"Enough to know the execution was justified."
"We were certain anyway, but it's a relief to know for sure. So you got a confession?"
Ainslie hesitated. "I've quite a bit to report, sir. But we don't want this going out over the wire services."
"You're right," the lieutenant acknowledged. "We should all be so careful. Okay, not on a cell phone."
"If there's time," Ainslie told him, "I'll call you from Jacksonville."
"Can hardly wait. Take it easy, Malcolm."
Ainslie switched off the cellular.
"You'll have plenty of time; the airport's only sixty miles," Jorge volunteered. "Maybe enough for breakfast."
Ainslie grimaced. "The last thing I feel like is eating."
"I know you can't tell me everything. But I gather Doil must have confessed to at least one murder."
"Did he treat you like a priest?"
"He wanted to. And I guess, to a degree, I let him."
Jorge asked quietly, "Do you believe Doil is in heaven now? Or is there some other fiery spot called hell that's run by Satan?"
Ainslie chuckled and asked, "Why, are you worried?"
"No. Just wanted your opinion is there a heaven and a hell?"
You never leave your past behind totally, Ainslie thought. He remembered parishioners asking him much the same question, and he was never certain how to answer honestly. Now, turning toward Jorge, he said, "No, I don't believe in heaven anymore, and I never did believe in hell."
"How about Satan?"
"Satan's as fictional as Mickey Mouse invented as an Old Testament character. He's fairly harmless in Job, then in the second century B.C. he was demonized by an extremist Jewish sect called the Essenes. Forget it."
For years after leaving the church, Malcolm Ainslie had been reluctant to discuss his beliefs, disbeliefs, and religion's sophistry, even though he was sometimes sought out as an expert because of his book on comparative religions. Civilization's Evolving Beliefs, he learned from time to time, was still widely read. Lately, though, he had become more up front and honest about religion, and now here was Jorge, who so clearly wanted guidance.
They were well clear of Raiford by this time and in open countryside, the grimness of the prison and its dormitory towns behind. The sun was shining brightly, the beginning of a beautiful day. Directly ahead was a four-lane highway, Interstate 10, which they would take into Jacksonville, where Ainslie would catch his flight. He was already happily anticipating his reunion with Karen and Jason and the family celebration.
"Mind if I ask another question?" Jorge said.
"I always wondered how you got to be a priest to begin with."
"I never expected to be a priest," he said. "It was something my older brother wanted. Then he was shot and killed."
"I'm sorry." Jorge was startled. "Do you mean murdered?"
"The law saw it that way. Though the bullet that killed him was intended for someone else."
"It was in a small town just north of Philadelphia. That's where Gregory and I grew up. . ."
* * *
New Berlinville was a small borough incorporated near the end of the nineteenth century. It had several steel mills and ironwork factories, as well as producing ore mines. The combination provided work for most local residents, including Idris Ainslie, the father of Gregory and Malcolm, who was a miner. He died, however, when the boys were babies.
Gregory was only a year older than Malcolm, and they were always close. Gregory, big for his age, took pride in protecting his younger brother. Victoria, their mother, never remarried after the death of Idris, but brought up her sons alone. She worked at unskilled jobs, her income aided by a small annuity inherited from her parents, and spent all the time she could with Gregory and Malcolm. They were her life and they, in turn, loved her. Victoria Ainslie was a good mother, a virtuous woman, and a devout Catholic. As time went by, it became her greatest wish that one of her sons become a priest, and, by precedence and his own willingness, Gregory was chosen.
At eight, Gregory was an altar boy at the community's St. Columkill Church, and so was his close friend, Russell Sheldon. In some ways Gregory and Russell were an unlikely, contrasting combination. Gregory, as he grew, was tall and well built with blond good looks, his nature warm and outgoing; he was also devoted to the church, especially its rituals and theatrics. Russell was a short, tough bulldozer of a boy with a flair for mischief and practical jokes. On one occasion he put hair dye in Gregory's shampoo bottle, turning him temporarily into a brunette. On another he placed an ad in the local paper offering Malcolm's new and beloved bicycle for sale. He also placed Playboy pinups in both Gregory's and Malcolm's bedrooms for their mother to find.
Russell's father was a police detective in the Berks County sheriff's department, his mother a teacher.
A year after Gregory and Russell became altar boys, Malcolm was recruited, too, and, through succeeding years, the trio were inseparable. And just as Gregory and Russell had differing natures, so did Malcolm. He was an unusually thoughtful boy who took nothing for granted. "You're always asking questions," Gregory once said irritably, then conceded, "But you sure get answers." Malcolm's questioning, combined with decisiveness, sometimes put him though younger than the other two in a leadership role.
Within the Church the three were obedient Catholics, their minor sins confessed weekly and consisting mainly of Indecent Sexual Thoughts.
The trio were all good athletes and played for South Webster High's football team, where Russell's father, Kermit Sheldon, was a part-time coach.
Then, toward the end of the trio's second football year, there arose expressed in biblical terms, as Malcolm Ainslie would remember it "a little cloud out of the sea, like a man's hand." Unbeknownst to school authorities, Cannabis saliva was procured and used by a few senior members of the football team. Before long, other team members learned of marijuana's pleasurable, exciting highs, and soon, inevitably, almost the entire football team was smoking pot. In some ways it was a preview of how cocaine use would expand, more seriously, in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Ainslie brothers and Russell Sheldon were latecomers to cannabis, and tried the "weed," as the players called it, only after being harassed by their peers. Malcolm tried it once, then asked innumerable questions where the substance came from, what it was, its lasting effect. The answers convinced him cannabis was not for him, and he never used it again. Russell, though, continued using it occasionally, and Gregory more intensively, having convinced himself it was not a religious sin.
Malcolm at first was inclined to question Gregory's growing habit, then let it go, believing his brother was indulging in a fad that would shortly disappear. It was a lapse in judgment that Malcolm would regret for the rest of his life.
The marijuana came mostly in "nickel bags" plastic bags containing a small quantity of pot and selling for five Dollars on the street meaning the area around South Webster High. However, the total amount consumed by the football players and, by now, other students consistently increased, prompting greater trafficking and competition.
Even in those times, drug gangs were beginning to pro-literate, and initially one such gang, the Skin Heads, based in Allentown, supplied the New Berlinville students' needs. Then, as demand expanded and with increasing cash flow, a gang in nearby Reading, the Krypto-Ricans, looked covetously at the territory. One day they decided to take it over.
It was the same afternoon Gregory and Russell left school and headed for a seedy part of town. Gregory, having been there before, knew exactly where to go.
At the doorway of an abandoned house a burly white male with a shaven head confronted him. "Where you headed, punk?"
"You got four bags of weed?"
"Depends if you got the green, man."
Gregory produced a twenty-Doilar bill, which the other snatched, adding it to a bulging roll pulled briefly from his pocket. From behind, another man handed over four nickel bags, which Gregory stuffed beneath his shirt.
At that precise moment a car pulled up outside and three members of the Krypto-Ricans emerged, their guns drawn. The Skin Heads saw the others coming and dived for their guns, too. Moments later, as Gregory and Russell headed for the street to get away, bullets were flying.
Both ran hard until Russell realized that Gregory was no longer at his side. He looked back. Gregory was lying on the ground. By then the wild shooting had stopped, and the members of both gangs were vanishing. Soon after, police and paramedics were called. The paramedics, arriving first, quickly declared Gregory dead, the result of a gunshot wound to the left side of his back.
By chance, because he was driving nearby and heard the dispatcher's radio call, Detective Kermit Sheldon was the first police officer on the scene. Taking his son aside, he spoke sternly. "Tell me everything fast. And I mean everything, exactly as it happened."
Russell, still in shock and in tears, complied, adding at the end, "Dad, this will kill Greg's mother, not just him dying, but the marijuana. She didn't know."
Russell's father snapped, "Where is the stuff you bought?"
"Greg hid it in his shirt."
"Do you have any at all?"
Kermit Sheldon put Russell in his official car, then walked to Gregory's body. The paramedics had finished their examination and covered the body with a sheet. Uniform police hadn't arrived yet. Detective Sheldon looked around. He lifted the sheet, groped inside Gregory's shirt, and found the marijuana packets. He removed and put them in his own pocket. Later he would flush them down a toilet.
Back at his car he instructed Russell, "Listen to me. Listen carefully. This is your story. The two of you were walking when you heard the shooting, and ran to get away. If you saw any of the people with guns, describe them. But nothing more. Stick with that and do not vary it. Later," Russell's father added, "you and I will have a serious talk, which you're not gonna enjoy."
Russell followed the instructions, with the result that subsequent police and press reports described Gregory Ainslie as an innocent victim caught in the crossfire of an out-of-town gang war. Several months after Gregory's death, the bullet that killed him was matched with a gun owned by a Krypto-Ricans gang member, Manny "Mad Dog" Menendez. But by that time Mad Dog was also dead, having been killed in another shootout, this time with police.
Not surprisingly, Russell Sheldon never used marijuana again. He did, however, confide in Malcolm, who had already half-guessed the real story. The confidence they thus shared as well as grief and a shared sense of blame made their friendship stronger, a bond that would last across the years.
Victoria Ainslie suffered terribly because of Gregory's death. But the cover-up contrived by Detective Kermit Sheldon left her with a comforting belief in Gregory's innocence, and at the same time, her religious faith consoled her. "He was such a wonderful boy that God wanted him," she told friends. "Who am I to question God's decision?"
Malcolm was impressed by what Russell's father had done at some risk to himself to protect the memory of Gregory for their mother's sake. It had not occurred to Malcolm before that police officers could be figures of benevolence in the community as well as enforcers of the law.