About the Author

Anne Emery

Books by this Author
Blood on a Saint

Blood on a Saint

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Cecilian Vespers

Cecilian Vespers

A Mystery
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Father Burke appeared ready to burst into song, or at least into chant, as he tacked Saint Thomas’s words to a bulletin board at the entrance to the building. He said, simply: "Let our work begin."


"Our work" was the inaugural session of the new Schola Cantorum Sancta Bernadetta, under the directorship of the Reverend Father Brennan Xavier Burke, BA (Fordham), STL (Pontifical Gregorian), STD (Angelicum). The schola was a kind of choir school for grown–ups, who would be learning or relearning the traditional music of the Roman Catholic Church. Gregorian chant and Renaissance choral music had been largely shunted aside over the past thirty years. For the church, the cataclysmic event of the 1960s was the Second Vatican Council, popularly known as Vatican II. It was a meeting of bishops and theologians from around the world, called together by Pope John XXIII for the purpose of opening the windows of the church to the modern world. When you open a window, fresh air may blow in, but something else may get blown out. In the opinion of Father Burke, the great musical heritage of the church went out the window after Vatican II. In setting up his schola cantorum, he intended to do his part to recover what had been lost.

My law firm, Stratton Sommers, had done the legal work for the schola, but my involvement went far beyond that. My family and I— my estranged wife Maura, son Tommy Douglas, and daughter Normie — had been privy to Father Burke’s anticipation, his anxiety, and his all–night planning sessions as he worked towards the realization of his dream. It was a lot of work but we were happy to assist in any way we could. We knew that if he succeeded in establishing the school, he would be making a permanent home in Halifax. Burke had spent much of his childhood in Ireland, most of his adult life in New York, and the past few years here in Nova Scotia. By this point we felt wedded to him, for better or for worse, and I know the lights would dim if he walked out of our lives. Not surprisingly, then, I was on hand for the introductory session.

"Now, Father, be mindful of the possibility that others in the group may have, em, views that differ from your own." The gentle warning came from Burke’s pastor, Monsignor Michael O’Flaherty, a slight, white–haired priest who spoke with a lilting Irish brogue. "I know this is your show, but a bit of advice from your elders may not go amiss. Just remember to be patient, forbearing, courteous, and open to the variety of —"

"Michael," Burke interrupted, "when have I ever failed to be patient and forbearing?"

The older priest—who really was patient and forbearing, and who answered to "Michael" or "Mike" as cheerfully as to "Monsignor" — sent me a knowing glance, which I returned. He knew as well as I did that when the meek inherited the earth, Father Brennan Burke would not be among those on the podium taking a salute.

"Besides," Burke was saying, in a clipped Irish voice that could never be described as lilting, "these people know what they’ve signed up for. The fact they are here says to me that they have certain views on the Mass and on music that accord with my own."

"Oh, I wouldn’t make that assumption now, Brennan. Not necessarily. Just keep caution in mind, my son." Michael turned to me. "Any advice for him, Monty, before he goes up there?"

"Somehow I suspect my words would be wasted, Michael," I answered.

We had reached the gymnasium of St. Bernadette’s choir school, where the schola had its headquarters and the students were already gathered. Monsignor O’Flaherty and I took seats in the back. Burke went to the front of the gym and took his place at the lectern. Tall, with black eyes and black hair threaded with silver, Burke was a commanding figure in his clerical suit and Roman collar. He faced his inaugural class of just under sixty students. They were priests, nuns, friars, and a smattering of laymen and women from all over North America, Europe, and Japan. The term was originally intended to begin in September and wind up before Christmas. But, owing to the meddling of the priests’ housekeeper, Mrs. Kelly, the notices and registration forms were several weeks late going out. The housekeeper, who had never quite approved of the worldly Father Burke and was not skilful enough to mask her disapproval, wrongly believed the papers had to be seen and endorsed by the bishop. By the time Burke discovered the error and set her straight in a blast that nearly blistered the paint off the walls, he had missed a number of publication deadlines. The first session had to be delayed, throwing the whole year’s schedule off.

But the big day had arrived. It was Monday, November 18, 1991. Burke began his opening address: "Welcome to the first session of the schola cantorum. I am Father Burke, and I look forward to meeting each of you when we begin our work this afternoon. Your presence here suggests to me that you are looking for something deeper, something richer, something more, shall we say, mature than the liturgy and music you may be encountering in your home parish. I have heard the term ‘do–it–yourself Mass’ and that pretty well —"

"The phrase ‘do–it–yourself ’ raises a red flag to me, Father! It suggests that you disparage anything but the old, conservative liturgy that held sway before the Second Vatican Council." The speaker was a heavy–set woman of middle age, with a large wooden cross hanging from a strip of leather around her neck.

"Well, you’re right in part. There is much that has crept into the church today that I disparage. But people have the wrong idea when they blame Vatican II. None of that was envisioned by the Council—"

"Oh, I think you’re being too kind there, Father, too kind altogether." An elderly priest struggled to his feet with the aid of a cane; he faced Burke, then turned to address the crowd. "In fact we can put the blame squarely on the Second Vatican Council for destroying the very essence of Catholic worship; some would say the very essence of Catholicism itself."

The first speaker was back before Burke could respond. "So some liturgical practices are not as good as others? Is that what you’re saying, Father Burke? Are you admitting you’re an elitist?"

Many a schoolteacher would have envied Father Burke at that moment; he may have been under siege, but he had the attention of every student in the room.

"We are members of the Roman Catholic Church," Burke countered. "That is not an institution founded on relativism, moral or otherwise. We need look no further than Saint Thomas Aquinas, who speaks of degrees of perfection. Gradibus in rebus , gradations in things. Thomas says some things are better, truer, finer than others. And that is certainly true of music. When you compare Mozart with, well, some of the tripe —"

"I was right," the woman asserted. "An elitist. Well, that approach leaves out great segments of our community, I’m afraid, Father. Not everyone can appreciate —"

"Who’s being an elitist now?" Burke snapped. I was surprised he had held his temper this long. "I refuse to talk down to my congregation, as if the people are simpletons who ‘don’t get’ the great music. I refuse to insult their intelligence with childish, jaunty, sentimental little tunes —"

"So we’re going to be stuck with all the old music? I thought we were going to dialogue and workshop together to create some music of our own. There’s a group of us here who have been sharing ideas for some new compositions for the Mass."

Burke’s customary deadpan expression gave way to one of horror. How had someone who proposed composition by committee found her way into his schola, a bastion of traditional music?

He eventually got back on track and continued his address. The vast majority of the group were attentive and silent, but he was going to have his hands full with the disgruntled minorities in the student body. If things proved dull in the criminal courts, where I spent most of my days, I’d make a point of dropping in to the schola to observe the fireworks!


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Children in the Morning

Children in the Morning

A Mystery
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You should know right from the beginning that I am not bragging. I was brought up better than that, even though I am the child of a broken home. That’s another thing you should know. but — and it’s a big but — (I’m allowed to say "big but" like this but not "big butt" in a mean voice when it might be heard by a person with a big butt, and hurt their feelings) — but, about my broken home, Mummy says people don’t say that anymore. Anyway, even if they do, it doesn’t bother me. It kinda bothers my brother Tommy Douglas even though he’s a boy, and a lot of times boys pretend they’re tough. Tommy never says, but I know. We have another brother, Dominic, but he’s a little baby so he’s too young to know anything. However, the whole thing is not that bad. That’s probably because we don’t have the kind of dad who took off and didn’t care and didn’t pay us any alimony. When you’ve been around school as long as I have — I’m in grade four — you know kids who have fathers like that. But not my dad. We spend a lot of days with him, not just with my mum. And they both love us. They are in their forties but are both still spry and sharp as a tack. It’s stupid the way they don’t just move back into the same house together but, aside from that, they are great people and I love them very much.

Mum is Maura MacNeil. People say she has a tongue on her that could skin a cat. She is always very good to me and never skins me. But if I do something bad, she doesn’t have to stop and think about what to say; she has words ready to go. She teaches at the law school here in Halifax. My dad is Monty Collins. He is really sweet and he has a blues band. I always ask him to sing and play the song "Stray Cat Strut" and he always does. It’s my favourite song; I get to do the "meow." He is also a lawyer and he makes faces about his clients. They’re bad but he has to pretend they’re good when he’s in front of the judge so the judge won’t send them down the river and throw away the key. Or the paddle, or whatever it is. It means jail.

I forgot to tell you my name. It’s Normie. What” I can hear you saying. It’s really Norma but you won’t see that word again in these pages. Well, except once more, right here, because I have to explain that it comes from an opera called Norma . Mum and Dad are opera fans and they named me after this one, then realized far too late that it was an old lady’s name (even though the N–person in the opera was not old, but never mind). So they started calling me Normie instead.

I am really good in math and English, and I know so many words that my teacher has got me working with the grade seven book called Words Are Important , which was published way back in 1955 when everybody learned harder words in school than they do these days. And I have musical talent but do not apply myself, according to my music teacher. I am really bad at social studies but that’s because I don’t care about the tundra up north, or the Family Compact, whoever they are. But it was interesting to hear that we burned down the White House when we had a war with the Americans back in 1812. Tommy says we kicked their butts (he said it, not me). You never think of Canadians acting like that.

Anyway, I must get on with my story. As I said, I’m not bragging and I don’t mean about the math and English. I mean I’m not bragging about what I can see and other people can’t. Because it’s a gift and I did nothing to earn it. And also because it’s all there for other people to see, but they are just not awake (yet) to these "experiences" 2 or "visions." I’m not sure what to call them. They say about me: "She has the sight." Or: "She has second sight, just like old Morag." Old Morag is my great–grandmother. Mum’s mother’s mother. She’s from Scotland. And she is really old; it’s not just people calling her that. She must be eighty–five or something. But there are no flies on her, everyone says. People find her spooky, but I understand her.

I am looking at my diary, which says Personal and Private! on the cover. I hide it in a box under my bed. Nobody crawls under there to spy on my stuff. The diary is where I kept all my notes, day after day, about this story. I am taking the most important parts of it and writing them down on wide–ruled paper, using a Dixon Ticonderoga 2/hb pencil, a dictionary, and a thesaurus. I am asking Mummy about ways to say (write) certain things, but I’m not telling her what I am writing. All the information you will read here is my own.


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Death at Christy Burke's

Death at Christy Burke's

A Mystery
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Lament for Bonnie

Lament for Bonnie

A Collins-Burke Mystery
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Chapter I


Monty Collins

Why was that eyesore still standing? I stood on the hill in Glace Bay and gazed down at the shoreline, at the derelict concrete buildings that used to be part of the town’s massive heavy water plant. This was where they used to make D2O. Deuterium oxide. I had always found the place spooky, found the whole idea of heavy water spooky.

It is used as a moderator in nuclear reactions, allowing a sustained and controlled chain reaction using ordinary instead of enriched uranium. It’s cheaper that way. In ordinary water, there are two hydrogen atoms each with a single proton. In heavy water, the hydrogen atoms have a neutron in them as well. Put a heavy-water ice cube in your drink and it will sink to the bottom of your glass. It’s not radioactive. As far as I know, the stuff is mildly toxic. One way or the other, I had no intention of keeping a bottle of it in the fridge for hot summer days.

The plant was yet another example of a failed enterprise in industrial Cape Breton, a big, monumentally expensive scheme to produce heavy water in Glace Bay and in Point Tupper and ship it out of the province of Nova Scotia to Canada’s nuclear power plants. But it was plagued by problems from the beginning; corrosion ate away at the infrastructure, and it cost a fortune to repair. It was mothballed less than twenty years after it opened. The cooling towers had been removed when the plant was shut down years ago, but, in addition to all the concrete, I knew there was still an enormous system of pipes rusting under the ground. The plant once employed hundreds of people. There was a lot of money in this town back in the day, with the plant and the mines, and the money was spent locally. Now all those jobs were gone. I could almost see the line of workers walking out of the place for the last time, two by two, despondent. The next image I had was of those same workers, two by two, climbing the steps of an Air Canada jet, all of them heading to Ontario, to the west, to anywhere that offered work, even if it was thousands of miles from home and family.

But I wasn’t there on the first Friday afternoon of my holiday to mourn the hemorrhage of jobs from industrial Cape Breton. I was there to pay a very painful visit to Collie MacDonald, ex-husband of Sharon MacDonald, who was a first cousin to my wife, Maura. Collie and Sharon and their kids used to live up here at the end of Drew Street, in sight of the plant. Not anymore.

The house used to be a nice, well-kept bungalow like others on the street. Now the grey shingles were rotted in places and darkened by soot. Planters that were once filled to overflowing with vibrant flowers displayed nothing but desiccated weeds. Two wrecks of cars took up half the driveway. A child’s swing set in the backyard was rusty and covered with grime. I wondered what the neighbours in this otherwise well-maintained neighbourhood thought of the unsightly premises Collie’s home had become. I went up to the side door, the only one the family had ever used, knocked and walked in. The place was never locked.

I steeled myself for the visit. It hadn’t always been like this.

Normie Collins

I had thought the worst thing about our trip to Cape Breton would be that I couldn’t play the fiddle right. I just switched to the fiddle because the kids on my street in Halifax laughed at me the day I came home with bagpipes. One big guy said, “What’s the difference between bagpipes and an onion? People cry when they chop up an onion.” Mum said I shouldn’t let stuff like that bother me and I should stand up for myself, and she’s probably right, but I ended up changing to the fiddle anyway. I told the other kids it’s a violin. Which it is, but I play it as a fiddle. And this summer I was in Cape Breton to learn how to play. You wouldn’t believe all the good music they have there. All kinds of family bands: the Rankins, the Barra MacNeils, and Natalie MacMaster and her uncle, Buddy, who are fiddlers. All kinds of people teach fiddle music. My teacher was Mrs. Beaton in a little village called Kinlochiel. So I got to stay out in the country near the village at my great-grandmother Morag’s house on Skye Road. What a beautiful name for a road, eh? Mum told me it was named after the Isle of Skye in Scotland, where old Morag came from when she was a little girl way back in time. Being at her place was almost like being on a farm because there was a barn outside the house. It’s too bad there were no horses. What is the point of being out in the country and having a barn if you don’t have horses? But I didn’t say that to her. And she had cool old bicycles in the barn left over from all the kids all through the years, so I used a bike whenever I had to go someplace, like to my music lesson.

I hadn’t expected anything bad to happen on the trip. I love going to see my grandma and granddad and great-grandma and cousins in Cape Breton. If you look at a map, you’ll see that our province is shaped like a lobster out in the middle of the sea. Cape Breton is the island at the end of it, and it looks like a claw! And there are lobsters in the ocean all around us. Anyway, the worst thing about our visit to Cape Breton wasn’t me breaking a string on my fiddle right at the start of my lesson at Mrs. Beaton’s house. There were way worse things than my fiddling.

“Tragic Bonnie.” That will be the name of my story when I write it in school. Tragic Bonnie MacDonald is a girl, twelve years old, who went missing in Cape Breton. Foul play was suspected. That was two weeks before I arrived. She is my second cousin, a year older than me. Her dad and her mum were both named MacDonald. There are so many MacDonalds in Nova Scotia that one MacDonald will end up marrying another one.

I could tell that Mum and Dad didn’t want me to know about Bonnie going missing. They had a big debate between themselves about whether we should even stick with the plan to go to Cape Breton at all. That’s the way they are; they don’t want me to hear about really bad stuff happening because it will give me nightmares and make me afraid to go around by myself in the world. But they couldn’t stop me knowing about this because they had planned for three weeks of holidays and decided we should go to Cape Breton as we planned to do, and I would be seeing our aunts and uncles and cousins, and Bonnie wouldn’t be there. And everybody would be upset and terrified and talking about it. So they did tell me, and it kept going around in my mind and it gave me a really sick feeling in my stomach because I love Bonnie, and I was afraid that something awful might have happened to her. But I tried not to let Mum and Dad catch me crying or they might have left me home with my big brother or a babysitter, or even cancelled the trip.

Everybody’s scared of Great-grandma Morag. That’s a scary name, but that’s not why. It’s because she has really piercing black eyes and because she has the sight. People say, “Old Morag Drummond is a taibhsear.” She has premonitions; she sees things other people say aren’t even there. And that’s what started things off on my visit to Cape Breton.

The first day we got there, the Friday of the long weekend in the middle of the summer, we were in Glace Bay. We were at Grandma Catherine and Granddad Alec’s place. Grandma Catherine is Morag’s daughter, and the mother of my mum, Maura MacNeil. My mother’s mum, ha ha. I wonder if she tells Mum to look both ways before crossing the street and to wear clean socks every day! They talk a lot on the phone when we’re home in Halifax, so maybe she does. Usually there would be a kitchen party going on with this many relatives together, even if nobody had planned it. All the MacDonalds and Drummonds and MacNeils are musical. I guess that’s where I get it, even though I’m not very good. My dad plays music, too. He’s in a blues band in Halifax. And Father Burke was spending some time in Cape Breton, too, because he was planning to visit some priests there, and he was really keen on hearing all the music again; he loved it last time he was there with us. So anyway, normally everybody would be playing fiddles and tin whistles and guitars, and the drum you hold in your hands, which is called a bodhrán. The name of it sounds something like “bow-ron.” These family musicians are so good that they have their own band, Clan Donnie, and they play all over Cape Breton and Canada and even the United States. But that’s not all. They were on television, and got invited to Scotland and played over there! Which is cool because that is where all the families came from in the first place, and the music is Scottish, so it was like going home when the band got invited there. In normal times everybody would play music at home with friends and family. And people would sing, and some would step dance on the kitchen floor. But not this time, because of the tragedy. Bonnie and I have the same great-grandmother, and that’s Morag. Morag lives near Kinlochiel, but likes to visit Catherine in Glace Bay.

We were all sitting around in the kitchen just after supper, all these relatives and my mum and dad and my little brother, Dominic, who is three and is the cutest little kid in the world. I have a big brother, too, Tommy Douglas, but he couldn’t be there because of his summer job at Oland’s Brewery — where they make the beer! — in Halifax. Anyway, we were all drinking tea and eating oatcakes made by Grandma Catherine. They were so good! I couldn’t believe somebody could make something like that in their own kitchen; nothing like that has ever been made in my house. People were talking about all kinds of things, but what they were thinking about was Bonnie. Where was she? Did she run away? Or did something really awful happen to her? Nobody was saying it, but they were thinking it.

Then another one of Mum’s cousins arrived. Robbie. His real name is Robert the Bruce MacDonald. He is one of the members of the band. The band is made up of four people who are brothers and sisters, Sharon, Kirsty, Robbie, and Ian, plus Sharon’s husband, Andy. And Bonnie, who is Sharon’s daughter.

Robbie was on his way to play at some kind of bagpiping festival, and he was “in full regalia.” He had his kilt on and had a sgian dubh stuck in the top of his right sock. That’s a knife. It sounds something like “skee-an doo.” And he had a sporran on, too, which is like a little purse except men wear it, and it’s made of leather and hangs down in the front of the kilt. Somebody asked him if he was “regimental.” At first I didn’t know what they meant, but then somebody else pretended to pick up the back of his kilt and look under it, and Robbie said, “Not regimental yet. Got my Stanfields on. But the night is young.” What I think is that if you’re regimental, it means you’re bare naked underneath the kilt!

Robbie stopped in to chat with the bunch of us before going to the festival. He had his pipes with him in the kitchen. I kept looking at them, and he asked me if I played. I didn’t want to say I had started to learn them and gave them up because the other kids made fun of me, but he must have caught on there was something wrong because he asked me again, and then I ended up spilling the whole story.

And he said, “Pay no mind to any mon who would speak like that about the pipes, Normie Ruadh.” They call me that sometimes. It means Red Normie, so you can guess what colour my hair is. Ruadh sounds something like “Roo-uh.” There were all kinds of redheads around there and no other Normies — God knows! — so I didn’t know why I would get a nickname. But I liked it. It sure was better than the nickname I had back home in Halifax: Klumpenkopf! That’s what my brother Tommy Douglas calls me because my curls get all clumped up when I sleep on them.

So. Robbie was talking about the pipes. “No piper should ever be afraid of anyone else and should never be treated with scorn. Because the pipes have been used to call soldiers to battle and to terrorize the enemy. The sound of the pipes had the Sasannachs —” he meant the English “— so frightened that they declared the pipes a weapon of war and they banned people from playing them in Scotland. You could be whipped and even killed for playing the pipes.”

That all goes back to the bad old days in Scotland. I know some of this history because sometimes the people in Mum’s family get wound up about it, even after all these years. There was the famous Battle of Culloden where the Highlanders, my own ancestors, fought the English king’s army because they wanted to replace that king with their favourite son, Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Highlanders lost the fight. And even though we had not been whooping it up at Grandma Catherine’s place, with music and partying, we ended up singing a song about that battle. The song is called “Sound the Pibroch.” A pibroch is a piece of music that you play on the pipes.


And see a small devoted band

By dark Loch Shiel have ta’en their stand,

And proudly vow wi’ heart and hand

To fight for Royal Charlie!

Tha tighinn fodham, fodham, fodham

Tha tighinn fodham, fodham, fodham

Tha tighinn fodham, fodham, fodham

To rise and follow Charlie!


If you don’t have the Gaelic, you’d never believe that this part of the song sounds like “hash-een foe-um, foe-um, foe-um.” But it does.

There is a lot of lively music for the pipes, but they can be sad, too. And that’s what Robbie did in Grandma’s kitchen. He played a piece he had made up, “Lament for Bonnie.” He said he would go and play it all over the Cape Breton Highlands so Bonnie would hear it and know she was loved and missed by us all, and we wanted her to come back. The pipes are really good for making mournful music. They can sound like someone crying. It was a slow and very sad song, and everybody had tears in their eyes.

I think it was the lonely, beautiful music that set my great-grandma Morag off. Grandma Catherine and Granddad Alec have a room off the kitchen, just for sitting in and reading. That’s where Morag was. She looked so sad over there in her chair that I left my spot in the kitchen and went and sat on the floor by her feet. She had her usual outfit on, a long black skirt and black sweater, with a white collar peeking out from it, and black beads that are called jet beads. Her white hair was back in a knot, and she had those really intense black eyes. They didn’t seem to be looking at anything in the room with us.

She said something, but I couldn’t understand her because it was in Gaelic. I didn’t want to admit I didn’t get it. I was learning the language from books and tapes and cousins, but not fast enough. Morag caught on and repeated it ’sa Bheurla. In English.

“I said nothing good would ever come of it, her marrying him.”

“Who, Greatgran?”

“That Campbell.”

She said “Campbell” the way someone else would say “the devil in hell!” And she looked as if she was seeing the devil’s own face.

“You mean Andy Campbell, that Sharon shouldn’t have got married to him?”


“But he’s really nice, and his music is great!” I said that, and then was afraid I’d get in trouble for arguing with my great-grandmother; you’re not supposed to be saucy to old people.

But she didn’t growl at me or give me a dirty look. She had somebody else in her sights, and it was Andy Campbell. And I was glad it wasn’t me that she had her eyes fixed on.

“A MacDonald does not marry a Campbell.”

She said it as if it was a law being handed down by Moses. Or to Moses, however it was with the tablets. But that couldn’t be right. Campbells must be marrying MacDonalds all the time, because there are so many people with those names in Nova Scotia.

But I didn’t dare argue again, so I just asked her why.

“There’s bad blood between Campbell and MacDonald, and that blood should never be mixed.”

“Glencoe was three hundred years ago, Morag.” Robbie said. He had come over to join us. He perched himself on the edge of a chair and leaned towards the old lady.

Morag turned her eyes on him and gave him the kind of look you’d give to somebody who was loony or not too smart. Then she said, “People don’t change.”

“Well, Andy Campbell has spent many a night under a MacDonald roof, mine included, and never once did he turn on his hosts and massacre them.”

Later on, I looked in a book Morag had about Glencoe so I’d know what they were talking about. Turns out it really was a massacre. It happened in Scotland way back in the winter of 1692. A bunch of soldiers working for King William of England arrived in Glencoe. They had it in for the MacDonald clan; they wanted to get rid of them and scare the other clans. And they were commanded by a fellow named Robert Campbell. The MacDonalds invited them into their home and gave them shelter, food, and drink (booze). It was a tradition in the Scottish Highlands to offer hospitality to visitors, the same way it is in the Highlands of Cape Breton. Campbell and his men stayed in the MacDonald house for a week and a half. Then Campbell received orders from King William to kill all the MacDonalds. And that’s what he and his soldiers did. It was considered even worse than ordinary murder because it was “murder under trust.”

But back at the house that night, the topic of conversation was my missing cousin.

“Where’s wee Bonnie then?” Morag asked Robbie.

“You can’t think Andy had anything to do with the child’s disappearance!”

All she did was look at him with those spooky black eyes.

I slunk away then, before they remembered I was listening in.

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Meet Collins and Burke

Meet Collins and Burke

Sign of the Cross, Obit, and Barrington Street Blues
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A Mystery
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Postmark Berlin


“And so, because you drank yourself senseless, you weren’t here for our parishioner Meika Keller. She came looking for you here at ten o’clock last night. Said you had agreed to see her.”


What? What was he saying? Meika Keller? Had she been talking to Brennan recently? Yes, of course. It was just . . . when? Yesterday, wasn’t it? He tried to clear his head.


“What did she say to you?” the bishop asked now.


“Say to me? When?”


“For the love of God, Brennan, wise up here. What did she want to talk to you about?”


“I don’t ….” It was coming back to him through the haze now. The woman had been chatting with him at Saint Mary’s University, where she was a professor and Brennan a part-time lecturer. As Meika was leaving the campus, she asked if she could come and speak with him. Could she meet him that night after a charity event of some kind that she had to attend. That would have been last night.


“What time is it?” Brennan asked now.


“It’s too late, Brennan. That’s what time it is.”


“No, no, I’ll see her. Just let me . . .”


“Was it a confession she asked for, Brennan? At least, tell me that.”


He tried to reconstruct the conversation with Meika Keller. She was usually cheerful, witty, full of personality. She had always struck him as unflappable. Yesterday, though, her manner was different. There was something on her mind and it must have been serious, if she wanted to meet Father Burke at ten o’clock at night.


“I’m thinking yes, Dennis, she may have wanted to see me in the confessional. Well, I’ll track her down now and apologize and hear what she has to say. Maybe help put her mind at rest.”


“No, you won’t, Brennan.”


Something in Cronin’s manner gave Brennan a chill. “What is it, Dennis?”


“At seven thirty-five this morning, Meika Keller’s body washed up on the beach at Point Pleasant Park.”


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Ruined Abbey

Ruined Abbey

A Collins-Burke Mystery
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Sign of the Cross

Sign of the Cross

A Mystery
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Though the Heavens Fall


Chapter I


Monty Collins


It was Tuesday, January 24, 1995, and Monty Collins was on assignment in Belfast. He was defending a lawsuit filed against a Canadian-owned company that had a large farm equipment factory on the outskirts of the city, and he had secured a temporary placement with a Belfast law firm by the name of Ellison Whiteside. Monty’s office was in the city centre near Queen’s Square, with a window looking out on the Gothic-style Albert Memorial Clock, which stood over one hundred feet high in the square. He did some paperwork on the farm equipment file and conferred with a couple of local clients, then left the office for lunch in the company of two fellow lawyers from Ellison Whiteside. It was their habit, and would now be his, to head over to McHughs bar, no apostrophe, for a pint and a bite to eat. Wisely, his companions had brought umbrellas for the short walk in the cold winter rain; Monty turned up the collar of his jacket and kept his head down till they reached the bar. They got the last vacant table and ordered soup, sandwiches, and pints of Guinness. It was apparent that the pub regulars had got an early start to the day. Two old fellows were having a row over the leek and potato soup, specifically about what leeks were and where they were grown.


“They’re in the same family as onions. And garlic.”


“In yer hole, they are! Where are we, Ireland or Italy?”


“You’re not even in Ireland!” someone declared from the bar.


“Those are fightin’ words, Charley. Every inch of land on this island is Ireland, and every blade of grass growin’ on it.”


“And every leek!” another guy chimed in. “And they’re green and white. Not a patch of orange on them at all.”


Soup grew cold but pints were consumed before their ideal temperature altered for the worst.


Monty enjoyed a few laughs with his colleagues until they departed for a meeting. He sat and finished his meal. When he was about to get up, he saw a man slide off his barstool and come towards him. He had a wild crop of white hair and stubble on his face, and he appeared to be in his late seventies.


“Those fellas with you were from Ellison Whiteside, am I right, sir?”


“That’s right.”


“You’re new here.”


“Yes, I am.”


“What part of America are you from?”


Monty and other Canadians got that all the time. Everyone assumed they were from the United States. A very few people could discern a Canadian accent, often making the comment that it was softer than the American. Maura was recently told that hers was “sweeter.” No surprise there, Monty supposed; Cape Breton speech often sounded like a mix of Scottish and Irish. He addressed the man in McHughs and said, “I’m from Canada.”


“Oh, I beg your pardon. My mistake. No offence intended.”


“None taken.” And if offence had been taken, Monty was too much the polite Canadian to say so.


The man lowered his voice then. “You’re a solicitor with Ellison’s?”


“That’s right.”


“Well, I have a matter I’d like to discuss with you. A highly confidential matter.”


“I keep all my work confidential.”


“Very good, as it should be. And it’s good to have somebody new in town. The solicitors here have become a wee bit cynical. Worn down by all the violence, you know.”


“Town” sounded somewhere between “tine” and “tarn,” “bit cynical” like “but sunnacal,” “violence” like “vayalence.” Monty nodded in acknowledgement.


“So could I have an appointment with you? Without delay?”


Might as well get it over with today. “Sure, come in after lunch. Ask at the desk for me. My name is Collins, Monty Collins.”


“Interesting combination, sir. Sounds as if you’ve a Brit and a lad from County Cork in your family tree.”


“I have both; you are correct.”


“I’ll see you this afternoon.”


Monty paid for his meal and his pint and returned to his office, where he sat reading the file of a man who claimed he had tripped coming out of the loo in his local bar and had fallen on his knees. Monty could imagine how popular this man — and his solicitor — would be if they took a well-loved publican to the law over something like this. It was hardly the life-and-death legal drama he was accustomed to in the courts at home, defending clients who faced the possibility of life in prison for murder. He shook away those thoughts and started to reach for another of his files when the firm’s receptionist popped her head in the door. “Mr. Malone would like to see you, Monty.” She rolled her eyes.


“Sure, show him in.”


She mouthed the words “good luck” and went back out to reception. Then Mr. Malone, the man from McHughs, was in his doorway. He reached around and closed the door ever so quietly and sat in one of the two client chairs in front of Monty’s desk.


“So, Mr. Malone . . .”




“Hughie. How can I help you?”


“You can help blow the lid off one of the biggest cover-ups the wee statelet called ‘Northern Ireland’ has ever known!”


“Cover-up,” Monty repeated.


“A cover-up at the highest levels is what I suspect.”


“I see.”


Hughie sat there nodding his head.


The old cover-up story again. This was not a new experience for Monty, nor for others in his profession. In fact, in a certain kind of case, with a certain kind of client, the client typically goes through a series of lawyers as each one drops his case for lack of merit. That often results in the disgruntled client lodging a complaint with the Bar Society or commencing a lawsuit against the lawyer on completely bogus and fantastical grounds. In virtually every case, the lawyer is accused of “being in on it,” that is, being part of a conspiracy with another party or parties to the complaint, along with other lawyers, the Crown prosecutors, and the judges. It is not unusual for the CIA to crop up in these allegations and, until recently, the KGB. Sometimes aliens had a hand in things as well. These cases often resulted in the client representing himself and foisting on the courts hundreds, even thousands, of pages of the claimant’s ramblings, on everything from his conspiracy theories to his revelations on the meaning of life and the universe. The self-represented litigant. As the old saying goes, “He who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client.”


“Tell me what has you concerned,” Monty urged him, against his better judgment.


“In the wee hours of November the fourteenth, 1992, my niece’s husband, Eamon Flanagan that was, fell off the Ammon Road Bridge and drowned. This happened the same night, and in the same vicinity, as a fatal shooting, which has never been solved. That same dark, early morning, Eamon just happened to fall off the bridge and drown.”


“Why do you believe this was something other than just an unfortunate accident?”


“There is no justice in the artificial state known to the world as Northern Ireland.”


“Yes, but in this instance, what do you think really happened to this man?”


“He was attacked and then thrown or pushed off the bridge.”


“What evidence do you have of that?”


“If you don’t mind me saying so, Mr. Collins, you sound like all the rest of them.” Signed lake all the rust o’ thum.


“This happened over two years ago. If things went as you believe they did, why has nothing been done before now?”


“Others have refused to take on the case.” Of course. That’s why he homed in on Monty, the new solicitor in town. The blow-in from away. “They’re afraid of losing their livelihood. Or worse.”


“That doesn’t exactly encourage me, Mr. Malone.”


“This statelet, this wee bastard of a political entity, is kept in place by fear. Terror from above.”


Monty had no desire to open that particular door, so he tried to steer the conversation back to the facts. If there were any. “What is it you know, which makes you think this was not an accident?”


“The injuries on the body.”




“Blunt force trauma to his leg and other parts of him.”


“And that tells you what?”


“That he was struck by a powerful force before he went off that bridge.”


“Or he suffered trauma in the fall. The structure of the bridge, perhaps, or rocks below? I don’t have the advantage of seeing the post-mortem report, so there’s nothing I can say about that.”


“Katie has it.”




“His daughter. May I send her in to see you?”


Every cell in Monty’s body cried out No! But, trying to stifle a sigh, he said, “Sure. Send her in.”


Malone nodded and stood up and left the office.


Monty got busy for the rest of the afternoon and put the Hughie Malone visit out of his mind. He would not hold his breath waiting for the dead man’s daughter, if there was a daughter, to make an appearance in the offices of Ellison Whiteside, solicitors, Belfast.



Monty Collins and Maura MacNeil had come to Ireland because of Monty’s work on behalf of Canadian Earth Equipment Inc., which was one of the biggest clients of his law firm in Halifax, Stratton Sommers. The lawsuit against the company had been launched by farmers and “agribusinesses” — Monty hated that word; it made him lose his appetite — who claimed that their equipment wore out prematurely because of manufacturing defects. It was a multi-million dollar claim. Canadian Earth insisted that the fault lay not with its processes but with the company that supplied the metal for the equipment. Monty’s role would be to gather evidence and statements from the vast manufacturing complex to use in its defence and in the third party claim against the metal supplier. Stratton Sommers expected him to get this done and return home by early May. The fact that he was a Queen’s Counsel at home in Nova Scotia with more than two decades of experience gave him a leg up when it came to meeting the qualifications to practise law in the North of Ireland. Monty was pleased to have been chosen for the overseas posting, but it had to be said that his partners and associates had not exactly been queuing up in the hopes of snagging this assignment. It was not Paris, not Rome, but Belfast in the midst of the Troubles. With that in the forefront of his mind, Monty had done his research; the flat he had rented was close to the university and the Botanic Gardens, a part of the city that had been spared much of the horror of the past quarter century. A ceasefire had been in place since August, but nobody knew how long it would hold.


He and Maura had agonized over whether she and the children should accompany him. They settled on Dublin for her and the two youngest kids, Normie and Dominic. Normie was eleven going on twelve and Dominic was three. The oldest boy, Tommy Douglas, was attending university at home in Halifax. Maura had arranged a leave of absence from her job as a professor at Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, and she had been taken on as a part-time lecturer at the University College of Dublin’s law school. The family had been in Ireland before, but law courts and law books had not been part of the earlier trip.


Monty had spent three days in Dublin, at the little row house Maura had found on the city’s north side, before he headed north to Belfast to start work. He had leased a nifty little Renault hatchback from Burke Transport, and he left the city with assurances that the family would all be together again soon. It was a pleasant two-hour drive through rolling green fields. He was stopped at a border checkpoint, but the army — that being the British Army — did not detain him long.


Ellison Whiteside was a firm of solicitors specializing in civil litigation, and the arrangement was that Monty would work a few cases for the firm in addition to his work for Canadian Earth. This provided an interesting change of focus. In Halifax, he was a defence lawyer trying cases in the criminal courts. Or representing defendants and their insurance companies in civil trials, taking the position that the person claiming injury was barely hurt at all, that there was nothing wrong with the plaintiff beyond a few minor aches and pains, and that he or she was not entitled to retire from the workforce at the defendant’s expense. Now, here in Belfast, he worked mainly on the plaintiff side. Now he’d be the one claiming that the injured party would never work again, My Lord, because of the pain in his back, neck, leg, head, or little finger. He had to admit that the work wasn’t as exciting as winning acquittals in high-profile murder trials, but the sojourn in Belfast would be an adventure, he was sure.


There was somebody else who had a hand in this whole scheme, and that was Father Brennan Burke. The priest was practically a part of the Collins-MacNeil family now. Born in Dublin, he had a big extended family in Ireland. Although he was a frequent visitor to the country, he had always wanted to spend a longer stretch of time here. Brennan had originally intended to stay in Dublin but with prompting from some of his northern Republican relations who had never recognized the border — “It’s all Ireland, Brennan” — he decided on Belfast. That way, he said, “I can make sure that Monty will continue to receive the sacraments. And he’ll never be alone when it’s time to raise a glass after hours.” So he signed on to assist the other priests at a church in the north part of the city, and he would be staying with a cousin by the name of Ronan Burke.



Monty had made plans to go for an early pub supper with Brennan. Brennan expressed an interest in seeing Monty’s new residence, so they met there. He had the downstairs flat in a typical red-brick Victorian terrace house with projecting bay windows, on Camden Street near Queen’s University. They headed out from there, walked through the university district, and came to the shore of the River Lagan. Fortunately, the weather had changed, as it did frequently during any one day in Belfast, and the river shone in the setting sun, reflecting the flame-coloured sky above. They kept to the Lagan’s bank for a while and then turned into the streets of a neighbourhood Brennan called the Markets. A Nationalist area of brick houses with Republican murals and the green, white, and orange Irish tricolour, which would most likely be described here as green, white, and gold. People were out of their houses chatting and enjoying the late afternoon warmth. Monty and Brennan greeted them and were greeted in return.


They then left the residential area and found themselves on a busy street fronted by an imposing Portland stone building with columns and multi-paned windows. Monty had had a glimpse of the building on a short trip to Belfast three years earlier; it was a sight you wouldn’t forget. It was the High Court, its noble elevation marred by the enormous concrete blast wall that surrounded it. When would they be able to dismantle the wall? When would they deem it safe from car bomb attacks? Was there really a chance that peace would prevail at last?


“Some of our greatest buildings are those dedicated to the ideal of justice and the rule of law,” Brennan said.


“And rightly so,” Monty agreed. “Fiat justitia ruat caelum.”


“Well, we’re in a place now where justice and the rule of law have been taking a thumping for over twenty-five years.”


“Longer than that, I suspect.”


“Much longer indeed. Centuries. But you’re an officer of the courts now, Collins. You’ll put things to rights.”


“Yeah, with my trip and fall cases. Those are my files these days when I’m not sorting through cartons of papers from the equipment manufacturer. At least these cases won’t get me killed. Or so I would hope.”


“Nothing too thrilling yet, I guess?”


“Could be worse.”


He and Brennan continued on their walk, keeping an eye out for a place to enjoy some pub food for supper, and they found what they were looking for at the Garrick, a beautiful old bar with dark wood and gleaming fittings, dating back to Victorian times. As they sipped their pints and waited for their meal to be served, Monty asked, “So you’re settling in at your cousin’s place? You don’t miss rectory life and Mrs. Kelly?” Mrs. Kelly was the priests’ housekeeper in Halifax. A nervous, fussy woman, she made no secret of her disapproval of Father Burke for reasons too numerous to mention.


“I imagine the screws in the Crumlin jail would be easier to take than Mrs. Kelly,” he said. “But all that aside, it’s lovely staying at Ronan and Gráinne’s. Plenty of room. Aideen’s the youngest; she’s at university in Galway. Tomás is about to be married and is living just around the corner, so he calls in for visits. Lorcan is rooming with some other lads in a flat off the Falls Road. I’ve a nice, comfortable room upstairs at Ronan’s, so it’s grand.”


“I understand Ronan works for Burke Transport, northern division?”


“He does. Part-time, a few mornings a week. He used to run it but he was, well, away for a stretch of time. Or two.”


“I see.”


“So somebody else runs the place and he’s there about half the time. His son Tomás is full-time, though. Does the books. Studied business and accounting, all that, in college. But Ronan wouldn’t be able to devote all his time to the transport operation anyway. He has other activities that are taking up his energies.”


“His name pops up frequently in the news.”


“He’s in the thick of things with the ceasefire and with some extremely delicate machinations that are going on, to try and get a peace agreement.”


“Good luck to him.”


“He’ll be needing it. To the Unionists, any accommodation with us papists is a surrender. And one of their mottos, as you’ve seen on the murals, is ‘No Surrender!’”


“Unionist,” Monty knew, meant union with the United Kingdom, not with the rest of Ireland.


“They are already calling the process a sell-out. Sull-ite. But they can’t have been sold too far down the river, because the Republicans are calling it a sell-out, too. Or they assume it will be, from what they’ve heard to this point. So you can imagine the rocky road ahead of the fellas trying to strike a deal. Here’s Ronan, with the best intentions in the world, and he’s getting as much resistance from his own people as he is from their age-old enemies.”


“He’d better watch his back,” Monty remarked.


“God bless him and keep him.”


It was a familiar phrase, uttered frequently and without much thought. Not this time. Father Brennan Burke had the look of a very worried man.


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