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A Deadly Habit
A Penelope Santucci Mystery
by Andrea Sisco

Chapter One

"It's been seventeen years since my last confession, Father." I didn't bother to add "and seven months and thirteen days." It didn't make a difference since I'm not Catholic.

"May the Lord be on your lips and on your mind and in your heart." The priest's blessing implied that it was my turn to speak.

"Ah, since I haven't done this in such a long time, do I have to go all the way back, Father? Because that's a whole lot of sinning to cover."

Seventeen plus years of my sins could keep us both in this teensy confessional long into my next paycheck. I didn't have the time.

"Yes, I imagine it could be," the priest's voice held a tinge of resignation. I'd bet his gut told him that this confession would take awhile.

With a sigh I said, "I don't think I can remember everything. Would hitting the high points do?"

"Just do the best you can," he replied.

"Perhaps I could lump some of the sins together, you know, organize them into categories."

My pesky obsessive compulsive tendencies were relentless, even in the midst of a crisis.

"However you want to do it, my child." I could almost hear his unspoken order, "just do it."

"Well, I haven't kept the Sabbath in years; I've disobeyed my parents on a regular basis, had impure thoughts---and still do."

I had a rapid-fire rhythm going, so I hung with it. "I gossip. You could call me the queen of gossip. I don't do it to be nasty; I just like to be in the know. So maybe that doesn't count, do you think?"

I took a deep breath and didn't wait for his answer. "Oh, and I've always had a garbage mouth. I used to take the name of the Lord in vain, daily. Except for those rare occasions when I didn't actually interact with other people. I don't curse anymore, at least, I try not to."

I'd read somewhere that cursing reflects a speaker's limited vocabulary. In order to express themselves, they resort to foul language. Translation: people who swear are common. I am a lot of things, but I emphatically reject common.

My left eye twitched. I'd run out of trivial offenses and would have to move on to sins that couldn't be overlooked quite so easily. There were transgressions in my history that even saying the rosary as penance wouldn't cover, not in this lifetime.

I continued. "Umm, I've had sex with a man I wasn't married to. At least, not at the time. The marrying came later. I don't want you to get the idea I'm a slut, excuse me Father, a loose woman. But I promise, I won't do that anymore either. The sex I mean."

"That's unbecoming too?" he asked.

Ah, a priest with an attitude. Since I didn't have a ready reply, or at least one that resembled respectful, I let it go. For all my sins and lapses of sound judgment, I didn't want this particular priest to think poorly of me. Not now.

"Bed hopping could lead to killer diseases." And I had too many things left on my to-do list to mess with premature death.

And then there was Ma. If my mother ever found out I had premarital sex . . . well let's just say, Ma's wrath trumped God's any day of the week.

The confessional became eerily quiet.

"Continue, my child," the priest urged.

Sheer determination mixed with desperation propelled me to the real reason I found myself packed in this tiny box, sweating like a pig. And I hate to sweat. Not only do I hate to sweat; I don't even like to glisten.

The cramped confessional increased my anxiety, so I blurted, "I committed a felony. A burglary. And during the burglary I found a dead man. He'd been murdered. But you have to believe me, Father, I didn't kill him."

I heard the priest's sharp intake of breath through the thin partition. A murder always adds excitement to a confession. It must have been his first murder of the day.

Suddenly, the seriousness of my situation overwhelmed me. My head dipped toward my chest ever so slightly. "Father, I can't say his death made me unhappy. But like I said, all I did was find the body. I didn't kill him. But it's a safe bet that the cops are looking for me." As an afterthought I added, "Father, just because I committed that other felony, the burglary, it doesn't mean I'm a criminal."

The silence hung, suspended in the confessional, like a bad note. I sucked in my breath and waited. And waited.

Astonishment echoed through the grill from the priest's side of the partition. "Oh, my goodness! Is that you, Penelope?"

My breath erupted from deep in my throat like an asthmatic wheeze. Father Daniel Kopecky couldn't possibly remember that gawky little kid from the neighborhood after all these years!

Beads of perspiration formed on my forehead and rolled down my cheeks.

I hadn't counted on Father Daniel recognizing me. The way I saw it, I could do one of two things: stay and talk, or bolt. Somehow my best interest didn't seem well served by randomly discussing my current predicament with anyone, including a priest. Especially a priest. Anonymity is always the safer choice. Running was the reasonable alternative. Unfortunately, I'm rarely reasonable.

Since my options were limited, I went with the truth. "Yeah, it's me, Father Daniel."

Father Daniel's hands beat together in a happy clap. "Penelope. You've come to play your old game of 'I want to be a Catholic' with me?" His laugh started low in his throat and rose in pitch until it sounded like a drunken cackle.

It was then I realized Father Daniel thought my visit, after years of absence, was a form of greeting. Like the old days, when I would sneak into his church and play the good and faithful Roman Catholic confessing made-up sins.

How did I get myself into this mess? I'd never intended to become a criminal, never thought I'd be a suspect in a murder. I'd been raised in a blue-collar enclave of northeast Minneapolis (we call it Nordeast.) We had career day in high school, but no one from the criminal underworld was invited to the festivities.

No, my headlong dive into crime was born out of necessity. Or so I rationalized.

"Now you talk to me, Penelope Santucci. I'm an old man." He cleared his throat, then continued, "A busy old man. If you've come to spin more of your bizarre yarns after all these years, you'd better say so now." He coughed, a deep gurgle rising in his throat.

When I didn't answer immediately he said, "Penelope?"

"Yes, Father. I, I just happened to be in the neighborhood and thought I'd stop in." Forgive me, Father for I have lied.

"I didn't think I'd ever hear from my little wanna-be Catholic again. Ah yes, you certainly made confession an interesting experience."

"Really? I did?"

Even with desperation and uncertainty nipping at my heels, I really wanted to know what he thought about that little girl of yesteryear.

"If your family had been a member of my parish, I would have spoken to your mother about the ideas you got from all those trashy novels she allowed you to read."

Ma encouraged reading and I benefited greatly from that encouragement. Somehow I didn't think of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn or Lady Chatterley's Lover as trash. But I suppose they were novels better suited to adults than ten-year-old children.

I don't think Ma knew just how "adult" some of them were.

Yeah, I had a picture of Father Daniel Kopecky giving Mary Santucci "what for." My money was on Ma.

Father Daniel continued, "After you'd read some book, you'd come to confession and tell this bored priest about your sins of promiscuity and fornication."

Red heat climbed up my neck and burned in my cheeks. "I didn't think you would remember me."

"How could I forget? No one in my parish had your imagination. Those were some wild lies you told." He chuckled. "Do you remember coming dressed like a nun and play-acting that you'd been martyred? I especially liked the nun's habit you constructed of bed sheets covered with yellow daises." His playful laugh made me smile.

I squeezed my eyes shut and visualized the child I'd been, a lost girl wishing so hard to be a part of something greater than herself. "I didn't think of them as lies. Confession was like playing house, only I played church."

"Of course you didn't think of your tall tales as lies. You were a child." He switched gears. "Now what do you say we get out of here and go to the rectory, have a cup of coffee and talk about why Penelope Santucci . . ."

"Please, Father, could you call me, Pen? Penelope sounds so stuffy---it's never really fit me."

Over the years, I must have asked Ma a hundred times why she and Dad named me Penelope. She'd smile sweetly, pat my hand and say, "Penelope is a beautiful name." There is absolutely no accounting for bad taste and Ma is the Queen Mother of bad taste.

The priest responded, "Of course, dear, I'll try to remember. Now, as I was saying, let's find out why Pen Santucci has returned to the neighborhood." The partition abruptly slapped shut.

I leaned against the hard confessional wall and rubbed my burning eyes. How could I possibly tell the priest what had happened?

A sharp rap on the door startled me. I sat up and adjusted my shirt before saying, "I'm coming."

I lied to the old priest when I was ten, but I'm older and I know what a lie is, how serious a lie can be---especially to the police. In some states lying about murder can get you five to ten. If you're convicted of that murder you can get life, or, I shuddered, death, courtesy of the state. Thank goodness Minnesota doesn't execute murderers.

I dragged myself from the bench, stood up, threw my shoulders back, plastered a weak smile on my face, yanked open the confessional door and faked a cheerful attitude. "Hello, Father Daniel. It's been a long time."

Copyright 2009 Andrea Sisco