Funeral for a Victim

Father O’Malley was used to dealing with idiots. Not just in his congregation, but the wider world as well, in the church, at the supermarket, everywhere. He seemed to be constantly surrounded by idiots. It used to bother him. He would get angry, refuse to talk to them. Or the opposite, he would pity them and coddle them in their idiocy. Thinking he could help them. He must have been mad, idiotic even, to try. These fools were beyond help.

There were different types of fools, of course. They used to be classified in the good old days. In psychology, Idiot was the bottom of the IQ scale, followed by Imbecile and then Moron. Moron being the highest level of intelligence for someone who is mentally disabled.

Of course, Father O’Malley knew these people were not technically morons but they were certainly far beneath him. They all mindlessly take up his precious time with pointless pleasantries and platitudes. Why must they insist on rabbiting on about the most meaningless nonsense for no other reason than to make conversation? The very notion that silence must be filled was ridiculous. It must be enjoyed, savoured, sought after. Never just needlessly filled.

This crowd was a particularly ugly rag tag bunch. Clearly not used to being together and feeling obliged to converse and console. They moved around him in various shades of black although he could see them all being more comfortable in tracksuits and trainers. They gripped hands with rarely seen relatives and tapped shoulders of common acquaintances; all pretending to support one another, like the weak do.

He was too tired for this. Best to get it over with.

Father O’Malley strode down the central aisle as the mourners took their seats either side. Some shuffled for the front row. There was no need to rush, it wasn’t going to be a full house. Far from it. The miserable wretch was lucky anyone was here at all.

The coffin was basic. He had seen plenty like it. Plain black, cheap and shiny. Fake brass fittings and a tiny simple wreath on the top. It was an affront. How he missed the grand elaborate affairs this parish used to offer up. This place would be full to bursting. Weeping and wailing from the porch to the pulpit. Loud hymns would be belted out with the organ accompaniment. “Abide With Me” was always a favourite. It has power and reminded them of their mortality, kept them supplicate.

He arrived at the altar and said a few words, then nodded to Remo, who stood loyally by the CD player. Remo pressed play.

Robbie fucking Williams, Angels.

Should’ve guessed. These people love it. It is a right challenge to play this song to a group of British people and expect them not to sing along, either in their heads or, if drinking, from the depths of their lungs. They did their best not to sway with the music as O’Malley watched. He enjoyed it, like a birdwatcher in a hide, observing but not taking part. Looking at the poor, mindless creatures as they went about their business. The second chorus was coming up. Most of them had their heads down but a few here and there were looking up, spurred on, getting in the mood. He knew they would not be able to resist singing it in their tiny minds. The guitar solo. Fingers twitched among middle-aged men that should know better. Black clad air guitarists who, for want of a couple of pints of cheap lager, would happily have those ties around their foreheads by now. The final chorus was approaching. O’Malley had heard this song so many times. He knew every word, every beat, whether he wanted to or not. And he sorely wanted not to. They were building to a crescendo in their half-witted hive mind. The solo was just about to finish.

“Aaannd through it all…”

Father O’Malley nodded at Remo who obediently and immediately stopped and ejected the disc. Oh, how he loved the looks on their faces. How he revelled in the suppressed disappointment. You cannot wreck a funeral for the sake of an unfinished pop song, but by Christ these idiots felt that it had been destroyed right now. This was what got him through these things.

“We are gathered here today.” He began, checking his note cards as he went, looking through them to find out the names of his loved ones, his hobbies, all that rubbish. He could have planned ahead, but the cretin in the box had never set foot inside this church in his worthless life. Why the hell should O’Malley put any effort into this?

“As we know, his life was full of ups and downs. He lived through challenges some of us are lucky enough never to face.” He was a homeless, drug addict thief. His challenge was being a decent human being. He failed it.

“Of course, will be remembered through the life and love of his family, his mother…” check card “Angela, and his two brothers…” check card “Derek and Gaz.” Father O’Malley visibly sneered at this last name. They had given the names themselves, they could have said Gary, or Gareth but no, Gaz it was. He turned the sneer into a smile and directed it towards the family. They had the decency to look solemn at least. This was probably their first time in a house of God since their mother’s wedding. Bastards.

Their dead brother had visited the church more recently. He was found dead on the steps. Strangled. Naked. It was hard for O’Malley to shake the thought. Someone left him there on purpose. So purposefully. But why, was it a warning? Who knew something? He wiped the greasy sweat from his forehead.

The doors opened at the far end of the church and he tried to convince himself that it was the sudden blast of air that made him shudder. The detective walked in, wearing a plain black trouser suit and white blouse. She sat at the back, looking straight up the aisle. It was her that questioned O’Malley the morning they found the filthy wretch. She had been back again a few days later, keen to speak to Remo, after all it was he that found the body. Remo could not handle questioning though, certainly not alone. O’Malley had managed to intervene and keep her at bay. But this was a murder investigation, the second at the church in the past few years. It wasn’t going to go away. He looked over to Remo, still standing dutifully by. Remo had noticed her too. He wasn’t a complete fool. A tilt of the head and Remo left his post. Leaving by the side door at the back of the altar. O’Malley’s eyes burned into the detectives as Remo left, watching to see if she would notice. She was too busy though, scanning around at the mourners. Probably looking for suspects. Any of them were probably capable. Although, with what motive? Who would benefit from murdering a homeless, penniless waste of space like him? And why leave him on the steps like that? The question would not leave him alone. Sleeping was hard this past week. The nightmares were coming back. Had to focus on work. Let’s get this farce over with.

He gathered his hands together. The day’s sheep did the same. A few more words then get one of this lot up here to say something nice about the stiff and then get rid of the cop.

O’Malley stood to the side as one of the brothers got up to have a cry and say his piece. He slowly scanned around with the appropriate gestures and occasional sombre nods. He knew how to behave and automatically performed what was expected of him. If only he wasn’t so tired maybe he would have kept his gaze from the detective. Glancing once or twice was ok, but fatigue had gotten the better of him. Their eyes met. She offered a little nod. He returned it with an acceptably mute smile, but when he looked again, less than ten seconds later she was still watching him. He felt caught. Exposed.

Remo appeared back at his side as the weeping idiots carried on their reminiscing. As Remo leaned in to whisper in his ear O’Malley once again was unable to keep his eyes from the detective. She sat poker faced staring straight at them as Remo handed a mobile phone to O’Malley. He pocketed it immediately and then stepped forward towards the small lectern where the brother was just finishing his eulogy.

“Thank you Derek.”

“I’m Gaz.” Derek looked confused.

“Of course, of course.” Father O’Malley gently guided him towards his seat.

Remo moved over to the CD player again and put the next disc in. The coffin would be carried back out the doors of the church and then a short drive to the cemetery. He wouldn’t be buried in the churchyard of course. Couldn’t afford it for one thing, but also his type didn’t belong here. The fact he died here made it feel slightly macabre as well. O’Malley did not want him anywhere near the place.

Oasis. Live Forever. God, these people.

Father O’Malley followed the coffin up the aisle and out the door. The cars were waiting outside and the family took a short while arranging who was going with who, who would follow. He was going with the family, an unusually nice gesture. He took his place in the back of the dated limousine. Others were still milling around or making their way to their own cars. Christ, with this lot it was lucky there wasn’t a party bus parked out front.

He always made a point to stare down anyone that started talking in these cars. No good could come of it, there was nothing to say. Besides, today he needed peace to think. He looked out the window as they made ready to drive away slowly behind the hearse. Remo was standing on the steps of the church, he would lock up once everyone had left. The detective was standing at the bottom of the steps. She looked at O’Malley again. Another nod. Then turned and walked up the steps towards Remo. Remo looked at O’Malley now, with panic in his eyes. The cars started to move away.

O’Malley realised what was happening. The bitch wanted to question Remo without him there. This bloody funeral was becoming a major headache. Sweat was forming on his brow again despite the chill in the air. The phone in his trouser pocket started to vibrate. It would be him. It was too early though. He had explained this already. The man never took no for an answer. As the cars started to circle out of the small gravel stoned churchyard car park he looked again at Remo and the detective. They were moving inside the church. His church! The buzzing of the vibrating phone was getting louder, deafening. He would be expecting an answer. Demanding it. O’Malley started counting in his head. One, two, three. He had to think, had to focus.

“So Father what do you…” Derek began.

“Christ!” O’Malley all but screamed it.

“Are you alright, Father?” Gaz looked at him sideways.

“I just remembered, I’m sorry. I need my book, my hymn book. I’ll just pop back in for it. Stop the car! Only be a moment.”

He opened the door before the car had stopped moving, was out and half running up the path back to the church. The line of cars behind all stopped now as well, the passengers all agog at the sight of the priest running back to the church. He remembered himself and managed to slow down to a fast walk. Up the steps and inside.

The detective had her back to O’Malley. He could so easily walk up to her now and snap her puny little neck. Remo was standing next to the font, facing the door and looking stressed.

She followed Remo’s gaze and spun around to see the panting priest standing in front of her. A big smile glued on his face.

“Remo, we almost forgot you.”

“Father O’Malley. Don’t you have a funeral to officiate?” Said the detective.

“Haha, I certainly do. But how can I without my faithful assistant by my side?”

“I was just asking Mr. Remo a few questions.”

“He really cannot right now. I am sure he will be happy to answer them later.” He replied through gritted smiling teeth.

“Well, if you’re sure you can’t spare him.” She smiled in return.

The threesome stood still, looking at each other. The vaulted arches took all silences and amplified them. They did the same with any sounds. The buzzing of the phone bounced around the high stone walls.

“Shouldn’t you get that?”

“I’m sure it can wait.”

The phone went quiet.

“Come Remo. Let’s not keep these poor people waiting any longer.”

They made their way outside and back to the lead car. O’Malley opened the door and gestured hurriedly to Remo to get in, then squeezed into the seat beside Remo. The detective watched them drive away.

The black leather seats squeaked as Remo shifted uncomfortably. There was not enough room in here for them all.

“Did you get your book, Father?”

“Yes,” O’Malley said. Despite the complete absence of any book at all.

The rest of the short drive was in complete silence. O’Malley kept eyeing Remo. Remo knew there would be more questions of him.

After arriving at the cemetery, they walked side by side to the grave. The weak wept beside them.

“What did she ask you?”

“About the dead man.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing. I told her I don’t know nothing.”

“What else did she ask?”

“She said lots have went missing, homeless people. She asked if they still came to the church at night.”

“What did you say?”

“I told her we don’t see them anymore. We close the doors at night nowadays. They aren’t allowed in.”

“Good. Well done.”

They trudged along the damp grass. The mourners clustered together. Close relatives staying close, distant relatives keeping their distance. The service was brief and to the point. A cold wind was coming from the East and nobody wanted to be out in it any longer than they needed. Father O’Malley and Remo were invited to the wake, but politely declined. There were much more important matters to attend. They got a lift back to the church.

At last, they were alone and he could check the phone. There were fourteen missed calls and a message, two words. Rosa’s escaped.

“Destroy this.” Father O’Malley handed the phone to Remo as they walked up the steps and through the main doors of the church. Neither of them saw the detective standing quietly amidst the gravestones and oak trees.


Remo, the verger

The church steps. Daytime.

“And who found the body?”

“Remo, the verger. He is always the first one here. It was him that called the ambulance. Too late of course.”

Father O’Malley looked down and made the sign of the cross. He didn’t go on to say what had been on his mind all morning. That Remo should have told him first. All parish matters were supposed to come through him and Remo knew that. He would have to have a quiet word later.

“Was he one of yours? A church member I mean.”

“We get so few nowadays, outside the big holidays. No, no he’s not one of mine.” Father O’Malley shook his head.

The body lay just a few feet away under a sheet, the cruciform shape obvious nonetheless.  Police in various uniforms busied themselves about it.

“Any reason anyone would do this, that you can think of?” The detective maintained eye contact relentlessly. It made Father O’Malley nervous. That was probably his intention though, to shake his interviewees up. He had nothing to hide here.

“None at all. We’re such a quiet parish.”

“Can we speak to the man who found the victim? This Remo?”

Changing the word from body to victim. How he hated that word. Wasn’t everyone a victim? One way or another. Eventually everybody fell victim to something. A crime, a vice.

“Of course. Although I think he will have left by now.”

The large dark oak doors behind Father O’Malley opened slowly revealing Remo’s shiny round face. He pulled the doors back one after the other and slotted the big grey bolts into place.

“Remo, there you are.” O’Malley expressed with some surprise as he glanced between the detectives and his assistant. “I thought you had gone already.”

“I gotta get ready to clean. Clean the steps.”

“Good man, yes. But first this man would like to speak to you.”

Remo shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other as he sized up the detective. His eyes were just as busy, never resting anywhere for too long.  O’Malley stood right next to him as he answered. Now and again Remo would look to O’Malley, as if for guidance, there he would find O’Malley’s soft and patient face, and continue. The questions were concise. His replies cursory, enough to deter any more for now.

Afterwards Remo skulked away to attend to whatever dust had his attention today. As he passed he looked at the body as if it were more of an inconvenience than anything else. Dirtying up the steps that he needed so badly to clean.

Father O’Malley read the expression on the officer’s face and felt the need to speak on Remo’s behalf.

“He is a good man and an excellent caretaker.”

“Has he worked here long?”

“As long as I have, at least. Some twenty years.”

“Ah, so he would have been here last time this happened.”

“Now we come to it.” Father O’Malley had been expecting this.

“Come to what, Father?”

“Well, I assumed you would be only too aware of it. Well, I can assure you that Remo had nothing to do with that or this. He is a good man. Incapable of hurting anyone.”

This much was true at least. Father O’Malley firmly believed Remo to be a good man. And incapable of hurting anyone. He knew it in fact.

That a similar murder had happened here just a few years ago and Remo was the first person on the scene that time as well, was a coincidence. He was always the first person into the churchyard in the morning. It was his job and he did it religiously.

“You weren’t here the last time, were you?” The detective glanced at his notebook.

“No, I was travelling. In Asia. Doing the Lords work.” He offered a crisp smile.

“It was a Father Lilt, standing in for you. Is that right?”

“Yes, a young man but very keen.”

“Any idea where we can find him?”

“I think he is in Asia now actually. I’m not sure exactly where. I would be happy to track him down for you.”

“That’s ok. No need. For now.”

“I know you gentlemen need to look into every nook and cranny but I assure you. There will be nothing to find here. We are a quiet, little parish. This is the work of…” He trailed off.

“Yes, Father.”

“Well, it really is a terrible thing to think.”

“No worse to say it out loud.”

“I suppose not. You know we used to open the doors here, all night. Anyone was welcome. This is Gods house after all.”

“Used to.”

“Well, we had to stop. The homeless. They aren’t all bad. But we can’t have trouble you see. Some troublemakers made it impossible. Fighting, arguing. Stealing. It just isn’t fair on everyone else. We had to stop. So, we started locking up. But they still come. They sleep here in the churchyard.” He gestured with a wave of his hand.

It was a perfect night-time spot for the homeless. There were miniature mausoleums dotted around the wall and many of these were open on one or more sides. They provided cover from the elements and a place to hide from the other elements, those of the underworld that was the homeless in this city. There were worse things in the night than the cold and the rain. The police were only too aware of the killings. Bodies turning up in River Forth. Unreported and unclaimed. People with no one to mourn them. The numbers of homeless killed in Edinburgh had went up dramatically the past few years. No one cared though. No one complained so it wasn’t a priority. Why would it be?

“You think this was a homeless argument gone bad?”

“Well, I saw him. ~He certainly looks homeless. The last, poor soul, it was the same wasn’t it. Homeless?”

“And the positioning of the body?”

Father O’Malley had spent many nights thinking about that. After he was told about the last one. Was it a message?

Was it a sign? Jesus God.

“The mind of the sick is a terrible thing indeed.” Was all he could reply.

Remo appeared at the door again. He sidled over to Father O’Malley and whispered something in his ear. His eyes moved over the corpse again and avoided the detective.

“Well, I am sorry I have a phone call. It will be the bishop no doubt. Bad news spreads much faster than the good, unfortunately. If you will excuse me.”

The detective stood still and watched them till they were out of sight.

Remo stuck closely by his side as they walked around the outside of the church to the gate at the back of the churchyard. The gate was always locked. Remo took the bundle of keys from the ring on his belt and opened it. It didn’t make a sound. Everything was well tended in this parish.

They walked the short distance from there to the parochial house. Where Father O’Malley lived, and did most of his work. Wordlessly he took out his own keys and unlocked the little side door to where his office was. He changed his shoes for his slippers as Remo shut the door behind them.

“Go into the kitchen Remo and put the kettle on.”

Remo obeyed without a word. Father O’Malley heard the loud whooshing of the cold water filling the kettle and the click as Remo plugged it in. He started counting in his head as he walked into the office and picked up the phone.

“Hello, bishop. Sorry for the delay.”

He listened intently. His lip twitched slightly. His eyes pointing straight down. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.

“Terrible business, terrible. Yes I understand.” Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three.

“Please don’t worry about a thing here. I will take care of everything. Yes. I will speak to you soon.”

He walked from the office back to the hallway and through to the large airy kitchen.

Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven.

Counting had always been a coping mechanism for him. He had done it from such a young age. It helped him focus, when there was a task to do.

The kettle began to whistle softly. Steam started to rush out. Remo stood next to it with Father O’Malley’s cup and saucer on the worktop in front of him.

Father O’Malley took Remo’s hand in his.

“forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty.” He said out loud.

He turned his hand and pushed Remo’s flat palm against the side of the metal kettle as it steamed. His own hand covering Remo’s. Pressing it in as Remo opened his mouth wide and screamed silently as the kettle whistled.