Title: The Conscience of a Priest
Author: Birgitt Schuknecht
Fandom: due South
Rating: PG
Pairing: none
Category: drama
Disclaimer: The characters used in the following story are not mine. I
do not make any money out of this. It's written for fun and for the fans
of the show.
Feedback: birgitt.schuknecht@uni-essen.de
Spoilers: inspired by "The Deal" (sequel to "Conscience of a King")

The Conscience of a Priest
by Birgitt Schuknecht

Author's note: This is the fifth instalment of my "Conscience"-cycle.
It's inspired by the ep "The Deal". "Conscience of a Priest" follows
after "Conscience of a King".

I'm fully aware of the fact that I am not normal. After all, I am a
priest. In the Catholic church I should add. People treat me as such.
They see me as a priest, not as a man.

My parish is St. Michael's in Chicago. It's an Italo-American
neighbourhood. Loud and boisterous, full of life and love, full of heat
and energy. People help each other, they care for their families and for
their friends and neighbours. And they do it in a natural, easy-going
way. That makes it all the harder for me to accept that they treat me

When people meet their friends on the streets of the parish they hug and
kiss each other, smiling radiantly. If they are cross with each other
this will be settled in a lively argument, maybe even with a little of a
fight (men and women and children alike, there's no difference here).
But all their arguments start and end like lightning.

When people meet their priest, Father Behan, that's me, they hold back
their temper, to say the least. They are polite and nice to me, even
smile at me. Still it's different from their normal behaviour. If I were
their cousin or the neighbour's son women would hug me and kiss me on
both cheeks, the men would do the same. Italians. Children would hug my
legs or cling to my arms, depending on their height. I feel far too
young to be treated with serious respect. Sometimes I wonder if I appear
to them as an invalid, to be treated carefully. Some of the parish
members even whisper when they speak to me and I have to strain my ears
in order to understand what they are talking about. On those occasions I
want to look back over my shoulder just to check that the Angel of Death
is not standing behind me.

Inviting friends to dinner is a very appreciated pastime in this
neighbourhood, practised and cherished by all. No wonder the dining
rooms are the centre of family life, despite television as the major
threat to social life in American households. To dine with the family is
still the major event of the day. And the custom to invite friends and
relatives as well is part of their Italian heritage of hospitality. Of
course this hospitality does extend to the affairs of the church and I
cannot complain about a lack of invitations. But my presence on those
occasions seems to change the atmosphere completely. Adults and children
dress up for the occasion, feeling uncomfortable during the meal.
Children are told to be silent and are only allowed to speak if they're
asked something. The men seem to get strangled by their ties and collars
and the women sweat over their plates, fearing that their delicacies
might displease me. Even if they did, I would never say a thing beside
that everything was perfect, delicious, wonderful - you get the picture.
I do know the pains those people are taking when inviting me for dinner.
Playing along is the least I can do for them.

But it does not come as a surprise that the relationship between the
parish members and me is somewhat strained. I still - after five years
working here - feel like a visitor who is as glad as his hosts when he
gets out of the door. Sometimes I can hear the sigh of relief on the
other side of the door when I leave a house after another tedious
invitation. And all I can do is suppress a sigh myself. Normally I turn
it into a prayer to my God.

Apart from the special treatment I get from the parish members there
exists another reason to turn to God, praying for guidance. And this
second reason is a far more serious, even a bitter one. That shows in
the tone of my prayers quite clearly. Complaining about one of the
parish woman eyeing me with eyes like a lioness while I taste her quite
unyielding dessert is definitely of a good-humoured nature. After all
such experiences turn out to be quite funny. On that special occasion I
finally managed to get down the slice of chocolate cake, complimented
Mrs. Narelli about it in enthusiastic tones, relieved that I survived
the dinner. In consequence I ended up with the rest of the cake, wrapped
up for me by the beaming woman. The cake survived for about three months
in the compost of the cemetery, after I tried to feed it to the birds in
the backyard of my little house, driving them from the scenery for a
whole week. No, no, in comparison to my other problem events like that
are just a... piece of cake.

You won't believe it when you observe the normal life in the
neighbourhood, that there is a darker side to it. On the surface
everything is perfect and like heaven on earth, a small paradise in the
middle of a big town like Chicago. People call it the windy city, but
that wind is nothing against the cold and bitter storms you find beneath
the surface of the parish of St. Michael's. And when I pray to God to
sustain me in those storms I feel alone and desperate.

I can sum up the reason for my bitter feelings in one word, or even
better still, in one name. Zuko. Alfredo Zuko is a wealthy and
influential business man, respected by the whole Chicagoan society. He
is generous to the church, a trustful partner for his business
associates, a good friend and neighbour for the people in his
neighbourhood and a loving father for his two children. People have a
problem - they will turn to Alfredo Zuko for solutions. And they will
get solutions. Not always those they'd hoped for, but then - nobody is
perfect. Not even Alfredo Zuko. Besides being the loving father, the
good friend and neighbour, the trustful business partner he is - above
all - the head of a powerful crime organisation. Everyone knows about
it, everyone acts upon it - everyone. And that includes myself. I accept
it as an unchangeable fact. I try to help his victims, discreetly, not
wishing to anger the powerful man who would be able to destroy
everything what St. Michael's means to this parish, a man who would not
hesitate to use his power.

It was the first lesson that my predecessor, Father Antonio, taught me
when I came to the parish. Alfredo Zuko, like his father before him -
sets the rules and the church tries to operate as best it can in those
boundaries. I was young and inexperienced five years ago, but I am a
swift learner. And Alfredo Zuko made sure that I got enough examples to
learn from. To learn about his power, his connections he had in Chicago
and the parish, and his determination when it came to what he thought to
be his rights. I had to make up my mind in this matter. There were two
alternatives I could chose from. First, I could leave, ask the bishop
for a relocation to another parish. Second, I could stay, accepting
Zuko's rules and trying to do my best to be a priest as good as possible
for the people here. Father Antonio had been the priest for over fifty
years and we talked long hours about my decision. His courage and
persistence impressed me, despite his 85 years he was still a fighter,
tired but not defeated. Not by life, nor by the Zukos. Manipulated,
threatened, beaten, but not defeated. I was proud that he had the faith
in me that I could possibly follow in his footsteps or even replace him.
The pride won over the fear and I chose to stay.

The most frightening aspect of the Zuko empire is how easy it is for me
to live with its existence. If you follow the rules you simply are not
aware of the influence it has on everyday life. All the people in the
parish seem to feel the same. In consequence life in the parish is
indeed enjoyable, although everybody knows about the implicit threat we
are living with. Taking this into account you may not be surprised when
I tell you that I was totally caught unaware by the development of the
past days.

It all began on Tuesday evening, less than two days ago. And I heard
about it only yesterday and was devastated by the news. A member of my
parish, an eleven year old boy called Marco Mitrani, became the victim
of a vicious attack. The most disturbing fact was that the only suspect
for the attack seemed to be his best friend, Ray Vecchio. I know Marco
and Ray very well, they were two of the few people in the parish that
treated me like a normal human being after they got to know me a little
better. Especially Ray was dear to my heart, the poor boy has such a
fighting spirit despite all the hardship that he had already endured in
his young life. Everyone seems to know that he is beaten regularly by
his violent father, but no one acts to stop it. I tried once, informed
the authorities about it. They checked on the Vecchios, reporting
afterwards to me that they couldn't do anything as long as mother and
son covered up for Ernesto Vecchio. The family never knew that I was the
man who informed the authorities, otherwise I could have packed my
things the next day.

I did the only thing I could do. I prayed for the boy's soul and had an
watchful eye over his body. Which was no easy task since Ray is a very
determined little person, with a great concern for his own privacy. I
did not press on him in any way, knowing all too well what the suspicion
of being too interested in his little charges could do to a priest's

And my fears for him subsided as I saw him grow up, turning from a shy,
isolated little boy, pale faced and a little overweight, the apple of
his mother's loving eye, to a strong-willed teenager, lean and tall,
with a healthy look and sparkling green eyes that captured all those
around him. I do not know if he was still beaten by his father, but if
so, it didn't break the boy's spirit. On the contrary, together with his
best friend Marco, he took on the son of Alfredo Zuko, Frankie. They
were rivals in and off school, especially if they played their favourite
sport, basketball. Certainly that fact strengthened the impression Ray
and Marco made on me. They seemed to be oblivious of the fact that they
went against the son of the most powerful man in the neighbourhood. And
Frankie is a dangerous youth. In the years past he learned that he was
special, that he could do things others could and would not do. He is
spoiled and cruel. And he acts like it. I wondered often why Ray and
Marco did not accept the superiority of their opponent and settled for a
kind of truce. But my tentative questions in that direction were cut
short by careless laughter and telling me of the daring adventures they
planned to have in the future. Seeing the two boys in that temper made
me ask myself if I was ever as young and courageous and stupid.

I always envied Ray's and Marco's friendship and wish in my most lonely
hours to have such a friend myself. How important the two are for each
other. I spoke once with their teachers at school and one of them, Miss
Cassini, told me in a somewhat conspiratorial tone that Ray once stood
up against Frankie Zuko and his friends to help Marco and that Marco
encouraged Ray in school so that he turned from being the last in class
into a fairly good student. The two boys are inseparable and I believe
that Ray found in the Mitrani family some kind of a safe haven when his
life at home becomes unbearable from time to time. The Mitranis are fine
people despite the fact that Umberto Mitrani, Marco's father, is a
business associate of Alfredo Zuko. But that - as I said before - is a
fact you just have to accept and respect in this neighbourhood. Apart
from that the Mitranis are a normal, happy family. Umberto and Claudia
love their only child unconditionally and they extended their fondness
to Ray which relieved my heart immensely. Ray deserves some happiness.

The Vecchios are a totally different kind of story. I rarely see or
speak to Ernesto Vecchio. He hangs out most of his time with his friends
at a place called Finelli's playing pool and drinking heavily. I
sometimes marvel how the family manages to survive, but I never found
out. Ernesto's wife, Anita, is an endearing person, but totally
dominated by her violent husband. She confesses from time to time that
she regrets to be a bad mother for her three children, Maria, the
eldest, Ray and her youngest daughter Francesca. Especially for
Raimondo, as she calls her only son. When she speaks of him her voice
takes on a different tone, it's like she's singing his name and I fear
for Ernesto Vecchio's life in case that Anita will someday act on the
great love she holds in her heart for her son.

My friendship with Raimondo began about two years ago. I was in church,
on a especially cold winter night, preparing the venue for the early
mass on the next day. It was a Saturday and I interrupted my chores when
I heard a whimpering in one of the last rows of the benches. I found Ray
Vecchio, curled up into a tight ball, trying to hold back his tears and
nearly choking on them. He was shivering, wearing only a t-shirt and no
coat. I tried to touch him, but he evaded my hands. Sighing I simply sat
down beside him, murmuring a prayer in a soft and low voice. I cannot
remember what or for whom I prayed that night, but the words seemed to
quieten the boy, who finally sat up, brushing his tears away.

"Thank you, Father Behan." He looked at me bleary-eyed, but nonetheless
I could see the marvellous colour of his eyes shining through and his
mouth formed a small but genuine smile. I thought my heart would stop.
This is real bravado, this boy can smile standing at the edge of his
own, personal hell. "What for, Raimondo?" I cannot tell why I called him
that, but he didn't seem to mind and I called him so ever since. Perhaps
I just wanted to remind him of his dear mother. Raimondo's smile
intensified some more. "For just being there... for not... touching me
when I would not have it." He was gone in the next moment. And that
night I decided to give up my whining about my petty problems. God knows
that I failed repeatedly on that decision - and would most certainly do
so again in the future. But whenever I think of myself as the most
miserable person in the whole world the image of Raimondo from that
Saturday night forms in my mind, giving me the strength to go on a
little further.

Two days after that night Raimondo brought me a message from his mother,
inviting me to dinner. I smirked a little when he gave me her regards,
the experience with Mrs. Narelli's cake still clear in my mind. It's
been two weeks now and the cake still refused to wither away in the
compost. The boy standing before me grinned at my expression. Could he
read my thoughts? It seemed so, his next words being, "Mia mama is the
best cook in the whole town, maybe even in the whole world. You'll wait
and see, Father. And we'll have chocolate cake for dessert. So make sure
that you're really hungry. Mama gets pissed if we don't eat up. And I
don't think her respect for the church is great enough to stand a chance
against the pride she takes into her cooking." Off he ran, leaving
behind in helpless laughter. What an eloquence in a nine year old.

Evening came and I prepared for the inevitable. Another night in stiff
conversation and Raimondo's remarks about his mother's cooking did not
assure me a bit. I remember the stuff I liked as a boy and that thought
did nothing to quieten my nervous stomach. Thanks to Mrs. Narelli the
word chocolate cake alone was enough to cause indigestion. What did
Raimondo say? "Wait and see, Father." I couldn't do much else. Perhaps I
could light a candle in favour of a saint. But I had no idea which saint
would be the authority for chocolate cake. And then I remembered my
decision to forget about my petty complaints and went off with a little
fear in my heart and a hand pressed on my stomach.

Oh God - sorry, as a priest I should not use the Lord's name in vain,
but I do think it's not a sacrilege here - there was no need for fear at
all. That woman can cook. I dare to call it divine. Everything was made
to perfection. The selfmade pasta was a joy to the tongue and those
smells of herbs and spices still make my mouth water when I just think
about it. And the dessert - no earthly words could describe the taste of
that chocolate cake. Moist and rich, but not heavy. Sweet, but still
aromatic. Soft, but not chewy. I better stop here, or I lose myself
again in the memory of it.

And the delicious meal was only a part of the marvel I saw in the
Vecchio home. I dreaded to see Ernesto, because I knew I would have had
difficulties to hold back my anger about the abuse of his only son. But
Raimondo's father wasn't there. I was given no explanation and I had no
inclination to ask for him. So it was only Anita and her three children.
No dressing up either. All sat down in their usual attire. And the
atmosphere was light and easygoing. A normal, happy family. The kids
talked constantly, all at the same time, and Mrs. Vecchio looked after
her guest of honour. I blushed a little when she addressed me as such
when I entered the house. But afterwards she called me Father Behan and
her only concern was that I got enough of the delicacies she placed
before us. How she could fear that anyone would stand up from the table
still hungry I have no idea. It looked like she expected an army for
dinner. My stomach quietened in minutes after tasting the first bite and
I ate as heartily as the kids.

It didn't take long to loosen up. Food and wine let me relax and I
enjoyed the bickering of the three Vecchio siblings. Maria tried to save
her dignity as a teenager, to distinguish herself from her younger
brother and sister but gave up on it after about ten minutes. Mrs.
Vecchio told me the latest gossip, something I stored away for future
reference. As I said other people treated me like a visitor, keeping all
interesting information away from me. I thrived on the food and the
entertainment and when I finally decided to go home it was shortly
before midnight. The kids had gone to bed about ten, leaving their
mother and me in the living room. She served me some cappuccino and I
hoped she would confide in me. But she didn't, not really. She told me
about her life, but never spoke about her husband. I decided to respect
her privacy. In that moment she reminded me very much of her son. I told
her so, and she beamed at me. "Father Behan, Raimondo is a good kid.
Whatever is going to happen, keep this in mind." That ended the evening
and with an effort I did not poke into her cryptic remark. "Wait and
see, Father, wait and see."

In the following years every invitation to the Vecchio home was a
welcome change for me. I never met Ernesto on those occasions. Not that
I regrett that. I think I do not have the courage to confront the man,
not even for Raimondo's sake. Most of the time that is not a problem,
since Raimondo does not speak about his father at all. But he has his
moods and to his dismay they seem to overcome him suddenly and
unexpectedly. He is at a loss for words then, tries desperately not to
cry. When Marco is with him he just takes Raimondo in his arms and waits
silently till Raimondo gets over it. There were two times I was alone
with Raimondo when he got into that temper and I did not dare to touch
him then. "Wait and see, Father" has become something like a motto for
me when it came to Raimondo Vecchio.

When the family doctor of the Mitranis called me yesterday, Wednesday
morning at about eight, it seemed that the time of waiting was over. The
Mitranis were in the hospital, to check on their son. Marco had been
brought there by an ambulance on Tuesday evening. He had been attacked
with a basketball, someone had bashed his face into a bloody lump. And
the investigating officers had only one suspect, Raymond Vecchio, who
was found at the scene of crime, with the weapon still in his hands.
Everything I know about this boy, about his character, about his family
tells me that it is impossible for Raimondo to attack his best friend or
any other person in such a cruel and violent way. I wasn't able to go to
the hospital, to support Marco's parents or to see the victim. And I
couldn't contact the Vecchios, either. I was to shocked and desperate
about the news to form any coherent thought at all. I cancelled morning
mass, I didn't care what people might think. I kind of barricaded myself
in the little parish house, sending my housekeeper, Mrs. Donatelli,
home. She gave me an astonished look, but I didn't give her any
explanation. The rest of the day and the following night I martyred my
brain, if I could have done anything to prevent this terrible nightmare.
I never thought it possible that Raimondo was capable of such a deed.
Nonetheless, when he was in one of his mood swings I wasn't able to look
into his eyes. Normally being of a deep green colour they seem to be a
window to his very soul. And I always liked what I saw there - normally.
But when his dark mood was upon him, those expressive eyes became pitch
dark and I feared to think about his soul at those times.

Could it be that Marco did something - accidentally of course, because
the boy would never have done anything to hurt his best friend - to
provoke Raimondo to attack him like a madman? And if so, where did that
place me? Did I overlook a latent danger in Raimondo Vecchio? Was he a
monster in the disguise of an amiable boy? I shuddered at the image of
him hurting his best friend in a frenzy. No, that image did not fit, not
at all. I remembered Mrs. Vecchio, saying her boy was a good kid,
whatever was going to happen! Did she fear something like this? Why
didn't she confide in me? Why didn't I press on the matter? Why didn't I
try to confront his father? Why did I let that cruel man beat up his son
again and again? The answer to all those questions is easy but hard to
accept. I am a coward and a failure as a priest. And I see it as the
inevitable outcome of my behaviour in this parish. It had started with
accepting the Zuko rules and it ended on a Tuesday summer night with the
beating of Marco Mitrani.

When Wednesday evening came I was exhausted and felt totally drained. I
hadn't eaten the whole day, but I did not wish to eat anything. I
stumbled from the living room I had spent the whole day, slumped on the
couch clutching a pillow in my arms. In my bedroom I got undressed,
leaving my stuff in a pile on the floor, let myself fall on the bed.
Although it was still early and light outside and still too warm to use
the blankets I crawled under them, just to feel safe and comforted.
Again I tried to sort out my thoughts. Again I came to no conclusions.
My mind told me that it was possible, that the boy maybe stepped over
the edge, losing control, beating the life out of Marco, without really
knowing what he was doing. But my heart cried no at such a thought. I
thought of Raimondo's laughter and his sometimes disrespectful behaviour
towards me. He'd never meant a harm with his words. He had just played
with the dragon, trying to find his limitations, testing how far he
could go. Even when he was in his dark mood he'd let Marco comfort him.
I had never feared for Marco's well-being when he'd been with Raimondo.

After several hours I gave it up to find some reason in all this. I let
myself float, trying to think of nothing. I must have fallen asleep,
finally, after what seemed to be ages of tossing and turning. But the
hope that everything was only a bad dream dissipated when I woke up two
hours ago. The bright sunshine streaming into my bedroom - I hadn't even
had the energy to draw the curtains last night - hurt in my eyes,
swollen from holding back too many tears. But I had to do something.
There were people outside who needed me. I didn't want to think about
who exactly needed my help. I decided to deal with that later. It was
only six, but I wasn't sleepy anymore, just kind of exhausted. But it
wasn't an exhaustion of the body. I got up, shaved, took a cold shower
and got dressed. Again I cancelled morning mass by placing a note on the
church doors. Then I went back into my house. Since I had to eat
something I forced myself to prepare something for breakfast. Sitting
down at the kitchen table I had some porridge - lumpy style, I'm a
terrible cook. I put it aside, reaching for the toast and butter I'd
placed on the table before me. Without enthusiasm I chewed on the slice,
until I lost interest completely and put it down on the plate, shoving
it away from me with disgust. Instead I stood and poured myself some
coffee, again settling down at the table. I still had an hour before my
housekeeper would turn up and I had still to decide what I would do in
this... matter.


Two hours later I still sit here and try to come up with something of a
plan or a strategy. Mrs. Donatelli has arrived and she rummages in the
kitchen now, determined to fix me a decent breakfast. She had inspected
the sorry remains of my self-made meal with dismay and went to work. I
cannot concentrate in her presence and I answer her concerned questions
in a flat and uninterested tone. I think it's better for me and her to
leave now and find myself another place to brood.

I pick up my empty mug, fill it with the coffee freshly made by my
invaluable housekeeper. Mrs. Donatelli concerned voice reaches my ear
just before I leave the kitchen. "Breakfast will be ready in no time,
Father." I nod, without looking back. My throat feels raw when I manage
to get out: "I'll be back shortly. My thanks, Mrs. Donatelli." I flee
into the bathroom, locking the door behind me. I put down the mug on the
board under the mirror. I switch on the lights attached to the mirror,
there are no windows in here, the only light coming in through the milk
glass in the top of the door.

In the cold bathroom light I examine my face. Am I a different person
now, a man different from the man I was before I heard about Marco and
Ray? I cannot say, but I definitely look different. My clean shaven face
is pale, my normally dark eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. Each
morning I try to brush back the hair from my forehead, but there's a
lock that seems to have a mind of its own, ever falling back into its
natural place. Normally it gives me the appearance of a man looking much
younger than his years, but today is different. I'm barely thirty, but
now I look like forty, at least. And I feel tired and spent. I blink
repeatedly in the harsh light. Turning on the tap I hold my hands under
the stream and splash cold water into my. After some minutes I turn off
the tap again, snatch a towel and rub my face and my hands dry. I go
about this task very thoroughly. I realise I try to win some time
before... Before what?

A sudden thought startles me. I haven't prayed for a second during the
last day. Since I got the news I haven't spoken to God at all. A fear
grips at my heart. What is it about my faith in God, if it's shattered
so easily. Stop, stop this, Michael... Don't you panic now. With an
effort I calm myself and try to straighten my thinking. I stare at
myself in the mirror. I realise that the last day I was in a kind of a
trance or shock. I'll be fine now, I have to. For Marco's sake, for
Ray's sake, for all the families like the Vecchios and the Mitranis in
the neighbourhood. And for my own sake...

I decide to skip breakfast - making a mental note to apologise to Mrs.
Donatelli later for causing her so much trouble - and go into the
church. As I hoped it's empty, all early visitors seemingly turned away
by the announcement that there will be no mass today. I kneel down
before the altar, concentrating on the body of Christ nailed on the
cross. The carver did a great job on the figure's face, he captured pain
and determination in it, both emotions showing in equal parts on the
distorted face. For the first time I acknowledge his work fully. What a
precious possession for our little parish. And I haven't even asked who
created this fine piece of art. There's a lot I do not know about my
parish. I start thinking that I have been a poor priest for this
neighbourhood. And now I know what I have to pray for. And it has almost
nothing to do with Marco and Raimondo, it is about myself. I am the key
to my soul's salvation and to my heart's content. I have to find the
essence of my own existence before I will be able to help others. Why
have I wasted so much time, so many years... I realise that I'm doing it
again, whining about petty business, about milk already spilled. I
concentrate on the task that lies ahead of me. It's nothing more and
nothing less than finding out who I am and who I want to be...


I am in deep meditation and the opening of the church door in my back
nearly makes me jump. Looking up my eyes fall on the altar and then on
the cross on the wall behind it. I smile up to it, knowing I found the
way back to my roots. I haven't worked it all out yet, there's still
much to think about. Considering the fact that I neglected my calling
more and more in the last years that comes not as a surprise. But I will
go on trying, and in the moment I'm certain that I will succeed in
finding my destination. And I will not be alone until then. There are
people who need me. And helping them will help me to find myself. I am
ready for the world.

Steps sound behind me, coming slowly nearer. It's a single visitor and I
struggle to my feet. Hours of meditation take their toll and carefully I
stretch my cramped limps. I am aware that it must look kind of awkward
from behind, but that could not be helped. People should start to see
the man inside the priest. Finally I turn around. And step back in
amazement. The man facing me is Alfredo Zuko.

Alfredo Zuko comes to church regularly on Sundays. He attends mass with
his children and his closest employee, Charlie. At first I wondered
about Charlie's lack of a surname, but soon realised that he is a man
who has no need for another name. Speak of Charlie and everyone in the
neighbourhood knows who's meant. He is like a shadow for Alfredo Zuko,
accompanying him on every occasion. Even to church when Alfredo Zuko
comes for the obligatory confessions. He then waits in a bench near the
entrance, seemingly lost in thought. But I am sure this man won't miss a
single move in the building, ever ready to assist his employer in any

So it's quite a surprise that Alfredo Zuko is all by himself now. I have
difficulties to find my voice. The man standing before me bows his head
slightly. "Good day, Father Behan. Do I disturb you or have you some
time to spare?" I could never complain over Zuko's manners. That and his
agreeable appearance make it so easy to deal with him on a polite or
even friendly basis. I force myself to think of the man's dark
background to manage the cold tone to answer him. "Mr. Zuko, I have
important matters on my mind right now. So if it's not too urgent, I
would be happy to give you an appointment for tomorrow..."

Zuko freezes. That is clearly not he answer he expected. Now, that
couldn't be helped. I have already spent too much time in the past years
humouring him. Nonetheless, Alfredo Zuko is not a man who is intimidated
by the priest of a small parish. "Father Behan, the fact alone that I am
here should be proof enough for you that it is urgent that I speak to
you. I fear that your other business has to wait." Inwardly I sigh.
Better to get over with this. After all I am curious about what he wants
to talk to me.

"Very well, Mr. Zuko. What can I do for you?" He nods in the direction
of the confessional. "I want to make my confession." I'm so surprised by
this that I exclaim rather loudly, "Now? What is that supposed to mean?"
Mr. Zuko chuckles, but his eyes are showing no amusement. "That is not
the reaction I would expect from a priest, Father." I feel myself
flushing. "I'm sorry, it's kind of... extraordinary, I guess." His
chuckle turns into an equally humourless grin. "And I'm an extraordinary
man, wouldn't you agree, Father?" I have to agree, of course, but I
would rather die than tell him so. Instead I make an inviting gesture in
the direction of the confessional and let my visitor lead the way.


Half an hour later I have the feeling my world has turned upside down
again. I barely had recovered from the shock I endured yesterday. Now I
am at a loss again. Alfredo Zuko is a clever and cruel man. What he
confessed to me, makes me shiver and I just want to close myself up in
my house and never come out again. Zuko has left about five minutes ago.
I sit on the church floor, my back turned to the altar and the cross. My
knees are drawn up to my chest and I embrace my legs with both arms.
Resting my chin on my knees I let tears slide down my face. Yes, Alfredo
Zuko is a clever and cruel man. He loaded the burden of his deed on my
shoulders, knowing that there's no way I can tell anyone about the
sinister plot he has in mind for poor Raimondo. Thinking of the boy
makes me nauseous.

And then there's Marco. When Zuko came in I was determined to visit him
and his parents in the hospital. Now I've just learned that the boy will
suffer a life long from the vicious attack Frankie afflicted on him. I
know I will have to do it, but how can I give comfort to Marco's parents
when I find no comfort in my own heart?

No, that won't do. It's happening again. I drown in self-pity, blocking
out everything else. Don't let that man get away so easily. He walked
away almost happily. It must have been a great relief for his conscience
to talk to a priest. Even Alfredo Zuko is a prisoner of his heritage,
raised as an Italian Catholic. And he was fully aware what he did to me
by confessing his actions and plans. And he didn't care about it at all.

So which options leaves that to me? I am determined to be as reckless as
Zuko himself. He deserves no mercy, no spiritual support, no prayer.
Forgiveness? No, not for this man, not in this matter. But what can I
do? Of course I could make a testimony, violating the holy sacrament of
confession. That would mean I'd give up the life I was leading up till
now, declaring it a lie. I can't do that, it would mean to live on as a
mere shell, without a soul, without a past and a future.

No, I can't tell anyone what I know about Alfredo and Frankie Zuko. But
I can act upon it. I have to try and interfere with Zuko's plans. And I
have to pray for help in this. I can't do this on my own. I need help.
The help of an expert. A priest can't do much in matters of the worldly
law. But a lawyer can... And I do know a lawyer. I struggle to my feet
and as fast as I can I run to my house, nearly knocking over Mrs.
Donatelli when I enter the office. I send her out rather rudely and call
the operator. Minutes later I have Brian Dawson's office number. He has
an office in Chicago. I cannot belief my luck. I check with the watch.
It's half two. He should be working right now. Brian and I became
friends years ago, studying at the same university. He owes me, since I
helped him through some of his exams. He told me than, if I ever should
need legal advice...

Call it luck or fate or a miracle. Brian Dawson, expert for violent
crime cases, has just closed a case and has planned some vacation time.
So when I ask for an appointment he promises to be at St. Michael's in
half an hour. "I told you, Michael, if you ever need me, I'll be there
in a flash. It's only because of you, that I'm one of Chicago's top
crime lawyers. It's about time that I can pay you back. But you can call
yourself lucky that I wanted to take leave from work for the next three
weeks. Kind of a celebration of the fact that I just ended a tedious
murder case I've been working on for over eighteen months."

Still I can't believe it. "And you can really come? I'm not stopping you
from going to the Bahamas or something like that?" I remember his
laughter when I hear it through the phone. Like his voice it hadn't
changed a bit in the last ten years. "Oh, Michael, don't you worry. Even
if I had booked something, I wouldn't have hesitated to cancel it. After
all, I still regard you as a friend. Although I have to admit that ten
years is a long time... High time to make up for the last years, don't
you think, Micky?"

It's good to heart the old nickname. "Yes I do, Brain." Another laugh
from Brian. "So you remember? I still have the student ID card with that
name on it. It's kinda cute. Brain Dawson. And all because of the typo
of a very young and nervous secretary who couldn't keep her eyes from a
gorgeous Irishman while filling out my papers. By the way, Micky, did
you ever date her? You wouldn't tell me back then." I feel myself blush
a little. The incident at the registration office of our university had
been quite embarrassing for me, but Brian and I became fast friends
afterwards. "Brain, I'd like to chat on, but I haven't got the time.
Just come here as soon as possible. I'm sorry I can't give you any
information over the phone, but the matter for which I need your advice
is kind of complicated, maybe even hopeless."

The answer I get sounds very confident. "Micky, you forget who you are
talking to. Nomen est omen, Micky, and I still have to prove that to
you. And I will do so! See you in half an hour, Micky!" The phone goes
dead and I hang up. Shuddering with relief I sit down at my desk. I have
been to nervous to do so while speaking to Brian. His enthusiasm about
meeting me again gives me some confidence. He was ever a practical man,
not an idealist, with a clear eye for reality. If he sees a chance to
help Raimondo, it will be a fair chance, and not just wishful thinking.
Before I can discuss the matter with Brian I have some calls to do in
order to confirm the information I got from Zuko's confession. I
couldn't and wouldn't discuss that confession with Brian. So I have to
check on the facts. Twenty minutes later I have what I need. Both the
hospital and the precinct have been more than generous with their
information. That fuels my fear for Raimondo even more. It seems that
everyone is convinced how things are going to turn out, so everything
connected to this matter is distributed as common knowledge. By tomorrow
the latest the case will hit the news. And if the media pick up the mood
of the hospital and police staff little Raimondo would appear to be
guilty even before the trial could begin.

There's a knock at my office and I call, "Come in, please." The door
opens and Mrs. Donatelli shoves a rather startled man into my office. I
should have warned Brian about how my housekeeper handles things - and
people. "You have a visitor, Father. When I asked what he wanted he said
he had an appointment. And he handed me his card. May I keep it, Father?
It's looks nice." I cannot avoid laughing at that. "Of course Mrs.
Donatelli, I know the man. You can leave us alone now." In the next
moment she's gone, closing the door behind her. I grin at the stunned
expression in Brian's face. The lawyer in his perfect exterior would
even have fitted in a royal court, but thanks to Mrs. Donatelli he is at
a loss in my small office. Somehow that encourages me. It puts life back
into perspective.

Finally Brian manages a stutter. "Wha... What was th.. that about?" I
stand up and go over to greet him. "Mrs. Donatelli? Why yes, she's quite
a character. You will come to like her. Don't let her boss you around.
But look who's talking. My predecessor, Father Antonio, told me the same
when I started working here. I still try to find out how to avoid that.
Despite her bossing she's an angel. And sometimes I think I need to be
bossed around a bit." I stretch out my right to Brian. He hesitates a
moment, puts down his briefcase he has been holding under his right arm
and then he pulls me into a short hug. "Ah, Micky, it's good to see you
again. You haven't changed a bit. Well, you attire has. But I think the
man hasn't. I'm still sorry that I couldn't attend your ordination."

I shrug my shoulders. "I know that was impossible. Your studies in
Europe kept you busy, I understood that completely. But who would have
thought that we both end up in Chicago? We shouldn't have let so much
time go by..." He nods solemnly. "In the moment I got your call I
realised how much I missed you. But if someone isn't part of everyday
life..." It's my turn to nod. "Exactly. But now we have the chance to
renew our friendship. If you like to, that is." Another hug follows. "Of
course I like that. Very much."

We both sit down. "Brain, I don't think we have much time. My problem is
rather pressing. Would you mind discussing that first? Than we could
turn to our private life. I hope you have some time..." He interrupts me
midsentence. "I told you already on the phone that I'm free for the next
three weeks. Plenty of time to solve your problem and to catch up on the
olden golden times, don't you think? And go ahead, Micky, tell me about
the matter you need my help in. I must say you that I'm curious. Fill me


Brian has all the facts now. I can see it in his eyes that he is not
happy with them. Whenever he was troubled his eye colour changed from a
radiant blue to almost black. With a sigh he runs his hands through his
jet black hair. I decide to help him as best I can. "Look, Brain, that's
all I can tell you. The bare facts. You should be able to tell me
chances the boy has. But before you tell me, maybe you ask some of the
questions that trouble you. I can see there is something on your mind."

He smirks a little. "Well, maybe ten years is not so long a time as I
guessed. You are right, I have some questions. Let me recapitulate what
we know. On Tuesday evening Marco Mitrani is attacked viciously, his
face smashed to a bloody lump with a basketball. He suffered permanent
brain damage and will not be able to testify. The only suspect is his
best friend Raymond Vecchio who was found with the weapon still in his
hands. And there's no evidence whatsoever that there had been anyone
else on the crime scene, the basketball court on the school-yard. Law
enforcement is pressing charges against Raymond Vecchio full force now.
The suspect is still in hospital unable to remember the incident. His
parents have agreed to follow the advice of Alfedo Zuko, an influential
businessman in this neighbourhood. Raymond is going to plead guilty,
hoping the courts will go for reduced liability. Zuko provided his own
lawyer, Varese, to defend the Vecchio boy in court. Is that correct so
far?" I nod.

"I take it that Varese will try to convince the jury that Ray and Marco
were having an argument, that Ray lost control somehow and hurt his
friend, not knowing anymore what he was doing to him. Is there anything
that could trigger off such an attack?" I wish that to be a rhetorical
question, but it isn't one. Brian needs any information that I can give
him. "Raimondo is being abused by his father for several years. As long
as I know him the boy he's beaten on a regular basis." Brian whistles
softly. "And you knew about it, Micky?" he asks in a low voice. I cannot
detect any accusation in it. Brian just wants to know the truth in order
to get a clear picture of this whole mess. I wonder when all this chaos
broke lose. I let my head drop on my chest.

"I tried to stop it once, not successfully, as you might guess. I
despise myself for my failure and there's no excuse for it." I feel
Brian's hand on my arm and lift my head again. His eyes are full of
sympathy, giving me the strength to go on. "Knowing about Raimondo's let
me think that he could be guilty. Although I wouldn't have it I thought
it possible that he did hurt Marco."

Brian's voice sounds hectic now. "You thought him to be guilty? What
changed your mind?" I sighed deeply. "I cannot tell you. The way certain
information came to me forbids me to speak about it." I think I already
said too much. Brian thinks about it. His nickname is fitting. Brian is
a clever man. He will figure it out. And he does.

"Micky, I thought you believed the boy innocent because you know him,
his character, his friendship with Marco. But that's not right, is it?"
I shake my head, waiting for his next step. "I see. So there's some
information you have about all this, but you cannot tell me about it.
Right?" This time I nod. "Micky, I am not firm in matters of faith, but
I do know that if someone would confess something to you, you wouldn't
be allowed to tell anyone about it. That is correct?" I only look at
Brian. "Mmmmh. I see. There is only one person who does not fit in here.
Who is that Zuko guy? Why is he taking such an interest in this case? I
know, I know, you cannot tell me, Micky. But that is not important."

Brian looks quite content now. That encourages me to ask, "Do you think
Raimondo has a chance in this?" He gives me one of his radiant smiles I
remember so well. "I think he does. But it is a dangerous game, and the
boy's life is at stake. You should remember that when we plan our next

I know Brian's answer to my next question before I ask it: "We? Are you
in it, Brain?" My friend stretches out his right hand. "If you want me
to, it's a deal." My prayers have been heard. I found help. Gratefully I
take his hand. "Want you on this case! It's more than I ever expected to
get." I let go of his hand.

Brian jumps up, unable to hide his enthusiasm any longer. "This is going
to be a hell of a case, something I ever dreamed of. You know, Mickey, I
would have even followed you if you had only your belief in this boy's
innocence. But you know that he's not guilty, you just can't prove it.
But since he is innocent there has to be evidence. And we will find it."

I have been right when I remembered Brian as a very practical man. His
line of thought proves this. "So, what is the next step?" Brian sits
down again: "Well, we must find a way to get Ray Vecchio another lawyer.
We have to get rid of Varese and replace him. You don't happen to know a
young, intelligent, dashing lawyer who has the courage to take on such a
challenge?" For the first time in the last two days I can breathe
without difficulty.

The end
of this story

Look out for the last instalment, "The Conscience of a God"!