THE full moon glowed brightly through the red stained glass and the crimson color in the leaded panes flowed over the steps. Sister Rosaria gazed up the stairs. The light shining through the windows always reminded her of pooled blood. Disgusting. She gathered her mop and bucket and trudged from the basement up to the rectory. The key ring on her belt jangled as she plodded up the treads, and the soapy water in the pail she clutched sloshed onto the floor. What a mess. She needed to remember to wipe the stairs dry before someone broke their neck, probably her. Help me, Mother Mary. Her memory was going fast. If she didn’t write it down, it went by the wayside. She could pull up things from long ago but ask her about last week, or even yesterday, and her mind was blank. Old age was not for the weak.
Time to get the lead out and finish the mopping. She reached the top of the stairwell and turned left into the main hallway connecting the rectory to the church. The sacristy needed a good cleaning. There were only three priests in residence at Saint Michael’s but many altar servers came and went. The kids were messy. They stomped their wet, muddy boots all over the floor and left the room untidy.
She approached the closed door and detected light shining underneath the threshold. Odd. Only one set of keys resided in the rectory. She’d locked up this room and turned out the lights the previous evening. No one else had access to the sacristy except Monsignor Roberts, and he was in Richmond. She pulled the key ring from her belt and unlocked the door. It creaked as she pushed it open and her gaze lifted to a sight her mind could not comprehend. She stood motionless and absorbed the scene before her.
Confusion gave way to horror as the vision coalesced into a coherent image. It was Father Brian. He hung limp from the wooden vestment cabinet, and a toppled over chair lay below his feet. A corded belt twisted around his neck and there were purple splotches all over his face. Open, lifeless eyes stared back at her, bulging and blood-shot. The smell of urine and feces hung rank in the air, an assault on her airways. The combination of the picture in front of her and the revolting odor in the room made her wretch. She made the sign of the cross and fled the room, screaming at the top of her lungs.
Twenty Years Later
The man gave new meaning to the word gorgeous. Laura McDuffy gazed at the Adonis in black jeans sitting beside her in the Richmond, Virginia courtroom and felt her pulse quicken. Holy hell, had he been next to her the entire day? How’d she miss seeing him? Laura tried to concentrate on the witness’ testimony, but between the hunk on her right and these awful benches, her mind kept roaming. Damn, these seats are hard. She crossed one leg over her knee and wiggled her butt in an attempt to get comfortable.
Mr. Gorgeous glanced down at her tapping foot. She tried to stop the jiggling, but knew it would start again without her knowledge in a few minutes. Was she annoying him? Get over it, buddy. She chewed the end of her Bic pen and snuck another peek at the guy with her peripheral vision. Something about him seemed familiar, but she couldn’t quite place him.
As an investigative journalist for the Sentinel Weekly Newspaper in Charlottesville, Virginia, C’ville for short, many people rotated through her world. Every day brought a chaos of faces and stories, and her memory banks weren’t what they could be. Dang…is dementia setting in already? At thirty-one she could not be slipping gears, and no woman on earth could forget this man. She couldn’t determine his height but he looked to be at least two for three in the tall, dark, and handsome trifecta. Broad shoulders strained his sport coat, and the urge to reach across the bench and squeeze those big biceps overwhelmed her. He wore his dark black hair cut short, and a pair of deep chocolate-brown eyes peered back at her. Well, at her mouth anyway. She pulled the chewed up pen away in shame. A repulsive habit, but better than biting her nails to the quick. His lips edged up in a sultry smile, and he gazed at her with what appeared to be sexual interest. It had been a while but she remembered the look. The man was temptation incarnate, sent by the devil to entice her. Luckily for Laura, she was on a “Y” chromosome siesta, and not even this hunk could dissuade her from the course.
She glanced away from the male perfection next to her and pulled her attention back to the trial. Focus. You’re working. Her gaze returned to the man seated on the witness stand. Talk about a contrast. The guy next to her epitomized physical perfection, and the one on the stand? He looked like a sleazy used-car salesman. Several gold chains adorned his neck and the purple shirt he wore was unbuttoned to mid-chest, revealing a shag carpet that would make a gorilla envious. This entire day was an exercise in futility. Right around lunchtime she realized her time would be better spent on the computer back at the office.
Laura observed the defense counsel table. Jesus “Jesse” Castro was an accountant on trial for embezzling a half million dollars of Diocese funds. The guy in the witness box was his bookie. Castro had a penchant for gambling and decided the Diocese wouldn’t notice its resources were dwindling. In a strange twist of fate, Laura knew the defendant. Jesse had been a year ahead of her at Saint Michael’s Catholic School in Charlottesville. She didn’t know him well, but the fact hadn’t stopped her from trying to play the Saint Mike’s card to get an interview. He refused her requests and it looked like he wouldn’t testify. She drove all the way to Richmond today hoping to get a quote she could use for the story. No joy thus far.
The bookie stepped down from the stand and the judge called a recess for the day. What a colossal waste of time. Nine hours spent sitting on this stone hard bench and nothing to show for it. Ugh. Not to mention the round-trip drive from C’ville. She gathered her belongings and rose to leave. The man next to her stood as well. Mmmm, trifecta achieved.
The hunk stood at least six-feet-two-inches, maybe taller. She coasted a look up his well-formed, muscled body and stopped at his face. He grinned back at her in amusement. Was she being obvious? Whatever. He could laugh at her if he wanted. It wouldn’t be the first time. She attempted to get past him but the big wall of male didn’t move out of her way. She glared at him in irritation.
“Excuse me? I’m trying to exit.” His grin morphed into a toothy smile and she frowned. “What’s your deal, buddy?”
“Hi, Shorty. You don’t remember me, do you?”
Holy hell. She felt heat engulf her face and knew she was turning every shade of the tomato-color palette. Laura had not heard the nickname since grade school at Saint Michael’s. She stared at the man in front of her again. Dear God. It was Nate Miller. A boy she’d worshipped for six long years. Two years ahead of her at school, he broke her young heart in sixth grade when he called her Shorty McDorky and it stuck. For the next three years every boy at Saint Mike’s used the hideous moniker. It wasn’t until high school at Saint Mary’s all-girl Catholic school that she shed the dreaded label. Now she knew why he seemed familiar.
“Wow. I didn’t recognize you. Hello, Nate. It’s been a long time.” Oy vey. The man grew up fine. She commended her eleven-year-old self for the good taste she’d shown. Too bad her ability to detect a quality man peaked in grade school. “I go by Laura now. Not Shorty. And my last name is McDuffy.”
“Hi, Laura. I’m just kidding around. The old nickname popped into my head and came out without thinking.” He skimmed a look down her body and flashed a panty-melting smile. “You look great. I can’t believe we’ve never run into each other over the years. Charlottesville isn’t a huge town.”
“Big enough, I guess. Perhaps we run in different circles.” Which wasn’t saying much, since Laura’s “circle” consisted of only a few people. She didn’t do the social scene and preferred a long hike or bike ride to bars and clubs.
“Maybe. I moved away for a bit. I went to Virginia Tech for college.” He stared down at her with those mesmerizing eyes. They were drawing her in, but she somehow managed to look away and escape their pull.
Laura took a deep breath in an effort to compose herself. Returning her gaze to his face, she smiled and continued, “I stayed here and attended the University of Virginia. What did you do after Tech?”
“I majored in criminal justice. My first job was with the Richmond Police Department. I worked there a few years and then came back to Charlottesville.”
“You’re on the C’ville police force, aren’t you? I think I remember reading something about it in a Saint Mike’s alumni newsletter.”
“Yes. I’m a detective now. Have you lived here since the Saint Mike’s days?”
“Yes, I never left. After UVA I took the job at the Sentinel.”
He paused and gave her an intense stare that made her uncomfortable. “I’ve followed your career at the paper over the years. I do enjoy your writing. Especially the stories on police corruption.”
Hmm, did he resent her stories exposing police misdeeds? She tilted her head and tried to figure out his game. “I’m trying to get to the truth in my stories, Detective Miller.”
“Funny thing about the truth, darlin’. It’s always filtered through someone’s point of view, and we don’t all share the same point of view, do we? Is a story the reason you’re here? Are you working on a feature for the paper?”
“Yes. I’m investigating the Diocese embezzlement scandal. How about you? What brings you here?”
He hesitated and she wasn’t sure he would answer. A look of resignation crossed his face and finally he continued. “I’m working the case as well. Kind of weird seeing a Saint Mike’s classmate on trial, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s sad. I didn’t know Jesse well. He was a year ahead of me.” She narrowed her eyes at him and felt the gears in her brain click into place. Wait a cotton-pickin’ minute. “You’re working the case? What’s left to work? It’s gone to trial. No one involved is talking to the press, but it seems cut and dry.”
He scratched his beard shadow and didn’t respond. Their gazes connected and she saw something in his eyes that pinged her journalist radar. He knew more than he shared.
“It was wonderful running into you, Laura McDuffy. Take care.” He turned and strutted away. Mmm. Was that drool she felt pooling in the corner of her mouth? He had a sexy man-swagger, all loose limbs and confidence, and no doubt an ego to match the Grand Canyon. Good thing she was impervious. Her man moratorium held strong and she had no plans to lift it. One day the sting of Aidan’s humiliation would abate, maybe. Nine months had passed, but the sour taste remained in her mouth. Not even Nate Miller, childhood crush and adult-woman fantasy, could tempt her from the self-imposed exile.
* * * *
Nate walked into the police station and made a beeline for the coffee. He should’ve stopped at Starbucks on his way home from Richmond. He could not believe he had run into Laura McDuffy. The woman was all grown up and looking fine. In sixth grade she’d been a cutie and the intervening years only enhanced her beauty, all blonde hair and sky blue eyes. A total fox. That’s what they called a hot chick back in the day: foxy. Good Lord, they were immature.
She’d ripened into a stunning woman, voluptuous and curvy in all the right places, even if she was still on the short side. He smiled. In retrospect, not a good idea to call her the childhood nickname from their Saint Mike’s days. Why did he revert to middle school with her? He thought back to those years. Shorty McDorky. What a stupid nickname. He said it once and the name stuck to her like discarded bubble gum in a parking lot. Back then he had a crush on her, but eighth-grade boys weren’t supposed to be interested in sixth-grade girls. It wasn’t cool. His friends were hassling him and to draw attention from his attraction, he called her the name, never imagining it would stick. Nate sighed. One more Saint Mike’s regret to throw on the pile.
He put a pod in the communal Keurig and waited for the brew cycle to finish. His thoughts drifted back to Laura. She was short compared to him, or anyone else for that matter, maybe five-three. Dynamite in a small package. Her thick blonde locks had been twisted into some kind of bun thing, and it looked like a single pencil had held the entire contraption together. Wonder how long it is? He loved long hair on a woman. It made a great handle during sex. Shit. Get those ideas out of your head. Involvement with a reporter was a bad idea, even if she was hot as hell. When it went south, which it eventually would, she’d dig up dirt on him and report it in her paper. It would be best if he stayed far, far away from Ms. Laura McDuffy.
He added half and half to the cup of Kona, and walked over to the office he shared with his partner, Jack Adams. The clock showed six o’clock and Jack sat behind his desk hunched over a stack of papers.
“I thought you were leaving on time tonight? Don’t you have a Tai Chi class at six-thirty?”
Jack glanced up at the clock on the wall and grimaced. “Crap, lost track of time. I won’t make the class now with traffic.”
“Set your phone alarm. How many times do I have to say it?”
Jack shrugged. “How’s the trial going?”
“Boring as hell. The bookie testified today. Nothing we didn’t already know. Castro won’t take the stand. I don’t think there’s any way his lawyer will put him up there.”
“I agree. I can’t believe he didn’t cut a deal.”
“I tried to play the we-were-school-chums-and-altar-boys-together card before he lawyered up. He hasn’t uttered a word since the arrest.” Nate stared out the window. “The whole thing reeks.”
“You still think there’s more to this than a simple embezzlement case?”
“Yes. Some of the money went for gambling but there is a shit-ton missing. Where is it? There’s no evidence of a drug problem. We found nothing to indicate he stashed the cash overseas. No safe deposit boxes. Was he paying a blackmailer? Did he have a woman squirrelled away somewhere? There is more going on here. I feel it in my bones.”
“I agree with you, Nate. You’re preaching to the choir. I think it’s time to pull the boss in on this.”
“Yeah, I know, but I’m not ready yet.” He rasped his fingers over his jaw in frustration. A small break was all he needed. Then his captain would give him some rope to run with. If he approached his boss now he’d shut him down. Nate glanced at his desktop. The open Castro file stared back at him, taunting.
Jack stood and donned his jacket. “I’m out of here. Maybe I’ll go for a run instead of the Tai Chi class. Do you want to join me?”
“No. I’ve got things to review yet.”
Jack gave Nate a concerned look. “The accidental deaths again?”
“Yep. I’m off the clock now. Call it my hobby.”
“You need to get a better hobby, dude. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Later.” As his partner exited the office, Nate pulled another file from his desk drawer. Saint Michael’s was written across the top. He opened it and flipped through the police reports and newspaper clippings.
Paul Robinson. One year behind Nate at Saint Mike’s. Found dead in a ravine along a rugged trail in Shenandoah National Park last year. Ruled a hiking accident, death due to a fall. The man’s neck was broken and predators destroyed what evidence might have been present. He wore a strange medallion necklace around his neck.
Steve Ryan. In the same class as Nate. Died in a car wreck six months ago during an ice storm on a rural North Carolina road. No witnesses. Another car was possibly involved, evidence of skid marks from a second vehicle were present at the scene. Steve’s car had hit a large tree head on. Also ruled an accident and Steve was found wearing the same medal as Paul Robinson.
Coincidence? It didn’t pass the smell test. Both men wore the same medallion. Why? What did it mean? Nate looked at the photos of the necklaces in each file. He’d never seen another like it. The medal was the size of a quarter and appeared to be silver. It reminded him of the saint’s necklaces Catholics wore. An unusual design adorned the front. A circle was etched inside the edge, with two flowers in the foreground. A vine along the bottom connected them. The flipside had a plain triangle.
Was it an award? It didn’t look like a patron saint medallion, not that he was an expert on Catholic saints. It definitely was not a Saint Christopher, which would be common enough for a Catholic. The reports made no other mention of the medals.
Nate reached out to each man’s family to offer his condolences since they’d been classmates. As far as anyone knew, the two guys had no contact after leaving Saint Michael’s. Neither man’s wife had ever seen the medallion before the police showed it to them.
Three students from the same school, two were dead and the third was on trial for embezzlement. There had to be a link. His gut instincts never failed him, and right now they were screaming. The photo of the medallion stared back at him in challenge, and he stuffed it in his jacket pocket. The rest of the file he placed in the desk drawer and locked it. A little online research was on his agenda for the evening. He’d do some surfing at home tonight and see if a match could be found. The captain didn’t know Nate was pursuing his own inquiry. Until he had something solid linking these incidents, this little side investigation was on his own time. He didn’t feel any loyalty to Saint Michael’s or the Catholic Church, but these kids meant something to him. They’d been in the same boat together during difficult years. He escaped. Many of them hadn’t.
Nate scrubbed his palms over his beard stubble. Time to put a fork in this day. He grabbed his jacket and headed out. As he walked to the Jeep he thought about his time at Saint Mike’s. He hated thinking about those years and seldom reflected on them. No good came of dwelling on the past, and this case reminded him of painful memories. Sometimes the past needed to stay buried for one’s sanity, and leaving it there was a welcome relief.
He hopped in the Jeep and drove the short distance to the house he shared with his younger brother. Charlie had attended Saint Mike’s, too. Not as long as Nate, but for a while. Maybe he would recognize the medal. Couldn’t hurt to show him.
Ten minutes later he pulled into the driveway. His brother’s Toyota sat in the one-car garage. Their tacit agreement was whoever got home first claimed the garage spot. Charlie worked as a pharmacist at the University Hospital. He almost always beat Nate home. Walking into the house he announced in a booming voice, “Honey, I’m home.”
Charlie popped his head out the kitchen doorway. “Hey, right on time. Late as usual. Too bad you don’t get paid overtime like me. You would be rich.”
“What’s for dinner, smart ass?”
“I made a pot of spaghetti with meat sauce. If you’re nice I’ll share. How was your day?”
“You still haven’t found a link between the dead Saint Mike’s students?”
“Nope. And it’s pissing me off.” He pulled the photo of the medal from his pocket and handed it over. “Take a look. Does it remind you of anything? Think back to your time at Saint Mike’s”
Charlie took the paper and studied it. A frown marred his features. “It’s not ringing any bells, Nate. But you know I wasn’t at the school as long as you. Mom pulled us when I was in fifth grade.”
“I know.” The familiar acidic taste of bile burned Nate’s throat as his mind traveled into the past. The choking scent of Old Spice set up shop in his nostrils, and he walked over to the cupboard they kept the meds in and grabbed the Tums’ bottle. It happened every time he thought back to those years. He recalled the conversation with his mother about leaving Saint Michael’s. At his insistence, she yanked both of them mid-year when Nate was in eighth grade and Charlie was in fifth. Their dad had died of cancer the previous year and money had been tight. He told her he didn’t think the school was worth the tuition, and they wanted to attend public school with their neighborhood friends. The money could be saved for college. She caved with little argument. He never told her the real reason why he wanted him and Charlie out of the school.
Cancer claimed her when Nate was twenty-three. He and Charlie used the insurance money to buy this house together. They were the only family either had left. Not just family, but best friends. He could tell his brother anything. Well, almost anything. Popping the cap on the bottle, he threw two tablets in his mouth and started chewing. A glance up from his ruminations revealed Charlie eyeballing him. This was not a happy topic and his brother worried about him. Time for a segue.
“The photo means nothing to you?”
Charlie shook his head. “Nope. Do you think it’s religious? I haven’t been in a Catholic church in years but it doesn’t look religious to me.”
“I don’t know. The only link between the victims and Jesse Castro is the school and the religion itself. Why else would they each own the same medallion if it didn’t relate to Saint Mike’s or church?”
“They were all altar boys like you, weren’t they?” Nate and Charlie locked gazes.
“Yes, along with every other boy who attended Catholic school in the history of time.”
“Point taken.” Charlie grinned. “Guess you have some research to do after dinner. Let’s eat. I’m starving.”
Nate shook off his coat and grabbed two beers from the fridge while his brother plated the food. They sat down and enjoyed the fruits of Charlie’s labors.
“Yum. Good eats, bro. Thanks.”
“Eat your salad, Nate. You need the veggies.” Nate shook his head. His brother might be three years younger but the guy was a total mother hen.