DEROS, by John A. Vanek: a Deadly Homecoming

DEROS ($16.95, 304 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60381-619-9) is the first book in a mystery/suspense series by John A. Vanek set in Oberlin, Ohio, and featuring amateur detective Father Jake Austin. A series of murders force Father Jake Austin to confront his own violent past, regrets over lost love, and his doubts about the priesthood.

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“Fr. Jake Austin, the hero of Vanek’s promising debut and series launch, returns to his hometown of Oberlin, Ohio, in 2002 to take up a temporary post at a Catholic hospital in nearby Lorain—an assignment that coincides with his high school class’s 30th reunion. [….] Full of conflicting emotions, Jake has a lot to cope with in a mystery that’s as much a character study as a whodunit. The title is an acronym for Date of Expected Return from Overseas—the relevance of which isn’t immediately obvious. Readers will look forward to seeing more of Jake.” Read more….

Publishers Weekly

“The mystery itself is well conceived and executed and the several central characters nicely drawn…. I say, ‘Hurrah!’ I always have room to read another good series.” Read more….

—Dana Borse, for Reviewing the Evidence

“Interesting, nuanced characters in a finely wrought setting.”

—Laura Lippman, New York Times bestselling author of Wilde Lake and the award-winning Tess Monaghan series

“Father Jake Austin is a spiritual man, but he is as flawed and filled with contradictions as anyone. John Vanek guides the reader through the seldom-seen worlds of both medicine and the priesthood. His years as a physician at a Catholic hospital make him the perfect creator of this literary mystery set in a small college town, but few physicians can manage prose as well as Vanek does.”

—Sterling Watson, author of Suitcase City and Fighting in the Shade

“A riveting tale of mystery and murder. Superb storytelling with a deft touch by this talented author who keeps ratcheting up the tension until the explosive ending. A fast read, but the characters linger in your memory.” —Ann O’Farrell, author of the Norah’s Children Trilogy

“John Vanek brings small-town Oberlin, Ohio, to life. Locals will recognize familiar people, places, and threads of Oberlin history woven throughout the story as Father Jake Austin reconnects with his past and gets caught in a web of deadly vendettas.”

—Liz Schultz, Executive Director of the Oberlin Heritage Center

When Father Jake Austin is assigned to his hometown of Oberlin, Ohio, in July of 2002, he has been away for a long time. A physician and a war veteran before entering a Catholic seminary, he is now a member of the Camillian Order. He takes comfort in his vows of obedience, poverty, chastity, and service to the sick.

Jake arrives just in time to attend his high school reunion, where an encounter with his high school sweetheart forces him to question his commitment to the priesthood. Before the night is over, one of his classmates will be dead, a second gravely wounded, and a third hospitalized. The carnage at the reunion comes on the heels of what appears to be an unrelated murder at the quarry. Overseeing the investigation is Jake’s former football teammate, Chief of Police Tremont “Tree” Macon, who is unwilling to rule out anyone as a suspect, not even Jake. As he struggles to prove his innocence and to find his footing in a town that remembers him as a hellion, Jake searches for threads that will connect these brutal attacks.

The war may be long past, but in some ways Jake is still waiting for his DEROS: Date of Expected Return from Overseas. Can he put aside his own demons long enough to find the living, breathing devil who stalks his classmates?

Says Dr. Vanek, “I practiced medicine at the real St. Joseph Hospital in Lorain, Ohio until it closed its doors in 1997. Father Jake Austin is a fictional character, but aspects of his personality and struggles are modeled after two Catholic priests who were my close friends and confidants. When I first met them, I expected the usual stereotypes, but when their Roman collars came off and we kicked back with a few beers, I found that they were simply human. Seeing these men wrestle with the same emotions that we all share shattered my stereotypes and preconceived notions about the priesthood. I wanted to portray Father Jake as a spiritual man, but with all of the flaws of any human being.”

John Vanek received his bachelor’s degree from Case Western Reserve University, his medical degree from the University of Rochester, did his internship at University Hospitals of Cleveland, and completed his residency at the Cleveland Clinic. His poetry has won contests and has been published in a variety of literary journals, anthologies, and magazines. John lives in Florida, where he teaches a poetry workshop for seniors. For more information, click here.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

“Jake, my man, you’re here. I’ll have to cancel the APB I put out on you.” He slapped my back and gestured toward the assembled multitude. “Quite a turnout, huh?”

“As crowded as Heaven after a revival meeting.”

“Or Hell after a hooker’s convention.”

Tree’s grin faded and his face hardened to black granite. He downed the brown liquid in his glass, crunched an ice cube, and his eyes wandered across the ballroom.

“Tree, are you okay?”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry,” he said softly. “Been a bitch of a day. I had to tell my wife that a young woman she knows was found murdered at the quarry. The victim loved men, money, and partying. That makes for a lot of suspects. I got a real strong hunch who the doer is, but no hard evidence to back it up. The case is already beginning to feel like a damn dead-end.”

“Maybe CSI will find fingerprints or something.”

“You watch too much TV, Jake. This isn’t the Big Apple. Here, CSI is a box in the trunk of my cruiser. I did call in the Bureau of Criminal Identification for help. They’re a state agency that assists small towns by analyzing DNA and ballistics, loaning forensic techs and equipment, those sorts of things.”

“A murder in little old Oberlin of all places. Unbelievable!”

“Happens, but not often.”

“Is that why you spoke with McDermott today? What does he have to do with it?”

Tree leaned in and lowered his voice even more. “McDermott’s a mean, shit-kicking dumbass, and that’s a dangerous combination. He’s always on my radar. Like my mama used to say, ‘What’s in the well eventually comes up in the bucket.’ ”

We paused as a nearby trio exploded into peals of laughter. Tree draped a heavy arm across my shoulders and guided me to a quiet corner.

“The punk you knew in school, Jake, grew into a greedy, cutthroat businessman. As he did, he seemed to rot from the inside. It’s been scary to watch. The more McDermott’s bank account grew, the lower he sank as a human being. Or maybe it was the other way around.” He chomped the last ice fragment and gazed into his empty glass as if it were a crystal ball. “The dead woman at the quarry worked for him. Rumor has it, he was humping her. That’s why I had a heart-to-heart with him today.”

“To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a saint named Everett, and the guy we know will never have a feast day, but that doesn’t make him a killer.”

“True, but guess where we found the dead woman’s missing car?”

“No idea.”

“Dumped in a gully, not far from McDermott’s place. It’s all circumstantial, but he lawyered up quick. I plan to spend the week turning his life inside out, then I’m gonna crawl up his ass and pitch a tent till I can nail him.” Tree grimaced, set his glass down, and massaged his temples. The spinning, mirrored ceiling globe imparted a subtle twinkle to his shaved head. “Or maybe I’ll get lucky and have a stroke before I have to deal with him.” He laughed without a trace of humor, then added, “Enough shop-talk. Let’s get us a drink.”

He strode to the bar and flagged down the bartender.

“Jack Daniel’s on the rocks for me. What’ll it be, Jake? I’m buying.”

After the day I’d had, I felt like I could have chugged an entire Mason jar of Mr. Daniel’s fine Tennessee whiskey. I’d just walked into my turbulent past, however, and it was prudent to remain in control until I got the lay of the land and a handle on my own emotions. Prudence was a virtue I’d acquired out of necessity over the years after taking my lumps at the School of Hard Knocks.

“Ah … a ginger ale, thanks.”

“I hear the Shirley Temples are really tasty and come with tiny paper umbrellas.” Tree peered down from his six-foot-six-inch vantage point. “Back in the day, your beverage of choice was anything short of rubbing alcohol. This a priest thing? Your collar’s off now, Father. Relax.”

“It has more to do with my class prophecy, ‘Most likely to get a drunk and disorderly.’ ” I shrugged. “I used up my quota of both after the war, so I take it easy now. I’ll grab a drink with dinner.”

“Okay. That’s probably a good thing, because you were a handful back in school when you were on the sauce. Booze flared up your temper like gasoline on a bonfire. I sure as hell don’t want you in my drunk tank tonight.” Tree frowned and his eyebrows moved down and in, narrowing his eyes to slits. “Anything else I should know about you?”

“Plenty, but some other time. Let’s mingle.”

We squeezed through a gauntlet of humanity past the hors d’oeuvres table. Although the Bee Gees recommended “Stayin’ Alive,” definitely sensible advice, the aroma of fried cholesterol drew folks to the bacon-wrapped shrimp like moths to a flame.

Tree was on a mission, glad-handing and backslapping his way to job security. While he commanded the spotlight, smiling and chatting up the crowd, I lurked in his shadow, watching an eerie 35 mm-filmstrip version of my 1970s life.

We met couples who had been married so many years that they’d begun to look alike, more than a few divorcées, and the occasional trophy wife showcased in designer clothing and sparkling jewelry. If one or two of these wealthy folks belonged to my parish, the church collection basket would runneth over.

The redheads in the room drew my attention. I half expected to see the woman who’d dashed from the confessional. The ladies in the ballroom, however, were decidedly older, stockier, and probably bottle-red.

As Frankie Valli insisted that we were all too darn good to be true, Tree guided me through a haze of perfume, across the raised dance floor, and toward a table.

“Let’s park it awhile, Jake.”

As we neared, I recognized Emily immediately. My chest tightened and my knees turned to Jell-O.

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