Masses and Motets

Jeffrey DeShell

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Masses and Motets, by Jeffrey DeShell. The story follows four interwoven plots, all corresponding to the music of Pierre de la Rue’s. Francesca Fruscella is a detective sent to investigate the murder of a priest named Father Andrea Vidal, while a priest named Father Signelli has been sent from the Vatican to cover up the murder. As these three stories interweave, they expose a fourth: one of widespread clerical corruption and cruelty.

Maybe this sparseness wasn’t unusual, maybe they all lived like this, with few personal possessions, with nothing to tie them down to the secular world. That didn’t square with my knowledge, limited to be sure, of the Catholic clergy. I remembered, at seven or eight, being most impressed with my aunt Lissandra’s frequent guest, Father Joseph, who drove a big Buick, ate a big meal, drank big red glasses of wine and smoked a big after-dinner cigar: there wasn’t much in the world he had renounced. For all that he was small, maybe five-seven, and thin, one-fifty at the most, and he always brought a box of Russell Stover candies for my aunt. He once pulled a fifty-cent piece from behind my ear and gave it to me. I have no idea what happened to him. And maybe he did live like this, once the Buick was parked.

Still, something was off here. I needed more information. I looked around again, quickly, and then turned to Straat. “If you notice anything out of place, either something that should be here that isn’t or that shouldn’t be here that is, you let me know ASAP.”

He nodded.“Will do, Detective.”

I wanted to duck my head into another room to see if this stinginess was a custom of the rectory, but all doors were closed tight to this unclean female. Too bad my period had dried up years before. I held my breath as I hurried down the stairs, through the corridor and out of the closed rectory air. I found Maldonado on the telephone, pacing in the sacristy off the hallway leading to the cathedral. I breathed deeply.

He hung up.“Did you find anything?” “Nothing. Didn’t have much, our dead priest.” “Lived like a monk, huh?”

“But this isn’t a monastery. How do these other priests live? I need to know that. Who’s doing the interviews here?”

“Mullen and Wolff.”

“Send them to me the minute they’re finished.” I started pacing as well.“What do we know about Vidal? He wasn’t here long, right?”

“February last year.”

“Did he have any friends here? Enemies? Where did he come from?”

“Mexico City.”

“Who did he work for there? Did he have friends there? What is his order like? I need background, as much info as can be found. Who’s on it now?”

“No one yet.”

“Put someone smart on it. Someone who can speak Spanish and who knows their way around a rosary. And we need to check out this Willem Martinez too. What do we know, other than he liked to get high and his address was bogus? Put someone smart on that too, street-smart.”

I looked around the room at the three sets of long, low wooden drawers flanked by two large closets. A framed print of Velásquez’s Christ Crucified dominated the far wall, indeed the entire sacristy, with that solitary white figure against the deep black background. I don’t know much about art, but I knew that painting. Looking at the print, one could almost believe. There was the pleasant smell of incense, stiff linen and cedar oil. “Were you ever an altar boy, Maldonado?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Me either. We went to Mass, when I was a kid, and I was confirmed, but after that, my family didn’t press. Weekends were always busy, especially when the Broncos played, and I had concerts or recitals most Sunday nights.”

I walked around those low cabinets to look more closely at the print. It was fairly big, about four feet tall and over two feet wide, and simply framed, with a glass overlay. I had seen the original in New York when I was in college, and remembered it as bigger, maybe twice as big, life-size. A short platform extended from the vertical beam of the cross, and Christ’s feet were nailed to it separately. I wondered if that would be more painful than doing both feet with one spike. The bloody toes were elongated, and the toenails of both big toes needed trimming.

“What do we have here?”

“A murder. The murder of a priest.” “Passion or execution?”

“Passion most likely: his entire face was gone.”

“What are the parts of a shotgun shell? The case, the shot and the wad, right? We know where the shot went, into our priest’s face and head. But where did the case and wad go?”

“The shooter must have picked them up.”

“But if this was a crime of passion, is that something he, I’m assuming it’s a he, would do? After splattering the priest’s brains in that small confessional, would he stop, search around for the casing and wad?”


“And then drop his wallet” “Maybe.”

“And why a shotgun?” “Maximum effect?”

“And no rifling marks. Difficult to trace.”

I looked again at Christ Crucified. Nasty way to die. Certainly not the only innocent to be executed like that. And Father Andrea Vidal? How innocent was he? No one deserved a shotgun to the face. That was true.

“Get a team together, and we’ll meet in an hour back at the ranch. I know it’s Sunday, but we’ve got a murder.”

“This is our victim, Father Andrea Antonio Diego Vidal, age forty-nine, Argentine national, arrived in Denver only last year. Found murdered, shotgun blast to the head, by person or persons unknown, in a confessional of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception”

“This is our victim, Father Andrea Antonio Diego Vidal, age forty-nine, Argentine national, arrived in Denver only last year. Found murdered, shotgun blast to the head, by person or persons unknown, in a confessional of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception this morning, August twenty-first, by a Mrs. Helen Threadgill of Congress Park. Time of death sometime between twelve midnight and five a.m. We’ll know more once we get the medex report. Let’s fill some of this in.”

“Victim was highly educated, with a PhD in theology from a noted university in Rome. According to his supervisor in Denver, Father Duquesne, Vidal was multi-lingual, spoke Spanish, French, English, Latin and Greek. Again, according to Duquesne, he was more an administrator than a priest who served Mass. He was not assigned pastoral duties in this diocese, although he was allowed to give early morning Sunday confession.”

“Was that the word Duquesne used, ‘allowed’? He keeps saying that, keeps insisting that Vidal wasn’t ‘allowed’ pastoral duties. Why? Was Vidal being kept from the public?”

“That was the word he used.”

“Sex abuse. Sometimes priests are reassigned, given a desk job, a job where they don’t meet the congregation. Could that be what was happening here? Where did he work before?”

“Mexico City.”

“As an administrator. Says here he worked in the ‘administrative offices.’ Maybe he didn’t have pastoral duties there either.”

“For whom did he work?”

“The Legionaries of Christ.”

“There’s a lot of dirt here, ma’am, on the Legionaries of Christ. According to Wikipedia, this Legion of Christ was involved in numerous sex scandals, including allegations that the founder, one Marcial Maciel, quote ‘sexually abused minors and fathered children,’ unquote.’’

“And if Vidal worked for Maciel, then he might have known about this.”

“Did Vidal work for Maciel? We need to find out. What’s the chronology here?”

“It says here that Maciel died in 2008. He stepped down as director of the Legion in 2005 and was retired to Florida in 2006. New allegations came out in 2009. Six kids, possibly. Alleged abuse of boys, alleged drug use, alleged fraud. The Legion even admitted some of it and apologized to the victims.”

“And Vidal left Mexico at the beginning of last year. About a year and a half after Maciel died and five years after he resigned as head of the Legion.”

“Good, good, but we need more than a Wikipedia article, we need some real information, especially as to Vidal’s position within the organization. Who’s on that?”

“I am, ma’am. Detective Vitalsky.” “Progress?”

“I have a number of messages left with all various numbers I could find, but offices are closed on Sunday afternoons, and the home numbers I have aren’t answering.”

“You speak Spanish, Vitalsky?”

“I speak Spanish very well, ma’am. And I lived in Buenos Aires as a child.”

“You a good Catholic, Vitalsky?”

“I’m a collapsed Catholic, ma’am.” “Excuse me?”

He stammered, turned a vivid shade of red. “Just a bad joke, ma’am. One of my brothers is a priest, a Franciscan. I know something about the Catholic orders and hierarchy and such.”

I smiled.“Good. And it’s not a bad joke. I might be a collapsed Catholic as well. Find out exactly what Vidal’s duties were in the administrative offices. Was any money paid out? To the victims, after the apology? Anyone? We need intel on that.”

“Do we have a motive? Could one of those abused boys have gone after Vidal? Maciel’s dead, and maybe Vidal knew about the abuse.”

“Or helped.” “Or joined in?”

“Maybe, maybe. Vitalsky, got your passport ready?” “Ma’am?”

“I want you to go down to Mexico City for a couple of days. Given their recent scandal, and the sometimes reluctance of the Holy Catholic Church to provide information to civil authorities, mere telephone messages likely will remain unanswered. I’ll get Schlaf to telephone the local po. I’ll want as much intel as you can get on Vidal, the Legion, as well as the scandal and Maciel. Talk to the victims’ lawyers and find out if they settled. There should be a flight tonight.”

Vitalsky began to gather himself.

“Who’ve you been working with in data?” “Richards.”

“Who can take over? Needs to speak Spanish? Any good Catholics?”

No one raised a hand.

“That’s sad. And Vitalsky, watch your expenses please. Anyone a Catholic at all? Elizondo, how about you?”

“I was raised Catholic, ma’am. Haven’t been to Mass since I was twenty.”

“You win. Vitalsky will brief you, but work with Richards. Find out all you can about Father Vidal from here.” I turned to Maldonado.“We might need some help with all the Catholic stuff.”

He shrugged,“The chaplain? Someone at the diocese?”

“No, I was thinking someone more independent. Maybe DU?” “Regis?”

“That’s a good idea.”

“What? How do you know? Was it on the television? Can the man suspected be traced to us?”

“My man found a wallet at the scene, which he abandoned.” He thought for a minute.“That is fortunate, fortunate indeed.

The police will place their suspicion on this other man, which will provide us with time.” Signelli looked down at his hands, his clean and neat fingernails. Clean nails were important. “Father Malachi, I do not wish to supervise your business, but please tell me: with the secretary dead, how are we to locate the journal? And if Vidal has been murdered, won’t the journal become an object of police investigation?”

Malachi gave a little smile, then turned away.

The car was stopped at a traffic light. He looked out the window, at the too-bright streets, the sun reflecting brilliantly off of the windows and the concrete. He noticed, through the glare, the people on the sidewalk in shorts and sportswear, tall, happy and busy, with a purpose or direction remarkable to his Italian gaze: dressing like they have nowhere to go, they walk as if they were late. He thought about sharing that observation with Malachi but decided against it.

The car proceeded through the intersection. He noticed the largest milk can he had ever seen, ten meters high, with the words “Little Man Ice Cream and Italian Gelato” on a big black-and-white cloth sign hanging from the top. He wondered how edible this Italian Gelato from this Little Man was. Certainly nothing could compare with his beloved stracciatella from his beloved Gelarmony. He was hungry: the breakfast had not tempted, he had accepted only coffee, and his body was still some hours ahead. He remembered the previous night with shame. He turned from the window toward Malachi.

“Is there any connection between the man the police are suspecting and Father Vidal? Could this man possess the journal?”

Without turning.“Don’t know.”

The back seat air was darkening with dense, grey clouds of thickening, almost solidifying smoke.

“Is your thinking that because the secretary is dead, his journal will not likely be discovered? Is this wise?”

No response.

“Doesn’t the murder of Vidal necessarily involve the authorities, necessarily put this man and his possessions into the public eye?”

No response.

“If the journal is now found, won’t the authorities keep it for their investigations? And then perhaps make it public? Isn’t this the situation I told you we were trying to avoid?”

No response. He looked at Malachi in profile. His blue eye sparked through the smoke. It was not a laughing or dancing eye but an eye of calculation and cunning, surrounded by wrinkles and crow’s-feet. Malocchio. Malachi’s head was large and broad, his silhouette made greater by his nimbus of stiff white hair, expanding in numerous directions, unkempt and aggressive. He was not a big man and did whatever he could to increase the corporeal space his body described, from his shameless hairstyle to his flowing, over-large cassock. Pavoneggiarsi. In Dublin, Signelli never saw Malachi without the violet ferraiolo, even when most inappropriate, like that Trinity College basement at three in the morning. The ferraiolo was now missing, but the hair, cassock and malocchio remained. And for all the attempts at physical expansion, Malachi’s language was guarded, contracted, terse past the point of rudeness and insult, as if each and every syllable cost incalculable physical and spiritual energy. Malachi’s syllables were few and far between, and they often created more obscurity than they solved. And in the silence surrounding them, interpretations could be, would be, inserted.

He thought back to that cold, damp night in Dublin when he and Malachi had decided how best to proceed with Father Belhomme. He had always disliked Ireland: it had always seemed an outpost to him, stranger and wilder than even America, its populace primitive and its church near pagan. It was as if the people had just emerged from their tribal woodlands, blinking and dismayed in the bright sun of Christian Europe. They remained first generation Christians, cruel and severe, their zealotry to be envied and feared. He thought of the laundries, run by the Sisters of Mercy, where the unwed mothers would go, the Church’s penance heavy on both them and their offspring. He was glad he was spared involvement with that. Many women died there, fallen or not. And even if fornication, concupiscence, was a mortal sin, God’s mercy promised forgiveness. That was the whole point of Christ’s sacrifice. These women should not have had to repeat the sacrifice of Our Lord. And their children? He thought briefly of Sister Kiara and her long Cistercian face.

Irish weather was damp and cold and grey. And the food, the potatoes and beer and overcooked meat, all lacked subtlety and texture. The cheese, the cheese was passable. He much preferred London, where civilization seemed more entrenched.

“What do we do now, Father Malachi?”

“What’s done is done, like I said. We wait. Is binn béal ina thost.” The driver in front laughed harshly.


From Masses and Motets, by Jeffrey DeShell. Used with the permission of the publisher, FC2/University of Alabama Press. Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey DeShell.

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