6x9” HC, 281 pp.
Publication Date: August 2007
EXCERPT from COLD ROLLED DEAD
Copyright © 2007 Paul D’Ambrosio and Down The Shore Publishing Corp. All Rights Reserved.
A cool sweep of air embraced Lester Lewis as he drew open the heavy oak doors to the sanctuary.
The air conditioning offered a respite from the morning heat, which seemed to grow in intensity with every passing minute. The breeze was enough to divert his attention from the dull ache in his arthritic hip, the pain a constant reminder that his once-spry jaunts were now hobbled to a measured pace. He tugged absentmindedly at his dark blue sports jacket to shut out the unexpected chill.
He had come this morning to Saint Sebastian’s Church, nestled deep in the green, lush Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. The house of worship was a cozy remnant of a speck-of-a-town that was quickly passing into oblivion as the hamlet’s eldest members faded away.
Lewis, now just a visitor, had shunned the church for years. The long shadows of the early morning hour ensured that the few remaining communicants were nowhere in sight. He scanned the hollow vestibule and then looked forward, toward the last of the wooden pews. Father Caden, a sandy-haired priest several years Lewis’s junior, sat with his hands folded and head bowed as he rested on the worn, rigid kneeler.
The deep rumble of the giant oak door closing told Father Caden that he was no longer alone.
“Good morning, Les,” Caden said without looking up. “I was surprised by your call. It’s been awhile.”
“Yes, Father,” Lewis said. He winced in pain as he genuflected before the altar and turned into the pew. “After all these years, I still can’t see you with that collar.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Caden,” Lewis said. “You know our friend has told you all about me.”
“I left that world a long time ago.”
Lewis lowered his voice to intone his impatience.
“C’mon. You got rich, we all got rich from it,” Lewis said. “You couldn’t stay away if you tried. You ran away to this godforsaken place, and you still couldn’t stay away. Tell me, how do you explain to your flock about your nice house, your nice car?”
“I say nothing,” the priest said quietly. “They assume I inherited it from a distant relative. I do try to keep my vows to be honest.”
“And the women... there are still the women, aren’t there, Caden?” Lewis scanned his quarry as if he were a viper about to strike.
Caden closed his eyes as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “There are no longer any women, Lester. Why are you here? Did you come to blackmail me for a few dollars? Is that what your poor life has come to?”
Lewis paused and looked away, unsure what to say next, unsure how to begin. His hard features softened faintly as he reflected on the priest’s carefully chosen words.
“Your spirit is weary. I can see that,” Caden said. He slowly reached to clasp Lewis’s hands in his own. Caden felt a slight tremble as he offered a reassuring squeeze. “Do you wish to offer your confession?”
“I do,” Lewis said. “You know it has been much too long. You know what I have done; the terrible things that I have done.”
“Forgive me, Father,” Lewis said as he bowed his head. “Forgive me.”
“Go on, Les.”
“I am here because of another,” Lewis said. He raised his eyes to see a mixture of puzzlement and alarm on Father Caden’s face. He felt a rush of adrenaline through his body, one that caused his left eye to twitch.
“I... I don’t understand.”
“Our friend,” Lewis said. “Our friend was here to see you. Was it... yesterday?”
Caden was caught off guard. A minute stutter gave Lewis the reassurance that he needed. “I’m not sure that I can talk about this, Lester.”
“I know he was here,” Lester said in a flat tone, his eyes meeting the priest’s gaze full on. “I know he talked to you. I know that he told you.”
“I cannot talk about this,” Caden said. He instinctively pulled his hands away, trying to inch away from Lewis, but was stopped by the solid edge of the pew.
“You know, don’t you?” Lewis said, sliding closer. “Tell me if you know.”
“You must leave, now,” Caden said, his voice rising to a harsh whisper. “I cannot talk about this.”
Lewis grabbed the priest’s wrist, locking it in a tight grip. “The temptation for one more score was too much, wasn’t it, Caden? You couldn’t live without just one more taste, isn’t that right? You need to tell me what you know.”
“I know nothing,” Caden said. “Your grip. Let go. Let go. You are hurting me.”
“Do you?” Lewis pulled closer, lowering his voice. He looked around to ensure they were still alone. “Do you know about it?”
Father Caden’s eyes widened and then darted toward the vestibule. Lewis could see that the reaction was the final affirmation; he had found what he had come for.
“The Khimer-A? I don’t know what you are talking about. What is it?”
“I’m sorry, Father,” Lewis said, relaxing his grip to offer an easy assurance of calm. “The pain... I sometimes become too anxious because of this damn arthritis.”
Father Caden eased his rigid spine, a sign to Lewis that he no longer feared him. With his free hand Lewis gently caressed his aching hip. With the slightest of movements, he moved to the hollow of his back. His fingertips danced lightly over the reassuring coolness of the brass, then removed the hammer’s dark and dimpled wooden handle from its thin custom holster.
“Forgive me, Father,” Lewis said, exhaling. “Forgive me, Caden.”
The heavy brass flashed from behind Lewis’s back into a high arc. With a soft sound, like a paper cup being crushed, the ball peen dug effortlessly into the top of the priest’s head. Caden slumped forward. His motion was momentarily halted by the kneeler. As the weight in his lifeless body shifted to the right, the priest slid silently into Lewis’s lap.
Lewis knew they were alone. He had no need to hurry. From his jacket pocket he withdrew a thick, black trash bag. He quickly wrapped it around the dead priest’s head and made sure, as he had done countless times before, that no specs of blood dripped on the floor. The hammer had a way of stopping the blood flow; the trick was never to take it out before the heart stopped beating.
Lewis thought about offering another apology to his old friend, but knew it was useless. Whatever forgiveness he sought, it was too late now. With the bag secured, Lewis yanked the priest’s body to an upright position. Even with the medication, the pain shot through his hip like a knife. He let out a small yell, but he would have to endure it. There was little time for self-pity. Once outside, he knew he would have to move quickly to put the body in the trunk of his car to move it to its final, hidden place. Caden could not be found, at least for the next three days. It was all the time Lewis needed.
It was all the time he had before the Khimer-A arrived.
Paul D'Ambrosio, a highly respected investigative journalist, is one of the most honored newspaper writers in the nation. He has won more than $65,000 in national journalism writing awards in the last five years, defeating the best work from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Among his awards are the prestigious Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting (the richest prize given for investigative reporting), National Press Club Awards, Scripps Howard Public Service Award and the National Headliner Award for Public Service.
His work has led to the exposé of corrupt political deals, crooked military contractors, dangerous doctors, faulty hospitals, land scammers and government waste. Several long-time New Jersey politicians have lost re-election because of D'Ambrosio’s work, which has been credited with igniting an ethics reform movement in New Jersey deemed “the most corrupt state in the nation” by the local U.S. Attorney. His work has directly led to the passage of 23 New Jersey government ethics laws, including passage of the state’s open pubic records law.
D'Ambrosio is the Investigations Editor for the Asbury Park (NJ) Press, one of the largest newspapers in Gannett Co. Inc.
D'Ambrosio is a nationally known expert in a branch of journalism called Computer-Assisted Reporting, which uses sophisticated computer programs to identify government corruption and waste.
He has lectured about investigative reporting at national conferences as well as at Harvard, Syracuse University and the University of Southern California. During his 25-year career, Paul has covered more than 100 homicides and numerous criminal court cases.
He lives in southern New Jersey with his wife and two sons.
Cold Rolled Dead is his first book.