Last Breath


By Rachel Lee

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When popular Father Quinlan is accused of murdering a young parishioner and nailing him to a cross inside the church, private investigator Chloe Ryan knows he’s innocent. Soon, Chloe is butting heads–and hearts–with police detective Matthew Diel. Original.


Copyright © 2003 by Sue Civil-Brown

All rights reserved.

Published in 2003 by arrangement with Warner Books, Inc.

Hachette Book Group

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The Wheeler Publishing name and logo are registered trademarks of Hachette Book Group.

ISBN: 978-0-446-55038-3

Also by Rachel Lee in Large Print:

With Malice


My very deep thanks to Father Eric for answering my questions and sharing so freely with me the joys and burdens of the priesthood. Any errors are mine alone.

Chapter 1

Victor Singh's eyes scanned over the instruments, then out at the horizon, as he pushed the yoke forward and to the right. This was the critical moment. Up until this moment, he had been on a routine flight path, following instructions from air traffic control, crossing Tampa Bay, avoiding the landing and takeoff patterns for three major airports while gazing down at dolphins leaping in the wake of a fishing boat below. Just another small, private plane out circling so a pilot could log hours to keep his license current. But at this moment, he broke the pattern and heeled his aircraft to the south. The wide runways of MacDill Air Force Base came into view through the windshield. He focused on a smooth descent to one hundred feet. Attack altitude. Thirty seconds after his hard right turn, he crossed the perimeter of the airbase, aiming at the long, three-story, cement-block building, and pulled the lever beside his chair.

He shut down the flight simulator software. Thirty seconds. That's all he would need to enter the halls of glory.

At ten-thirty in the morning on Holy Saturday, St. Simeon's church was full of people. It was a joyous time, Father Brendan thought as he watched the candidates and their families swirl around. This was the rehearsal for tonight's Easter Vigil Mass, and the baptism, first communion, and confirmation of the candidates. Most of the forty initiates were adults, joining the church for a variety of reasons. A dozen were older children who were joining with their families, the children who just the other day had been making origami cranes. One or two were adult Catholics who were receiving belated confirmations.

With them were family members who wanted to watch and small children who couldn't be left alone at home. It made for a pleasant melee, and Brendan couldn't help smiling, even if the director of religious education, Sally Tutweiler, a middle-aged matron with screaming red hair, was getting hoarse from trying to be heard over the commotion.

Finally, Peggy Randall, the church pianist, banged out a loud, dissonant chord on the piano. Even the three-year-olds stilled. For a moment.

Sally, having figured out she wasn't going to succeed by raising her voice, darted up to the ambo — the podium on the right of the altar — and took advantage of the microphone. "All right, everybody. Let's get to it. Catechumens in the front row, candidates in the next three rows, families all together please. Sponsors, sit next to your candidates. Parents, please restrain your small children. We don't want anyone to get hurt."

Another hubbub ensued as people headed for their designated pews. A baby started crying angrily. A boy of nine shoved a girl of eight, eliciting more wails. A father grabbed the boy's arm and drew him away, scolding quietly. The boy looked mutinous. Ah, people, Brendan thought happily. For all their faults and foibles, they were wonderful.

At last there was relative silence in the church. As much silence as there could be when a hundred people gathered and among them were young children.

"We'll begin with a prayer," Sally announced to the gathering. "Father Brendan will lead us. Father?"

He'd been standing toward the back, and now he made his way toward the altar, glad on this day of all days to be a priest and a pastor. There was so much joy in the church at this time of year, with the new people being welcomed into the faith and the resurrection about to be celebrated. His eyes lifted to the crucifix, the corpus covered in a purple Lenten shroud, and he felt the fatigue of the Lent season begin to seep away as Easter prepared to take its place.

Before he reached the altar, a little girl, maybe five or six, broke away from her mother and ran up onto the altar. Her mother called out in a horrified voice, but Brendan didn't mind. Gone were the days when only a priest or an altar boy could step into those sacred confines. He liked it when children wanted to explore the altar, and was more than happy to tell them all about everything up there.

But just before he reached the first step, the little girl called out, "Mommy? Mommy, why is the cross bleeding?"

Brendan froze. Everyone in the church froze. He saw the shock and disbelief on Sally's face, could feel the swiftly indrawn breaths from behind him.

A miracle? Brendan felt his heart slam. He'd hoped his entire life for a miracle, but now that he faced the possibility of one, he suddenly realized that a miracle could be a terrible thing. No, it had to be desecration of some kind. Suddenly angered, he took the two steps in one stride and swept swiftly around the altar. The little girl looked up at him with huge eyes.

"Why is it bleeding?" she asked.

He wanted to tell her it was a bad joke, that the dark stain on the floor was a bit of paint, but the coppery smell that suddenly assailed his nostrils told him otherwise. Copper and rot.

Oh my God!

Slowly, his neck almost refusing to bend, he looked up at the shrouded corpus and saw small stains where the nails in the hands were.

"Marci," said the mother, sounding frightened now, "come back here at once."

The little girl, with wide, brown eyes, looked up at him for another second. Then, apparently reading something in his face that frightened her, she turned and ran back to her mother.

The silence in the church was now as profound as a tomb. For endless seconds, Brendan warred with disbelief and shock. He had to do something. Finally, gathering a stray cogent thought or two, he turned and looked at Sally.

"Sally, move the rehearsal to the parish hall, please."

She nodded, her face as white as paste.

"I'll be over in a few minutes, all right?" He faced the crowd and raised his voice to be heard. "We, uh, seem to have had an act of vandalism," he said with remarkable steadiness. "So I'm going to ask you to move to the parish hall for rehearsal while we get this, uh, cleaned up." He managed what he hoped was a smile and not a grimace. "I'll rejoin you in a few minutes, but Sally will lead the opening prayer. Don't worry, she's as qualified as I am."

Some uncertain laughs greeted his poor foray into humor. But no one moved. Curiosity, or dread, held them in their pews.


Thus prompted, she seemed to come out of her trance. "Yes, let's go, everyone. Sponsors, lead the way, please. Joe, you have a key, don't you?"

God bless Sally. Brisk now, though still pale, she started shooing people out the side doors. A lot of heads craned to look at the crucifix, but no one disobeyed Sally and her catechists.

When the door closed on the last of them, Brendan forced himself to turn to the cross. Some part of his mind was praying almost frantically, but he was hardly aware of it. Anger filled him, anger and fear. No miracle, he told himself. He wouldn't be that fortunate. Or that cursed. Some idiot had gotten hold of some animal blood and. …

He never completed the thought. He'd bent down to loosen the shroud around the feet of the corpus, and had lifted it just a little.

Instead of wooden feet, carved so lovingly, the feet he found were swollen. Purple.

Somebody had been crucified in his church.

The call to 911 went surprisingly well, considering that the dispatcher couldn't seem to grasp the meaning of "crucified." Not that Brendan could blame her. He called from the phone in the sacristy, and felt as if he were caught in some kind of nightmare, speaking words that surely couldn't be his own. The dispatcher seemed to react the same way. Finally, he broke it down for her.

"Somebody," he said slowly, fighting to keep his voice calm, "has nailed a body to the cross in my church."

That got through to her. "Is he dead?"

"I believe so." He couldn't bear to imagine anything else. Nailed. Shrouded. Hanging there for who knew how long … Oh, God, what if that body was there during last night's service?

"Don't touch anything," the dispatcher warned him. "We'll have a car there in ten or fifteen minutes."

It sounded like ten or fifteen years. Brendan went to lock the church so no one else could come in. Turning the keys one by one. Locking himself inside with a corpse. The horror of it was beginning to reach him fully, to feel like an icy grip around his heart.

He had to tell Father Dominic what had happened. He had to make sure the assistant priest would fill in for him at the rehearsal. He had a feeling the police were going to want to talk to him for quite a long time.

And he didn't want to leave the body alone. Not like this. Someone needed to pray for the poor soul. Keeping his eyes averted from the altar, he went back to the sacristy and phoned the rectory next door.

"Father Dominic Montague."

For the first time in the ten days since Dominic had come to the parish, Brendan was glad the assistant priest was twenty years older — even if his experience seemed largely limited to jockeying a desk at the Diocese of Tampa. Because of his years, he would probably keep a cooler head.

"It's Brendan, Dominic. I need you to go over to the parish hall and take over for me at the rehearsal."

"The parish hall?"

"I had to move everybody out of the church." Brendan drew a deep breath and looked up at the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe that had been donated by the Thursday Rosary Group. "There's, uh, been a serious desecration at the church." He couldn't bring himself to say murder. The word wouldn't come even though he didn't know what else it could be. "I'm … waiting for the police."

"What happened?"

"Trust me on this. You don't want to know. You'll find out soon enough. Will you take over for me?"

"Of course I will. Anything special you want me to do?"

"Sally will handle almost all of it; that's her job. Me, I just show up to say the opening and closing prayer and lend an interested presence, if you follow me."

"I follow. Consider me on my way."


Brendan hung up the phone and realized he was sweating profusely. Not because the church was warm, because it wasn't. Thanks to the modern miracle of air-conditioning, the church, even when the Tampa heat did its worst, was usually as cool as a cave.

Or a tomb. He shuddered, letting the tension run through him, giving himself a moment actually to feel what was happening here in this sanctuary, in this holiest of places. To accept the fact that one of the worst evils of all had crossed the threshold and made a mockery of one of the holiest symbols of his faith.

Evil. Human evil to be sure, but evil all the same. It should never have trespassed here.

But it had. And he had a duty to perform. Returning to the sanctuary, he sat in the front pew and began to pray for the repose of the soul of the person who hung on the cross.

Strangers crawled all over the church and altar, strangers in uniforms, taking pictures, dusting everything for fingerprints. The body still hung on the cross, and very little had been disturbed yet. Even the shroud remained in place, concealing the victim.

Once Brendan had given his brief statement of events, he had been forgotten. He was, in a way, surprised they hadn't told him to leave. Not that he would have gone. He was already on his fifth rosary for the victim. The repetition of the rosary, like a mantra, helped him meditate on God. Although right now he was finding it difficult to concentrate.

A man in a suit paused beside him, saying nothing, as if respecting Brendan's silent prayer. When Brendan looked up, the man slid into the pew beside him, flashing a badge. "I'm Detective Matthew Diel. Tampa homicide."

"Brendan Quinlan," Brendan replied.

"I know, Father."

Detective Diel, though only in his early to mid-thirties, had a careworn look. He had dark eyes, thick dark hair, and a nose that had been broken once. He also had an interesting scar slashing his cheek, almost a groove. Brendan wondered about it, but didn't ask.

"So," said Matthew Diel, flipping open a notebook, "you found the body?"

"I guess. Actually, a small child claimed the cross was bleeding. We were having our Easter Vigil rehearsal in here. I came up to investigate and found the body."

Diel nodded as if he already knew this. "How many people were in here?"

"Conservatively, about a hundred. They should all still be at the parish hall, if you want to check on that."

"Who has access to the church?"

"You mean with a key?"

Diel's dark eyes, devoid of feeling, settled on him. "I'm assuming you keep the church locked when it's not in use."

"Actually, we keep it open from six-thirty in the morning until eight at night on weekdays. Then we lock it up. On weekends it's usually opened around two on Saturday afternoon, except for special days like this. We probably unlocked the doors around ten this morning. And on Sunday morning we open at six-thirty, and close at four in the afternoon."

Diel nodded once more, as if the exact schedule wasn't important, but he did scribble it down. Interesting man.

Then Brendan realized he hadn't given the information the man really wanted. "This week was different."

Diel's head lifted. "How so?"

"It's Holy Week." Seeing that Diel's face betrayed no comprehension, he continued. "We had the Mass of the Last Supper Thursday evening at seven-thirty. It was over a little after nine. We followed it with adoration."


Brendan wondered how much he was going to need to explain to this man, then decided to go with the bare facts. Let the man ask what he wanted to know.

"We place the consecrated host out where it can be seen by everyone. So they can pray in its presence. So we can keep a vigil with our Lord." He added, "It's in remembrance of Jesus's suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane. We keep a vigil the way the apostles did."

"Who was here?"

"Father Dominic Montague and I, and any number of other people. They came and went as time allowed. Dominic and I stayed until midnight, when we locked the host away."

"Did anyone stay after that?"

"No. In fact, I locked the church up myself."

Diel scribbled for a minute. "What about last night?"

"We had the Stations of the Cross last night at seven-thirty. We locked up about ten."

"So the church is always locked overnight?"


"Who has the keys?"

He rattled off the list: himself; Father Dominic; the facilities manager, Merv Haskell; the liturgist, Amelia Morgan; the parish secretary, Lucy Gallegos; Sally Tutweiler, the Director of Religious Education; and the sacristan, Mona Rivera. "I think that's it. You might check with Merv Haskell, though. He'd know if anyone else has a key. He's in charge of them."

"And if someone lost a key?"

"If they reported it, he'd know."

"What's Mr. Haskell's number?"

"I'll have to check my Rolodex. Listen, would it help if I called Lucy to come in? Like most good secretaries, she knows everything." He gave a wry, humorless smile. "I'm just the pastor."

Something in Diel's gaze flickered, and a faint smile came to his lips. At last, a human response. "That would help," Diel said.

Brendan started to rise. "I want to be here when you take the body down."

Diel's eyes snapped to his face. "Why?"

"Because I want to … take care of it. That person deserves some spiritual care, however late it may be."

"You can't —"

"Of course he can, Matt," said an edgy female voice from behind them.

Startled, Brendan turned to see Chloe Ryder standing in the aisle behind them. Stunning in white shorts and a dark blue polo shirt, Chloe looked like the original ice queen. He was a man, like any other man, and he noticed attractive women. But Chloe … There was something about her that was so hands-off he often wondered what her story was. Not that she would tell him. He wondered if Sister Philomena even knew, and Sister Phil and Chloe were apparently best friends.

All he knew about Chloe Ryder was that she'd been a cop once, and now was a lawyer. He'd heard whispers that she had something awful in her past, but no one seemed willing to let him in on the gossip. Which, he reminded himself, was a good thing. He shouldn't even be curious.

Her blue eyes were sometimes as cold as chips of ice, but right now they showed an amazing heat. Rage. This was such a completely new side of her to Brendan that he almost failed to greet her.

"Well, well, well," said Matt Diel, rising and facing her. "Chloe. It's been a while."

"Not long enough," Chloe said flatly.

Brendan looked from one to the other and wondered at the electricity he felt between them, not unlike the tingle in the air before a lightning strike. Antagonism?

"You know we can't let him touch the body," the detective said.

"Sure you can."

"And it's none of your business."

Chloe stepped forward, her face mere inches from Matt's. "Oh, it's my business all right. It's my parish, my church. My priest wants to bless the victim. That's the victim's right."

"If he's Catholic."

Chloe made an impatient sound. "He is. Why else would he be nailed to that cross?"

"The murderer …"

"Oh, the murderer may be Catholic, too. But so is the victim. You mark my words."

"I can't have anybody messing with the DB. Forensics —"

"Forensics is going to mess with the DB. And you know damn well that if they make a note of Father Brendan's viewing the body and blessing it, it isn't going to mess up a thing, Matt."

"Oh, hell." Diel sighed. "How did you hear about this?"

Chloe almost smiled, just a little lift of one corner of her mouth. "I have a scanner."

"I should have known. Okay, okay, I'll talk to the criminologists."

"Do more than talk."

"Don't turn this into a religious issue."

"It is a religious issue."

To Brendan's surprise, Matt Diel actually grinned. "You're still tough as nails."

Her answering smile was chilling. "It's how I get by."

Chapter 2

As Matt walked back to the altar, Brendan looked at Chloe. "Thank you."

She shrugged. "I'll hang around, Father. I know how to deal with these guys. I used to be one of them."

Which was the most forthcoming thing she'd ever said to him. He wondered if he would ever know her.

"I need to make some calls," he said. "The bishop." Oh, God, the bishop! "And Lucy."

"Sure. Go ahead. I won't let them take him away before you get back."

"Thank you," he said again, suddenly very grateful that this woman was made of steel. Right now he needed someone like her to depend on. "Do you think they can be done in time for Vigil?"

"I'll ask Diel. I think so. If they hustle."

He wondered if it mattered. If he would even be able to make himself hold the Vigil in this church, after this. "It might be better to use the parish hall."

"Maybe. Up to you, Father. But you better decide soon, because the people who were going to help decorate the altar are starting to arrive, and the cops are sending them away."

"How'd you get in?"

"I have my methods."

He imagined she did. And for the first time in his life, he was grateful to escape a church.

The relief followed him across the small courtyard to the rectory, where he sat at Lucy's desk and used her Rolodex to call her and Merv, and tell them to come in immediately. They were both home, thank heaven, and upon hearing what had happened, they promised to be right over.

The bishop, well, he had to deal with the bishop's gatekeeper, a priest he had never really liked. A man who would undoubtedly hold it against him personally that something so revolting had happened at St. Simeon's.

He did take some small satisfaction, however, in the way the monsignor's breath sucked in when he heard what had happened. This unhappy crucifixion might have happened at St. Simeon's, but the diocese would have to deal with it. That meant Monsignor Crowell, the alligator at the gate, would have to deal with the public relations nightmare. Sometimes there was justice.

"What the hell is going on over there, Quinlan?" Crowell barked.

"I told you, Monsignor."

"What you didn't tell me is why things like this are happening in your parish."

It sounded like the navy all over again, Brendan thought. Having spent twelve years as a navy chaplain, he'd discovered that anything remotely related to his faith, the chapel, or his congregation was always his fault. He didn't bother to argue. However, having spent half of those twelve years on a ship, seasick every one of them, he figured he was better off right now. Just on that front alone. Which gave him some patience.

"Monsignor," he said as gently as he could, "my parish can hardly be responsible because some sick, evil person decided to commit an act of such enormity."

"No? Well, I might point out that nothing like this has happened anywhere else. And nothing like this ever happened before you arrived here."

"I should hope not," Brendan said. Thinking of the poor soul in the church reminded him that there were worse things than Monsignor Crowell. "I would hate to think this is a diocesan practice."



"Your levity will be your undoing."

Brendan suspected that it already had been, with Crowell at least. Could he help it if he dealt with stress through humor and music? Or that he loved a good joke? Well, of course he could help it. He just refused to allow himself to be turned into a dour, judgmental, bitter man. The Catholic Church already had enough of them.

"I wasn't being humorous, Monsignor. I was being honest." There, let the old boy chew on that one. "Of course nothing like this has happened before. And, God willing, it will never happen again. But unfortunately, it did happen. I presume you want me to make every effort to help the police?"

The answer should have been a prompt "yes." This was, however, the church hierarchy he was dealing with, and in his experience if the hierarchy could find a way to be secretive, it would do so on principle. He was sure they didn't want a loose cannon like him shooting off his mouth without supervision. Or maybe up there they thought of him as a loose "canon." The pun brought a grim smile to his mouth.

"Let me talk to the bishop, Quinlan."

The bishop, the Most Reverend Arthur A. Rourke, was a kind and gentle man who probably had no idea that he was surrounded by a moat of politically motivated alligators. Then Brendan sighed inwardly. He was being unfair and he knew it. Most of the people in the chancery weren't like Crowell, who, he would bet, had his eye firmly fixed on cardinatial red.

"Of course, Monsignor. But I will point out that the police are here now, and they want to talk to some of the parish employees."

"Well, of course they must cooperate," Crowell said, as if realizing he was walking perilously close to a cliff edge. "I imagine no one knows anything anyway."

"Except for the murderer or murderers, I'm sure you're right."

"Just see to it that no one talks to the press. Any information will have to come through the diocese."

"I assumed so. I'll warn everyone."

Without saying good-bye, Crowell hung up. He always ended conversations abruptly, at least when dealing with Brendan.

Sitting at Lucy's desk, in an all-too-rare moment of solitude, Brendan closed his eyes and allowed himself to feel the gravity of this day, of the event that had unfolded in his church. Allowed himself to feel some of the grief and shock that any mind could be so twisted, that any human being had been killed such a way.

He hoped to God he'd never seen the victim before in his life.

Unfortunately, he was not to be so lucky.

As he was coming out of the side door of the rectory into the courtyard, Brendan ran into Father Dominic Montague, who was coming in through the back gate, ostensibly on his way back from the parish hall.

A tall man with graying hair and eyes the color of gunmetal, he was an imposing figure. The kind of figure Brendan had often wished he were. Everything about Dominic suggested that he was destined for the hierarchy. Monsignor at the very least. So what was he doing as parochial vicar under a much younger man? Brendan couldn't figure it out, and his network of friends didn't have a clue. And if Dominic knew, he wasn't saying either.

"What's going on, Brendan?" he asked bluntly.

"There's been a crucifixion in the church," Brendan answered with equal bluntness. As soon as he spoke, he wanted to call the words back. They showed nothing of his usual tact or consideration. In fact, they sounded almost like a joke.

That was Dominic's initial reaction. He could see the flicker of impatience in the older man's gaze, then saw realization dawn. "You're not kidding, are you."

"I wish to God I was. Is the rehearsal over?"

"All except the cops trying to get everyone's names, addresses, and phone numbers. It's making them all very uncomfortable. And people are demanding to know what's going on."

"Oh, man." Torn, Brendan hesitated. On the one hand, there was the victim in the church. On the other, his newest flock members were being needlessly upset. What would any of them know about this? They'd all arrived in the church this morning after Sally and her teachers. "Let me see what I can do. Is there a detective over there named Matt Diel?"

"No detectives, just uniforms."

"All right, hang on a minute."

From the courtyard, the entrance to the church led directly into the sacristy, where priests robed for Mass. From there, he walked directly onto the altar. Detective Diel was still there, he saw, making notes and talking to one of the criminologists. Chloe was still there, too, sitting in the front pew, her arms folded, her gaze watchful, looking, he thought, like a Valkyrie ready to spring into action.

"Detective Diel," Brendan called out.

At once the detective turned. He said something to the criminologist and came over to Brendan. The body, thank heaven, was still shrouded, though men were now on ladders poring over the huge wooden cross.

"Yes, Father?" Diel seemed amiable enough, but Brendan didn't trust the friendliness.

"I want to know why your men are upsetting all the people in the parish hall."

"We need to know who they are. We might need to question them later."

"The church can provide that information. But you need to stop upsetting them. They're supposed to come back into this church tonight for their Rites of Initiation. I don't like you scaring my flock away."

"I don't like people being murdered either," Matt said flatly. "But it happens anyway."

"Can you give me one good reason why you need to treat these people like criminals?"

"There's been a murder."

Point non plus. Brendan felt irritation rising in him. "You have no reason to think any of them are involved."

"Father, they were here when the body was found. One of them might have been here for … another reason."


On Sale
May 1, 2003
Page Count
320 pages