The Last Confession: A Crime Novel

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9781441764300: The Last Confession: A Crime Novel

[Read by Allyson Johnson]

As the pursuit of a killer winds through historic art galleries and gritty streets, the game intensifies, cultures collide, and Philly's best detective is forced to face a past that could very well destroy him.

Having come of age on the mob-controlled streets of 1960's South Philly, Detective Pete Coletti learned early to walk the fine line between cops and criminals -- a skill that served him well during his eighteen years in homicide. Now nearing the end of his illustrious career, the highly decorated Coletti seems to be on the top of his world. But Coletti is harboring a terrible secret. His most famous arrest was based on a lie, and soon the priest he imprisoned for a decade-old murder known as the Confessional Killing will be put to death. And it all comes to light when the real killer begins to leave his calling card once again, turning Philadelphia upside down. Coletti must catch him to set everything right and stop the execution of an innocent man. As the chase winds through historic art galleries and gritty streets, the game intensifies, cultures collide, and Philly's best detective is forced to face a past that could very well destroy him.

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About the Author:

SOLOMON JONES is the Essence bestselling author of the critically acclaimed novels Payback, C.R.E.A.M., The Bridge, Ride or Die, and Pipe Dream, as well as the short-story collection Keeping Up with the Jones. He is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and a spoken-word artist. He teaches creative writing at Temple University and is currently at work on his next novel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

It was a few minutes after mass on a hot summer morning, and silence filled the cathedral as if the Lord himself had said, “Peace. Be still.”

The quiet didn’t last for long. As a breeze slipped between the cracks in the centuries-old walls, and the sun shone through the angels that adorned the stained-glass windows, the priest’s heavy footfalls marched toward the confessional booth.

Father O’Reilly always walked with purpose to hear confession. He thought it was his most important duty as a priest. In helping his parishioners deal with their sins, he was more than a cog in the church’s wheel. He was an instrument in God’s holy symphony. That was why he loved to take his place in the confessional booth. It was there that he felt closest to heaven.

As he opened the sturdy wooden door and sat behind the screen, Father O’Reilly brushed his gray, thinning locks away from his eyes, fully prepared to play his part in the dance between sin and mercy.

By the time he closed the door, he could see that the first confessor was already sitting on the other side of the screen. His face partially obscured, the man spoke before Father O’Reilly could even greet him.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” he said in a thin, gravelly voice. “It’s been five years since my last confession, and...”

The words drifted off into an awkward silence. Father O’Reilly glanced through the screen at a young man whose face was a mere shadow beneath his wide fedora. There was something familiar about him—something so otherworldly that it turned the sanctuary’s whispering breeze into a chilling wind.

Father O’Reilly shivered in spite of himself. “Please, go on,” he said, trying to sound reassuring. “It’s all right.”

“Is it really?” the man said, his tight smile evident in his voice. “Well, since it’s all right, these are my sins. I’ve lied to those who’ve tried to help me, and hidden myself from people who love me.”

Father O’Reilly felt uneasy about whatever was beneath those words. He folded his hands to keep them from shaking and asked the question whose answer he already knew. “Is there more?”

The man chuckled. Then a loud burst of laughter escaped his lips before he suddenly went silent.

Father O’Reilly went from uneasy to fearful. “Listen, perhaps you should—”

“Let me guess,” the man snapped, the sound of his voice growing darker by the moment. “Seek professional help? Is that what you’re suggesting, Father? Well, that’s not what I need. I need forgiveness. Can you give me that?”

“Well, I—”

“Can you grant forgiveness!” the man yelled, his voice echoing through the sanctuary as he slammed his fist against the confessional wall.

The commotion got the attention of the sexton, who started toward the confessional booth from the other side of the vast cathedral. The priest, hearing the faint sound of the approaching footsteps, was relieved, and at the same time, anxious.

“God can grant forgiveness, if you confess,” the priest said, his voice shaking as the sexton came closer.

“Then these are my other sins,” said the man in a tone that was eerily calm. “I cut off a man’s finger while he slept on a park bench. I sliced a child’s leg when he wandered away from his mother at a playground. I’m sick, Father, and I don’t know what to do.”

“You’re doing the right thing now,” the priest said nervously. “You’re confessing.”

“That’s not the problem, Father,” the man said as the sexton drew near.

“Then what is?”

The man stood up and pulled open his jacket, revealing a sawed-off shotgun. “The problem is...I’m the angel of death.”

The sexton opened the door and was about to speak, but the man never gave him a chance. He whirled on him and fired, the blast spattering the walls with the sexton’s blood-soaked innards.

Father O’Reilly tried to make his way around the wall that separated him from the killer. As he did so, the gunman confronted a man and a woman who had just arrived to give their confessions.

When they saw the gun, they both tried to turn and run. Both of them were too late.

The gunman shot the man in the back. The impact of the shell threw him into the woman, who fell, face first, to the ground. By the time she pushed the man’s dead weight from her back and stood up to run toward the door, the gunman was upon her.

“Please!” she said as she turned and looked at the killer’s eyes. “Have mercy!”

“Mercy is God’s job,” the gunman said coldly.

The final gunshot echoed through the sanctuary as Father O’Reilly watched in horror. When the woman fell to the ground, the killer dropped the gun and walked slowly toward the cathedral’s massive doors.

Father O’Reilly ran to the spot where the gunman dropped the weapon. Then he knelt down and picked it up. As he held it and looked at the bodies sprawled on the floor of his beloved cathedral, he was filled with a rage he had never known before.

Raising the weapon until he had the killer in his sights, the priest slowly squeezed the trigger. The angels looked down on him from the stained-glass windows. A statue of the Blessed Virgin watched closely through hollow eyes. The hammer clicked. The gun was empty. So was Father O’Reilly.

He dropped to his knees as grief overwhelmed him. Though he pursed his lips and squeezed his eyes shut, neither gesture could hold the pain inside. Tears poured down his face and he screamed in anguish as the reality of the moment set in.

When the police arrived, he deliriously whispered that the gunman was the angel of death. They took the gun from his hands and lifted him to his feet. They shook his shoulders to stir him from the shock. However, the more they tried to rouse him, the deeper he seemed to fall. It was as if the floor of the sanctuary had opened and hell had risen up to swallow him.

He cried out to God as he fell into the enemy’s hands. He yelled for his Father to save him from the torment he faced. He looked up to heaven as the tears poured down his cheeks. Then suddenly, someone reached down and snatched him up.

That’s when Michael Coletti awakened. As always, the nightmare left the detective disoriented. He looked around expecting to see the cathedral, but there were no marble statues, no magnificent arches, and no stained-glass windows. There were only the threadbare furnishings of his one-bedroom apartment and the odors of stale smoke and sweat.

He ran his hands over his face and felt the wetness of the tears he’d cried in his sleep. He wondered what had snatched him from his nightmare and transported him back to his own reality. More importantly, Coletti wondered if being saved had done him more harm than good.

Pushing his sweat-soaked hair back from his face, Philadelphia’s most senior homicide detective flipped the covers off his naked body, propped himself up on his elbow, and looked at his alarm clock. It was 5:30 AM, August 25, 2009. Summer would be over in twenty-eight days. His career would be over in three.

He grabbed his Marlboros from his nightstand and lit one with shaking hands. The hiss of the burning tobacco filled the room as Coletti pulled the smoke into his lungs. He exhaled slowly and reflected on the things he’d seen in his years on the force: crime scenes covered with the blood of children; women brutalized by men who claimed to love them; adulterous lovers shot dead in the throes of passion. None of it had affected him like the Confessional Murders.

For ten years, his dreams wouldn’t let him forget the crime. He wasn’t dreaming now, though, so Coletti did what he’d done every day for the last decade. He went on with his life.

Groaning as he got out of bed, he turned on the news, tramping through the pile of dirty clothes that led to the bathroom. Once there, he pulled the string that lit the lavatory’s single lightbulb and absently listened while a weatherman predicted a breezy late summer day with temperatures reaching the mideighties.

He puffed his cigarette once more before flicking the butt into the toilet and flushing away the evidence of his one-cigarette-a-day habit. Splashing his face with cold water, he looked at his image in the mirror that hung haphazardly above the sink.

At a stocky five-foot eleven, with a craggy face and ample lips, he was almost, but not quite, handsome. His features were dark and distinctly Mediterranean, from his brown eyes and sculpted nose to his curly mop of salt-and-pepper hair. His body wasn’t as hard as it had been when he was younger, but his jaw, lined with stubble, was just as rugged.

As he stared into the mirror at the wear and tear of fifty-eight years, the light struck the tiny gold crucifix dangling against his chest, and his tired eyes wandered to his slight paunch. Coletti looked a mess. He didn’t care, though.

He wasn’t looking for a woman. After thirty-one years on the force, his job was his mistress. He’d be leaving her in less than a week. After that, he planned to spend time with the only other companion that mattered: himself.

Coletti looked away from his image and began brushing his teeth while relishing the thought of being alone. Then he heard something on the television that stopped him cold.

“The Pennsylvania supreme court has refused to hear defrocked priest Thomas O’Reilly’s final appeal in the Confessional Murders,” the newscaster said in a tone of mock concern. “That means O’Reilly, who has always maintained his innocence in the decade-old triple murder, is scheduled to face execution this Friday—three days from now. In the words of his lawyer, ‘Only a miracle can save him.’”

Coletti wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as a sick feeling bubbled in his gut. He remembered being the first cop to arrive at the cathedral. He remembered taking the weapon from the priest’s quivering hands. He remembered hearing O’Reilly’s repeated claims of innocence. Most of all, he remembered trusting fingerprints over feelings.

Now the priest who’d haunted his dreams for a decade was scheduled to be put to death the day Coletti was to retire.

As the lightbulb in his bathroom began to flicker, Coletti fingered his crucifix and wondered if the priest’s execution would make the nightmares stop. Or if perhaps, like O’Reilly, Coletti would need a miracle, too.

At 7:00 AM, a well-dressed man stepped onto the platform of the Chestnut Hill Regional Rail station in Philadelphia’s diverse and affluent Northwest. He looked to be about twenty-five, and he carried an almond-colored briefcase that was monogrammed with the letters CLM.

Standing on the crowded platform in the cool of the morning with his neat black dreads and sleek, athletic build, Charles Leonard Mann looked every bit the young businessman. He had finished graduate school five years before, so the persona fit him, but it was just a charade.

Charlie Mann was a cop, one who was able to blend into environments that other officers couldn’t. He could adjust his style from Brooks Brothers to FUBU, or his dialect from Ebonics to geek-speak. He was a new kind of policeman, and he was homicide’s fastest-rising star.

Mann had been selected to go to the train station when homicide received a tip about a meeting between a suspected hit man and the drug dealer who employed him. The state police would be assisting on this one, and homicide couldn’t afford any screw ups, especially with hundreds of commuters on the platform and on the trains. Mann knew that, and while he wasn’t about to violate the trust that they’d placed in him, he didn’t intend to let the suspect get away, either.

Pulling his iPhone from its case, Mann opened his pictures folder and clicked on the mug shot of the person he’d come to arrest.

The suspect didn’t look like a killer. His freckled face was framed by stringy red hair. He sported a silver stud nose ring. His lips were thin and chapped. From the look of him, he would be more comfortable with a skateboard than with a gun. Yet there was something haunting about his lifeless and cruel gray eyes.

Beyond those eyes was an addict who’d traveled to Philadelphia for the purest heroin on the East Coast and who’d learned along the way that drug dealers paid well for murder. Once he was armed with that knowledge, it was easy to transition from killing himself with needles to killing other people with guns. Over the last six months, he’d killed five times, and each time that he’d received his payment of drugs and cash, he’d come closer to dying himself.

As Detective Mann stared at the suspect’s picture on the screen, the iPhone began to vibrate. The mug shot disappeared and was replaced with the words Incoming call. He reached up to his ear and tapped the button on his Bluetooth headset.

“Hello?”

“I think our boy’s walking up to the platform,” a woman’s voice said in a calm whisper. “Jeans and a blue T-shirt, about thirty yards to your left.”

“Yeah, honey, I miss you, too,” Mann said, speaking in code as he moved through the crowd to get a better look at the suspect.

The blond-haired woman who was feeding him the information was sitting on a bench at the far end of the platform. In her pantsuit and heels, with Styrofoam coffee cup in hand, she looked to be just another passenger. In truth, Mary Smithson was the state police profiler who’d spent months studying heroin addicts from Philadelphia’s drug-infested Kensington neighborhood, eventually narrowing the list down to a single suspect. She was there to provide technical support for the operation.

“So what are the kids doing?” Mann asked.

“We’re in position,” said the homicide lieutenant who was on the line with them. He was one of two officers hiding on the opposite platform. There was also a sharpshooter on a rooftop nearly fifty yards away.

“Where’s Joey?” Mann asked, using the code name for the drug dealer.

“He’s not here yet,” the lieutenant whispered into the phone. “But we can’t wait anymore. We’ve gotta move now.”

“Okay, honey,” Mann said, reaching into his jacket and gripping the butt of his gun. “I’ll see you when I get home.”

A train’s flickering light rounded the bend, prompting most of the commuters to move toward the edge of the platform. Mann darted between them, pushing ever faster toward the suspect.

“Hey, watch it!” a woman said when Mann stepped on her foot.

“Sorry,” he said, moving faster as the train approached the station.

The woman was about to turn away when she noticed Mann’s hand in his jacket. She watched in horror as he dropped his briefcase, drew his weapon, and started toward the suspect.

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted, and the platform exploded in chaos.

Women began screaming as Mann broke through the crowd. Men started pushing toward the arriving train. The suspect looked around, his face contorted into the pitiful expression of an addict in need of a fix. When he saw Mann charging toward him, his drooping eyes grew wide, and he bolted in the other direction.

The detectives on the opposite platform were trapped in their positions when the train pulled into the station. The sharpshooter on the roof was unable to get a clear shot. The commuters on the platform were screaming and running toward the train.

Mann was their best hope to catch him.

He sprinted after the fleeing killer, who reached into his waistband and grabbed a .38.

Mann took aim and hoped for a clean shot, but Mary Smithson had already beaten him to the punch.

“Stop!” Smithson shouted as she stood and aimed her weapon at the suspect.

Trapped between Mann and Smithson, the hit man did as he was told. He stopped, and as terrified commuters looked on, he held the .38 at his side.

“Drop ...

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