His voice was deep, straight out of evening mass after the whiskey had had all day to scorch the throat raw. She recognized the accent, Belfast, but not the neighborhood.

He toasted to her health and inquired, "McClory, you said?" KC nodded. He took a sip and ran his tongue around his oversized lips, then for good measure wiped them with the back of his hand. There was something in the gesture that stirred a memory, but she couldn't get it to budge from its hiding place. "A good, solid, salt of the earth name, McClory. You Irish by birthright or by marriage?"

The question prompted her hand to the plain white gold band on her ring finger. She pictured the engraved message from Frankie, Katie. Forever, my madness most discreet, and she felt a momentary longing tug at her chest. "Both," KC said. "My parents were also Irish."

"From the old country?"

"My father was. My mother was second generation American."

His approving smile quickly faded into a quizzical expression. "Was, you say? I take it then they're with our Lord Jesus Christ?"

"Yes."

"Recent?"

"Long enough for most of the hurt to be gone."

"But never the memory."

"Never the memory."

Father Shanley crossed himself and promised, "I'll add them to my prayers tonight, and a few words about the beautiful creature their daughter has become."

KC whispered a thank you and forced a brief grin.

The priest winked again.

"And your husband?" he asked.

"From the old country."

"I mean, traveling with you?" He looked around to survey the other passengers in the club car. There were five. Two men in their fifties locked in a game of gin. A fat woman whose hot pink outfit matched her beehive hairdo. An attractive young couple, early twenties, in matching Nirvana tee shirts, touching each other like newlyweds.

"Only me," KC said.

"He's back home then?"

"Yes."

KC could almost see his mind working, trying to decide on what to say next, and she was guessing he'd move their conversation to the Sex Thing. The way he was giving the Nirvana girl a second look told her it would be a pretty safe bet he was one of those reprobate, horny, degenerate old priests on the make for some illicit, recreational sex to speed along the hours between here and Pasadena.

Except, the priest unconsciously unbuttoned his tight jacket leaning forward to get a better look at the girl and KC spotted the shoulder holster hugging the space under his left arm.

He must have realized the possibility immediately. He pushed back in the seat, pulling the jacket closed, working the buttonhole, giving KC the once-over in a single movement.

She had been faster and was already staring across the aisle and commenting about the Disneyland billboard whizzing past the picture windows.

"I haven't been there in years," she said. "The Haunted Mansion is my favorite. You ever been, Father?"

"Jim," he corrected her, trying to read her face. "Years ago, but I favor a Holy Ghost what don't reside in any haunted castles."

He grabbed himself by the shoulders and laughed uproariously, and she joined in, maybe too anxiously, because he quit suddenly, leaving her sounding foolish and alone while he strip-mined her face for some clue.

Shaking off whatever he was thinking, he took a casual swallow from the Jameson's and picked up where he'd left off.

"I'm from the old country, too. Hollywood, east of Belfast; on the water. You know it there?"

She nodded and flashed a smile of recognition as he drowned her in his.

"First saw you up in Vancouver, on the ride to the King Street station, long before we reached the shadow of the King Dome. "I was hoping then you might be one to indulge a wayfaring man of God in a bit of innocent conversation."

KC said, "I'm flattered, Father."

He made a clucking noise and corrected her again.

She stirred her vodka, but took only a sip, for show. She needed to be as sober as possible. She would continue pretending to be charmed, of course, and hope her eyes didn't betray her to this priest who wore a shoulder holster.

She challenged herself anxiously, Is glimpsing a shoulder holster enough reason for killing someone?

Anyone?

Has it ever been?

After all, Frankie had introduced her to a half dozen priests who packed, like Father Mulroney, who stored his .45 brazenly under the sash of his cassock and foolishly bragged about his sentiments. Dead now, the father, his heart not as strong as the paramilitary sons of bitches who used a Wilkinson single-edge safety razor to scrape away his skin layer by layer, demanding information the poor, brave soul didn't have.

She thought back, trying to figure how long it had been since she'd killed someone, Barry Shields, the bastard who murdered her parents.

William and Margaret Cassidy.

Billy and Peggy to their friends.

One minute, her folks were alive and vibrant, away on one of their usual combination business-and-pleasure trips, sending love notes and picture postcards home to their only child, who pasted them neatly in a scrapbook decorated with the crayon hearts and designs you could expect from a ten-going-on-eleven year-old.

Next, a minute that became a millstone around the rest of her life.

KC was staying with the Osbornes, her godparents, fast asleep in the guest room she had come to think of as her own, when her "Uncle Judge" gently awakened her to share the bad news.

His eyes were red and his voice broke telling her her parents were gone. A car accident along a narrow, rain slicked country road west of London, about twenty miles past Oxford. In fact, exactly twenty-three and a half miles, a distance she verified after the Service sent her to London to eventually wander into Frankie and make him fall in love with her, and she had driven to the crash site once she had settled into a cramped convenience flat the Service kept for its agents near Nottinghill Gate.

She thought she was dreaming, at first, her "Uncle Judge" a welcome shadow, but you don't wake up into a nightmare. He wrapped her in his arms and hugged her warmly. Protectively. Shared her grief. Kept reassuring her the Osbornes would continue to take care of her the way her Mommy and Daddy would want. Her parents' Trust named Noah and Dorothy Osborne her guardians, but she never doubted they would have taken the responsibility for her under any circumstances.

And so they did, until she ran off to take care of herself and to kill the murderer of her parents, Barry Shields...

She wondered if she could kill again, but—

Father Shanley's voice made it impossible for her to concentrate.

"You looked bright to me, and now I can tell you are." He inched away to survey her. "I've always had a partiality for bright women. A bright woman knows how to make a man glow." She dismissed the compliment with an exaggerated gesture. "What it was brung you over to Vancouver anyway? A lot more direct routes from Eire to Los Angeles."

She wasn't about to tell him this was the usual route the Thirty Two and I.R.A. branches had used to transport their most wanted out of the country and to safety, as well as for missions like the one Liam had put her on. She supposed he already knew that, anyway. "Friends there. Ticketed myself to Toronto, then took an Air Canada commuter. The train ride is for fun. I've always loved trains."

He accepted her explanation without comment. "How very, very, very lovely!" he said abruptly, reaching out to point at the delicate sterling silver crucifix around her neck, a fifth anniversary gift from Frankie that she never removed. "You are one of us then?"

He lowered his hand and, in passing, made it seem to brush her breast accidentally.

She acted like she didn't notice. "Not a very good one...Jim."

"Is that a confession?"

"Close as I've come to confessing in years."

"Me, neither," he said, and winked. He leaned in closer, his upper arm connecting with hers, and in an insinuating tone suggested, "Maybe the both of us will have something new to confess before our journey ends, Kate McClory. How does dinner sound to you?"

She nodded approvingly, certain her voice would betray her thoughts.

There's too much at risk to presume this is about the Sex Thing, KC.

Take no chances.

Nothing you can do if you're dead.

Better the priest.

Father Shanley.

Jim.

Whose real name was Preston Donahue.

Excerpted from ASK A DEAD MAN by Robert S. Levinson. Copyright© 2004 by Robert S. Levinson. Excerpted by permission of Five Star Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher and the author.

Reviews for Ask a Dead Man