St Andrew’s Cathedral, Glasgow, Scotland: 5 April 1988
It was a bright cold day but, as if it was midsummer, I had given up my usual grey clothes of lamb’s wool and thick flannel and 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 grey stone interior soared above my neatly combed head 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-sized bishop with my small, sweaty palms pressed together as if I had been a little saint – although in my own eyes I was any- thing but that – 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 which 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. Only 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. A saint, perhaps.’
‘Surely the saints are only the 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 fifteen, verse one.’
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 was 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 shuffling 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 some- thing else, too; I think you could say I had a feeling of deep foreboding, as if something terrible was about to happen and which 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 that 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 which, 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 con- science (and certainly not my mother) and which 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 himself 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 quickly, while everyone’s eyes were on the boy immediately behind me who was now being confirmed, I wiped the holy oil off my forehead and spat the dry wafer off the roof of my mouth and into my handkerchief.
One of my school friends saw me do this, and for quite a while afterwards 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 – these are very useful for the com- mission 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 medal, made of solid Hebridean silver, a commemorative gift from my mother, and on which were engraved my name – 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 it 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 Christopher 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.
Houston, Texas, Present Day
From the outside, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart resembled a prison. With its high windows, grey seamless concrete blocks and a free-standing bell-tower, the Sacred Heart did not look like a promising place for a talk with the Almighty. I walked through the doors and 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 with 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 triple-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 he 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. 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 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. Quietly a priest 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 out into the heat of a typical Houston summer evening.
Home was a new-build stone and stucco house southwest 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 dis- like and distrust me. Then again, I feel the same way about Bob.
I dumped my stuff on the breakfast bar and kissed her 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 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.’ ‘Never.’
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 anti-viral 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 she 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 when 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 at 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 and sucked the contents down.
‘To pray, then.’ She shook her head and 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 hotdog 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 pushed him gently toward 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 she came and found me later on.
‘Can I fetch you another beer, baby?’
Ruth didn’t drink herself, 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 Jose 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 Jose 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.’
‘Jose 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 them. 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 him 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 got and 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.’
Excerpted from Prayer by Philip Kerr. Copyright © 2013 by Philip Kerr.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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