Chapter 1 - Homecoming
Gerald Byrne stood at the ship’s railing, his eyes stinging slightly, his hair damp from the salt spray of the voyage across the Irish Sea. He would not, however, have missed the sight of the ferry’s arrival in Liverpool for the entire world. As the ship neared the great sea port, the city of his birth, he smiled as the iconic view of the world-famous Liverpool waterfront came into view, dominated by the three majestic buildings that had come to be known as ‘The Three Graces’. The Royal Liver Building, The Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building had dominated the Liverpool waterfront for almost a century, defining the city’s skyline for locals and visitors alike. The sun was already quite high and played upon the waterfront buildings, making them gleam and reflect almost perfectly in the waters of the River Mersey. Byrne could make out movement on shore as the people of the city went about their daily business, pedestrians, buses and cars clearly visible from his ship-board vantage point as the ferry drew nearer and nearer to Liverpool’s ferry port.
The priest sighed as the ship swung towards the ferry terminal, and his view was temporarily obscured by the change in the ferry’s orientation. The eight hour crossing had been boring and uneventful, the Irish Sea not too violent in its treatment of the ship and its passengers. Father Byrne had spent most of the trip in one of the aircraft-like seats that P &O Ferries supplied in lieu of cabins on the service, his mind alternating between his reading of the Bible and thoughts of returning to the city of his childhood after so many years.
Life had been good to Gerald Byrne over the years. Born in a back-to-back terraced house on Scotland Road, one of the poorest areas of the city in nineteen fifty four, he and his sister ended up in Speke Hill after their mother died of pneumonia in nineteen sixty-one, their father having died four years earlier, having eventually succumbed to ill health as a result of disease and deprivation suffered during his time as a prisoner-of-war, working on the notorious ‘railway of death’ in Burma under the brutal regime of the Japanese guards.
Against all odds, young Gerald thrived in his new environment and impressed his teachers and the caring staff at the orphanage with his capacity for learning and exemplary behaviour. He developed a deep interest in theology and the Catholic Church and from an early age, he knew the direction he expected his future to take.
Following his chosen path by living his life in the Roman Catholic Church, he’d left Liverpool in nineteen seventy five, at the age of twenty-one, and following his eventual ordination in Rome, of all places, he’d led a good life, serving the church in various locales around the world, expanding his knowledge of the diverse people and races that went to make up the vast worldwide congregation of Catholicism. Gerald had witnessed life and death in all its forms, having served in war zones, areas of famine relief, and in disease-ridden areas of some of the poorest nations of the world, ministering to the poor and the sick. He’d managed to learn to speak four languages, apart from English, quite fluently, and had learned from his experiences that quite often the rich were in as much spiritual need, if not more in some cases, than the downtrodden masses of the third-world nations so often in the news headlines around the world.
Now at the age of forty-eight, the church had agreed to his request to return to his home town, following a diagnosis of severe unstable angina by his doctor. If anything were to happen to bring him ever closer to his eventual meeting with his maker, Byrne wanted to be in his home city when it occurred. Five feet ten, hair still a dark brown with only a few flecks of grey, Byrne looked far fitter then he really was, his physique built over many years of enjoying various sporting activities.
Having spent five years teaching at a seminary just outside the village of Enniskerry in County Wicklow, Byrne had moved on to become a parish priest once again, and now, his congregation at the small church of St Clement in a small town in County Cork had been upset and saddened to see their priest of these past ten years leave them. Gerald Byrne had become part of the fabric of their lives, a fixture in their religious and devotional faith, and in truth, it saddened him to be leaving them also, but, as he explained to a full church at the end of his final mass at St. Clement’s, God, his conscience, and the lure of his home meant it was time to leave, to go back to his roots, and to be at peace with God, with himself and with his past before finally leaving this earthly plane.
Father Byrne found himself jolted out of his reverie by the sound of the ship’s hooter as the Port Erin swung beam-on to the dockside and crewmen ran to the port side of the ship, where they heaved the thick hawsers over the side to be caught by the dock workers on shore, who proceeded to wrap the ropes around the capstans on the dock, until the ship was made fast and the throbbing of the powerful diesel engines died away, and the vibration of the deck beneath the passengers’ feet ceased as the eight hour voyage came to its end. For a few seconds, the silence was palpable until, as if as one, passengers and crew seemed to come to life and there began a mass exodus from the ship, as the city of Liverpool beckoned those on board.
Within a short time, Father Byrne found himself being carried along in a wave of humanity down the gangplank, and he said a silent prayer of thanks as his feet touched the ground on the dockside. He was home again.
Carrying his single suitcase into the ferry terminal building, and wearing his charcoal grey suit, black shirt and white clerical collar, Gerald Byrne’s calling was evident to anyone who cared to look at the tall handsome man with the dark brown hair, only slightly greying at the edges. Within seconds of his arrival in the terminal, a diminutive figure, at least six inches shorter in height, and dressed in similar fashion to the priest, came scurrying up to him, addressing Byrne in a breathless voice as he held out his right hand in greeting.
“You must be Father Byrne,” said the new arrival. “Please say you are. I’d hate to be speaking to the wrong priest after being delayed in a traffic jam on the way and then finding hardly a space to park the car.”
Gerald Byrne smiled as he shook hands with the little priest, whose words spilled out in a hurry, as though he was recently qualified in speed-speaking.
“I am indeed Father Byrne, have no worries, and you, I presume, are Father Willis?”
“Yes, yes, that’s right, Father. David Willis, your Deacon, praise God, and pleased to be so.”
Still grinning, Byrne placed a hand on the young priest’s shoulder as he spoke again.
“Father Willis, David, if I may?” Willis nodded emphatically. “Good, now David, calm yourself, dear boy. There’s no harm done. The Good Lord saw fit to aid you through the traffic jam and the car park just in time to meet me here, without you having to wait for ages and perhaps having to sit and drink some terrible potion masquerading as tea or coffee out of that infernal machine over there.”
Willis looked behind him to where Byrne indicated a hot drinks machine, beloved of railway stations, ferry terminals and bus stations the world over
“Well of course, Father Byrne, you’re quite correct in that respect. I was just so afraid you’d arrive and there’d be no-one here to meet you and you’d have thought me so terribly remiss.”
“So, there’s no harm done, now, is there?”
“No, Father, as you say, no harm done at all.”
“In which case, I suggest you take a moment to calm yourself and then we’ll take a walk to your car and you can drive me to my new church, and my new home, and we can become better acquainted along the way, eh, David?”
“Oh, yes, of course. The car park’s not far away and we’ll soon have you at St. Luke’s, Father.”
Byrne placed another steadying hand on Willis’s shoulder.
“And tell me, David, do you always speak so quickly, as if the words are likely to go out of fashion if you don’t get them out fast enough?”
“Oh dear, that is a rather bad habit of mine, when I’m stressed or nervous. Father O’Hanlon used to say the same thing to me, you know, bless his soul.”
“Well, please, David, there’s no call for you to be stressed or nervous around me, that’s for sure. Did you work under Father O’Hanlon for long?”
“I came to St. Luke’s exactly a year ago this month, Father. It was a real shock when poor Father O’Hanlon passed away so suddenly.”
“I’m sure it was, David. A heart attack I believe?”
“Yes, indeed it was, Father.”
“Well, he’s with our Lord in Heaven now, David and it’s my job, and yours, to ensure we carry on the Lord’s work at St. Luke’s, and so, let’s go.”
David Willis nodded, took up Byrne’s suitcase, and led Gerald Byrne to the car park, where the older priest couldn’t help but smile as Willis stopped at a rather battered looking Ford Escort, that had obviously seen better days, opened the boot and deposited the suitcase within. The young priest then rushed to open the passenger door for the new parish priest of St. Luke’s, Woolton, and within minutes they were clear of the ferry terminal and heading to Byrne’s new parish, and new home.
Norris Green, Liverpool, 3 Months Later
Detective Inspector Andy Ross pulled the unmarked police Mondeo to a halt, its right side wheels pulled up on the pavement outside St. Matthew’s Church in Norris Green in an effort to avoid restricting the traffic flow along Brewer Street. The Norris Green housing estate, built on land donated to the council by the Norris family, was unusual in that the original bequest of the land included the stipulation that no public house be built on the land. To this day, that instruction has been adhered to, meaning residents of Norris Green have to venture further afield to obtain whatever alcoholic stimulation they require.
There were already two police patrol cars parked on the street, together with another pool car identical to his own which he knew would have brought his assistant, Sergeant Clarissa, (Izzie) Drake and Detective Constable Derek McLennan to the scene as well as an ambulance and the green Volvo he recognised as that belonging to Dr. William (Fat Willy, but don’t tell him that) Nugent, the overly rotund but eminently brilliant pathologist who served as the city’s senior medical examiner. Blue and white police crime scene tape had already been strategically placed across the wide double gated entrance to the churchyard, with an attendant uniformed constable on guard to prevent unwanted sightseers trying to gatecrash the crime scene.
Ross silently cursed the court case that had demanded his appearance at nine a.m that morning. The trial of a serial mugger who had almost killed his twelfth and last victim before being almost comically apprehended by the off-duty Andy Ross had been suddenly curtailed when the accused changed his plea from not-guilty to guilty, thus relieving Ross of the need to hang around the court building waiting to give evidence. As soon as he exited the court and turned on his mobile phone, Ross received word of the ‘incident’ involving a body being discovered in St. Matthew’s churchyard from his squad’s collator, D.C Paul Ferris. The fact that he would now probably be the last to arrive on the scene did little to improve his humour after what he considered a wasted and fruitless start to his day.
Luckily for him, the uniformed constable on duty at the gates recognised the detective inspector and with a brief, “Good morning, sir,” waved Ross through after lifting the crime scene tape for the detective to pass beneath. Ross had no need to ask the constable where to go. He simply followed his nose along the path that led around the church itself, in the direction of the noise of voices and activity in the graveyard that stood to the rear of the church.
As he neared the scene, Ross could see Dr. Nugent on his knees, his assistant, Francis Lees beside him, both men obviously intent on carrying out their initial examination of the body of the unfortunate victim. Sergeant Drake and Constable McLennan were in attendance, standing just behind the doctor and Lees, while three uniformed constables stood further back from the scene, each man bearing what Ross could only describe as a disturbed look upon their faces.
Seeing him drawing near, Izzie Drake broke away from her position and walked briskly towards him.
“Morning, sir. I’m afraid we’ve got a bad one today.”
“Hmm, well, there are never any good ones when it comes to murder, are there, Sergeant?”
“I know sir, I’m sorry, I just meant…”
“Forget it, Izzie. My apologies. I’m just in a foul temper after wasting my time at the damn court this morning.”
“I know, sir. Ferris told me when he called to let me know you were on the way. Damn shame, wasting your time like that, but, at least Phillip Downes won’t be troubling the courts again for a few years after he’s sentenced.”
“Very true,” Ross replied. “Now, come on, what have we got here?”
“It’s bloody gruesome, sir, and that’s the truth. Poor Derek threw up almost as soon as we got here, as well as one of the uniformed lads. Bet they both wish they hadn’t eaten a hearty breakfast this morning. Come on, sir, best you see for yourself.”
Ross nodded and the two detectives walked slowly towards the location of the body that had necessitated the appearance of the Murder Investigation Team at the scene.