“Why don’t you take a seat?”
I had followed the priest, Father Daryl O’Connor as he introduced himself, through to the adjoined house. The first thing to strike me about the lounge, in which I now sat, was the colors of it. The walls were an oppressive green, angry red runners and cloths were draped wherever there was room for them. It was garish and vulgar, not beautiful and striking as I suspected it was intended to be. Faint lights glowed on the tiny tree in the corner of the room, with no warmth or appeal. It all reminded me too much of the first Christmas after my mom had died. The only difference was the company.
It was a pretty big difference, too. I was standing in front of a man who, in all honesty and truth held the future of my life in his hands. And now, all he found to say was,
“Have a cookie.”
I was starving. I don’t remember how many of the cookies I ate but gradually the anxiety I felt subsided and I started to feel more and more sleepy. A little woman walked in carrying a small tray with two coffee cups on. She looked across at me through silver rimmed specs and smiled with such sincerity that I felt compelled to return the gesture. I wondered how many people she had given this warm welcome to and how many were in the same dire straits I was in. She didn’t care if I was murderer or completely innocent. For now I was under her roof and that meant I should receive her hospitality.
“What can you tell me about Chuck Harley, Father?” I asked as the housekeeper left the room. I could no longer wait for him to tell me, I had to know all I could.
“That you are reported to be his accomplice,” he smiled slightly, “though you are either guilty and very clever or else innocent or you would not have come back here.”
“Father,” I began. “I don’t know how all this happened. I was traveling across the States, and for some reason we left the interstate and ended up here. I can’t remember, now, why. This guy came up to me in the bar and started talking to me like he knew me, like he’d been expecting me. He was reeling off riddles and the next thing I knew he shoved a gun in my ribs and someone else shot me.” My pace was quickening as was my pounding heart and I could feel my eyes tingling as though the tears that formed there were tiny pins that dug into me with desperation. “Then I went back to New Jersey and three months passed before I got arrested, got bail because the whole case was circumstantial, and then was persuaded to return here and try and straighten this whole thing out.”
“Are you a Catholic, Laurie?”
I blinked back the tears in surprise. Everything that the priest before me had said had been far from what I expected, I didn’t know why I was still surprised. He just watched me, unfazed by anything I had told him.
“I was, I think I am. I went to church every Sunday and most Wednesdays when I was a kid.”
“Well, I did know Chuck Harley a little. He had left by the time I got here. He came back quite often though, always hiding from the cops, keeping a low profile. He had his own reasons for coming back, I guess.”
“Do you know them?”
“But you won’t tell me.”
“Suffice to say, the case against him was in part circumstantial, too.”
Father O’Connor would not say any more, so I endeavored to prompt him.
“He told me that what I was looking for was down by the river. Where is there a river near here?”
“There is one feeds in to the north side of the lake, it’s only about five or six miles from here.”
“What was it that he thought I was looking for?”
“When his wife died, he also lost all his money. I believe it was buried with her.”
“He did kill her, didn’t he? That’s what this is all about. How did I get tied up with all this? What made him want to talk to me?”
“Now, that, I can help you with,” he answered and leaned forward to pour himself another cup of coffee from the pot and did the same for me. He did not seem in a rush to divulge anything to me and the continued waiting was making me grow more and more nervous. Was it all an elaborate set up? Was he keeping me here just long enough for the ginger headed cop to get here and make the arrest he had been waiting twelve years for? “He was not alone in this, you see,” Father continued, sitting back on the brown armchair and shaking his head slightly. “He had a friend from Europe, I never met him, but I know he helped to bury the money. Netty Harley was not short of money. She was from some French business family from all I can make out, but Chuck never spoke to me of her outside of strictest confidence through confession. I believe that his friend knew nothing of her death, but just saw it as a robbery. I guess Chuck realized that he had to admit to his associate that he had set him up for a murder rap. In exchange he was going to give him all of the money.”
“Why did he bury it in the first place?” I could not understand the logic behind any of the thinking that had gone on surrounding this man.
“The money was Netty’s and most of it in the form of jewelry and the like. It is a funny thing, Laurence, tragic, but Chuck really loved her. That’s why he did it all.”
“But what about his daughter?”
“He loved her, too.”
“Why, in God’s name, did he kill them then?”
“I’m quite sure he gave you more answers than I can.” He crossed his gangly legs and studied me thoughtfully. I lowered my gaze, unsure about the calculation he seemed to be regarding me with. I felt like an open book, albeit a book of puzzles, to the man before me. His face never altered, hard and set, but in no way judgmental. “I think it is time that Chuck Harley’s name faded from these parts. Will you help to bury the ghost?”
“I never wanted to the hear the name Chuck Harley, Father. If there was anything I could do to clear myself of it, believe me, I would.”
“Then that is what you should do. Chuck Harley was not the monster that people thought he was. There are two sides to every nickel and that is something that no one could ever realize about him.” He smiled slightly. “You’re a brave man, Laurence, you will be just the person to prove the dilemma Chuck found himself in.”
“What do you mean? Whatever your hopes and expectations are, Father, I should warn you: I am a pitiful coward when confronted.”
“Not at all,” he replied the smile growing on his features, looking both natural and unusual. “You returned from New Jersey to Oklahoma to find out the truth. That took courage, New Jersey legislation would have protected you from the chair. Here in Oklahoma you are risking your life.”
It was a strange way of praising me. It didn’t feel like a compliment, it felt like a warning. The thought of my mistrial presenting execution had never occurred to me and now I longed more than anything to be back in New York City, behind bars but away from the electric chair. My head spun and I felt sick. I tried, in that instant, to be the man that the priest before me believed I was. I tried not to think of a premature death for a crime I was innocent of. I tried to think of any way out of the situation, but the truth was I was stuck in Pontford. I had, as my mom would have told me, made my bed and now I would have to lie in it, but it did not stop me rising quickly to my feet and rushing to bathroom feeling overwhelmingly sick.
It was here, with the door locked and myself pressed against it as though I really thought the lock was not enough to protect me, that the tears came. They burnt as they streaked my face. They were of fear and tiredness, but more than anything they were tears of desperation. I remained pushed against the door as seconds turned to minutes, staring straight in front of me but seeing nothing. I wasn’t even thinking anymore, I was just standing in a dazed state of subconsciousness.
How long I had been like that, I didn’t know, before I looked across at the small mirror over the sink and watched as a man, now becoming a stranger to me, looked back. I watched as he rubbed the tears from his face but was too numb to feel my own hands doing the same thing. What had happened to that man before me who, six months ago, had all he wanted out of life, a job, a girl and a home? What cruel, calculated attack had fate laid at his feet to result in him becoming the outlaw he now was? Why had Chuck Harley so foolishly picked him and why had he even left the interstate to trek through the backwaters of Oklahoma? The answers, I realized, really didn’t matter. I had to become who Father Daryl O’Connor believed I was, I had to expose whatever the truth was and that, I knew, could not be done by the coward whose large, scared eyes looked back at me.
I spun the cold water tap and tucked my hands under the thin trickle of water. Little by little I began to feel calmer, things faded back into manageable proportions. I told myself, over and over as I looked in the mirror, I was no more likely to get caught now I had been told about the death penalty than I was before.
Somewhere, deep inside me, courage was beginning to form. In Father Daryl O’Connor I really felt that I had a friend or in the least a confidant. How accurate my assessment of the priest’s character was time would reveal, but now as I cleaned my face and unlocked the door I felt like a different person to the one who had rushed in there. No longer did I feel cowardly, though I was still afraid. Desperation had been replaced with determination and, for the first time in three months, I felt that I could control what would happen to me. This elation was to be short lived but I, for that short time, really felt invincible.