By Sarah Pinborough

Chapter One


Admitting defeat, Father O'Brien pulled off the road and into the ser vice area. He'd left Route 95 at Bangor and followed the coast road upward through the thinning towns for the best part of two hours without seeing a rest stop. A younger man may just have squeezed his legs a little tighter and pushed the car a little harder, but at fifty-eight the priest knew when his bladder was ready to scream that enough was enough. The speed with which you could go from first twinge to fit to burst crept right up once a man reached the age of fifty, and O'Brien didn't think that even out here in northern Maine the sight of an ordained priest taking a pee by the side of the road would go down well with any passing traffic. Forty miles may not be that great a distance but it was far enough to get yourself caught in an embarrassing fix.

He pulled into the parking lot next to the small Burger King and stepped out into the chill, clean air that cut straight across from the ocean. Tucking his head down against the wind as he moved, he didn't pay any attention to the SUV that slid into the parking space next to his, the engine purring silently, no one stepping out. He was preoccupied. The cold chased its way toward the hot liquid in the base of his belly, and he hurried through the doors and into the smell of cooked fries.

Ahead of him hung the sign pointing to the restrooms, and he offered an apologetic smile to the acne-ridden boy behind the counter. The boy wasn't looking at him-he probably hadn't even seen him come in-but O'Brien would still buy a coffee on the way out. It was good manners, after all. And given that there were only two or three other people eating at the plastic tables, the place could probably use his patronage.

Pushing through the heavy door and into the cool of the bathroom, he felt for the discreet zipper concealed among the blackness of his cassock and, tilting his head back, he smiled slightly as he peed. There were joys to be had in the simplest pleasures; the good Lord had been right about that. The water hit the back of the urinal in a strong steady stream, the sound echoing around the tiled room for nearly a minute before his privacy was broken. Behind the priest the door opened, bringing with it a draft. The chill forced a few more seconds flow out of his depleted bladder, but no one came to stand in the empty stall alongside him.

"It's all right, son," he said, shaking himself dry. "Underneath the robes I'm a man like any other." He paused before laughing gently. "Although maybe slightly bigger." Even after thirty years away from the home country, his Irish lilt was still audible in every word. He'd worked to keep it. The congregations he'd served had found it comforting, although why they'd prefer his to their own was beyond him. Maybe it gave them a link to a heritage in a faraway land that would never be visited and could therefore be imagined as perfect. Perhaps a little like the kingdom of heaven.

The man behind him remained still, and, re-doing his fly, O'Brien turned. His face fell, slightly surprised, before it beamed. "Well, fancy that. Two fathers in the restroom together out here in the middle of nowhere. Surely there's got to be a joke in that."

The priest that faced him smiled thinly. "Are you Father Peter O'Brien?"

"Yes, yes I am." He was confused. "Do I know you?"

"Father Peter O'Brien on your way up to Tower Hill? Going to replace Father James at St Joseph's?"

"Sure, that's me." He held out his hand, despite not having washed it. It felt like the right thing to do in the situation. How did another priest know that he'd be here? "I don't understand-are you from the bishop? Is there a problem?"

The priest that faced him left O'Brien's hand hanging, but grinned widely.

"Yes, I'm afraid there is a problem." They stood in awkward silence. It was O'Brien that broke it.

"And that is ...?"

"You're not. Not anymore."

He stepped forward and O'Brien found himself stepping back. He couldn't reason why. Sweat broke out on his forehead and he couldn't reason that either. The other man wasn't making any sense.

"I'm not what?" His feet stumbled slightly and he felt the cool ceramic of the urinal brushing against his cassock. Somehow the germs of strangers no longer seemed important.

"You're not Father O'Brien. Not anymore."

Father O'Brien was becoming claustrophobic, as if there was no longer enough air in the bathroom for the two of them to breathe. O'Brien took it as a sign. Maybe this was a priest of the cloth in front of him, or maybe it wasn't. One thing was for sure though: the man's mind was gone. He'd warn the kid at the counter on the way back to the car. Standing tall, he stepped toward the door.

"You must be mistaken, Father. Now, if you'll excuse me ..."

His journey was stopped short as the stranger blocked his way.

"Consider yourself excused."

The arm came around too fast for the priest to duck, and for a brief moment he thought that the man was embracing him as if they were truly two fathers meeting as strangers in a public restroom. The hand was firm and cold on his shoulder and there was an absence of emotion in the way that it pulled him inward that gave O'Brien his first real shiver of dread in this surreal moment.

The coldness spread suddenly to his stomach and he sucked in a shocked breath, his wide eyes staring into the empty blue of his antagonist's. He didn't feel the pain. Not at first. Not until the man stepped backward, pulling the knife roughly out. Not until he looked down and saw his blood spilling out thick and fluid between his fingers. His legs slipped, the strength gone from them, and he hit the ground hard. A part of him thought he should scream, but there was no air for it. Darkness crept into the edges of his vision as the stranger crouched and rummaged in his pockets, removing his keys and wallet.

The pool of red spread across the tiled floor and his hand slipped away from the wound, limp and useless. The man had hit a home run with the knife, that was for sure, and O'Brien knew somewhere in the dimness that enveloped him that the precision had been no accident. The confident determination in the man's eyes had told him that there was a story here in which he was involved, and the knife had been swift and controlled as it cut into his organs. He idly wondered how the story would unfold. There were no answers coming to him. He hoped there would be answers afterward. He hoped the Lord would forgive him the lack of a prayer, and the lack of rites. He figured he would. He was a forgiving God, after all. He was glad that it had all happened so fast that there was really no time for fear. He had always worried about being afraid at the end, and at least he'd been spared that. Maybe the Lord did work in mysterious ways. There was a final chill as the opening restroom door let in a breeze, and as it slowly closed, the world faded to black.

Letting the door swing shut behind him, the man casually wiped the knife on his cassock before tucking it away. The smell of grease had been replaced by the stronger odor of gas. He smiled and peered over the counter. The spotty youth lay staring upward, the hole in his forehead almost indistinguishable from the rest of the boils that ruptured there. The back of the boy's skull, the man reflected, would no doubt be a very different proposition.

The gas can rattled as the man's partner emptied the dregs of its contents over the fat woman who was facedown in her burger.

"You done in there, Jack?" The second man pushed his hair out of his eyes. "Or should I say Father O'Brien?"

"Yes, I am, my son." He smiled and paused to watch his friend at work. "Don't get any of that shit on yourself, Gray. You won't be so handsome with third degree burns."

Gray tossed the can and nodded at the dead fat couple and their supersized meals. "They say those things'll kill ya. Guess they're right."

"Always the joker, Gray. Now help me get the body into the van before any more customers turn up."

"And you've always been so fucking bossy." Gray beamed his Hollywood smile and Jack felt his excitement rising. All the girls at Tower Hill would want to screw him and all the jocks would want to be him. Gray's classes and clubs were going to be full; he had no doubt about that. The rest of the town he would take care of himself.

Jack watched the wind tease an empty Whopper carton across the parking lot while he waited for Gray to bring the body. The road ahead was quiet. He'd seen only one car passing but he'd still be happier when the priest was stowed and they were on their way. It wasn't so much the prospect of more lives being lost, but rather the potential damage to their plans. Or themselves. They were good with both guns and knives but you could never be sure you might not come up against someone better. On a couple of occasions in their travels through the Middle East he and Gray nearly had, and underneath the clerical garb he had the scars to prove it. Still, maybe not for much longer. There was movement behind him.

"Open the door, then." Gray held the priest over his shoulder as if he didn't weigh any more than a shadow, but then physical strength had always been one of his talents. Jack pushed open the door.

"I'm glad you understand our need for speed. You must be growing up at last."

"What ever, man. I was thinking of my clothes. I'm going to have to change but if possible, I don't want to ruin this shirt, and this guy is still definitely leaking."

The wind was cold as they trotted over to the two cars. Jack pulled open the back door of the SUV and Gray dropped the body in before looking down at himself. Red bloomed over the linen. "Shit, it's wrecked." Unbuttoning despite the chill, he started to walk back to the restaurant. "Start my engine and then head off. I'm going to be coming out of here fast and I don't want that heap slowing me down." He smiled over his shoulder. "See you in Tower Hill."

Jack nodded. "See you in Tower Hill."

It was about five minutes later that somewhere in Jack's rearview mirror the flames and black smoke from the burning Burger King rose up angrily toward the sky. He smiled. Gray would be somewhere behind him heading toward the reservoir to get rid of the priest's earthly remains before getting back on course. A sign loomed large by the side of the road and he allowed himself to relax slightly as it came into view.