The Confession: A Syracuse Mystery
They gathered in the library, the place where it had happened. Last Friday, Tony Pagliano, the gym teacher at St. Ann’s Elementary, had been found dead among the dusty volumes in the very room where they now sat fidgeting.
Susan Van Dorne had brought them here. She’d convinced Sister Mary Ellen O’Reilly, the school’s principal, to let her convene this gathering. Susan claimed to know the who and the why behind Pagliano’s death. Because of this—maybe because unconsciously they knew someone in the room must be the killer—they sat silent, unwilling to look at anyone.
If only they knew how nervous, how tense Susan was. They didn’t know she had no proof. She’d worked out whodunit. Oh, yes. She was certain she was right about that. The little evidence she’d been able to piece together, however, was circumstantial at best. Somehow she had to force or trick the killer into confessing.
“Susan, dear, we are waiting,” Sister Mary Ellen said.
Susan nodded. She understood the sister’s impatience. They both wanted this tragedy over and done with. Both had escaped to Central New York, hoping to leave behind the violence in their lives. The sister had transferred from one of New York City’s boroughs—Susan forgot which one—tired of the toll drugs and crime took on her students. Susan herself had fled a hardscrabble upbringing in Boston. She wondered if anyone could truly escape violence; she felt as if it followed her.
“I’m sure you all know why we’re here.”
“Hrmph.” Mrs. Howard, the school librarian, shifted in her seat, which creaked beneath her weight. “I don’t see why we have to be here for this farce. This isn’t a detective story.” Glaring at Susan through her bifocals, the librarian intoned haughtily, “If you think you know who did it, you should go to the police and—”
Hearing someone loudly clearing his throat, Mrs. Howard strained to look over her shoulder and saw Deputy Sheriff Andrew Wiles.
Susan hadn’t seen him enter, but she saw him now, leaning against the wall by the library’s doors. Andy gave her an encouraging nod. She suddenly realized just how much she’d needed his reassurance. When she’d told him about her suspicions earlier that day, she didn’t think he’d believed her. The fact that he was here and hadn’t dismissed her theory meant a lot to her. That and maybe, she hoped, he wanted to ask her out after this was all over.
Her confidence bolstered, she faced her suspects.
They sat in the sturdy wooden chairs arrayed before her. Sister Mary Ellen, Mrs. Howard, Nurse Bowers, Sister Maria Rosa, Miles Millar, Juliette Harris, and Mr. Rutledge, the school’s janitor. All of them had been in the building late that afternoon when Tony Pagliano had been murdered. His head bashed in by a marble-sculpted lion book end, conveniently at hand.
Susan scrutinized them, imagining what they must be thinking.
Mrs. Howard—no one dared use her first name—looked uncomfortable. For the first time in her life, it seemed she disdained being in the library. Perhaps she felt the only reason she was included in these proceedings was because she had found the body. Her indignant demeanor suggested that she thought anything else would be utter poppycock.
Next to her, Nurse Bowers sat obsessively straightening the nurse's cap upon her neatly Swedish-braided hair. No doubt she must recall how she'd been dragged to the library by a flustered Mrs. Howard to view the body. It was no secret that she disliked Pagliano. She had vociferously complained that he worked the students too hard. Many an injured student came to her care because his regimental exercises had resulted in this sprain or that cut. Elementary students were not military personnel! Smoothing her collar, a smile crinkled the nurse’s lips.
Susan wondered what she could possibly be smiling about considering the grim circumstances.
Next to the nurse, Sister Maria Rosa prayed for deliverance. Her eyes were shut. Her lips mouthed the words of prayer. She appeared to be on her second decade of Hail Marys. Her arthritic fingers clutched her well-worn Franciscan rosary as if she feared she might loss the precious antique. After Pagliano had been found dead, she had told Susan, "No crime should go unpunished." Could her fervent prayers be for her nephew?
The son of Sister Maria Rosa's dearly departed sister sat next to his aunt staring at his pudgy thumbs. Miles Millar was twenty-eight, only two years older than Pagliano had been. Tony Pagliano had been tall, tanned, athletic and handsome. By comparison, Miles was pale and doughy. His brown hair had receded prematurely, and his stomach had gained a paunch. He had been a happily married man until Tony Pagliano had joined the school's staff. Then his wife had begun nagging him. Criticizing his sedentary lifestyle. Telling him how debonair he had been before they had married. How romantic he'd been.
Susan had overheard his bitter remarks in the teacher's lounge on more than one occasion. She'd also heard him blame his woes on Tony. Now Tony was dead, and Miles's wife was missing.
Emeritus Rutledge had seen Miles’s wife at the school on the day of the murder. The janitor had been a valuable witness to Susan, and he knew it. He fidgeted in his seat next to Miles. His right leg bobbed up and down. His fingers itched to be put to use, and a cat-out-of-the-bag smile threatened to creep across his face. He appeared ready to testify to what he knew and apprehend the criminal if need be.
Oblivious to the janitor’s caged energy bubbling next to her, Juliette Harris perched on her chair with a demure expression. That was an entirely put on innocence for Susan had seen the twenty-three-year-old school secretary openly flirt with Tony Pagliano. And Tony, in turn, had lavished attention on her. So it had been surprising that Juliette, neither now nor when the body was discovered, had shed a tear for her would-be Romeo.
For a last bit of encouragement, Susan looked to Andy Wiles. The young deputy smiled at her and stood at the ready.
Susan took a deep breath. She only wished she could make her accusation in a less painful, less public manner. But if she was to draw out the murderer, this was the only way.
“We all know that Tony Pagliano was murdered here in the library last Friday. According to the police, someone conked him on the head around ten minutes past four.”
“Yes! Can you believe it?” Mrs. Howard said; a sneer crinkled her lips. “Someone used the book end from my desk!”
Ignoring this outburst, Susan said, “At the time of the murder, Mr. Rutledge was mopping the floor outside my classroom. He told me he saw something—”
“Sure did!” Mr. Rutledge said. “Was important too, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, Mr. Rutledge.” Susan smiled wanly. She hoped the janitor could keep his eagerness in check. “As a result, I know that one of you is a murderer.”
“Oh, how creepy," Juliette Harris said with a shiver.
Worn and weary, Sister Mary Ellen said, “I just don’t see why... why anyone would kill him. Taking another human being’s life…” She struggled to finish her thought. “It’s… why it’s ungodly.”
“That’s true,” Susan said. "But I'm sure you'll agree that passions sometimes get the better of us, and when someone has a strong enough motive—"
"Who could have had a motive?” Juliette glanced at the others nervously.
Susan answered, “Tony Pagliano was murdered in a jealous rage. A crime of passion. He died because of a woman.”
Through pursed lips, Mrs. Howard stated with a dignified air, “Well, I hope no one thinks I could have done such a thing!”
“I couldn’t stomach the man,” Nurse Bowers said, as she adjusted her R.N. badge.
Juliette protested, “Well I didn’t do it! I know you must all be thinking that because I went out with him once or twice. But it didn’t mean anything. Honest it didn’t.”
A pregnant pause heightened their rising anxieties.
“Miles, where is your wife?” Susan asked, breaking the silence.
Miles Millar sputtered, “M‑my wife? I don’t understand.”
“Isn’t it true that your wife was having an affair with Tony?”
Miles began shaking; the fear of accusation riling him.
“But I thought you said a woman killed Tony,” Juliette interjected; confusion evident in her visage.
“I did,” Susan said. “Don’t you know that you were the cause of his death?”
“What?!” Juliette's eyes widened with astonishment.
“Tony noticed you the moment you started working her this fall, didn't he? It wasn't long before he took every opportunity to chat with you. We all noticed the flirting."
"It was innocent fun," Juliette said, blushing.
"Yes, but he began neglecting another relationship," Susan said. "The one he'd started last year with Amy Millar. It should have been obvious the way she took such an instant dislike to you."
“She was such a bitch to me,” Juliette said, crossing her arms.
“Miss Harris, really,” Sister Mary Ellen admonished.
Susan continued. “I'd noticed Amy's reactions toward Tony and Juliette at a few of our staff functions. Last spring, she'd been inseparable from him. Then this fall, she stood back and glared at Tony and Juliette whenever they spoke. She was here Friday. Mr. Rutledge saw her. She killed Tony in a jealous rage. No doubt it's her smudged fingerprints the police discovered on the book end. She probably thought she'd wiped them off. So you see, I didn’t ask you all here to solve Tony's murder.” Turning to Miles, Susan said, “Which is why I still want an answer to my question: where is your wife?”
Miles didn’t respond. Despondently he looked down at the carpet as if mesmerized by the Berber pattern.
“Amy Millar hasn't been seen nor heard from by anyone except her husband who claims that she left town to visit her mother," Susan said. "Yet her car has been in the parking lot since Friday, nearly a week.”
Miles said nothing.
Undaunted, Susan turned to Sister Mary Ellen. "On Monday morning, you asked Juliette to tell Mr. Rutledge to check the boiler. You said you heard strange noises?"
“Yes,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “There was this thudding sound. I didn’t know what to think. What with the murder and the police investigation." Sister Mary Ellen sighed. "Well, I just didn’t want to deal with any other problems. Mr. Rutledge said he’d take care of it."
"Didn't hear the noise when I went to check on it," Mr. Rutledge grumbled.
"Well I heard the same thing this morning," Sister Mary Ellen said. "That's why I reminded you."
"My understanding is the boiler only runs in the morning?" Susan said.
"That's right." Mr. Rutledge nodded. "It's only October. Only cold in the early part of the morning so far. No need to have it running all day."
"Early this afternoon I asked Mr. Rutledge about the boiler. He was kind enough to humor me." With a heavy sigh, Susan continued, "We found Amy Millar's body inside."
A chill ran through the room.
Mrs. Howard expressed their thoughts by saying, “Oh, how morbid!”
Susan wouldn't easily forget what she'd seen. After calling the police, she had questioned Mr. Rutledge and realized what must have happened. When the police had arrived, she'd pulled Andy aside and told him her theory. Then she had arranged for this assembly.
Though she directed her next question to Miles Millar, she kept an eye on the reactions of another. “You killed your wife didn’t you, Miles?”
“You figured out what she had done, and you confronted her. Then in a sudden fit of anger you killed her.”
Miles protested, “No. I… I didn’t…”
“No! I cannot stay silent!” Sister Maria Rosa said; her voice tinged with a Spanish accent. “It is not true what you say. I will not allow you to accuse my nephew for something that I have done!”
All, but Susan, were astounded by this confession.
“May God Almighty have mercy on my soul! I suffered too long watching that harlot treat my nephew so poorly. She was an evil, wicked woman. She did kill Pagliano as you say. I cannot say that womanizer didn’t deserve what he got, but my nephew shouldn't be blamed for something I did.
"I saw the way she threw herself at Pagliano. Like she always did. Flaunting herself and flirting with all the handsome men. 'It was her nature.' That's what she would say. She dared feign innocence with me?" The rosary beads rattled in her hands. "I was no fool, but what could I do? I watched her slowly break Miles's heart. I watched her hurt my dear sister's sweet boy. I could do nothing!" she seethed.
"Then I saw her that day. And when I heard about Pagliano’s murder, I knew what she’d done. I knew I had to confront my amoral niece. She laughed in my face! Said I had no proof, and that it was her word against mine. She said, ‘Who would believe an old, decrepit hag like you.’ I am a sister of the cloth! My word would mean something, but she didn’t care.”
Her face took on a vacant stare, but it was as if she saw that fateful afternoon, its events appearing to her as a vision.
“She was wearing a scarf. A fancy thing my nephew had paid good money for,” Sister Maria Rosa said, as if she could see that very object now. “I don’t know what strange emotions crept up inside me, but I took hold of that scarf and throttled her. I wasn’t so decrepit as she thought. Ha!”
Sister Maria Rosa chuckled. The laugh died away as she recalled what had happened next. “After, when I saw her corpse, I couldn't believe ... what I had done. With my hands." She held up them up; her rosary clattered to the floor as she did. "These hands had killed her. It had been so easy..."
She lowered her hands, hiding them in the folds of her habit.
"She was dead on my classroom floor. I couldn't leave her there. I had to do something. So I dragged her body to the boiler room. It's wasn't so far. I tossed her and her belongings into the boiler to burn. To burn in Hell like she deserved."
She recalled herself to the present, seeing all the faces staring at her in horror.
"I never told my nephew. I couldn’t tell him the truth, or he’d be blamed. I had to protect him. But even though none of you ever suspected, I knew what I had done. It was a heavy price to pay, but I stood strong. I said nothing!"
Sister Maria Rosa turned to look out the window. She could see Amy Millar's car in the parking lot. All at once, her strength and pride vanished. Her will broken.
Her voice soft, she reasoned, "She would have tempted more men. That was her way. A temptress. She would have killed again, too. She had that vile streak. I rid the world of an evil, don't you see?"
She cried then. "May God forgive me."
Sister Maria Rosa rose from her seat. She removed an antique pistol from the folds of her habit, and promptly, with one bullet resting in the barrel, she shot herself...