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Pilate's Cross (excerpt from the novel)

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 Excerpted from Book 1 in the John Pilate Mystery Series. Book 2: Pilate's Key is available now free on Wattpad.

PROLOGUE

November 26, 1963

Dr. Brady Bernard tied his bowtie as he gazed in the mirror of his small deco tiled bathroom. A breeze blew in over his shoulder from the window above the bathtub—a window he’d always kept open “just a crack” after a faulty gas heater in the bathroom nearly asphyxiated him and his wife a few months prior. Unlike the shattered nuptial union that had also nearly succeeded in suffocating him over time, the good doctor had at least managed to repair the heater.

He slipped the burgundy tie ends together just as he had thousands of times before. A jaunty bow formed around his neck, and his sagging skin fell around it. Bernard adjusted the wire-framed glasses on his ruddy face, slipped his suspenders over his shoulders, and ran a comb through his thinning, pomaded hair.

He glanced quickly at the headlines of the two-day-old newspaper crumpled on the floor beside the toilet:

KENNEDY SLAIN ON DALLAS STREET.

Bernard heaved a disgusted sigh. Like so many others, he liked President Kennedy. The assassination had a surprisingly strong effect on him, though not for the typical reasons anyone might suspect. The stairs creaked and groaned under his 260-pound frame. From the landing, through his leaded-glass window on his front door, he saw gentle snowflakes falling. Bernard slipped into his jacket, followed by his overcoat. He dimmed the lamp on the end table, opened the front door, and stepped one foot outside, but then stopped abruptly. “Oh yes!” he said. He turned quickly on the ball of his foot and marched across the living room to a seven-drawer oak desk. For the first time in months, he took notice of the framed motto he’d hung over his desk several years ago:

An Indian scalps his enemy…a white man skins his friend.

Dr. Bernard sighed at the bitter truth, removed a key from his pocket, and used it to open the center door, pulling it about an inch out of its resting place. Grunting as he folded his heavy body over, he reached to the bottom left-hand drawer and opened it. From that drawer, he scooped up something heavy, then stood upright and closed it gently with his cap-toed shoe. He locked the center drawer again and walked into the snowy campus world at his teachers’ college near the banks of the Missouri River.

***

Dottie Mostek sat, ramrod straight, at her desk, her eyes rimmed with red from shedding so many tears on behalf of the deceased President Kennedy, whose funeral had taken place just the day before. Her dark hair, which she’d styled in proper Jackie form for the past three years, was as disheveled as her emotional state, a careless mess. She just could not force herself to care about styling her hair; in the grand scheme of things, it seemed so trivial.

She touched her hand to her chin and glanced at a newspaper that offered grainy grayscale photos taken at the funeral. Bobby looked so devastated, and John-John’s salute was heartbreaking.

Out of respect for the fallen Commander in Chief, classes had been canceled, and the school had been closed to students for the week, but today administrative staff were expected back to work. Dottie was relieved there would be no students. I can sure use the peace and quiet, she thought with a defeated sigh, glancing in her compact mirror at the destroyed mop on her head.

Earlier, Dr. Walker Keillor had quietly slipped in. At the sight of her stricken expression, he consoled, “It’s a sad day for us all, Dottie. Try to get a hold of yourself.”

She nodded at the other chief executive in her life, the president of Cross College, and sat up straighter in her chair. Next, she dutifully attempted to type a memo as President Keillor disappeared behind his office door. She admired Dr. Keillor, a reserved and thoughtful man who had been in education most of his sixty-two years.

Downstairs, Dean Gareth Kennedy had been spending the last few moments reminiscing with his secretary, Grace Hamilton, about the time he’d met JFK himself on a train right after the war. He regaled her with the tale of borrowing a newspaper from the rail-thin, nearly-crippled Navy hero. “He said ‘showr’ in that Boston accent of his and handed it to me,” Kennedy said. “I introduced myself, and that was when he told me he was Jack Kennedy. That’s why I remember meeting him. We had a laugh about being related or something like that.” He paused a moment, tapping his finger on the Kansas City newspaper that lay open on his desk, plastered with photos of the slain president’s memorial service. “I, uh…” His voice trailed off.

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