The Brothers' Keepers
A Nicholas Branson Novel #1
Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, and Jesus’ purported spouse, Mary Magdalene. But what about Jesus’ siblings? What role did they play in early Christianity?
Contemporary Jesuit and renowned religious historian Nicholas Branson is about to find out…and the answer will shake the foundations of the Judeo-Christian world.
It all starts with the murder of a United States Senator in a confessional, and the discovery of a strange religious document among his possessions. At the urging of his FBI friend, Branson joins the investigation. His effort to uncover the truth behind the murder draws him into the search for an eight-hundred-year-old treasure and into a web of ecclesiastical and political intrigue.
Accompanied by a beautiful, sharp-tongued research librarian, Jessica Jones, Branson follows a trail of clues, from the peaks of the awe inspiring French Pyrenees to the caves of war-torn Afghanistan. Along the way, shadowy powerful forces trail the pair, determined to keep safe a secret buried for centuries.
Slow, steady snow wrapped the District of Columbia’s wide thoroughfares, columned government buildings, and stark, modern hotels in a hushed blanket. In front of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, a black limousine glided to a stop.
The passenger glanced at his watch. It was nine p.m.
Leaning forward, he placed a light, gloved hand on his chauffeur’s shoulder. “Go grab a cup of coffee, and come back in fifteen minutes.”
“Yes, Senator Caldwell.”
The senator got out and watched the car glide away from the snowy curb. Fear twitched his spine and left a metallic taste in his mouth. He turned on his heel and looked up and down the traffic-less street. Silence lay all around, heavy and cold.
The confessional—he had to reach the confessional.
Tiny daggers of ice pricked his face. He bunched his overcoat collar, clutched his briefcase tighter, and mounted the church steps. Into the lion’s den, he thought, stepping into the vestibule’s warmth.
The dimly lit sanctuary lay still, redolent with incense and age. The senator peered down the aisle in the wan light, across rows of polished pews. With the exception of two darkly clad figures in the first couple of rows, the church appeared empty. He dipped his trembling right hand in the marble holy water font and made the sign of the cross, the way he’d recently been shown.
Unbuttoning his coat, Caldwell spotted the confessional about twenty feet away, the elaborately carved door slightly, welcomingly ajar. So far, so good. All was going as planned. He inhaled deeply, exhaled through pursed lips, and then started across the marble floor.
Ten feet to the confessional.
The senator’s hand wavered above the brass knob. He’d never been in a confessional. He pulled the door open, stepped inside, closed the door, and knelt gingerly on the cushion.
Beyond the screen, someone moved.
Caldwell spoke the pass phrase—“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been two thousand years since my last confession.”
The expected response came in a hushed, French accent. “I absolve you in the name of Sophia.”
“Thank you, Father,” answered the senator.
The grille rose. A large hand thrust through. “Give it to me.”
Caldwell fumbled with the briefcase’s latch, his stiff fingers struggling with the clasp.
He didn’t hear the door open behind him or sense the silenced 9mm Glock at the back of his head. Caldwell was on his knees when the bullet entered his skull, driving lead deep into his brain.
“Hurry up!” the Frenchman demanded. He peeked through the open grille, urgent haste written in every line of his expression. The second bullet pierced the space between his eyes.
The shooter opened the briefcase. “Shit!” he hissed, finding it empty. He snapped the briefcase shut then emerged from the confessional.
A shot ripped through his chest.
A slim figure in a black soutane took the briefcase from the third dead body in the church and walked calmly down the aisle and out into the frigid darkness of Washington, DC.
* * * *
Nicholas Branson had just managed to get to sleep when—Christ almighty!—the phone rang. He started, grabbed his cell, and sat up in one quick motion.
“Yeah?” He dabbed his eyes with his palm to blot out sleep.
“Nick? Greg, Greg Hanlovian.”
“Han? Why the hell are you calling at this hour?” Branson clicked on the lamp and groggily got his bearings. The red digital clock on the rickety nightstand showed 4:02 a.m. Across the room, the particle-board desk was covered with open books, facedown, forming little tents under the crucifix on the wall.
“Did you hear?” Han snapped.
“What happened last night?”
It’s still last night. “No, I went to an—I had a meeting. Came home, did some work.” Now he was wide awake. “Is Nola all right?”
Branson relaxed a little. “Well, what happened?”
Silence at the other end.
“Thomas Caldwell has been murdered.”
“The senator from California? Head of the Armed Services Committee?”
“Yup. Gunned down in a confessional in St. Peter’s last night, sometime after nine.”
Branson shook his head. “St. Peter’s? I don’t understand. What was he doing in a confessional at that hour? Was Caldwell even Catholic?”
“No, he wasn’t. But there’s something else, and that’s the reason I’m calling. There are some photos.”
“Can’t talk about it on the phone, Nick. Meet me at Spencer’s in half an hour.”
Twenty minutes later, Branson hurried into the brightly lit diner. The air was heavy with bacon, strong coffee, and burnt toast. An old man and a middle-aged woman slumped against the counter, slurping coffee. In a seat near the door, a pretty girl rested her long slender legs on the booth.
Clad in yesterday’s beige chinos and ivory pullover sweater, Branson shook snow from his coat and stamped his boots on the nylon runner. Hardly anyone seemed to notice him enter, his lean, six-foot frame slightly stooped with sleep, his wavy, brown hair still mussed from his pillow.
He spotted the familiar bulky frame huddled in a booth at the far end and waved. Greg Hanlovian didn’t notice. The big man focused on what looked like papers lying next to his plate. Branson stepped closer and realized Han flipped through a pile of photos while shoveling eggs into his mouth.
Branson stood at Han’s elbow. Han didn’t flinch. Branson cleared his throat. Han looked up, shoved the pictures in an envelope, and tucked it into the inner pocket of his jacket.
“Pretty vigilant, FBI guy,” Branson chided.
Han grinned and offered Branson a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt. “You’re early.”
“I live just down the street—faculty housing.” Branson took off his coat, tossed it on the seat, and sank down.
“It’s been a while. We’ve talked a few times over the years, but I haven’t seen you in ages. Christ, Nick, you look like hell.”
“Thanks. You always knew just what to say. By the way, how did you find me?”
Han tapped his temple. “I make it my business. Besides, Nola heard from a friend that you’d been transferred to DC. Pretty impressive move. What’s it been, about six months now?”
“About that. I just finished teaching my first semester.”
Han stared fixedly at Branson. “Sometimes it’s hard to believe you’re a priest, Nick.”
“I’m not...yet. I haven’t taken final vows.”
“Afraid of commitment?”
“Something like that.”
Han cocked his head and looked across the room. Branson followed his gaze to the attractive young woman in the window. A shabby man with long hair had joined her.
“Why is it the lugs always end up with the beautiful women?” Han asked.
Branson smiled. “Speaking of which, how’s your wife?”
“Nola’s good, she’s good. Your name still comes up.”
“Something to eat?” a server asked.
“No, just coffee,” Branson said.
“How about you, sir, something else? More coffee?”
“Think I'll trade to whisky.” Han winked. “What about it, Nick?”
“No. Just coffee for me, thanks.”
“Then coffee for me too.”
The server nodded and headed back to the counter.
“Lighten up, Nick, it was only a joke.”
“Not a good one,” Branson muttered. “So, why am I here?”
The big man’s expression and tone became somber. “Someone popped Caldwell in a confessional at St. Peter’s.”
“So you said. FBI must be going nuts.”
“Nuts doesn’t begin to describe it,” Han said, fidgeting.
“It’s political, right? I mean, Caldwell probably had more than his fair share of enemies.”
“Yeah, not—” Han stopped as the server set a cup in front of Branson and poured coffee for both men. He waited until the young man left and continued. “Not everybody loved Caldwell. Interesting guy, though.”
Han loaded cream and sugar into his cup and gulped down the steaming liquid. When he set the cup down, coffee sloshed onto the saucer. “Don’t get me wrong, for the most part Caldwell was always a stand-up kind of guy. But recently, well...he’d changed.”
“What do you mean?”
“Back in the 90s, Caldwell supported the use of force in the Gulf when Hussein invaded Kuwait, and he argued for military intervention in not-so-popular places like Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia.”
“Okay, so the guy was a humanitarian. What’s so strange about that?”
“Nothing. But after 9/11 he turned around, spoke out against the use of force in Afghanistan. Remember?”
“Yeah, now that you mention it.” Branson wasn’t sure he remembered, but what the hell. He wanted Han to get to the point. “You think that’s what got him killed?”
Han shrugged his huge shoulders. “Well, his opposition to the war on terrorism was no secret. Still, most people just figured he wouldn’t run for another term. It’s pretty common knowledge his health was poor.”
“So why not just wait until he left office? Why bump him off?”
“Exactly. And there’s something else. What’s Caldwell doing in a confessional booth in a Catholic church? He wasn’t Catholic.”
Branson raised his eyebrows and set down his coffee cup. “Is there any chance he was meeting someone? Most Catholic churches are open twenty-four-seven. It’d be a safe, quiet place.”
“Maybe,” Han said. “That’s what we’re thinking it looks like.”
“So he was murdered in a confessional.”
“Was there anyone on the other side of the booth?”
“Nope,” Han said, without hesitation.
“Okay, if he wasn’t meeting someone, what was he doing in a confessional? Unless…”
“Unless it was a setup, the person he was supposed to meet turned out to be his killer.”
“Maybe you should work for us, Nick.”
“Still doesn’t explain one thing.”
Han looked at him.
“Exactly what I’m doing here.”
Han’s eyes darted back and forth. “There are photos.”
“Can I see them?”
“In a minute, in a minute,” Han said distractedly, patting the air with his palm. He looked away. Branson followed his gaze back to the young woman with the slender legs, who was just swinging out the door. It clunked shut, leaving her skinny companion alone by the window. Han drummed his fingers on the table and stared off into space.
“Hello?” Branson snapped his fingers in the agent’s face. “What light can I possibly shed on crime scene photos?”
“They’re not pictures of the crime scene.” Han fumbled in his jacket and pulled out a yellow envelope. “They show a document we found in the senator’s office. It may have been his, but it could’ve been planted. I’m inclined to believe it was planted. It was sitting right in the middle of his desk for the whole world to see. Now, here's why I called you. This thing has religion written all over it, and you’re the expert.”
“Shit, I’m just a Jesuit who teaches religious history.”
“Come on, Nick, no false modesty. You're on the news shows. You get published all the time. According to the Post awhile back, you’re ‘the leading expert on the history of Christianity,’” Han said, hooking his fingers into air quotes. “And how many old languages do you know, like seven or eight?”
Branson gave a dismissive wave of his hand and felt his face flush. “I still don’t understand how I can help with Caldwell’s murder.”
“Because I need you to tell me all you can about this document.” Han handed him the envelope. “Don’t show them or mention them to anybody.”
“Of course.” He paused. “Are you okay, Han?”
The big man eyed Branson as if sizing him up. “Alright, look, I didn’t want to tell you this. We’re facing some cutbacks because of the shitty economy. And there’s politics going on at work. You know me, Nick, I’ve always hated that game, never played it well. I just want to do my job the best I can and at the end of the day go home feeling good about myself. You know? But lately they’ve been laying people off and transferring others, and I have a sneaking suspicion those decisions are made more on the basis of who you know than how well you do your job. It also seems that those who toe the president’s line fare better than those who don’t. Hell, just the other day—”
His cell phone rang. “Sorry, I gotta take this. Yeah. Yeah? Fuck! Of course. Quick as I can.” He shoved his phone back in his pocket. “Sorry, gotta run. There’s been another murder.”