If you’re a fan of Grantchester, I think you’ll enjoy meeting Father Tom.
JR Mathis’ character, Father Tom Greer, is living with the fallout from a painful past. In The Penitent Priest, the father will be thrown back into the events that lead him to becoming a priest and with have to confront some painful truths.
In the introduction I mention that I’ve had an abundance of mystery novels to read lately, including Elly Griffiths brand new Ruth Galloway mystery, The Lantern Men, and also book four in Jo Bannister’s Best and Ash series, Other Countries.
This week’s mystery author
James Mathis writes The Father Tom Mysteries as J. R. Mathis. A fifth-generation Florida man, he has lived in Maryland for the past 21 years. He currently works for the Federal Government.
When not writing, James spends time with his wife and Alpha reader Susan and his grandchildren. He enjoys reading mysteries and books on writing, auto racing, and baking.
To learn more about JR Mathis and his books visit JRMathisMysteries.com
Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher, Android, Google Podcasts, TuneIn, and Spotify.
Excerpt from The Penitent Priest
“I can’t believe this,” Nate said as he looked through the emails. “This is great! You see this, Father?”
When I called Nate and told him I’d do an interview, he was happy. When I told him about what I had found and Helen’s response, he was practically speechless. Meeting him at The Perfect Cup the next day and showing him copies of the emails, he was jumping up and down in his chair like a little boy on Christmas morning.
“Don’t you see, now this has everything. It’s not just a cold case of a senseless murder,” Nate went on, holding up the emails. “This is a cold case of a planned murder. She was stalked, and whoever was stalking her killed her–”
“Now really we don’t know that,” I interrupted.
“–and we have the police doing nothing when new evidence is shown to them.” He inhaled and exhaled. “Now we have a story.”
“I thought you had a story before?”
“We did,” he answered. “It’s a better story now. And you’ll do an interview on camera?”
“Yes,” I said, “but who’s we?”
“We,” Rodriguez repeated. “My partner and I.”
“My partner in the film,” he replied. “Oh, did I forget to mention her? She’s meeting us–oh, here she is now.” Nate stood and waved at someone. I turned around to see who.
She was young, blond, and pretty. And earnest. Very earnest. I recognized her from one of the local stations in Baltimore. She did those human-interest stories that really interested nobody. She leaned into Nate and gave him a quick peck on the cheek.
“Father Tom Greer,” Nate said, “Meet Katherine Shepp.”
She smiled and extended her thin, well-manicured hand. “So nice to meet you, Father,” she said, her voice as silky as her hair. I took her hand, she covered mine with her other hand. She looked into my eyes. “I’m really looking forward to working with you,” she purred.
I settled down to my usual coffee with cream and sugars as she sipped on her decaf soy latte. Nate was there until his uncle came over to remind him that his break was over. After he excused himself, Shepp said, “I’m glad you’ve agreed to help me with the story.”
Me? “Yes, I decided that Joan’s story needed to be told.”
She smiled, showing perfectly white teeth behind her expertly colored lips. There was no lipstick on her cup. It was either very good lipstick, or she had had her lips tattooed.
“When Nate told me about the story of your wife’s murder, I was just so, so…moved, I guess is the word I’m looking for. And then when he told me you came back, and you were now a priest, well, that’s just wonderful.”
“I guess an unsolved murder is a bit of a change from doggy beauty pagents.”
She guffawed. “Yeah, that. Not why I went to J-School, that one. I tried to sell my boss on an animal cruelty angle, but he said no one would believe that dog owners who spent $500 on a custom tailored tuxedo for their pedigree German Shepherd were guilty of abusing their pets. I guess he was right. But this is my ticket out of that crap and into real, hard-hitting stuff.”
“I don’t know how hard-hitting this is,” I said. “Nate’s told me you’re working on the human interest angle, how her murder’s affected others.”
“Well,” Shepp said with a slight eye roll, “Nate and I disagree a little on our view of the project.”
“What’s your view?”
She sat back with an air of triumph. “I intend to solve the case.”
It was so ridiculous I had to laugh a little. She frowned a bit, and I cleared my throat. “Sorry, Ms. Shepp–”
“Please, call me Katherine.”
“Okay, Katherine. Why do you think you’ll be able to solve a ten-year-old murder when the police haven’t been able to?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Because I’ll have your help.” She leaned forward. “Nate told me about the new information you have. The emails the police ignored. I’m not going to ignore them. I’ll figure out who sent them. Are these the emails?” she said, picking them up.
I drank my coffee and watched her read through the emails. The further she got, the more she smiled. Shepp put the papers down and drank from her latte. “Okay Father, yes, I definitely think that there is a connection between those emails and your wife’s murder.”
I smiled in spite of myself. I was swept up in her enthusiasm. And I was flattered that someone would take me seriously.
“Now,” she went on, “we’ve got work to do. I’ll need to lay the groundwork.”
“I’ve told Nate I’ll talk about that night on camera.”
“Well, yes, of course we’ll need that, but there’s more too.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want to get the background, you know, the story behind the story,” she said. “I want to learn everything you can tell me about Joan, about your relationship, about the days and weeks leading up to her murder. Did anything stand out in her behavior? Did anything unusual happen? Was there tension between the two of you?”
“I’ll need to talk to Joan’s mother and her friends.”
“I thought Nate already interviewed them?”
“He did,” Shepp nodded.
“Well,” she leaned towards me, lowering her voice, “if I can be candid, Father Tom, Nate’s really a behind-the-scenes person. Not an on-camera one. Oh, he’s sweet and technically really good, but he doesn’t have the,” she paused looking for a word, “presence that someone who’s on-camera all the time has.”
“Someone like you,” I said.
“Yea, someone like me,” she said. Shepp leaned back and tapped the table with her nails.
“I have the copy of the police file Nate got,” she continued. “It’s so redacted it’s practically useless. Fortunately I know someone who can help get more information on what the police have.”
Katherine smiled. “Old boyfriend. He’s an officer. Married, so that’s a bit of a problem. He has kids, so that’s a bigger problem, but I think I can, you know, persuade.”
I squirmed. “Listen, Katherine, I’d rather you didn’t do anything–”
“Oh,” she waved dismissively, “I’m not going to break any commandments, Father. Maybe bend a little, but not break.” She drank. “Besides, you want the truth, right? Sometimes getting to the truth means getting your hands a little dirty. Sometimes the truth itself is dirty. In fact, it usually is.” She paused. “I’m not sure people know what they’re going to get when they say they want the truth. I think they’d be happier if they never knew the truth.”
“I want the truth,” I said with more certainty than I felt. What if she was right? What if the truth–the whole truth about Joan’s murder, about Joan, about our relationship–was messier than I imagined?
She smiled the same white-veneer-perfect smile.
“Now, when can I get you on camera?”
I returned the smile. But one thought repeated in my head.
What am I getting myself into?
A few days later I was standing in front of the restaurant where we were eating the night of Joan’s murder. It was still a restaurant, but the name was different. It had been La Petite Maison and served French food; it was now called Pasta Primo and served Italian. The decor was completely different. The exact table we were sitting at was no longer there, but I could see the area of the restaurant it had been. The table for two was by the windows overlooking Main Street. It was the same table in the same restaurant where I had proposed to her a few years earlier.
I turned away from the window. Nate had set up a camera on a tripod and was looking through the viewfinder. He looked up. “All good here,” he said to Shepp.
Shepp nodded and looked at me. “You can start whenever you’re ready, Father.”
I exhaled. I had been holding my breath and hadn’t realized it until that moment. I was nervous, more nervous than I remembered being the Sunday of my first homily. I had broken out in a cold sweat right before and thought I was going to pass out. That day, I felt vaguely nauseous.
What are you doing? I thought. You’ve spent years avoiding talking about that night. And what are about to do? Talk about that night. On camera. Your every word recorded. Everyone will hear what you say, and see how you look when you say it. And for what? What are you hoping to gain from this?
“Peace. Justice,” I mumbled to myself.
Are you sure? You don’t really want to talk about it. You know why.
I shook my head to still the thoughts.
You know why.
“Where should I begin?” I asked.
Nate pressed a button on the camera and looked through the viewfinder. He adjusted a knob on the sound recorder slung over his shoulder, listening as I spoke into the lapel mike. I was dressed in my clericals at Nate’s suggestion.
“Wherever you’re comfortable starting,” Shepp said. “Why were you at the restaurant that night?”
“That night,” I repeated. “That night was a special night.”
“What made it special?”
I smiled. “It was the anniversary of our first date. Which was also the anniversary of the night I proposed. We sat at the same table we sat at when I proposed to her, in this restaurant–well, not this restaurant, it was La Petite Maison back then.”
“So it was a happy night.”
“Yes, very happy. But it got happier.”
“Joan had been to the doctor that day,” I continued. “We had been trying ever since we got married to have a baby. But things hadn’t gone well. She had problems getting pregnant. There were a couple of miscarriages along the way. We had just about given up, talked about exploring adoption–she was an only child and I just have a sister, so we wanted to have a large family. I looked forward to being a dad.” I paused a moment.
“Anyway,” I continued, “a few days before, Joan had realized she was late, so she took a home pregnancy test. She told me it was positive, but we’d had false alarms before so she scheduled an appointment with her doctor, Doctor Faraday, I don’t know if she’s still in practice, for a more accurate test. She told me what the doctor said over dinner.”
“What had the doctor said?”
I smiled. I could feel a lump in my throat. The beginnings of tears stung my eyes. Even ten years later, the memories of that night brought up huge emotions in me. I swallowed and cleared my throat. “That we were going to have a baby.”
“How did you feel about that,” Shepp asked quietly.
“Feel? I was ecstatic. I knew that there would be a time when it could all go wrong–we’d been down that path before, like I said–but at that moment I was the happiest man on the planet.”
“What was Joan’s reaction?”
“She–she was happy. But guarded, looking back. She had been through a lot. I guess she didn’t want to get too excited, not while she could still lose the baby. But Joan was like that. She never got too high or too low, Joan always kept her emotions right down the middle.”
Except when she didn’t, I thought.
“What did you two do then?”
“I ordered champagne,” I continued. “While we ate we discussed baby names, how to decorate the nursery, talked about if we were going to need a bigger house–we had started looking at places, at the time we were living in a two-bedroom apartment that was adequate but we knew we’d need a bigger place for kids. We wanted a place with a backyard and enough space for lots of kids.”
“Oh, just work stuff. I told her about the latest project I had at work–I wasn’t a priest then, obviously, I was an archivist at Myer in their Archives and Manuscripts section, actually the archivist, there was only one, and I was it. I had just started a preliminary list of the papers of a former Senator who had been an alumnus of the College. I remember because it had been a very big deal, the largest collection ever donated to Myer at the time. I told Joan that I realized that day how big a job it was going to be, and that I might be able to get the college to hire an assistant. She told me about her work. She was getting her design business off the ground and had a few clients. She told me about one client of hers who was proving to be a problem.”
“Didn’t she work at the College?”
“Yes, she was an instructor in the fine arts department. Joan had received her art degree there and they hired her as a part-time instructor. Joan was good–her students loved her, and the department thought highly of her. The job gave her enough time to work on her business. But she had also hoped the department might take her on as a full-time instructor.”
“So, you finished dinner. What happened next?”
I looked at him. “After dinner and dessert, it was getting late. We left.”
“Where did you go?”
“We walked back to the car.”
Nate stopped the camera and looked up. “That’s great Father, heard everything loud and clear. What we’ll do now is walk down the sidewalk to the parking lot–it’s that one over there, right?” He indicated a small lot between the two rows of shops, the one where the restaurant was and the next one with a used bookstore, antique store, and crystal shop.
I nodded. That was the parking lot where it all happened. “Do you want to film me walking?”
Before Nate could answer, Shepp said, “No, that won’t be necessary.” Nate looked irritated.
We got to the lot. It hadn’t changed much since that night it seemed, but it had been dark and the lot not very well lit, so I couldn’t see much. I looked up. There were more lights now. And cameras.
There hadn’t been cameras that night. There was no video of what happened. All the police had was my story.
I led them to the part of the lot where I remembered we parked, not too far in from the street. He set up his tripod and camera. After a few minutes he said, “Okay, when you’re ready.”
I nodded and he started the camera.
“We had parked about here,” I said. “We took our time walking here, the night was warm and clear. Just strolled together hand in hand. I remember Joan leaning against me, holding me by my upper arm, resting her head on my shoulder. It was late so there were not a lot of cars on the street. By the time we got here, the lot seemed empty except for us.”
I paused. Now was the hard part. I said a quick prayer for strength.
“What happened next,” I went on, “is foggy. I’m not sure I remember everything that happened. I remember we arrived at the car. We walked around so I could open her door–Joan liked that, she teased me when I forgot, which was quite often. I heard footsteps coming behind us. I looked up, and there he was. Just standing there, holding a gun on us.”
“What did you do?”
What did I do? What did I do? “I–I froze. I just stared at him. Joan stared too.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing. That was the strange thing, nothing. He held the gun on me and grabbed Joan. Started dragging her away.”
“What did he look like?”
“I’m not sure. The light wasn’t very good. I couldn’t make out any features. I could see his eyes. He was wearing a hoodie. A mask maybe.”
I stopped and stared at a spot in the parking space where my car had been. I was trying to remember what I told the police about what happened next.
“Joan started screaming, hitting at the guy, trying to pull away. But he was too strong. He said something, I can’t remember what. I darted after him. I remember jumping on him, trying to wrestle him away from her. He let go of Joan and she ran back to the car, I think. He threw me off.”
I stopped. I felt tears welling up again. “Can we stop for a moment?”
Nate looked up from the camera. Shepp said, “Sure, Father. Take the time you need.” I walked away from the spot. My mind was spinning. I knew what happened next. I lived with the memory every day since it happened. The images swirled through my head every night when I tried to sleep. I hadn’t talked about what happened to anyone, not since the police interviewed me. Now I was being asked to tell the story again. I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer, opened my eyes, and walked back to Nate and Shepp.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m ready now.”
Nate looked through the viewfinder. “Okay, Father.”
I exhaled. “He pointed the gun at me. I ran at him and grabbed his arm. I guess I was trying to get the gun away from him. We fought for a minute.” I stopped and swallowed. “Then it happened.”
I stopped. I couldn’t form the words in my mouth. I had lost the ability to speak.
“What happened?” Shepp repeated.
“A–a shot,” I whispered. “There was a shot. He must have had his finger on the trigger. For a second, I thought I had been shot. I didn’t feel anything, didn’t see any blood. He looked shocked, like he wasn’t expecting it.” I paused. “Then I looked at Joan.”
Closed my eyes. Tears were welling up again. But I couldn’t stop. I just had to get through it.
“Even in the dim light I could see. Her blouse was white. It was very easy to see the blood. She hadn’t screamed or cried out. She just stood there, blood slowly spreading crimson across her front. She began to sway. I ran to her and caught her as she sank to her knees. I started screaming for help. I looked in the guy’s direction. He was still standing there. It was like he was transfixed or something. Like he couldn’t believe what he had done. I thought I heard him speak, I can’t be sure. I was holding Joan, cradling her in my arms, telling her, begging her to hold on until help came.
“Then suddenly, he walked up to me and held the gun to my head. He looked me right in the eyes. I saw—”
“What did you see?”
“I saw–anger, hatred, rage. Murderous rage.”
“Did he say anything to you?”
I shook my head. “He just stared at me, pointing the gun right here,” I pointed to my forehead, between my eyes. “I closed my eyes. I thought to myself, at least we’ll die together. I won’t have to live without her. Then, I heard a click. Then another click. A third click. Not a shot. Just clicks. Something must have happened to the gun. He moved it away from me. I opened my eyes. He was looking at the gun with disbelief. Then he looked at me. He screamed, drew his arm back and struck me with the gun. I only remember searing pain, then darkness.”
“What’s the next thing you remember?” Shepp prompted.
My breathing was ragged. “I came to,” I said, “and Joan was on top of me.” The tears were hot on my cheeks. “I rocked her slowly, talking quietly to her. I looked her in the eyes, willing her to be alive. I held her tight, sobbing, asking God to bring her back. But there was no life in her eyes. They stared blankly into mine. She was gone.”
I stopped. I lowered my head, squeezing my eyes tight against the tears that were about to overwhelm my ability to control them. I squeezed my hands into fists, gritting my teeth, using every fiber of my being to control the emotions welling up from inside me. I felt I was drowning in a sea of my own sadness. It was just like before. It hadn’t been this bad in a long time.
I shouldn’t have done this, I thought. This was a mistake.
I had lost all awareness of where I was. I was no longer standing in the parking lot, feet from Nate and Shepp and the video camera. I was adrift in a cold void created by the overwhelming pain I had brought back to the surface.
I don’t know how long I was like that. Next thing I knew, I was back. I looked up. Nate and Shepp just stared at me.
“That’s everything,” I said. “That’s what happened. That’s how Joan was killed.”
That evening, I knelt in Saint Clare’s before the tabernacle. I had just finished Evening Prayer. I was physically and mentally exhausted.
I looked at the crucifix, then the tabernacle, comforted by the knowledge that Christ was there with me.
I slowly shook my head. One thought kept repeating over and over again. It had started after we finished filming. I couldn’t stop it.
It’s been ten years. You still can’t face the truth.