Father Atia sat there, the candle in the confessional having long since burned out. He lost all track of time as the aromatics of the incense worked to soothe him while his thoughts continued in a circular fashion. He knew what needed to be done, but was unsure of how to accomplish it. And at what cost would this accomplishment come?
* * * * *
Mark McCormick completed another application of fertilizer to the vast lawn of Gull’s Way. He and Judge Milton C. Hardcastle had a running argument of how to appropriately apply fertilizer; in the circular pattern that Mark employed or the back and forth pattern that the judge preferred. If Mark were to be completely honest, it didn’t really matter to him how it got applied, he just liked to see Hardcase’s face turn three shades of red as he argued his point to his young charge.
Today, however, the judge had not said a word. No advice or instructions at all. Maybe after three years he realized he would never win the argument. Or, maybe something else was occupying his mind.
Recognizing that without the judge’s constant yammering, the application of mere fertilizer had lost its attraction, the ex-con-turned-law-student inexplicably changed his pattern of application to back and forth. A small grin formed on his face as he watched Hardcastle stomp towards him. Finally—something brought him out of the house.
Bracing himself for the verbal onslaught, McCormick stopped pushing the applicator and waited for the judge with his hands on his hips.
With no preamble, he bellowed, “McCormick, I need you to run an errand. Frank has some files for me. Go down and pick them up for me, will ya?”
The kid just stood there eyebrows up to his hairline. “You want me to go see Frank right now? Can’t it wait until I finish with the lawn?”
Rubbing his hand under his nose, the judge dropped his voice just the slightest amount, “If it could wait, I would’ve waited to ask you, wiseguy.”
Mark pulled the bandanna off his head, shaking it slightly, “Do I have time to shower, Your Honor?” Surprised that the judge actually had to think for a moment, he realized that the files in question must really be important.
“Just make it quick, McCormick.” With that, he abruptly turned on his heel and walked back to the house.
McCormick was still contemplating this strange behavior as he pulled out onto the PCH and headed downtown to see Lieutenant Frank Harper.
* * * * *
The judge watched McCormick depart, checking his watch impatiently. If he spent any more time in the shower, this jig would have been over. And, as if summoned by thought, a dark sedan drove up the long driveway, circled the fountain and parked by the front door of the estate.
As the visitor climbed out of his car, the judge walked up the three steps leading from the den to the foyer. His hand outstretched as he opened the door, he smiled easily as he shook hands, “Nice to see you again, Father. I was surprised when you called—but it was good to hear from you.”
Father Atia smiled broadly as he grasped the hand in both of his. “Judge, thank you for seeing me on such short notice. And…” he glanced around the grounds, lingering on the breathtaking view of the ocean, “I appreciate your discretion.”
Motioning Father Atia in through the front door, the retired jurist followed him down the stairs into the den. After motioning the priest to the sofa, he took a seat across from him. “To tell you the truth, it isn’t that difficult to get rid of the kid when what I’m interrupting is yard work.”
The silence that followed was brief, interrupted by a deep and exhaustive exhale that led to the simple, yet cryptic statement, “Judge, I’d like to talk to you about a hypothetical situation.”
“Well, I get a lot of practice running hypotheticals with the kid,” was Hardcastle’s quick response. Then, his face turned to one of concern. “We’re not talking about McCormick here, are we? Has something happened?”
Smiling, the priest put the judge at ease immediately, “No, Judge, Mark didn’t do anything. The reason I asked to meet you alone is because I didn’t want him to do anything. He has turned into a good friend, and I don’t want to put him in any more danger.”
The judge immediately picked up on the language that he suspected was meant to be left unspoken. “Any more danger?”
Father Atia’s expression froze immediately as the tension in the room increased. The silence that followed was more than Hardcastle would tolerate given the topic of discussion.
“Okay, Father, we’re way past hypotheticals here. You’ve got my attention. If you need a confidential conversation, let’s just say this is covered by attorney-client privilege. But now I really have to insist that you tell me what the hell is going on.” After a brief pause, the judge continued more softly, “I’m sorry, Father, but you did come to me. There must be something you need to discuss.”
Father Atia sat back consideringly. The small grin that played on his lips seemed out of place in this conversation. His years as a priest had taught him how to put others at ease, and how to get others to talk. He knew that cops, lawyers and judges must have that same skill set. Shaking his head, he began, “I guess I’m not very good at these kinds of discussions. I’ve never been in this position before, and I need for you to understand just what is at stake here.”
The judge waited patiently as Father Atia closed his eyes in apparent prayer, crossed himself, and took a deep breath. His decision made long before this moment, he met the judge’s eyes and began, “I am risking excommunication, Judge, and while I certainly don’t take that lightly, I could never continue knowing what I know…or at least what I think I know. I really don’t have much experience in this area, despite what you may think considering who my father is.”
The judge waited out another bout of silence. He finally cleared his throat and offered what small advice he could manage, “I think I can understand your position, Father. I certainly understand the sanctity of the confessional. I have ruled on several cases that…”
He was interrupted before he could complete his statement. “Your Honor,” Father Atia spoke in an openly conflicted tone, “I am not talking about a legal matter here. I am well versed in my responsibilities in the matter of capital crimes. This is different. No crime has been committed. Yet. And the crime that is planned is not, in itself, a capital crime.” He buried his head in his hands and shook his head vigorously.
But just as suddenly, he stopped, and once again met the judge’s eyes. “I knew what I was doing when I came here. Once I tell you what I know, I know what you will need to do. And, if I am to be totally honest, that is exactly why I am telling you this.”
The judge waited one moment before asking his final question. “Just exactly what are you telling me, Father?”
The hesitation that had been present since Father Atia’s arrival had disappeared. He now sat upright in his chair and slowly and carefully articulated the reason for his visit.
* * * * *
Mark arrived at the station in record time. If the truth were to be honestly told, he didn’t mind running errands anymore. He rarely had time to enjoy driving the Coyote as course work had taken priority over his other activities with the judge. But on those rare occasions when he had the time, he enjoyed both the yard work and driving in any direction except campus. He loved law school, but he also loved the time for reflection that walking behind a lawn mower, or spreading fertilizer, or running errands provided. His self-reflection these days centered around his future, and how he finally felt he was headed in the right direction. He would never quite feel he deserved the break he got when the judge made him that ‘offer’ over three years ago. And while he may never admit that out loud, he was certain he knew nonetheless.
He walked into Frank’s office with just a cursory knock. Seeing Harper was on the phone, he assumed his usual position leaning against the wall by the map. Hands in his pockets, he tried to look like he wasn’t eavesdropping.
Frank hung up the phone and motioned for Mark to take a seat. “So, a day off from class and you have to do the running for Milt? I thought you guys were taking a break from law and order so you could study law and order!” Grinning at his own joke, he fumbled under the smallest pile of folders on his desk to extricate the two target files to handoff to Mark.
Taking the proffered files, he opened them for a quick review, “Nah, these are just to complete his own files. Both these guys are still in jail, right?”
Nodding the confirmation, Frank stood, “Hey, you want to grab a bite to eat with me? I’d love to hear what you’re studying in your ethics class. I’ve always wondered just what they teach lawyers when dealing with clients they know are guilty.”
Mark didn’t even have to consider the offer. He enjoyed discussions with his favorite police officer friend, “Yeah, but only if you let me buy. I’ve got a few questions I’d like to ask you about procedures. Not how they are supposed to be done…but how they actually are done.” Grinning easily, he added, “I only know this stuff from one side of the law.”
Lieutenant Harper did a double-take. He rarely heard Mark make those kinds of jokes anymore. His criminal past was so far behind him, it actually seemed like a different lifetime to Frank. Maybe it didn’t yet feel that way to Mark. He continued walking as he accepted the lunch terms.
* * * * *
Mark returned to the estate a little after two o’clock and walked immediately into the den to pass off the files. He stopped abruptly on the second step and spoke in a somewhat accusatory tone, “What was Father Atia doing here?”
Hardcastle momentarily froze, thinking quickly. “Who said Father Atia was here?”
“Come on, Judge, who else smells like incense? They don’t market it as an aftershave, you know. The place smells like a confessional.”
Grinning slightly, the retired jurist should have realized that Mark’s deductive powers had come a long way over the years of their acquaintance. He knew it would be difficult to keep his visit with Father Atia a secret, but he hadn’t realized until this moment just how difficult that task would be. He was hoping not to actually tell a lie when he finally answered, “Yeah, kid, you just missed him this morning. He stopped by to see how we’re doing.”
Mark completed his trek down the stairs and placed the folders on the desk. Taking a seat in the wing back chair, confusion was already written on his face. “That’s weird, we’re supposed to be having lunch tomorrow. Why would he come over now?”
It was apparent that a lie would be necessary here. Hardcastle believed that this was indeed flagrant necessity since he still wasn’t sure just what they were dealing with. No need to involve McCormick with only a few days of class left before final exams. During the semester break they would have plenty of time to investigate. After all, no crime had been committed, and the information indicated that nothing would be until after the new year. Mark would be safe until then. His rationalization took merely a second before he responded, “Oh, sorry, he had to cancel lunch tomorrow. Church duties. He couldn’t really go into details.” His mind wandered briefly, was that one lie or three?
Mark’s frown deepened, but the concern was not for the canceled lunch. Something was off in Hardcastle’s demeanor. Something he hadn’t seen in quite some time, but recognized instantly. He was being lied to. Unsure whether to confront him now, or just wait and talk to Father Atia, Mark slowly and deliberately pushed himself up and out of the chair. “Well, I’ve got a case to brief for tomorrow. Last one of the semester. If you don’t need anything else, I think I’ll get started. Can you believe they assigned me Hardcastle v County of Los Angeles?” With that, he walked out of the den and headed towards the gatehouse.
As soon as the front door closed, the judge pulled his rolodex close and flipped through the cards until he found the number for Father Atia. He dialed quickly to give him the heads up that he had canceled his lunch date with the kid for the following day.
* * * * *
As Mark walked towards the gatehouse, his thoughts wandered from the case he had actually intended to study to the odd behavior of the judge. He knew his older friend had agreed to give up his crime-fighting ways—at least during the semester—only to appease him. He trusted him. And, after all, Hardcase himself had added a few guest lectures at the law school to his docket along with tutoring for some of the more difficult cases they were studying. All in all, he believed that the bad guys had taken a back seat for both of them. But still, he would make it a point to check in with Frank, just to make sure.
The thought came out of nowhere, but as he reflected back to their lunch conversation, it did seem a bit stretched. Frank’s interest in his ethics class had quickly and gratefully been dropped when Mark brought up his own questions about police procedures and due process. While the conversation flowed freely, Frank didn’t appear to be in his usual lunch-hour rush.
He had been stalled…and he fell for it.
Tomorrow after classes he would head back downtown and talk to the good Lieutenant. He knew he wouldn’t get anywhere with Hardcase, but Frank may just spill if provided with the proper inducement.
* * * * *
Father Atia had agreed to meet Hardcastle at the police station the next morning. Having called ahead, the jurist knew Frank would be in, and available. Mark had classes all day—his last before final exams. He understood the pressure well as final exams counted for 100% of the semester’s grade. Participation, attendance, diligence didn’t matter up until the point at which the timer started for each exam. Many students can’t handle the stress, but the kid seemed to do well with it. In comparison to what he’s been through in life, this isn’t even a blip on the radar, he thought as he entered the building. Two years in San Quentin compared to two days of exams every few months. In the time he served, he would earn a law degree. Interesting how life turns out.
The judge was snapped out of his thoughts when he heard his name being called over several parked cars. Looking around, he spotted the priest. With a broad smile, he approached him with his hand outstretched, “Father, I’m glad you came. This is the right thing to do.”
“I believe it was the only thing to do. So does my father.”
The judge stopped in his tracks and looked curiously at the cleric. “You spoke with your father about this?” He tried to keep the disbelief from his voice.
Father Atia looked confused. “Well, of course I didn’t give him specifics. He accepted the hypothetical conversation better than you did.” The last part was said with a slight grin forming.
“No doubt. He spent a good portion of his adult life dealing with ‘hypotheticals’, but that’s not what I meant. I’m surprised we would even come up in a conversation you would have with your father.”
“You know, judge, I’ll never really understand the relationship between you and my father. He respects you yet he is in diametric opposition to so much of what you have done.”
“That’s redundant.” The judge grinned.
Father Atia stared at him as if he’d grown a third eye. He would never understand this man, or his relationship his father for as long as he lived. “Redundant?”
The judge slapped him on the back. “Diametric…opposition...??” Realizing that McCormick was probably the only one who could follow his train of thought—or understand his humor if you could call it that, he sighed, “Never mind. I’m just surprised is all.”
“My father often asks about you and Mark. He still believes I would be dead today if you two hadn’t intervened. And, intervened in exactly the way that you did. I suppose he would not like my methods today, but this is the only way I can do business.” Now it was Father Atia’s turn to sigh.
They had reached the door to Frank’s office, and Hardcastle asked one final time, “Are you sure you’re willing to do this? I can go to him with what you told me in a more…hypothetical…way.”
“I appreciate your concern, Judge, but Mark is a friend of mine. Even if I didn’t know you, I believe I would be carrying out these same actions. I understand what it could mean for me. But I also understand what it would definitely mean for Mark.” He met the judge’s eyes, “and you.” Having said his piece, he reached for the door knob and opened the door.
Lieutenant Harper looked up from the pile on his desk, and immediately stood to offer Father Atia his hand. Nodding to Milt, he gestured for both of them to sit. After sitting back down in his chair, eyebrows raised, Frank finally spoke, “Well, I have to admit, you’ve had me curious since you called. What’s going on?” On an afterthought he continued, “and why isn’t Mark with you?”
Father Atia looked first at Judge Hardcastle before turning his gaze to the lieutenant, “to be honest Lieutenant Harper, we planned this so that Mark didn’t know we came to see you. I’d appreciate it if this could remain among the three of us” and after a very brief pause, “only for the next few days.”
“Well, if I wasn’t intrigued before, I certainly would be now.”
Father Atia abruptly began to speak, “About a week ago, a man entered the church and walked directly to the confessional. He is not a regular parishioner; in fact I’ve never seen him before. Or since. He had been drinking, and I’m not sure he would have otherwise been so forthcoming with the detail of the information he shared.”
After a deep cleansing breath, he continued. “He had agreed to ‘set up a friend’ to get out of a pretty serious gambling debt. He told me he had no choice but to accept. He felt his own life was on the line. Fifty thousand dollars was more than he could ever hope to come up with.”
After he stopped again, Lieutenant Harper spoke slowly and deliberately, “Father, if you heard the confession of a crime—whether it has occurred yet or not—” but he was not allowed to finish before the priest cut him off.
“With all due respect, Lieutenant, as I told Judge Hardcastle, the crime we are talking about is not a capital crime. In fact, it may not even have been deemed a crime. If he was successful—or is successful—it would simply appear that Mark committed a crime.”
The concern on Harper’s face was apparent, and it was also clear that his patience was being tried. “Father, with all due respect to you, I have to ask you to provide me with all of the details you have.”
“His instructions were to wait until New Year’s Eve. There is a party Mark is supposed to attend, along with most of the students in his cohort. He is supposed to drug him, and cause an accident. If Mark is seen to be the perpetrator, given his background he would be sent to prison.”
Frank rubbed his chin. “But Mark has a pretty damn good lawyer” he said as he nodded towards the judge. “They can’t think he’d stay in jail.”
The judge’s gravelly voice was low and ominous. “It doesn’t matter, Frank. Their plans continue in prison. He isn’t meant to survive it.”
“Who the hell are these people?” Harper demanded.
“I honestly don’t know.” The despair in the priest’s voice was obvious.
Harper was on the phone immediately, “Carson, I need you to pull some mug books. Let’s start with gambling, and throw in drug arrests going back four years.”
Father Atia’s confusion was apparent, and he turned to the judge, “I don’t understand, why is he requesting drug arrests?”
“That’s how some gamblers support their habit; selling or making drugs. It’s one way to make quick money, and lots of it. A lot of gambling is legal, so that’s not what they usually get arrested for.”
Enlightenment dawned, and the priest nodded. “Is there someplace discreet that I can look through the books? It may look a bit odd if somebody sees a priest going through mug shots.”
For the first time that morning, Frank sported a grin. “Of course, Father, you can stay right in here. I’ll set you up at my table here when Carson finds what we need.”
Within fifteen minutes, the books had been delivered, coffee had been poured, and the judge and his long-time friend were in the hall watching Father Atia though the window meticulously working his way through each mug shot, carefully considering the photo on the page.
“Milt, there’s just one thing I don’t understand. Why the hell aren’t you telling Mark?”
“Oh, don’t worry Frank, we’re going to tell him. In a few days when he finishes final exams. We have plenty of time between now and New Year’s Eve. After his last exam, we’ll tell him everything and make a plan. But, since we have some time, we thought we’d do the leg work.” The judge nodded with an expression of total confidence that he did not quite feel.
The next few hours passed the same way. The cop and the judge ran scenarios, while the priest considered black and white photos of souls in need of saving. Nobody recognizable at the end of the day, but troubled souls nonetheless.
* * * * *
Mark found a parking spot in the city lot kitty-corner from the precinct. He preferred parking where there were few other cars to minimize the risk of a door ding. He knew it was ridiculous—especially since most of the damage to his car had been done with bullets over the past three years. Nonetheless, he continued his tradition.
He hadn’t completed the trek across the parking lot when he was stopped by the vision of the judge and Father Atia walking down the front steps of the building. Overcome with the sudden desire to become invisible, he chastised himself for his childish instinct to duck. He didn’t, but he did find himself wandering behind a pick-up truck where he felt a little more sheltered. He watched, intrigued by the fact not only were they there together—but they were there at a time when the judge had previously indicated that Father Atia had ‘church business’ to attend to.
He watched as they turned left, heading away from the parking lot.
Curiouser and curiouser.
He quickly abandoned the idea of talking with Frank so soon after his friends had left the building. He feared it would appear as if he were following them. Instead, another idea came to him—an idea he thought would serve several purposes. In only three short days his semester would be over—and his exams behind him. He would have time then to take a short trip.