The Breastplate of Faith and Love

New Pulp Press + July 2016

Billy Moncton won a million bucks on the Castaways reality show, and now his wife Theresa suspects he’s cheating on her. Enter Newport P.I. Stafford Boyle.

Here’s the kind of gig a laid-back gumshoe thrives on, tailing a wayward husband and picking up a fast fee. But the assignment takes a wicked left turn as Boyle follows Billy to Dismas Cottage, the mansion of Newport dowager queen Claudia Chitworth–and the place where a notorious killer met his end years back. Before he knows it, that old scandal merges with the Moncton case, a missing fiancee, and a mysterious child–and Boyle finds himself racing to San Francisco for a date with blackmail, madness, and more dead bodies.

“Paul McGoran’s got the knack, telling a story that drags you along by the necktie, refusing to let go. . . . His new protagonist, a shoestring P.I., gets involved in an old case, neatly tying this new series to McGoran’s earlier stories. You’re going to like it.”
-Hollis George, editor and anthologist

“Drama and darkness. Psychological depth. Multiple POVs. . . . I enjoy a book of any genre that is written with technical skill, a certain sophistication, and characters who stand out in a crowd. Check. Check. And check. Go along for the ride. You’ll be seduced.”
-Elisabeth Bell Carroll, author of Chopin in the Attic

Read a feature article about THE BREASTPLATE OF FAITH AND LOVE in The Big Thrill magazine at http://www.thebigthrill.org/2016/08/the-breastplate-of-faith-and-love-by-paul-mcgoran/

Excerpt:

When Michael Lester Cullion got out of San Quentin in late 2001, he had served a little more than two years for felony embezzlement. If he hadn’t been very lucky, the charge might have been accessory to murder.

During the long months in prison, Cullion thought hard about his way of life. What tortured him at trial had been the District Attorney’s insistence that he was a career criminal. Well, if that were true, he’d have to come to grips with it. He needed to understand himself and the things he had done.

Jim Hendrickson claimed to have an answer for him. He was a kind-faced preacher who came to the prison twice a month to conduct bible lessons. Cullion saw this as a way to start over, and he joined the group. But even with all Pastor Jim’s help and mentoring, he couldn’t claim to be born again. Still, he felt a commitment to Jesus, and he prayed daily for spiritual guidance. Unlike other men who attended Jim’s classes, he didn’t exult in his new-found belief; instead, he felt truly humble before his God.

And he had his share of problems. His proclivities for sin and crime hadn’t disappeared; he only kept them in check as best he could. In a way, he was glad for his difficulties. How would he know he was a better person if the path was easy?

Maybe it had been a hard life, but he had a big share in making it that way. He remembered how his uncle stressed a man’s being judged by the company he kept. Well, Shoo-fly Porter had been the worst possible company, yet he stayed with him for five years. Five years, because he had an unnatural attraction to the man; five years that ended in multiple murders and Cullion’s own throat cut.

For the embezzlement from Sharples Communications that Shoo-fly had planned, Cullion went to prison―and yes, he deserved it. While he hadn’t participated in those murders in Las Vegas and San Francisco, he did help Shoo-fly get rid of evidence. He admitted nothing to the authorities on that score, thus avoiding more serious jail time. This was another wrong, he realized, another sin to expiate. But he just could not have done years and years of hard time again. For this weakness, he hoped to be forgiven.

The important thing now and tomorrow was to live his life differently. In the short term, this meant two things: keeping his head on straight and staying out of San Francisco.

One way to keep his head straight was to insist on his own worth and dignity. He might be a little guy, but from now on he wouldn’t respond to nicknames like Mickey and Weasel, tags he had been saddled with all his life. He was Michael now—or Mike, he supposed that would be okay.

Leaving San Francisco behind was important because of the terrible associations it had for him. He hated the town. Good thing he had permission to serve his parole in Idaho, where he grew up and where there was a job waiting for him on a grounds crew.

The landscaping work didn’t last long when he got to Boise, but he soon found a job washing dishes and managed to scrape along from week to week. He kept his appointments with the parole officer and attended services regularly at an evangelical church. Still, the nights were hard. The spirit may be willing, he told himself, yet the flesh is eternally weak. He wasn’t kidding himself, however; he knew it would be this way.

Four years passed. Then the letter came, filling him with hope and driving him to despair by turns. The sentiments were right, the situation was totally attractive—but he’d have to leave Boise and return to San Francisco. The town he swore he’d never set foot in again. It was Pastor Jim writing to tell him he had established a storefront church in the Mission district and could use his help.

Well, he sure was struggling to make ends meet in Boise. And here was Jim offering a place to stay—telling him he could take a full time job days and just help out weekends and evenings. This was a totally decent man whom he loved and admired, under whose tutelage he had come to Christ. So he said yes, saved for a bus ticket and left three weeks later. On the move again with no possessions, leaving behind even the second-hand color TV and the old Mr. Coffee that he thought of as his two luxuries.

***

Pastor Jim and his wife Betty were there at the bus terminal to meet him. They had warm smiles, and they each hugged him in turn. He hadn’t met Betty before, but Jim had talked about her so often that he felt he knew her. Jim insisted on carrying Cullion’s beat-up suitcase out to their car.

Allow me, Michael,” he laughed. “We’re counting on your help, so we’re determined to treat you like a prince from the get-go.”

He watched them from his vantage point in the back seat as Jim pulled out into traffic. They were old enough to be his parents—late sixties, he figured. Jim was tall and slim, but rangy and powerful looking behind that lively, open face and pleasant smile. By contrast, Betty was short and heavyset. Everything about her said housewife and mother from her pinned-up braided hair to her plain dress and deferential manner. Michael knew they had only one child, a girl who had died from leukemia at age six many years ago.

When they arrived at the Breastplate of Faith and Love Mission, he paused on the sidewalk and glanced in the direction of downtown. They weren’t too far past Market Street. This was his neighborhood in 1999 when he worked at Sharples Communications. He sighed under the weight of a burdened memory.

The storefront church was a bit shabby outside, but he was sure he could help put that right. It was a small, two-story building sandwiched between decrepit apartment houses and had probably been built as a retail establishment of some sort. There were two large plate glass windows on either side of a recessed doorway.

Once inside, his spirits lifted. A second ground-level door to the right of the storefront accessed the Hendricksons’ apartment. They walked into a narrow entrance way with a staircase to the second floor. Upstairs, the rooms were spacious and pleasantly, if sparely, appointed. Skylights filled the interior with sunshine. The ceilings were at least ten feet high.

When Jim and Betty showed him to his room, he was moved. It was evident they went through a great deal of trouble to make it nice for him. Jim seemed especially pleased to show him the separate entrance that led from the back of his room to the narrow alley between the building and the apartment house next door. It was his way of telling Michael that he could have as much privacy as he wanted.

Yes, he appreciated that. Jim handed him a set of keys and looked him in the eye.

This is your home, Michael,” he said. Betty was just behind him, looking on with a shy smile.

Thanks, Jim,” he said. “And thank you, Betty. Thanks a lot.”

He stopped speaking then and turned into the room, not wanting them to see the tears that were springing to his eyes.

You’re welcome, son,” Jim said. “Your suitcase is right here. We’ll leave you now to get settled.”

We’re having supper at five o’clock, Michael,” Mrs. Hendrickson said, peeking around her husband. “We’d be pleased to have you join us.”

He murmured his thanks again as the Hendricksons retreated, closing the door behind them.

***

For three days, he tramped all over the downtown area looking for messenger work or anything else he could do, but it wasn’t happening. The one job offer that came his way was dishwasher in a restaurant on Market Street.

Same ol’ shit, he thought. Why can’t I rise a little higher than this? Still, he took it.

The red and blue neon sign with the coffee cup motif said: Continental Diner. His boss was Theo, the elderly Greek who owned the place. Trying to keep things positive, he told himself this was a start. After all, he had a place to stay for free. Minimum wage wasn’t so bad when it was mostly spending money.

It won’t always be like this, he promised himself. He’d find something better so he wouldn’t be living off the Hendricksons. For now, though, having a comfortable room and good people to share his life with gave him a sense of family for the first time ever.

Maybe it was a little suffocating, their daily concern for him and everything he did, but it was better than the dog-eat-dog scene he’d been through for so long. It was damn nice just to have a conversation without having to figure out the difference between what was said and what was meant. These folks said what they felt. Sometimes it made him stop and wonder—it was hard to shake the mental reservations, the cynicism that had been second nature for so long.

One Tuesday a few months later, Carlos, the Latino short order cook at the diner, walked off the job during lunch. He had been bickering with one of the waitresses for days and blew up when Theo called him on it. Cullion watched as the old Greek pulled out an apron from under the counter and took his position at the grill, heavy-lidded eyes scanning the orders propped on the stainless steel frame over the exhaust hood.

He had been at the other end of the counter, consolidating the cleared plates and cups into one plastic tub, when the drama took place. After a brief, stunned silence, the conversation level in the diner ratcheted up again. The patrons had seen and heard enough by now and were getting back to their meals. A tight, nervous feeling in his stomach told him to make a move. He could do that job, he knew he could.

Moving quickly with the tub of dishes, he tucked into the back room through the swinging doors. Except for this little batch, he was caught up. Putting the tub down, he wheeled around and walked out front.

Theo,” he said. “Gimme a chance, man, I can do this job for you.”

Grill man? You can do breakfast, lunch, sandwiches, the whole thing?” Theo looked pretty doubtful.

If you could help me a little the first couple days getting used to the way the girls order, the way they write it down―I know I could.”

Mike, who’s gonna wash dishes?”

Right now I’m caught up. I’ll do what comes back for lunch after the rush. Or you could spell me out here when it piles up. Ah, c’mon Theo!”

Theo was grimacing and shaking his head, but he turned and looked at him when he heard the urgency in his voice.

So, you want a chance. Okay, take my apron. Here. Cook! You do good, I’ll call the agency for a dishwasher tomorrow.”

He already knew where everything was, no problem there. Theo stood with him the first day and read the orders until he got the hang of it. He didn’t get panicky when the order slips piled up mid-lunch, but Theo stepped in anyway to do sandwiches and salads whenever he got behind. As he promised, he went back and did dishes after the rush, staying on with the second shift until they were caught up.

Although he went home with knots in his stomach that first day, he didn’t stop to feel sorry for himself. All night, he kept thinking how he might do better. The first week had its ups and downs, but he got through it, learning technique quickly and staying in good temper. By week’s end, Theo was smiling and saying “good boy, good boy” every time his shift ended. It was a producer’s job and he had figured it out. He was proud of himself.

Contributing money to the Hendrickson household gave him the sense he was in control of his life for the first time ever. Jim and Betty listened to his stories each evening like parents happy for a son on his first job. The mission work was also going well. Evenings and weekends, Cullion did handyman work and helped Jim with newcomers, especially younger men who had criminal histories or involvement with alcohol and drugs. As often as not, those things went together.

Occasionally, he would even give witness about his life and how he had come to Jesus. However awkward it felt to speak out, he managed to convey his experience honestly, and Jim praised him for it. Of all the work he undertook, he was most at ease when painting. Sprucing up the storefront was a real pleasure. He loved the way the dark, rich blue color gave new life to the gold-tone lettering on the picture windows: Breastplate of Faith and Love Mission. He repeated the name over to himself. It was from Saint Paul, he thought.

Being busy was good. But he had . . . feelings that never left. Sexual longings that plagued him. Maybe if he dated that waitress Julie―she was about his age, he knew she liked him. Would it work? He would need to master himself, would have to keep in mind how bad those old choices were for him.

If only he could talk to Jim Hendrickson about it. By now, Jim knew everything about his past except for his attraction to men and how he had helped Shoo-fly after the Las Vegas murders. And there was no doubt Jim would listen and try to help. Except that he was afraid to hear Jim say he should go to the authorities and confess. Besides, how do you talk to a guy like that, someone with all the old-fashioned manly virtues, about your sex preferences? No, it wouldn’t work. They’d be too embarrassed―both of them.