It was shortly after Gregory's death that Victoria said to her son, "I wonder if God knew that Gregory was going to be a priest. If He had, He might not have taken him."
Malcolm reached for her hands. "Mom, maybe God knew that I would follow Gregory into the Church."
Victoria looked up with surprise. Malcolm nodded. "I've decided to go to St. Vladimir Seminary with Russell. We've talked about it. I'll take Gregory's place."
And so it happened.
The Philadelphia seminary, which Malcolm Ainslie and Russell Sheldon attended through the next seven years, was an old but renovated turn-of-the-century building, conveying serenity and erudition, an atmosphere in which both young men were immediately at home.
From the beginning, Malcolm's decision to seek religious orders entailed no sacrifice for him. He was happy and composed when it was made. In what he saw as their order of importance, he believed in God, the divinity of Jesus, and the Catholic Church, which brought system and discipline to those other beliefs. Only years later would he realize that, as an ordained priest, he would be expected to reorient that precedence subtly, so that, as in Matthew 19:30, the "first shall be last; and the last shall be first."
The seminary education, strong on theology and philosophy, was the equivalent of college, followed by three more years of theology, producing, at the end, a doctoral degree. Thus, having graduated at ages twenty-five and twenty-six respectively, Fathers Malcolm Ainslie and Russell Sheldon were appointed associate parish priests Malcolm at St. Augustus Church in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Russell at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Reading. The two parishes were in the same archdiocese and only twenty miles apart.
"I suppose we'll be visiting each other all the time," Malcolm said cheerfully, and Russell agreed, their closeness having persisted through the seminary years. But in fact, because of heavy workloads and a shortage of Catholic priests worldwide, which would continue and worsen, their meetings were few and hurried. That is, until several years later, when a natural catastrophe brought them, once more, close together.
* * *
"And that," Ainslie told Jorge, "is pretty much how I became a priest."
Several minutes earlier, in the Miami blue-and-white, they had passed through Jacksonville. Now the airport was visible directly ahead.
"So how come you left the Church and became a cop?" Jorge asked.
"It's not complicated," Ainslie told him. "I lost my faith."
"But how'd you lose your faith?" Jorge persisted.
Ainslie laughed. "That is complicated. And I have a plane to catch.''
"I don't believe it," Leo Newbold said. "The bastard probably thought he was being cute, leaving some phony clue so we'd bash our brains together and get nowhere."
The lieutenant was responding to Malcolm Ainslie's report, made from a pay phone at Jacksonville Airport, that while Elroy Doil had admitted to fourteen murders, he had denied killing Commissioner Gustav Ernst and his wife, Eleanor.
"There's too much evidence against Doil," Newbold continued. "Just about everything at the Ernst killings matched those other scenes, and because we held back so much of the information, no one but Doil knew enough to put all that together. Oh, I know you have doubts, Malcolm, and I respect them, but this time I think you're wrong."
A moment of obstinacy seized Ainslie. "That damn rabbit left beside the Ernsts didn't make sense. It didn't fit the other Revelation signs. Still doesn't."
"But that's all you have," Newbold reminded him. "Right?"
Ainslie sighed. "That's all."
"Well, when you get back, I guess you should checkout that other name Doil gave you. What was it?"
"Ikeis, in Tampa."
"Yeah, and the Esperanza thing, too. But don't take too much time, because we've got two new whodunits here and more pressures every day. As far as I'm concerned, the Ernst case is closed.''
"How about the tape of Doil? Should I FedEx it from Toronto?"
"No, bring it back with you. We'll have copies and a transcript made, then decide what to do. For now, have a good trip with your family, Malcolm. You've all earned it."
* * *
With ample time to spare, Ainslie boarded his Delta flight for Atlanta en route to Toronto. A light passenger load allowed him a three-seat economy section to himself, where he leaned back and relaxed, enjoying the luxury of being alone.
Despite his efforts to sleep, Jorge's words kept ringing through his mind: But how 'd you lose yourfaith?
It was impossible to answer simply, Ainslie realized, because it had happened almost without his awareness as incidents along the way, subtly and over time, contrived to steer him in a new direction.
The first effect occurred during his seven-year education at St. Vladimir Seminary, shared with Russell Sheldon. Malcolm, then twenty-two, was recruited by Father Irwin Pandolfo, a Jesuit priest-professor, to assist him in researching and writing a book about ancient and modern comparative religions. Malcolm accepted eagerly, and thus, for the next two years, slaved over the book project as well as completed regular studies. The result was that by the time Civilizatiorl's Evolving Beliefs was ready for press, with a publisher hovering, it was hard to tell how much Pandolfo and Malcolm Ainslie had each contributed. Pandolfo, a small man physically but with a large intellect and sense of fairness, then took an extraordinary step. "Your work's been exceptional, Malcolm, and you'll get equal author billing. No discussion. Both our names in the same size type, but mine comes first. Okay?''
Malcolm was so overwhelmed that for once he could not speak.
The book brought both men a great deal of acclaim. But it also made Malcolm, now an acknowledged scholar on the origins of all religions, question aspects of the single religion to which he planned to dedicate his life.
He recalled one occasion a conversation with Russell near the end of their seminary years. Looking up from some lecture notes, Malcolm asked, "Who was it that wrote, 'A little learning is a dangerous thing'?"
"He might also have written, 'A lot of learning is a dangerous thing, especially for priests-in-training.' "
No need to ask what Malcolm meant. Portions of their theology studies had involved the history of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. In recent years mainly since the 1930s historians and theologians had uncovered facts about the Bible previously unknown.
The Old Testament, for example, still considered by many especially lay people as a single, unified text, was perceived nowadays by scholars as a dubious miscellany of independent documents from many sources, much of it "borrowed" by Israel at the time a small, backward power from the religious creeds of ancient neighbors. The Old Testament, it was generally agreed, covered a thousand years, from about 1100 B.C.E. the beginning of the Iron Age to after 200 C.E. Historians preferred the terms "Before the Common Era" and "Common Era" to B.C. and A.D., though in numbers of years the meaning was the same. As Malcolm once joked, "You don't have to work it out like Fahrenheit and Celsius."
Malcolm said to Russell, "The Bible isn't holy, or 'God's word,' as zealots claim. Those who believe that just don't understand or maybe don't want to know how the Bible was put together."
"Does any of that lessen your faith?"
"No, because real faith isn't built on the Bible. It stems from our instinct that everything around us didn't happen accidentally, but was an act of God, though probably not God as portrayed by any Bible."
They discussed another scholarly acceptance that no record or writing about Jesus is known to have existed until fifty years after his death, and then by Paul in First Thessalonians, the New Testament's oldest writing. Even the four gospels Mark's was first were all written later, between 70 and 110 C.E.
On another level, until 1943, Catholics were forbidden by papal decree to engage in what was labeled "Bible probing." But in that year Pope Pius XII lifted the ban, with his encyclical Divino andante Spiritu, and Catholic scholars were now as well informed as any in the world, generally agreeing with Protestant researchers in Britain, America, and Germany about Bible authorships and dates.
"They took off the blindfolds," was how Malcolm put it to Russell, "though churches are still concealing those facts about the Bible from the laity. Look, there isn't any question Jesus existed and was crucified; that's in Roman history. But all those stories about him the virgin birth, the star in the east, shepherds and a neon angel, wise men, the miracles, the Last Supper, even the Resurrection they're simply legends, passed down by word of mouth for fifty years. As to accuracy . . ."
Malcolm stopped. "Consider this: How many years is it since President Kennedy was killed at Dallas?"
"And the whole world saw it television, radio, news reporters, the Zapruder tape, playbacks of everything, then the Warren Commission."
Russell nodded. "And there still isn't agreement about how it happened and who did what."
"Exactly! So go back to New Testament times without communication systems, no surviving records if any existed curing filly years, and imagine the invention and distortion in all that intervening time.''
"Don't you believe those stories about Jesus?"
"I'm doubtful, but it doesn't matter. Whether by legend or fact, Jesus had more effect on the world than anyone else in history, and left behind the purest, wisest teaching there has ever been."
Russell asked, "But was he the Son of God? Was he divine?"
"I'm willing to believe so. Yeah, I still believe it."
But did they really? Even then at least for Malcolm faint glimmerings of doubt arose.
Later, during a discourse on Church doctrine by a visiting archbishop, Malcolm stood and asked, "Why is it, Your Excellency, that our Church never shares with parishioners the expanded knowledge we now have about the Bible's origins, and the fresh light it sheds on the life and times of Jesus?"
"Because doing so could undermine the faith of many Catholics," the archbishop responded quickly. "Theological debates are best left to those with the intellect and wisdom to handle them."
"Do you not believe, then, in John 8:32?" Malcolm shot back. " 'Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free'?"
The archbishop replied tartly, "I would prefer young priests to concentrate on Romans 5:19 'By the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.' "
"Or perhaps Ephesians 6:5, Your Excellency," Malcolm returned, " 'Be obedient to them that are your masters.' "
The lecture hall exploded with laughter. Even the archbishop smiled.
* * *
After their seminary graduations, Russell and Malcolm went their separate ways as associate priests, their views about religion and the contemporary scene growing and changing as time moved on.
At St. Augustus Church in Pottstown, Malcolm was second-in-command to Father Andre Quale, who, at sixty-seven and suffering from emphysema, almost never left the rectory and often ate alone in his room.
"So you basically run the show," Russell commented one day over a shared rectory dinner.