Bless You by Lois Kay

Bless You
by Lois Kay

Disclaimer: this is an original work of fiction and if there is any resemblance with any person, dead or alive, it’s pure coincidence. This story is classified as a ‘lesbian novel’, so if you have a problem with two people of the same gender who are involved in a loving relationship, you might consider reading something else. That also applies to anyone who, by law, is deemed too young to read lesbian literature.

Part 1

It was a small building, shielded by tall trees, making it almost invisible from the road. What did catch the eye was the type of stone that had been used to build it, almost a century ago. River rocks, painstakingly collected, sorted and chosen, joined together by mortar to form solid walls that could withstand blistering hot summer days as well as bitter cold winter weather. The windows were tall and narrow and a tribute to the artist who had designed them. Handcrafted panes were showcasing warm tones, especially when looked at from inside the building when rays of sun made the glass blaze with color, emphasizing the story that was captured within. Even the short, cold winter days could not take that beauty away; not as long as the rays of the sun tumbled through the windows.

Inside it was chilly. The furnace in the basement was softly humming, warming the pipes just enough so they would not freeze. The high ceilings made the rooms hard to warm and very costly and the furnace was only used to its full capacity a few times a week.

The lone occupant in the large, silent room had no eyes for the beautiful windows surrounding him, or the massive hand-hewn wooden beams that formed the buildings’ skeleton. He sat slumped on a bench, his eyes staring at the woven tapestry on the wall in front of him, as if deep in thought. His thick, down coat was still zipped all the way up and it seemed he did not feel the cold draft coming in through the heavy oak door that had not been shut properly. His thick, dark hair was windblown, sticking up like it had not been combed in a while and the thin wisp of icy cold air that steadily streamed in through the open door softly ruffled it.

###

Sigrid Meyers sang along with the radio, while she expertly steered her car down the winding road. It had snowed again the previous night, but the roads were clear and no longer icy. On cold winter days like that she always realized how fortunate she was to live in the community she worked in as well. It only took her a few minutes to get to work, although even the short commute could be hazardous in the winter time.

The sun made the snow and the ice crystals that clung to the trees sparkle and Sigrid risked a long glance aside to enjoy the unobstructed view of the high peaks of the White Mountains in the far distance. It was only during the winter months the mountain range showed itself from the road she was traveling, the rest of the year the trees formed one solid wall of green, which usually did not allow much of a view.

“Perfect,” Sigrid sighed happily, returning her gaze to the road that made a sharp curve to the right, before curling around the lake that was frozen solid. A few bob houses stood deserted now the weekend crowd had either left the small town or had returned to work. After all, it was Monday morning.

“Good morning, John,” Sigrid smiled, waving at a burly man who was shoveling the snow off the sidewalk in front of a store. He waved back and pointed toward the small building she was now rapidly approaching. She gave him thumbs up, understanding he had already removed all the snow from the narrow path leading to the front door. “Thank you, John,” she added with a grin, grateful for his help. She knew it would take a while for her office to warm up and even though shoveling snow usually made her break out in a sweat, her feet often were cold by the time she was done and quite frankly, she hated cold feet.

Sigrid parked her old Subaru a little off the road, seeing that the parking lot had not been cleared yet. Not that she had expected that, since it was Monday and that usually was a quiet day. It was a day she usually spent in the office, to set up visits with members of her parish who were either ill or had requested her to come by and to think about a topic for the next week’s sermon, which she usually wrote on Wednesday.

As soon as Sigrid stepped out of the car, she noticed the front door was ajar and she quickly tried to recall if anyone had told her they would come and see her. She could not remember and shrugged her shoulders. It had happened before that some early morning or late evening visitor had a problem closing the heavy door, although she wondered why John had not seen the door ajar and closed it.

“But, even though it will be cold inside, the path is cleared,” she mumbled to herself, looking forward to a cup of steaming hot coffee.

After stepping inside a small hallway with a granite floor and wooden benches on both sides, she quickly closed the door behind her, before pushing through a set of double doors and entering the large, open space in front of her. With a smile, she noticed the sunlight was painting colorful, bright images on the floor and benches, something she always thoroughly enjoyed.

“Beautiful,” Sigrid nodded, turning around to walk down a couple of steps that would take her to her office in the lower level. As soon as her foot hit the first step she noticed from the corner of her eye that someone was sitting in the front of the room and startled, she halted. Her blue eyes narrowed when she stared at the person, who looked to be a man, not recognizing him. For a moment she debated with herself if she should walk up to him, but she decided against it. It was obvious by the early hour that he was looking for a little bit of solitude. If he wanted to talk to her, he probably knew she was around. Sigrid was a firm believer in individuality and the different choices people made regarding spirituality. It was one of the reasons she never locked the door, just in case someone wanted to come inside for some reason. With a small nod to herself she continued downstairs and opened the door to the area that held two small offices and a kitchen. Kicking off her snow boots, she slipped into a pair of clogs, wiggling her toes in appreciation. As Sigrid walked to the kitchen to start the coffee maker, she heard the front door open and close. A glance at the clock learned that it was too early for the volunteers to arrive for their meeting. The unknown person had probably left and had not been particularly interested in talking to her, which was fine with Sigrid. At least he, or she, had closed the door behind them, saving her a trip upstairs.

###

It was a few hours later when Sigrid heard footsteps coming down the stairs and after a quick glance at the clock she realized the Lady Volunteers had arrived. They were three elderly ladies, whom she met with every Monday morning, rain or shine. She appreciated their energy and willingness to help their small community in many different ways.

“Good morning, Sigrid,” a cheerful voice greeted her. Sigrid looked up in a pair of smiling brown eyes and smiled in return.

“Morning, Meg. As always, it’s good to see you.”

“Thank you, dear,” Megan Jones nodded. “Although sometimes I wonder if it’s me you like or my oatmeal-raisin cookies.”

“Both,” Sigrid nodded with a grin.

“Ah, at least you’re honest,” Meg chuckled, taking a seat in one of the chairs in the small office. “Betty and Twitch are on their way down,” Meg explained and Sigrid nodded. She heard the careful steps of the other women coming down the stairs. Betty Avery had bad arthritis and Grace Anderson, who was nicknamed Twitch was supposed to undergo a hip replacement come spring, so neither woman could easily navigate the stairs. Sigrid sometimes wondered if it was a good idea for them to drive a car, while they had a hard time getting in and out of it, although she cleverly never voiced those concerns.

“Sigrid, dear,” Betty greeted Sigrid as soon as she safely arrived down the stairs. “What a beautiful day.”

“Isn’t it?” Sigrid smiled broadly, always warmed by Betty’s joy of life. “Here, take this chair,” she said, dragging a chair out of the corner. “And here’s your throne, Grace,” she added to the other woman pointing to a chair that was high enough for Grace to get in and out of by herself.

“Sweetheart, when will you start calling her Twitch?” Meg wanted to know. “You’ve been here almost three years now and you still call her Grace.”

“At least she dropped the ‘ma’am,” Twitch mumbled and Betty chuckled.

“Stop harassing me,” Sigrid replied good- naturedly. She was used to being teased by her elderly friends. In the beginning, they had also been able to make her blush quite frequently, but fortunately that was mostly in the past now.

A pair of twinkling blue eyes looked up to her and Sigrid grinned. She did not have to look at Twitch to know there was a huge grin on her face.

“She’s becoming immune to us, girls,” Betty sighed. “We’ll have to try harder. Or change strategy.”

“We’ve already done that,” Meg reminded her friend. “Remember how we used to try to get her hooked up with your grandson?”

“But that was before we figured out we were offering her the wrong kind,” Betty answered with a laugh. “Although she wasn’t interested in my granddaughter either.”

“That’s because young Melinda looks too much like her brother,” Twitch explained with a chuckle.

“Will you girls please change the subject?” Sigrid asked with a laugh. “Match making is not something I enjoy, especially when I am the victim and besides, I’m perfectly happy the way things are, so, please, leave my love-life, or, lack of love-life out of it.”

“We just want to see you happy, sweetie,” Twitch sighed.

“I know and I appreciate that,” Sigrid answered with a smile. “But I truly am happy to be here, doing what I do. Getting involved with somebody would only complicate matters and that is something I’d like to avoid.”

“Alright, alright, we’ll drop it,” Meg sighed.

“For now,” Twitch added with a wink.

“Yes, until we run into a cute, young thing that we think will be a perfect match,” Betty put in her two cents and Sigrid groaned, making the other women laugh.

“Before we start going over our list of things to do, who is that man upstairs?” Meg asked curiously. “I don’t think I know him.”

“We only saw the back of his head, Meg,” Betty responded dryly. “It was a little hard to see his face.”

“You mean he’s still up there?” Sigrid asked, while her eyes widened in surprise. “He was there when I arrived, which is about two hours ago.”

“Wow, he must be freezing,” Twitch said. “It’s not exactly warm up there.”

“Do you think he’s alright?” Betty asked with genuine worry in her voice.

“I…I’m not sure,” Sigrid answered. “Like I said, he was here when I came in and I thought I’d give him some privacy. I have no idea who he is.” She raked her fingers through her hair, not aware she was making it stick up. “Maybe I should go check up on him, offer him something warm to drink.”

“Two hours is a long time,” Meg agreed, while the others nodded.

“Okay, I’ll go see if there’s anything I can do for him,” Sigrid decided, getting up from behind her desk. “Why don’t the three of you pour yourself some coffee,” she encouraged her friends. “I’ll be right back.”

“Sure, honey,” Twitch answered, slowly getting to her feet. Telling her to stay in her chair was something Sigrid had given up a long time ago. Even though Twitch was in pain most of the time, she insisted on being as independent as possible and she truly detested relying on other people.

Sigrid quickly walked up the stairs, painfully aware of the change in temperature. Her downstairs office had warmed up quite nicely, but the upstairs area was still pretty chilly, cold enough to be uncomfortable when sitting still for more than two hours, which the stranger obviously had done. Sigrid noticed he was still in the same spot and she wondered how he could stand the level of discomfort. Church benches were not exactly known for their comfort, not even the padded kind.

Clearing her throat, Sigrid watched the man’s reaction. But there was none. Again she cleared her throat, but there was no indication he had heard her.

“Excuse me,” Sigrid called out softly, making her way down the middle aisle. There was still no reaction and Sigrid wondered if the man was asleep, or maybe very hard of hearing.

“Sir?” she said, slightly raising her voice when she was only a couple of feet away from him. “Are you okay? Sir?”

Still, the man did not move and his lack of response worried Sigrid, who tried to ignore the nervous tingle in the pit of her stomach.

“Sir?” she tried again, aware of the slight quiver in her voice.

Swallowing hard, Sigrid reached out a hand to gently touch the stranger’s shoulder. Even through the fabric of his coat, she could tell he was cold.

“You’re cold” Sigrid stated with genuine worry, gently shaking the man, ready to take a step back in case he would unexpectedly jump up. “Sir?” Another shake.

Finally, he moved, but not the way Sigrid had expected. Instead of jumping to his feet, the slight pressure on his shoulder made the stranger slowly lean to the left. As in slow motion, Sigrid watched him move away from her, slowly sliding sideways until, with a loud thud, he hit the padded, wooden bench.

For a moment Sigrid stood frozen, her blue eyes wide in shock, her hands pressed against her mouth.

“Oh, my God,” she breathed, staring at the stranger on the bench, while her brain tried to catch up with what her eyes were seeing. “Oh, my God.”

Taking a deep breath, Sigrid stepped back, hitting a bench behind her and involuntarily sitting down hard. Only now her eyes took in the details that the scene in front of her provided her with. The strangers’ eyes were open, staring without seeing. A thin line of dried blood ran from his temple down the side of his face, into the collar of his coat.

“He’s dead,” she whispered. “Oh, my God. He’s dead.”

###

In the weeks and even months to come, Betty, Twitch and Meg would repeatedly relate the story of their young pastor, who came almost tumbling down the stairs with a face as white as the snow outside, mumbling incoherently to herself, while trying to direct her trembling fingers to press the buttons on the phone in order to call 9-1-1.

Betty’s first reaction to Sigrid’s appearance was:”Child! You look like you’ve just seen a dead man walking,” which made Sigrid halt in her movements, turn her head to look at her friends and slowly shake her head.

“He’s not walking though,” she whispered with trembling lips.

Twitch softly snorted while she brought her mug with freshly brewed coffee to her lips.

“He? The guy upstairs? Is…” her eyes grew wide and with a thud she slammed her mug on the desk in front of her, spilling mocha-colored liquid over a nearby notepad.

“Dead?” she repeated, not needing an affirmation from Sigrid, because the younger woman’s face told her all she needed to know. “How…?”

“Oh, my God,” Betty exclaimed, pressing her hand against her mouth. “Dead? How….?”

“How? She’s a pastor, not a coroner,” Meg slowly pushed herself to her feet and walked toward Sigrid, who was still visibly shaken.

“I think he’s shot,” Sigrid whispered.

“What?” all three elderly women cried out.

“Honey, are you sure?” Meg asked with a frown.

Sigrid swallowed away the bile she could feel rising in the back of her throat and nodded again.

“Oh, yeah,” she whispered, dialing the number of the emergency services. Her eyes stared at the honey-colored surface of the desk, but she was seeing the face of the unfortunate stranger.

###

“A church? You mean someone got murdered in a church?”

A pair of green eyes stared at the driver of the Jeep Cherokee that had just made its way into the snow covered road that lead to a small church.

“You didn’t tell me it was a church.”

“Come on, Eva, relax,” the burly, grey-haired driver spoke calmly. “A house, a supermarket, a railway station, a church…what does it matter?”

“I haven’t been in a church for eons,” Eva muttered, sending the driver a dark look.

“Then maybe it’s time,” he chuckled, while shutting off the engine and taking out the keys. Before he exited the car, he turned to look at the woman next to him, grinning at the scowl on her face. “Besides, aren’t you the one who always tells me she’s a heathen? This is your chance to make your parents proud.”

The look on Eva Clemente’s face grew even darker and Charles Benoit, Chuck to his co-workers and friends, laughed out loud.

“I was just kidding. I know your parents are proud and love you and adore you and all that good stuff…”

“Don’t push your luck, Chuck,” Eva almost growled.

With something that closely resembled a scowl, she traded the warm interior of the car for the cold morning air and followed her partner to the entrance of the small building, where two uniformed police officers appeared to be waiting for them. They were huddled in heavy coats and every now and then they stamped their feet, no doubt to keep them warm.

“Hi, Pete,” Charles addressed the oldest of the two, shaking his gloved hand. “How are your wife and children?”

“And grandchildren,” Peter Elders grinned, his breath creating white puffs in the cold air.

“Wow. How long has it been since I last saw you?” Charles responded, genuinely surprised.

“‘s Been a while, Chuck,” the stocky man nodded. “I think when you were here investigating the disappearance of that banker, what, about six years ago?”

“I tell you, Pete, the older I get, the faster time gets away from me. It’s pretty disconcerting.”

“Grandpa,” Charles heard the whisper on his right side and he grinned, reached out and gave Eva Clemente a friendly slap on the back.

“Pete, have you met my partner? Eva, this is Peter Elders. The two of us go way back. Pete,” he continued, gesturing to the woman at his side. “This is my partner, Eva Clemente.”

“I’ve heard about you,” Pete spoke, giving Eva’s outstretched hand a firm shake. “It’s nice to meet you. Aren’t you the cop-turned-teacher?”

“Almost,” Eva grimaced. “I’ll start in a couple of months.”

“She’ll be teaching our new recruits how to catch the bad guys,” Charles chuckled. He glanced at the door of the small church and squared his shoulders. Charles Benoit might have been a seasoned police investigator, but the sight of a murder victim was something he had never gotten used to and he knew he never would.

“What’s the scoop, Pete?”

“This morning the pastor arrived at the church, went in, noticed someone sitting quietly in the front row, decided to give that person some privacy and went downstairs into the office. Upon coming back upstairs, approximately two hours later, the individual was still there. The pastor walked up to this person and talked to him, but there was no response. Upon touching his shoulder, the person slid off the bench and the pastor discovered he was dead.”

“How?” Eva asked, frowning.

Peter Elders pointed at his temple and grimaced.

“Hole in his head,” he answered.

“That would be a dead giveaway,” Charles nodded, which elicited a soft snort from his partner. “Alright, where is the pastor?”

“In the office, downstairs, with the church’s ladies volunteer group. They’re all pretty shaken up.”

“I bet,” Eva mumbled, while her eyes scanned the parking area. It had not been plowed, but her trained eyes had already noticed there were no tire marks or footsteps. The snow looked clean, crisp and undisturbed, except for the path leading from the street to the door of the church.

“Who has been inside?” she asked in clipped tones.

“I have, “Peter Elders answered. “I was good though and didn’t touch a thing,” he added with a twinkle in his eyes.

A little startled, Eva looked up and when her eyes met his, she smiled.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I didn’t mean to implicate you don’t know how to do your job.”

“He knows that,” Charles grinned. “He just likes to give you a hard time. Come on, Sherlock, let’s go inside,” he suggested, stepping toward the heavy, wooden door.

###

“Are you feeling a little better, honey?” Meg asked, glancing at the younger woman who sat in an office chair with a slightly dazed expression on her face.

“A little,” Sigrid answered with a sigh. Her blue eyes traveled to Meg’s brown ones and she managed to smile. “I’m not very experienced in finding dead people in my church.”

“Especially if they’re not voluntarily dead,” Twitch mumbled, which earned her a raised eyebrow from Betty. “You know what I mean,” she quickly added. “Murdered. That’s pretty involuntarily, don’t you think?”

“Very,” Betty answered drily. “So are most types of dying. But I guess I know what you mean.” Betty’s hazel eyes glanced at Sigrid. The young pastor was still looking a little pale. Sigrid Meyers was an active person, who loved to spend time outdoors, no matter the season and her face usually sported a healthy color.

With an effort, Betty rose from her chair, silently cursing the arthritis that slowed her down so much and made her way to Sigrid. Bending over, she gave her a quick hug, which was accepted with gratitude.

“Thank you, Betty,” Sigrid said with a watery smile.

“You looked like you needed one,” Betty answered with a smile of her own, while her blue-veined hands carefully brushed an unruly lock of blond hair from the pastor’s forehead. “Do you want some more coffee?”

Sigrid shook her head, tilting her head to the side in a characteristic pose of attention when she heard a door open.

“One more drop of coffee and I’ll start to spark. I feel like we’ve been here for hours,” she sighed, getting to her feet when someone started coming down the stairs. Her eyes first noticed a pair of sturdy winter boots, followed by black jeans clad legs and a light green sweater. Sigrid’s eyebrows rose a little when she discovered the person who was coming down the stairs was female. Immediately, she became annoyed with herself for having expected a male police investigator. She should know better than being sexist like that.

Eva Clemente’s eyes took in the group of four women and sent them a polite smile. Green eyes quickly traveled among the women before they came to rest on Sigrid, whose fingers nervously twirled around a pen she had been holding.

“Good morning. My name is Eva Clemente and I’m an Inspector with New Hampshire State’s Major Crime Unit. I…,” she paused for just a second, clearly trying to gather her thoughts. “Does one of you ladies happen to be the pastor?” she asked hesitantly.

A tall, slender lady with silvery-gray hair looked at Eva with amusement. The corners of her eyes wrinkled in a suppressed smile, but the twinkle in her dark eyes was obvious.

“Are you surprised the pastor’s a female?” she asked with a pleasant voice.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a church, any church,” Eva answered sheepishly. “But yes, I have to admit, it was very presumptuous of me to expect a man. For that, I apologize,” she added with a smile. “And since assuming appears to be a dangerous thing to do, I wonder who of you ladies is the pastor of this church?”

“That would be Sigrid here,” the lady with the twinkling eyes answered, grabbing the pastor by her arm and pulling her forward, so she stood face-to-face with the taller police woman. “Sigrid Meyers,” she added. “My name is Megan Jones and these other two ladies are my friends, Betty Avery and Grace Anderson.”

“The ladies volunteer group,” Eva nodded, while her eyes traveled from Meg to Sigrid, who had not spoken yet.

“Miss Meyers,” she greeted with a nod. “I understand you found the body?”

Sigrid swallowed hard and threw the pen back on her desk, stuffing her hands inside the pockets of her jeans, so the Inspector would not be able to see the trembling of her fingers.

“I did,” she answered in a soft voice. “Is…is he really dead?”

Sigrid could feel Betty grabbing her hand, giving it an encouraging squeeze. She returned the pressure, grateful for the support of her friends.

“I’m afraid so, um….Miss,” Eva answered, not really sure how to address a woman of the cloth.

“Call her Sigrid, honey, we all do,” Twitch piped up from her seat. “If you start calling her ‘Reverend’ we all get confused.”

In spite of the still lingering nausea that had invaded her stomach after finding the dead man and the feelings of horror and anxiety, Sigrid could not help smiling after hearing Twitch’ words.

“Grace is right. Please, call me Sigrid,” she spoke in a soft voice.

Eva nodded and with a slight frown she stared at a picture on the wall. It showed a lighthouse, painted bright white, with a very blue ocean in the background. It made her long for the winter to end, so she could visit Maine, sit on the rocks near her parents’ house and enjoy the sun on her skin, the sound of crashing waves and the smell of salt in the air.

With an imperceptible sigh, she turned back to the task at hand, not enjoying what she was about to ask.

“Sigrid,” she started, looking down in a pair of troubled blue eyes. “I’d like you to come upstairs with me and show me exactly where you were when you found the…deceased,” she asked, immediately seeing the eyes darken. ”I’m sorry,” Eva added with sincerity. Even for her, who had been a Major Crime Investigator for a number of years, it was still hard to look at the remains of a person whose life had been taken away by violence. It was one of the reasons Eva was looking forward to leaving the police force behind her and begin her new job as an instructor at the police academy.

“Is…is he still there?” Sigrid asked, aware of the slight tremble in her voice.

“No,” Eva answered curtly, feeling for the pale woman in front of her. “The coroner just left, but our forensic team is still trying to secure evidence.”

“Well, okay, I guess,” Sigrid breathed. “I’ll show you.”

Eva was about to gesture for Sigrid to climb the stairs in front of her, but at the last moment she changed her mind, thinking the visibly shaken woman might want her to enter the crime scene first. So, after sending a polite smile to the three elderly women who were staying behind, she ascended the stairs, closely followed by Sigrid Meyers. When they both were at the top of the stairs, Eva turned to give the other woman a questioning look.

“Tell me what happened,” she encouraged, looking at Sigrid intently.

Sigrid moistened her dry lips and swallowed hard. It was still cold upstairs, which was no surprise, because there were quite a few people milling about and the front door was wide open. The sudden draft of cold air made Sigrid aware of the effect the numerous cups of coffee had on her bladder and inwardly she groaned, shooting a longing glance at the restroom across the hall.

Eva almost chuckled when she saw that look, but she managed to keep her professional composure.

“I have a lot of questions, so it could be a while” she nodded. “If you need to use the restroom, I’ll wait. Our team has finished up in there.”

The look of utter relief on Sigrid Meyer’s face was priceless and Eva smiled while the pastor quickly crossed the hallway. Exhaling slowly, the inspector turned, trying to take in all the details of the entrance, hallway and the part of the sanctuary she could see. In front of the altar she saw Charles was talking to one of the photographers, pointing at something on the floor. He noticed her and raised an eyebrow in silent question. Eva shrugged and pointed to the restroom, where she could hear water run. For a brief moment, she wondered if the restroom had a window through which a person could climb out. Mentally, she scolded herself for not having thought about that earlier. What if the pastor had something to do with the murder and was looking for a way to escape? Or what if she was just so freaked out by the whole thing, she wanted to leave unnoticed? How come she did not check the room before she let Sigrid Meyers out of her sight? It wasn’t like she was a rookie and Sigrid Meyers might seem like an innocent, but who says she actually was?

Worry showed in Eva’s eyes when she stepped toward the restroom, only to halt when, all of a sudden, the door was opened and the pastor walked out, sending her a grateful smile.

“I’m ready for any question you’ll fire at me now,” she spoke.

“Um…great,” Eva stammered, simultaneously flooded with relief and annoyance. She wondered why she seemed to lose her composure so easily in the presence of this woman. Maybe it was because, having been raised by a devout Catholic mother and a not very religious but nonetheless just as Catholic father, she realized she had not exactly kept up with their traditions and deep down inside she felt guilty. Or maybe it was the calm demeanor in those blue eyes that seem to look straight through her.

“Do churches make you uncomfortable, Inspector?” Eva heard Sigrid asked, startling her out of her thoughts. She wanted to shrug off the question by answering ‘No, of course not’, but instead she sent the pastor a small smile.

“A little,” she confessed. “As a child and a teenager I’ve been to church many times, but some years ago I quit going.” She let out a soft laugh. “I guess my conscience is trying to get back at me now.”

“Don’t let it,” was the surprising answer and Eva shot the woman in front of her a grateful look.

“So, Sigrid, tell me, what happened this morning,” the Inspector continued, all businesslike now. Her vivid green eyes, standing out against the darker skin of her face were focused and full of attention when they looked at the shorter woman. Her mind registered the expression of insecurity on Sigrid Meyers’ face, the worry in the blue eyes, framed by long, dark lashes, the way the pastor bit her lower lip, the wavy, brown, shoulder length hair, the light-blue fleece sweater from LLBean, the faded jeans and the comfortable looking clogs she was wearing and that Eva recognized from a Lands’ End catalogue. The Inspector made a mental note to ask the pastor if she had changed shoes after arriving to the church that morning.

“I’m not sure where to begin,” Sigrid hesitated.

“What time did you leave to come here this morning?” Eva asked, hoping a few easy questions would help the pastor along.

“I can do that,” Sigrid sighed with a hint of relief. In a soft voice she related what time she had left home that morning, when she had arrived at the church and how she first had noticed the person sitting in the front row.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Eva said, after listening intently. “You said you parked alongside the street, because the parking area hadn’t been plowed yet.”

“It’s not really a priority on Monday morning,” Sigrid explained. “The main roads and the area around the school and hospital are done first.”

“How about the path that leads from the street to the front door? Was that clear when you arrived?”

Sigrid nodded.

“John is always nice enough to shovel. John Henry, the owner of the hardware store. He knows I don’t like shoveling,” she added with a small smile.

“Did you notice anything out of the ordinary between the moment you parked your car and walked in?”

“No, not really,” Sigrid answered slowly, with a small frown. “Everything looked pretty much nor…” All of a sudden she paused and unconsciously, Eva leaned a little closer.

“Yes?”

“I…I just remember the door was not closed all the way. That’s not unusual, but I wondered why John hadn’t closed it.” She paused for a moment and pensively stared at the said door. “Unless it was closed when he was shoveling,” she continued softly.

“John Henry, is that his name?” Eva asked, jotting down the name in a small notebook. “We’ll talk to him later. So, you saw the door wasn’t closed all the way. Was there any sign of forceful entry?”

“Um…I never lock the door,” Sigrid confessed. “Sometimes, people just want to come in and sit in silence. I think a church should provide that opportunity. I do lock the downstairs offices and kitchen,” she was quick to add.

If Eva had an opinion about her leaving the church wide open for anyone to wander in, it did not show.

“So, you arrived, saw the door wasn’t closed, you went inside and then what?” Eva continued

“It was cold inside,” Sigrid remembered, involuntarily wrapping her arms around herself for extra warmth. “I admired the light through the stain glass window and just as I wanted to go downstairs I saw someone sitting in the front row,” Sigrid could not suppress the shiver that ran through her body. “I…I only saw the back, but I didn’t recognize the person. I decided to give him some privacy, knowing that people usually know where to find me when they want to talk and I went downstairs to the office.”

“Did you hear or see something, anything, that was out of the ordinary?”

Eva noticed that Sigrid was about to open her mouth and answer, when, all of a sudden, she went incredibly pale. In a reaction, Eva reached out and grabbed the other woman’s arm to give her some support, not sure if she was able to hold herself upright.

“I heard the door open and close,” Sigrid whispered, looking up to meet the Inspector’s intent gaze. Even through her distress, Sigrid noticed Eva’s eyes widen in surprise and anticipation.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely,” Sigrid nodded, grateful for the supportive hand around her elbow and let out a shuddering breath “Oh, my God. I don’t even want to think about what that might mean.”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions, but stick to the facts,” Eva responded calmly. “Let’s go back to the moment you came in and saw the person in front of the church. Can you remember that moment? Picture it?”

Sigrid took a deep breath and willed her heart to slow down. The pounding made the blood roar in her ears and the last thing she wanted to do was faint in front of Eva Clemente.

Closing her eyes, Sigrid thought back at the moment she had entered the church that morning. The open door she had closed behind her, the sound of her boots on the floor, the wooden benches in the hallway. Sigrid frowned. There had been something on one of the benches, a newspaper. She opened her eyes and turned to the bench, scanning its surface with her eyes. There was nothing there.

“There was a newspaper on that bench,” she said, pointing to the wooden seat. “It’s gone now.”

Eva nodded and motioned Charles, who was still talking to one of the forensic specialists to come over.

“Can you remember anything about it?” she asked, expertly keeping her voice calm and neutral. “Like, what newspaper is was?”

Sigrid closed her eyes again and willed her mind to magnify what she had seen, but she was unsuccessful. Slowly she shook her head, opening her eyes to see someone standing next to Eva Clemente. A pair of friendly brown eyes stared at her and she was greeted with a warm smile.

“Sigrid, this is my partner, Charles Benoit. Chuck, this is Sigrid Meyers, the pastor.”

“It’s very nice to meet you, Sigrid,” Charles spoke, giving her hand a warm shake. “I’m sorry about what has happened here and that we have to drag you through a thousand questions. The forensic crew is still lifting prints and looking for clues, but hopefully we’ll be out of your hair in a few hours.”

“Sigrid is trying to remember if she saw anything out of the ordinary and she noticed a newspaper on one of those benches,” Eva told her partner.

Charles nodded and his dark eyes scanned the benches in the hallway, just as Sigrid’s had done a few moments earlier.

“It’s bagged,” he explained, sending both Eva and Sigrid a smile.

”The forensic team has found it and put it in a bag, for further investigation,” Eva explained, having seen the paper before it was packed away. She knew exactly it had been the ‘Boston Globe’, but could not share that knowledge with the pastor. Even though it felt wrong, but until they could come up with a profile or, better yet, a suspect, not even the pastor was above suspicion.

“Is there anything else you remember, Sigrid?” Charles asked in a friendly voice. He leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets, observing the young woman in front of him. Even though he did not know her, he could tell she was upset and he truly felt for her.

His eyes traveled from the pastor to his partner, noticing the strong, rigid, green clad back and the calm professionalism she exuded. Eva Clemente was a beautiful woman and her bronze skin and curly dark hair gave her an exotic appearance. The green eyes, inherited from her Irish grandmother, only enhanced her beauty.

Right now, he noticed, those same eyes were focused on the pastor, who seemed to try her best to help them find the answers they needed, even though it forced her to re-visit the horrible memories of finding a murdered man in her church.

“I remember I was admiring the light that fell in through the stain glass window,” Sigrid continued to vocalize what she was able to recall. “It caught my eye because it reflected off something inside. It painted a very pretty pattern on the floor and benches and…” The pastor inhaled sharply and with wide eyes she looked at the two inspectors.

“Something moved,” she said in a barely audible whisper.

“Who did?” Eva asked, willing herself to be calm. Getting all excited would not help Sigrid and they really needed all the information she was able to give them.

“The man, in the front row. It…it looked like he moved.”

“How? What kind of movement?” Eva quizzed her.

“I…maybe it was the light, but I remember there was a movement, or it seemed there was a movement, but…” Sigrid looked up at Eva and Charles and her eyes were pleading. “I’d like to show you, if that’s alright.”

Charles and Eva exchanged a look and they both nodded.

“Whatever helps you to explain, Sigrid,” Charles answered. He was still leaning against the wall, seemingly relaxed, but his body was tense and his mind was completely focused on the young pastor.

Sigrid was so absorbed by her memory and focused on explaining the two investigators what she had seen she walked into the sanctuary without a moment of hesitation, temporarily forgetting the horrific images of a man who had been shot to death, in her church.

Charles and Eva followed her inside, gesturing to the forensic crew that it was alright. Their eyes never left the pastor as she made her way to the front, passing the seat where the dead man had been. She continued a few more steps, turned around to the investigators, while pointing at the raised platform that held a piano.

“It must have been somewhere here, in between the piano and the…the…the person,” she stammered.

“What was it you saw, Sigrid?” Charles asked.

“Like I said, it was like the light through the window was being reflected off of something. At the time, I don’t think I really noticed, but thinking back, I’m pretty sure the initial light I saw was a lot brighter. Almost like a flash,” Sigrid answered in a rush, sounding very sure of her memory. “I saw it from the corner of my eye and it was just after I saw that…flash that something moved. It wasn’t a big movement, if you know what I mean. Not like someone, or something, turning around or walking, more like a…like a jerking movement. Very quick.”

“Were you able to see a shape?” Eva asked, having stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jeans and rocking back and forth on her heels, all of a sudden seeming a lot taller than her usual five foot eight.

“Round,” Sigrid immediately answered. “If that makes any sense,” she added, sounding a little shy. The last thing she wanted was for the two inspectors to think she was nuts.

“Mmm, like someone ducking, maybe…” Charles mused, staring at the area between the platform and the first row. “Hey, Ben,” he turned to a man holding a camera. “Do me a favor and take some pictures of this area, from the door. How tall are you, Sigrid?”

“Five-six,” the pastor answered, wondering why he needed to know.

“Okay, Ben. Five-six. Let’s try this.”

Charles knelt down ducking his head as low as possible, while the photographer motioned Eva and Sigrid to come with him.

“Where did you stand? Do you remember?” Eva asked Sigrid when they were standing in the doorway.

“About here,” Sigrid answered, stepping closer to the wooden frame of the door.

The photographer nodded, held his camera at the height of Sigrid’s eyes and started to take a few pictures. Eva, who was standing behind him, was amazed that the only thing of Charles she could see was part of his shoulder. She knew she only saw him because she knew where he was kneeling down. That knowledge made the muscles in her stomach tense.

“Is it possible I…the murderer was still here when I came in?” Sigrid’s voice sounded low, but the slight quiver was clearly audible.

Eva noticed the distress in the pastor’s voice and she could tell the woman was visibly upset, but denying the obvious was not something Eva Clemente did well, so she decided to be up-front and honest.

“Without jumping to conclusions, I have to admit it’s a possibility,” Eva nodded, not at all happy with that thought.

Sigrid slowly nodded, pressed her hand against her stomach and leaned against the wall for support.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

####

“What do you think, Chuck?” Eva spoke, her warm breath creating visible puffs in the cold air. “I think it’s weird.”

“I agree,” Charles answered, slowly walking down the path, scanning the snow on both sides of the big flagstones that made up the path.

“The pastor didn’t even seem to know the path to the backdoor had been shoveled. You’d think she would.”

“Not necessarily, my dear Sherlock,” Charles answered with a grin. “Again, it’s obvious you haven’t spent a lot of time in a church community lately. People do things for each other, sometimes without having to be asked. To you that might be an alien concept, but to a lot of people who live in these rural, small communities, it’s a normal thing to do.”

“I’m just trying to stay focused,” Eva mumbled. “Someone got murdered here, in this cute, little rural community church of yours.”

“That’s true,” Charles shrugged. “What do you think about the pastor?”

“Too genuinely shaken up to have anything to do with it,” Eva responded, without taking her eyes off the patch of snow in front of her. “Although, I could be wrong of course.”

“Why?” Charles asked, curious to learn more about his partner’s reasoning. Eva Clemente was a very smart woman, who usually did not leave anything to chance. Her analytical thinking skills were a huge asset to the police force and again Charles realized how much he would miss her, and her smart contributions to their investigations, after she’d start working for at the police academy.

“Well, all we know is that we have a dead body. Unidentified. We’re not sure about the time of death, but the medical examiner estimates it to be early this morning. We have a pastor who was aware of someone sitting in front of the church when she arrived, but didn’t find out it was a dead body until about two hours later. She states she heard the door open and close and she claims she saw a movement, which, at the time she observed it, was not a reason for her to think anything was amiss. It snowed last night, but around four this morning it cleared up. Except for the path to the front door and the path leading out the back door, the snow around the building is not disturbed. The pastor knew about the shoveled front, but was unaware of the back.” Eva took a deep breath and turned to face her partner. “All she says does make sense and doesn’t incriminate her. But,” Eva paused and Charles noticed the shadow of a scowl crossing her face. “We have no clues, we have no evidence, yet, we have no suspect. All we have is a murder victim and a lot of questions. That leaves the pastor on the list of possible suspects.”

“What does your gut-feeling say?” Charles wanted to know.

“She’s innocent,” Eva answered without having to think about the answer. “And she might be the only, sort of witness we have.”

“Because she saw movement?”

“Yes, I’m pretty sure someone was still here when she arrived. He, or she, must have seen her. I also believe that person knew about the path being shoveled and, maybe, had been waiting for that to happen, so there would be no tracks left in the snow. If that’s the case, the murderer might be local and wasn’t worried about being seen while leaving church. Or, the murderer was aware of the weather forecast and knew when it would begin and stop snowing and did his, or her, murder with enough time to have any tracks covered by a fresh layer of snow. But, if that’s the case, who was hiding from the pastor? An accomplice? Someone who came in to take a photo? Was that what the flash was about? A souvenir? Proof the murder was accomplished? Or maybe something to blackmail someone with?” Eva sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. “But even in case of that last scenario, the person who took the picture could easily have been a local, because within the time frame it brings us right back at the shoveling of the path.”

Charles Benoit rolled his head, trying to work out a few kinks, while mulling over his younger partner’s words.

“I agree,” he finally spoke. “I think your assumption about the murderer being local could be true. This is a small town and, whether they like it or not, people are being noticed. So, this killer is either local, or incredibly sure not to be recognized.”

“Maybe they used a disguise?” Eva suggested with a raised eyebrow.

“Maybe,” Charles shrugged. “We’ll have to wait for the tests the forensic guys are running on some of the stuff they picked up, but even then,” Charles sighed and rubbed his forehead with a gloved hand.

“Even then, this is a church and people come and go here all the time. Especially since the pastor doesn’t lock the door at night, which the perpetrator might have known.” Eva nodded in acknowledgment. “This is going to be a tricky one, Chuck.”

“I agree,” Charles answered. “Very tricky and I can already tell you, it’s not going to be pretty.” He started to walk back to the front of the building, knowing his partner would follow him soon.

Eva watched Charles go and took a deep breath. The icy cold air had started to numb her skin and she vigorously rubbed her cheeks. Having grown up in Maine, she was used to the long, cold winters. It was only the end of February and Eva knew spring was still a very long time away.

Stamping her feet to increase circulation, she walked back down the path one more time, away from the church toward a narrow road at the back. The street had been plowed and snow banks, averaging at least four feet in height lined both sides of the street. There were no footsteps in the snow or evidence of someone having climbed over the snow bank to reach the street. Still, Eva could not shake the feeling she was missing something and again let eyes scan the snow in front of her. The light of the sun was reflected off the snow, almost blinding her and she could feel her eyes water. It would be better to wear sunglasses, but she knew that, if she did, she might miss some important clues.

Very aware of her instincts and too stubborn to give up, Eva let her eyes travel across the snow again. The area behind the church was not very big, but still, there was a lot of snow. A tiny shed sat in the corner, its roof piled high with so much snow it looked like the walls could buckle at any time. Eva studied the small structure and let her eyes glide over the snow, all the way to the path. The only disturbed snow was on one side of the path, where the shoveled snow was piled on the side. The other side was undisturbed and it was that area Eva was focusing on. There was something she was missing. Kneeling down to look from a different angle, sucking in her bottom lip in concentration and blinking rapidly against the stinging in her eyes Eva leaned forward. There, a small bump in the snow. It was something she had not seen while standing straight, but from her new angle it was obvious and mentally she slapped herself. She had almost missed it. Rising up, she quickly walked toward the small bump, taking off her glove and pulling a plastic bag out of her pocket. Using the outside of the bag to carefully brush aside the soft snow it didn’t take her long to uncover something dark and leathery. A rush of adrenaline made her forget her cold cheeks and with a grim expression on her face, Eva carefully dug up the wallet that had appeared.

“Gotcha,” she mumbled, expertly sliding it in the plastic bag. Holding the evidence between thumb and index finger, she peered into the hole she created and noticed a small rock had been her benefactor. Had the wallet not landed on the granite, it would have sunk all the way down into the snow and would not have been discovered until the spring.

“Sometimes you just have to be lucky,” she grinned, getting back to her feet, wondering if there would be more treasures underneath the neat, white blanket. She would ask the forensic team to do some digging, although she did not expect they would be so lucky twice.

####

“So, what are they going to do now?” Betty asked, sinking her teeth in a tuna melt sandwich.

“Find the person who did this, of course,” Twitch answered with a shake of her head. “What else would you think they’d be doing?” she added, taking a spoonful of her clam chowder.

“You never know,” Betty mumbled. “I have a cousin, who once was married to a State Trooper and he always said you’d be surprised at the amount of cases that get covered up.”

“That’s just one of your family’s conspiracy theories,” Meg chuckled, while enjoying a vegetable omelet. “You’re not referring to cousin Alberta, are you?” she asked, having known Betty Avery and her large family for most of her life.

“The one and only,” Betty answered with a nod of her head.

“I thought as much,” Meg snorted. “That cousin of yours should have worked for the National Enquirer.”

“Who said she didn’t?” Betty quipped and they all laughed.

“You’re awfully quiet, sweetie,” Meg said, turning to Sigrid, who was picking at her food without much of an appetite. She had not wanted to go to lunch to start with, but her friends had convinced her she needed to eat something. They had all filed into Meg’s car and had driven a quarter mile to the local diner; ‘Chez Me’.

Sigrid was still feeling somewhat nauseous and even her favorite chicken Panini with cilantro pesto could not really entice her to eat something.

“Honey, stop stabbing the poor chicken,” Betty gently scolded as she would do one of her children or grandchildren. “Try to eat at least half of it.”

“I’m still having a stomach ache,” Sigrid sighed, her blue eyes dull when they looked at the elderly woman who was sitting across the table form her.

“That’s because your stomach is empty and needs to be fed,” Twitch decided. “You drank about two gallons of coffee. No wonder you’re hurting. Give your poor body what it needs.”

With a grimace, Sigrid obeyed, biting off a piece of bread. The chicken was moist and tender, but still she felt like she was chewing on a piece of cardboard. To humor her friends, she made an effort to eat at least half of her sandwich.

“So, tell us,” Betty started. “Will they be back, that nice man and the pretty investigator?”

“Charles Benoit,” Meg said. “He used to work with Fred Hammer, you know, the Hammer who retired and moved to Florida.”

“Oh, I remember him,” Twitch nodded. “Tall, serious man. His wife was an amazing quilter.”

“Do they actually use quilts in Florida?” Betty wanted to know and there was a twinkle in her eyes when she glanced at Sigrid.

“I’m pretty sure they do,” Sigrid managed to smile, knowing she was being teased, since she had grown up in Florida.

“Anyway,” Meg continued. “I’m sure both Charles and Eva Clemente will be back. As far as I understand they left with thousands of questions. Besides,” she lowered her voice and quickly looked around to make sure nobody else was listening to their conversation. “Since this happened right here, in our little, sleepy town, the murderer could very well be someone we know.”

“God, Meg, I don’t even want to think about that possibility,” Sigrid groaned, taking a sip from her tea. She could feel the beginning of a headache and wished she had some Tylenol with her. “It’s bad enough I found a dead person in my church.”

“It’s amazing. And we all saw him on our way down to the office, not knowing he was as dead as a…” Twitch paused and sent Sigrid an apologetic smile. “Very freshly dead,” she finished her sentence.

Sigrid swallowed the piece of bread she had been chewing on and pushed away her plate. It had been hard to eat something to start with, but her friends’ comments made it impossible.

“Isn’t that Eva pretty?” Betty radically changed the subject. “I was amazed at the color of her skin, it’s so beautiful. I bet she gets really dark in the summer. And her eyes….amazing,” she sighed. “I wonder where her parents are from.”

“Next time I see her, I’ll ask,” Meg chuckled. “By the way, since when do you drool over women? What would Harvey say?” Meg teased.

“Oh, Harvey, bless his soul,” Betty sighed, rolling her eyes. “Harvey was a sweet man, but he was such a New Englander, not very exotic. Now, this Eva woman,” Betty continued with a smile. “She’s a head-turner. I might be old, but I can still see.”

“I never knew you paid attention to those kinds of things,” Twitch remarked, taking a sip from a glass of water. “Maybe Sigrid should take you to one of those gay bars. You might find somebody interesting.”

“Grace, don’t give her any ideas,” Sigrid mumbled. “And besides, I haven’t been to a gay bar in…years.”

“Maybe it’s time to go then,” Betty suggested, sending the pastor a playful wink.

Sigrid smiled and shook her head.

“I walked right into that one, didn’t I?”

“You did,” Meg nodded. “Trust me, sweetie, all three of us know how tough this day has been for you and heck, it’s only half over! We’re just teasing you in the hope you’ll smile for a few moments and forget what you’ve been through.”

Sigrid reached out and gave Meg, who was sitting next to her, a one-armed hug.

“I know and I appreciate it, I really do. But it will be a while before I get over this, if ever.” Sigrid exhaled slowly, rubbing her eyes. Her headache was getting worse by the moment and the bright light inside the diner, in combination with the sun being reflected off the snow outside the window, made her squint and contributed to the pounding in her head.

“Just realizing I’ll have to walk back into that building again, gives me the shivers. It’s very…disconcerting that there was a dead body, sitting in the front seat, with the killer still there.”

“What?” Meg, Betty and Twitch exclaimed simultaneously.

“Honey, what are you saying?” Twitch urged, her eyes dark with worry and concern. “The murderer was still there when you came in?”

“I don’t even know if I’m supposed to talk about all this,” Sigrid mumbled.

“Nonsense, child,” Betty said, patting the pastor’s hand in a supportive gesture. “This is real life, not the movies. And we are your friends and you should be able to talk to someone. 

“I agree,” Twitch said and Meg nodded.

“I…it was something I remembered, later, when the Inspector was asking me if I could tell her what I remembered and…and what I saw.”

“You saw the killer?” Betty asked in awe.

“No…yes…not really,” Sigrid answered, shaking her head. “When she was taking me through my memory, step-by-step, I realized I had seen a movement, in the front of the church, but at the time it didn’t register as such. And when I was downstairs, taking off my boots and making coffee, I heard the upstairs door open and close. I thought the guy had left.”

“But he’d already checked out,” Twitch mumbled. “It was the killer.”

“Maybe,” Sigrid whispered.

“What if it wasn’t?” Meg wondered.

“What if it was?” Betty argued. “That means he knew Sigrid was right there, in the church. That’s really scary. What if he comes back and…?”

“Okay, that’s it,” Sigrid interrupted with a raised voice. “I don’t want to hear that, thank you. And I don’t want to think about it either, because, one day, I hope I’ll be able to sleep again.”

“If he would have wanted to hurt Sigrid, he had the opportunity when she went downstairs,” Meg reasoned. “But he left.”

“True,” Betty muttered and Twitch nodded.

“Still, if you need a place to stay, you’re welcome at my house,” Betty offered.

Sigrid thought about her little house that was sitting on an acre of land, halfway up a hill and surrounded by forest. It was quiet and private, something she had always appreciated very much. Until now.

“Do you own a gun?” Twitch wanted to know, which earned her an exasperated sigh from Meg, while Betty elbowed her in the ribs.

“Hey, I’m just asking,” Twitch responded indignantly. “Some people just feel safer with one of those things in the house.”

“Do you have one?” Betty asked Twitch.

“No, I’d shoot myself in the foot,” Twitch stated. “But Sigrid is young and cute and she lives all by herself, so it…”

“Life is getting better by the minute,” Sigrid sighed. She appreciated her friends’ concern, but she knew that, if she would give into her fears, she’d never be able to function normally again. No matter how hard it was, she had to try to stick to her usual routine. She could not let the situation rule her life. She wouldn’t allow that. Unconsciously squaring her shoulders, Sigrid took a deep breath and took the time to look each one of her friends in the eye.

“I will go to my house, as usual, and live my life, as usual. What has happened is horrible and yes, I’ll most likely have nightmares for a while, but I’ll just have to get over that. I’ll ask the congregation if it’s alright to get a new bench in the front, because…I’m not sure if…”

“I think that’s a great idea,” Meg interrupted. “A man was killed on that thing, so yes, let’s get rid of it. The police can have it for their evidence thing and we’ll replace it. What do you think, girls?”

“I’m all for it,” Twitch replied and Betty nodded.

“We’ll take care of that, sweetie,” Meg promised. “You just…focus on work and working with the police. Are they coming back to ask more questions?” Her words almost sounded hopeful and Sigrid suppressed a smile. Drama had arrived in their small town and her friends would make sure to be involved in it as much as they possibly could.

“I don’t know. Maybe. They were going to talk to John first.”

###

“Careful, don’t drop it,” Charles Benoit muttered, watching his younger partner open the leather wallet with gloved fingers. She was holding the object over a piece of white plastic, just in case something unexpected would fall out, like a hair or a piece of thread.

“Chill, Chuck,” Eva mumbled, her green eyes focused on what her fingers were doing. “I’ve done this before, you know.”

“I know,” he answered with a sigh. “I’m sorry. It’s just, no matter how long I’ve been doing this, finding a piece of evidence like this still makes me a little nervous and jumpy.”

“I know,” Eva nodded, carefully lifting a moist piece of leather, revealing the familiar colors of a New Hampshire driver’s license. “And this is our guy,” she added with certainty.

“He looks like the dead guy,” Charles admitted, peering over her shoulder. “And yes, he’s a guy.”

“Did you doubt that?” Eva asked with a slight frown.

“Maybe. I mean, the guy was wearing a dress,” Charles shrugged. “I wonder if the pastor noticed. Did she mention anything about that?”

“No, she didn’t,” Eva answered absentmindedly, studying the face in the picture. “And he was wearing a long coat. She might have been so freaked out, she didn’t notice.”

“Michael Allen Bell,” Charles read over Eva’s shoulder. “Mike Bell. Thirty-eight years old. Five foot and eleven inches tall. Brown hair and brown eyes.”

“I love the fact that they put an address on those things,” Eva said. “Guess where we’ll be heading later?”

“Manchester,” Charles answered with a grim smile. “Anderson road, Granite Village apartment number five. Is there anything else in that thing?”

Eva pulled out a wad of bills and she heard Charles softly whistle when she counted almost nine hundred dollars in seven one hundred bills and the rest twenties.

“Whatever someone wanted from him, it was not money,” she spoke, letting the cash slide into another bag, held open by Charles. Her fingers pulled out a couple of credit cards, a credit card sized laminated calendar and a piece of light-blue paper that was carefully folded. Before opening it though, Eva made sure to put all the cards in separate little bags, before unfolding the note. A faint smell rose up from the paper and she made a face.

“I didn’t know there are still people who perfume their correspondence paper,” she said. “It doesn’t smell like cologne that’s used by men, does it?” she asked, turning to look at Charles, who gingerly sniffed the air.

“No, I think you’re right,” he nodded. “It smells like something my wife would wear. But then, the guy was wearing a dress.”

“True,” Eva sighed, letting her eyes scan the note. There were five different names written down on the note and when her eyes read the last one, she let out a sound of surprise.

“Anyone we know?” Charles asked, unable to read the scribbled names upside down.

“Sort of,” Eva answered. “I’m pretty sure we’ll get better acquainted soon, though.” She held the note up for Charles to read, which he did with squinted eyes.

“Oh, look at that,” he responded with evident surprise. “Sigrid Meyers, our cute, little pastor.”

Part 2

It was dark when Sigrid finally made it home that day. She had tried to leave the office early, but a distressed phone call from one of her church members had changed that plan. Instead of going home, she headed to the local nursing home when the very elderly father of the church member had taken a turn for the worse and Sigrid had been asked to stay with the family at the patient’s bedside, which she had done until the elderly gentleman had passed away. Now it was close to eight in the evening. To her surprise, Sigrid’s stomach was rumbling and she realized she was hungry. The half-eaten chicken Panini had been a long time ago. During the last few hours, the murder in the church had been pushed into the back of her mind and Sigrid was grateful for that.

“First something to eat,” she mumbled, driving her car into the garage. “Before I lose my appetite again.”

The temperature in the garage was slightly above freezing and Sigrid shivered when she stepped out of the warm car, looking forward to the comfortable warmth of the woodstove. Of course she would have to get a fire going first.

Entering the kitchen, Sigrid tossed her car keys on the countertop and shrug off her coat, hanging it on the hook in the closet, near the door.

“Minnie, I’m home,” she called out, while replacing her heavy boots with a pair of warm, soft slippers. “Minnie!”

There was a sound coming from the living room and Sigrid smiled knowingly. Heading for the source of it, she switched on the light and purposefully walked toward the couch. She was still smiling when she let herself fall down onto the soft pillows.

“You know, I wish I could teach you how to cook. Wouldn’t that be great? I’d love to come home to a nice dinner. What do you think?”

A pair of yellow eyes looked up at her and Sigrid laughed softly, certain she had just seen an expression of disgust on her cat’s face.

“Oh, come on, Minnie. I work all day. The least you can do is cook for me.”

Minnie stretched and yawned, showing a pair of healthy looking incisors that reminded Sigrid of the cat’s bigger cousin; the tiger. Slowly getting up, Minnie stretched again, before covering the small distance between herself and Sigrid. With a soft purr she climbed onto the pastor’s lap, put her head on her thigh and rolled over, making it very clear she would love to have her belly rubbed.

“Hedonist,” Sigrid muttered, but the friendly purr and the soft, warm fur was too tempting. With experienced fingers, Sigrid started to scratch her cat’s belly and immediately Minnie’s purr became incredibly loud.

“I’m sorry you’ve got such a rotten life,” Sigrid chuckled. “But, even though I love the attention, yeah right, we both know it’s you who loves the attention the most, I really need to make myself something to eat.” Sigrid moved the cat off her lap, stood up from the couch and stretched, feeling the muscles in her lower back pull. That was where tension usually formed painful knots, but this time she knew no amount of stretching would help get rid of it. Her body was still so rigid with stress it would be near to impossible to relax for a while. During the day there had been distractions, but right now, being home by herself with only a cat for company, all the images she had been trying to ignore during the day, came rushing back in tidal waves. The one that kept playing over and over in her mind was the one of the dead man’s body sliding off the bench after Sigrid had touched his shoulder, his mouth half open, as if he was about to say something and dried blood coating the side of his head.

“Are you sure you want to eat something?” Sigrid asked herself with a sigh. Her stomach felt like it was filled with wet cotton and she wasn’t sure if food would actually follow the natural path of digestion.

“Tea. Mint, with honey,” Sigrid decided as she walked to the kitchen.

From the corner of her eye she noticed the light of her answering machine was blinking and in passing she pressed the ‘play’ button.

February twenty-third, nine fifteen am…..”

Unconsciously tilting her head, Sigrid waited for the message, but all she heard was static, followed what sounded like a sigh. Then the connection was broken.

“If you want me to call you back, you need to leave a message,” she mumbled, hitting the ‘delete’ button. Only then she noticed the answering machine displayed four more messages.

“Small town, news travels fast,” Sigrid muttered, pressing ‘play all’.

February twenty-third, ten twenty-nine am…”

Again there was no message and Sigrid shrugged, leaning against the kitchen counter, waiting for the water to boil.

February twenty-third, eleven sixteen am. Hi Sigrid this is Joan Collier, I heard about your…ordeal this morning. I’m sorry you have to go through that. Call me when you need to talk about it. I’ll try to catch you sometime tomorrow. Take care.”

Sigrid smiled. She liked Joan Collier, who owned the local hair-salon, but also knew that the woman always was on the lookout for news and Sigrid definitely had some of that to share, although it wasn’t exactly clear to the pastor how much news she actually was allowed to share. It wasn’t like Charles Benoit and Eva Clemente had told her to keep quiet about it, but somehow, deep down inside, Sigrid instinctively knew it was best not to share too much information yet. At least not until the police would have given her the green light to do so.

February twenty-third, four twenty-two pm…”

For the third time that day someone had called her but had not left a message. It took about fifteen seconds for the connection to be severed and in the meantime Sigrid listened to what sounded like an intake of breath, a few seconds of dead silence, followed by a sigh. In the background she thought she could hear the ticking of a clock. Then the ‘message’ stopped.

After the day she just had, the messages, or lack thereof, made a cold shiver run down Sigrid’s spine and her eyes nervously traveled between the two kitchen windows that, if it wasn’t dark, showed a view of the woods. It was one of Sigrid’s most favorite views, because she was often able to see deer and bear early in the morning. Once she had even been visited by a moose and her calf. Right now the windows were black, gaping holes, making Sigrid feel exposed and nervous.

“Get a grip, Meyers,” Sigrid told herself. “Your imagination is running away with you. There’s nothing out there but trees, some innocent animals and lots of snow. Relax.”

After turning off the stove and pouring hot water in her favorite mug, Sigrid reached out to grab the honey jar, almost dropping it when the phone started ringing. With a pounding heart she slammed the glass jar on the kitchen counter, turned around and stepped toward the phone, hesitating for a few seconds before she picked it up.

“Hello,” she answered, breathless.

“Sigrid Meyers?” a female voice sounded.

“Yes.”

“This is Eva Clemente. I’m sorry to call you this late, but I’d like to know if it’s possible to meet sometime in the morning?”

“Um…yes, of course,” Sigrid stammered, taken off guard by the unexpected call. “What time do you have in mind?”

“Nine? At your…um..office?”

“Sure. I’ll be there,” Sigrid answered, puzzled by the call. But then, she’d never been part if any police investigation before, let alone a murder.

“Great, thank you. And again, I’m sorry to call you this late.”

“That’s okay, I just came home anyway. Inspector, did you try to call me before?”

There was a brief silence.

“No, I didn’t,” Eva Clemente sounded a little surprised. “May I ask what made you think I might have?”

“Oh, it’s just that, according to my answering machine, someone called me three times, without leaving a message. Of course I don’t know if it was the same caller.” Sigrid took a deep breath. “I guess they could have been local people checking up on me. News travels fast around here,” she added with a nervous smile, knowing deep down inside that anyone local would have left her a message.

“Are the messages still on your machine?” Eva asked.

“Yes, they are.”

“Would you, please, do me a favor? Don’t delete them yet? I’d like to listen to them first.”

“Oh, sure,” Sigrid answered, wondering why the Inspector was interested in her messages that were no messages.

“I’ll come to your house then. Nine o’clock,” Eva Clemente decided.

“Okay,” Sigrid nodded. “Do you need directions?”

“I have your address,” was the polite answer. “I know how to get there. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Yeah, I’ll see you then,” Sigrid responded absentmindedly, before breaking the connection.

“Of course you know how to get here,” Sigrid sighed. “You’re an Inspector, investigator, whatever. There’s probably not a lot you haven’t already learned about me.”

Somehow that thought bothered her and with an annoyed gesture, Sigrid pulled open a kitchen drawer to retrieve a spoon. All she wanted was to have her tea, take a long, hot shower, go to bed and forget about dead bodies in church and an aloof police woman who thought she knew it all.

###

The house was built to enjoy the view. It was on top of a hill, its basement dug into the side of the mountain, which, from a distance, gave the impression the house was defying gravity, barely hanging on to the granite ledge it was situated on. Large windows and a wrap- around porch faced the forest-covered hills and the distant mountain ranges. A man-made pond at the bottom of the hill was now frozen solid, but during the summer months it was an attraction to the local wildlife and migrating birds. A strategically placed telescope on the porch would bring even the smallest creature up close to anyone willing to get up early enough to watch the forest wake for another day.

The moon reflected off the snow-covered hills, painting the house in a soft silvery light. The night-sky was clear and anyone bothering to look up would be treated to the spectacular sight of a velvet black sky covered with countless bright stars and planets. The milky-way was a clearly visible band of white light, seeming enormous although only a small fraction of it could be admired from the earth’s surface.

Except for a light in the back, the house was covered in darkness. A Subaru Outback was parked in the driveway, clear of snow and ice, while one of the double garage doors was open.

In the brightly lit room, a computer screen cast a faint blue light on the face of the person sitting in front of it. A digital camera was connected to the laptop, zooming quietly when its images were transferred. Even though that process only took a few moments, fingers impatiently drummed on the desk’s surface, waiting for the transfer to be complete.

As soon as the screen started to display images, the restless hand grabbed the mouse, while the index finger started to click its buttons. One particular image was quickly clicked and all of a sudden it was magnified until it filled the entire screen. A sharp intake of breath was followed by a soft chuckle.

“Well, well, look at that,” a voice whispered. “What a nice surprise. I’m sure we can be very creative with this.” Another chuckle. “It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.”

####

Eva Clemente paced her small kitchen, waiting for the water on the stove to boil so she could make herself a fresh cup of coffee. The grounds were already scooped into the glass carafe of the French press and the tantalizing aroma of freshly ground coffee had filled the air, making Eva impatient for the water to be hot enough.

A long time ago Eva had resigned to the fact that she was addicted to caffeine. But then, she reasoned, there were worse things one could be depending on. The effect of the other things she saw daily always reminded her of the fact that her life could have turned out to be so much different.

With a small frown Eva turned off the stove and picked up the kettle, pouring the steaming water into the waiting glass. She breathed deeply, enjoying the way the warm, coffee- scented air filled her lungs and for a brief moment she smiled, looking forward to sink into her favorite, overstuffed chair, alone in the silence with only her thoughts as company.

“You’re such a loner,” the words her sister had once spoken echoed through her mind and unconsciously Eva shrugged. Leah had not meant it in a bad way, but nonetheless, the words had stung. Leah had married her high school sweetheart and at the age of thirty-three, she had four happy, active children and a husband who still adored her. Leah was the centre of her family and enjoyed every minute of it. And she lived close to her parents.

“That reminds me, I’ve got to call Mom,” Eva muttered to herself as she sank in a big recliner, carefully sipping on her hot coffee. Her eyes traveled to the cell phone on the table and silently she promised herself and her mother she’d call as soon as she would have finished her beverage. In the meantime, Eva’s thoughts already drifted back to the events of the day. Staring into the distance, she visited the small church again, investigated the dead body of a murdered man, dressed in women’s clothes, found the wallet that had been buried in snow and met Sigrid Meyers.

Eva frowned and concentrated on the details her memory was providing her with. She remembered the cold air in the church, the way the body of the victim had slumped to the side and slowly she let her mind wander, curious to see what it would come up with. Sometimes it reminded her of things she had seen and heard, but that had never registered on a conscious level. In her mind’s eye, she studied the clothes the victim had been wearing underneath his thick, down coat. The dress had been black, the fabric soft and shimmering. A dress a woman would wear to a special occasion, like a wedding, a concert or some kind of art exhibition. It certainly wasn’t a regular, going out for dinner kind of dress. The first thing that came to her mind was that the murder victim had been a cross-dresser, but then, Eva knew that the obvious was not always the right answer. Besides, the dress had not exactly been as flamboyant as usually was the case during a cross-dressing show. It was Eva’s habit to approach problems in a rational, logical way, looking at it from all possible angles. Jumping to conclusions wasn’t one of her habits, which had earned her the reputation of being thorough and, even if it took her a while, to get to the bottom of things. It was what had made her a great addition to the police force.

Eva’s eyes narrowed and she sipped her coffee. She had not realized it before, but there had been a small tear on the side of the dress and she made a mental to note to check that in the morning to see if her memory was right. Although there had not appeared to be any signs of a fight in the church, that didn’t mean there couldn’t have been a altercation before the victim, before Michael Allen Bell, she corrected herself soundlessly, was murdered. Shot.

Eva sighed and shook her head. Even though she had witnessed enough results of violent crimes, she would never get used to the idea that there were people who were actually able to inflict that kind of pain and suffering on others. Sometimes, the worst memories, safely tucked away during the day, followed her into the night and invaded her dreams, until she woke up, soaked in sweat, with a heart that was beating wildly. It wasn’t something she talked about with anyone. Not even her family. She refused to transfer the ugly images in her head into the ones of the people she loved. It was something she had been doing for years now and so far she had managed, even though, deep down inside, Eva knew it was a very lonely existence not to be able to share that part of herself with anyone else. It was like living two separate lives.

Eva’s thoughts traveled back to the moment she and Charles had knocked on the door of Michael Allen Bell’s apartment. The building, once painted a soft blue, had showed very clear signs of aging. The paint on the siding was peeling. Some of the doors were severely damaged, as if they had been kicked in and never repaired. The windows on both sides of Michael Allen Bell’s front door were dark and covered in cobwebs. They gave the impression they had not been washed for a very long time. Eva had tried to catch a glimpse of what was inside, but drawn curtains had made that impossible.

The landlord had opened the door for them and had politely stepped aside when they had entered, his voice guiding them to the light switch. Charles had found it and the moment he flipped it, the room had been awash with bright light.

Whatever they had expected, it was not an apartment that was completely devoid of any piece of furniture. With a mixture of surprise and keen interest, Eva had noticed that the only thing in the room was an old carpet that had once been a light grey, but the original color only showed in those places where furniture had been removed.

When Charles Benoit had motioned the landlord to come in, the man had been astounded. He showed so much surprise, that both Eva and Charles decided his response was genuine. Someone had cleared out Michael Allen Bell’s apartment. Completely. And according to the landlord it had been done recently. And in secret.

Eva put her empty coffee cup on the table and stretched her body, enjoying the way she could feel her muscles pull. With both hands she rubbed her cheeks and then buried her fingers in her thick, dark hair.

“So, we have a dead man in a dress. A dress with a tear in it, if I’m correct. An empty apartment. A wallet with a list of names and phone numbers,” she spoke out loud, something she often did when she was alone, because it helped her concentrate better. “One of the names is Sigrid Meyers who claims she did not recognize the victim. She is a pastor. How did her name get on that list?” Eva’s green eyes narrowed and her fingers drummed on the leather armrest of the chair. A thought was surfacing and she slowly nodded. “What if…?” She didn’t finish her sentence. With a small frown she stared into the distance, past the sand-colored wall of her living room. Random thoughts were bubbling up, like water in a well and Eva welcomed the familiar tingle of anticipation, knowing it would give her material to explore.

Too wired to sit still any longer, Eva jumped up and walked to a small desk in the corner of the room. She flipped open and powered up her laptop and quickly punched in some codes and passwords that would give her access to a secured site. Without taking her eyes off the screen, she used her leg to pull up a chair and, while typing, she sat down, fully absorbed in the information that was appearing on the screen.

####

It was still dark outside when Sigrid Meyers stepped out of the shower. The air in the bathroom was warm and damp, but the pastor still shivered when her bare feet touched the floor. Outside, the wind was howling, creating a wind chill of negative twenty degrees Fahrenheit. It made Sigrid grateful for her double-paned windows. She usually didn’t mind the long New England winters, except when the days were cold and windy, because then it was so much harder to stay warm.

“I wish I could stay home in front of the woodstove,” she muttered while she vigorously dried her skin until it was red and glowing. “Maybe I’ll be able to leave early today, come home and take a nap.”

Using a dry corner of her towel, Sigrid wiped the fog off the mirror, grimacing when she noticed the utter disarray of her hair. “Attractive,” she mumbled. “Especially with those nice, dark circles underneath my eyes.”

The night had been very long and devoid of any sleep. Every time Sigrid managed to doze off she woke with a start. No matter what she tried, she could not shake the image of the dead person in the front row of her church. Although in her profession she had seen her share of people who had passed away, this had been the first time she actually had seen the victim of a murder. It had her left thoroughly shaken.

“You’ll have to get over it, girlfriend,” she told the reflection in the mirror. “Maybe today will be a better day. Or not,” she added with a sigh. “Maybe the good inspector will tell me they have figured out who did what and arrested the perpetrator. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Wrapped in a light blue, fluffy towel and shaking her head over her own naiveté, Sigrid darted out of the bathroom, across the cold hallway, into a slightly warmer bedroom. Her house was heated through oil and even though she had the capability of heating every single room in it, Sigrid choose only to use the oil sparingly, because it was expensive and hard to afford on the salary the small church was able to pay her. The woodstove in the living room was able to heat the entire house, but in the morning the fire had usually died down to ashes, or, if she was lucky, a few glowing embers she could use to start another one, which she always did, before leaving the house. Having gone through the nightmare of frozen pipes once had been enough for Sigrid. The stove did a good job of keeping the house warm enough to prevent that from happening again. Besides, after investing a good amount of her paycheck in a brand new, high tech thermostat, Sigrid knew that if the house would become too cold, the heater would kick in.

The pastor quickly pulled on a pair of heavy, black jeans and a white long sleeved t-shirt underneath a powder-blue fleece sweater. On her feet she put a pair of black smart-wool socks, before slipping into warm, fleece slippers. She quickly left the bedroom to throw another piece of wood in the woodstove, smiling when she was met with happily dancing flames.

“I love the woodstove,” she said, giving Minnie, who was stretched out in front of the fire a quick scratch underneath her chin. The cat purred in answer and Sigrid laughed.

“Hedonist,” she accused the feline, who looked at her as if saying: “And your problem with that is what?”

“Yes, I know, I’m jealous,” Sigrid continued her monologue. “I wish I could just lay there with some coffee and a good book. I’m dying to read Nevada Barr’s 13 ½.” Only after the words had left her mouth, Sigrid realized what she had said and involuntarily she shivered.

“That’s wrong somehow,” she muttered. “Wanting to read a murder mystery after what happened.” A cold shiver ran down her spine and involuntarily Sigrid cast a look through one of the large living room windows. The sky was slowly turning into a light grey, signaling the beginning of daybreak. In the light that fell through the double paned glass, Sigrid could see clouds of snow being blown through the air. When the wind was that fierce, the snow was effortlessly lifted up, twirled around and either taken to wherever the invisible force would take it, or dumped in a relatively quiet corner of the porch.

“Nice weather for a walk, Minnie,” Sigrid sighed, deciding to pick up the newspaper when she would leave, later that morning. Even though her driveway wasn’t much longer than fifty, maybe sixty yards, bracing the cold wind and blowing snow was not something Sigrid had in mind. The paper could wait.

Instead, the pastor walked to the kitchen to make herself a fresh cup of coffee and something to eat. Breakfast was her favorite meal of the day and Sigrid was not opposed to getting up a little earlier to enjoy a good cup of coffee and a hearty meal.

This morning though, she didn’t have much of an appetite. The experience of the previous day coupled with the knowledge that, within a few hours a police officer would be paying her a visit, made her stomach feel a little queasy. She had no idea what Eva Clemente wanted from her. The woman had told her she wanted to meet her, but never really explained why.

Leaning against the kitchen counter, Sigrid stared at the open door that led to the living room. Through it she could see the orange glow of the woodstove and the happy cat that was stretched out in front of it. Usually that sight made her smile, but somehow her brain did not register what her eyes were seeing. Her thoughts were focused on the murder that had taken place inside her church and the reason why a police officer wanted to meet with her early in the morning.

Maybe they had found something, Sigrid thought, turning to one of the kitchen cabinets to get her favorite ceramic mug. It was handmade, round and glazed in a sea green color that always reminded Sigrid of her grandmother’s eyes. She poured in the freshly brewed coffee, added some milk and slowly walked back into the living room. Careful not to spill the hot beverage, she sat down on the floor in front of the stove, absorbing its comforting heat, pondering all the things the police could have found or discovered. Sigrid’s thoughts tentatively turned back to the details of the previous day. Eva Clemente had walked her through those memories step-by-step, but that had been different; she had not been alone. The different police officers from the forensic lab had been milling about and Eva had been there also, patiently waiting for Sigrid to relay what she could remember, looking at her with calm, understanding eyes.

Sigrid closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths, trying to relax her body and mind as she often did during yoga training. Aware of the tension in her body, she put down the coffee mug, grabbed a pillow from the couch and stretched out next to Minnie in front of the fire. After wiggling for a few seconds she found a comfortable position and again she started her deep breathing exercises, hoping the warmth of the fire would help her relax. It did. With a small smile Sigrid felt the tension slowly drain out of her shoulders, her lower back and her legs.

“Now,” she mumbled. “Where was I?”

###

Eva Clemente’s hands were gripping the steering wheel so tightly her knuckles were white and the tips of her fingers slowly started to go numb. She tried to wiggle them, but was determined to keep her hands exactly where they were. It wasn’t snowing, but to Eva that was just a matter of meteorological semantics; technically, it wasn’t snowing, but visibility was still very bad, because of the blowing snow, violently picked up and tossed across the roads. Eva didn’t mind winter, although she liked the summer months the best, but driving in icy conditions when the visibility was close to nothing, wasn’t her idea of having fun. Without taking her eyes off the road, she tried to loosen her shoulders that were becoming painfully stiff.

“It should be here somewhere,” Eva muttered to herself, peering through the white, swirling cloud in front of her. “I hope I didn’t miss it.”

All of a sudden a dark form appeared in front of her car and in reaction, Eva slammed the brakes, immediately feeling the tires skid on the slippery surface.

“Shit,” she hissed through clenched teeth, feeling her car slide toward the side of the road. She wasn’t going fast and the worst thing that could happen was getting stuck in a snow bank, but Eva was determined to not let that happen. All her concentration was focused on keeping her car and herself in one piece, so she didn’t have the opportunity to see what it was that had loomed in front of her, in the middle of the road.

Eva could feel her heart pound inside her chest and she let out a shuddering breath when her Subaru Outback gently slid against a snow bank, halting its sideways motion with a soft thud.

“What the…?” Eva leaned forward to get a better look and narrowed her eyes, trying to make sense of the unexpected road block. But there was nothing. Investigating for a living required some level of curiosity and it only took Eva a mere two seconds to unbuckle her seatbelt and open the door, eager to find out what had made her slam the brakes. As soon as she stepped out of the car she could feel the ice cold wind brutally assaulting the unprotected skin of her face.

“Ugh.”

Eva reached inside the car and pulled out a thick, woolen, red and white striped scarf. Her sister had made it for her for her birthday, more as a joke than a serious gift, but Eva loved it and during the winter she always had it in the car with her. Wrapping the fabric around her neck and face until only her eyes were visible, she stepped onto the slippery road, heading to where something had crossed it.

In moments, the back of her jean-clad legs were cold and Eva knew that it would be a poor choice to stay out in the elements longer than necessary. A wind chill of negative 20 could only be braced while wearing proper gear. Peering at the road that was covered in both fresh and old snow and patches of thick, sand-covered ice, Eva’s eyes immediately found the fresh tracks of a snowmobile.

“What an idiot,” she muttered, shaking her head about so much irresponsibility. Had she driven a little faster she could easily have collided with the thing, seriously injuring the driver.

“What were they doing out in this weather anyway?” Eva wondered, walking to the side of the road where the snowmobile had disappeared to. It was hidden from plain view, but when she walked a little closer, Eva saw a narrow track that lead into the woods. It didn’t seem well groomed, but it was easy to see it was used regularly.

Still shaking her head in disbelief over so much stupidity, she quickly walked back to her car, hoping her four-wheel drive wouldn’t have a problem getting back on the road again. It didn’t, although it was slow going and within a few minutes, Eva’s car was continuing its cautious journey through the snow. The inspector knew she would see the turn into Sigrid Meyer’s driveway at any time now, but everything remained covered in white. The snowplows had been out that morning, she could tell by the fresh scraped snow on the side of the road in areas where the wind had not covered it yet with a layer of windblown snow. Still, the pastor’s driveway was still not in sight. When Eva reached a fork in the road she knew she had gone too far. With a sigh of frustration she turned her vehicle around and headed back from where she had come, wondering why she had missed the driveway.

The answer to that question became clear when her eyes fell on a modest sign that was half-covered with snow. ‘…yers.’ it read and to make sure, Eva got out of the car again to clear the sign.

“Meyers,” she nodded, frowning when she turned to look at the driveway, or, at least, that part of the driveway that was visible. Only the stakes on the side of the road were an indication of where the road ended and the woods began. Obviously, Sigrid Meyers’ driveway had not been plowed.

Next to the sign with the name on it was a dark green box for the newspaper. It had not been picked up yet and Eva grabbed the plastic bag with the paper in it, so she could take it up to the house.

“What’s wrong with those people?” Eva muttered, quickly stepping back into her car and closing the door. “Snowmobiling in a blizzard, not plowing their driveways.”

All of a sudden she was struck by a thought and leaning back into the comfort of her heated seat, Eva wondered if the person on the snowmobile had been the woman she was on her way to see. Maybe the pastor was a hard-core snow enthusiast who loved going out in bad weather, just for the thrill of it. Somehow though, that had not been the impression Sigrid Meyers had made on her and Eva shook her head.

“No, I bet that wasn’t her,” she decided, before steering her car onto the unplowed driveway. For the umpteenth time that morning, Eva Clemente was grateful for her four-wheel drive.

###

It was warm and cozy and very, very comfortable, even though something heavy was pressing on her chest. Her body was so relaxed, it almost felt weightless; she was floating through warm air that surrounded her completely and had no intention to leave her little cocoon. But around the edges of her subconscious a persistent and insistent sound had started to intrude the peaceful atmosphere. With a small frown Sigrid stirred, reluctant to open her eyes. Her mind was foggy with sleep and her arms and legs heavy with relaxation. It took a while for her brain to make sense of what she was hearing, but when it finally did, she immediately shot upright, launching the cat that had been asleep on her chest into midair and groggily watching Minnie land on all fours, before the cat shot her a look of utter disgust, turned around and walked off.

“Sorry, Minnie,” Sigrid muttered, scrambling to her feet. “Crud, I must have fallen asleep. How embarrassing is that?”

Again, there was a forceful knock on the door and Sigrid sprung into action.

“I’m coming,” she called out, quickly walking through the living room, raking her fingers through her hair and hoping she didn’t look like something the cat had dragged in.

“I’m sorry,” Sigrid spoke, while opening the door. “I guess I fell asleep again and..,” she paused in mid-sentence and stared passed Eva Clemente. “It’s not plowed,” she said, puzzled.

“I noticed,” was Eva’s dry response.

“How odd,” Sigrid frowned. “Terry is always so punctual. Even when he thinks he might be late he calls.” Sigrid’s eyes took in the snow covered car in front of her house and she grimaced.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I had no idea. Please, come in.”

She stepped aside to let the other woman in and firmly closed the door behind them.

“It looks brutal out there,” she said with a shiver, slowly but surely feeling the heat of the woodstove leave her body and severely regretting that.

“It is,” Eva nodded, handing Sigrid her plastic wrapped newspaper, which she accepted with a grateful smile. “Still, I almost ran into someone on a snowmobile.”

“You did?” Sigrid asked, putting the paper on the kitchen counter and gesturing for Eva to take off her coat, which she then took and neatly hung in the closet. “That sounds irresponsible in this weather.”

“Do you know anyone who lives around here who’d be that irresponsible, or adventurous, depending on how you look at it?”

“No, not really,” Sigrid shook her head. “Besides, everyone in this area knows that the old track is not in use anymore. Nobody could be bothered to maintain it, so they let it go. It’s a little weird someone was on there. Dangerous, too,” she added. “Please, have a seat in the living room. It’s nice and warm in front of the fire. If you don’t mind, I’ll call Terry, my plow guy and see if he’s okay. Would you like some coffee?” Sigrid added, watching how the other woman took a seat in the rocking chair close to the woodstove.

“I’d love some coffee,” Eva answered with a small smile. “Thank you.”

“I’ll be right back,” Sigrid replied.

Eva nodded and watched the blonde woman leave for the kitchen. Curiously she looked around the living room, taking in the two floor-to-ceiling bookcases that were overflowing, the thick cream-colored rug on the hardwood floor, the small flat-screen TV in the corner and the pictures on the wall. Eva’s eyes scanned the backs of some of the books and took in the titles. The collection was eclectic, to say the least. The pastor had books ranging from the history of religion, every kind of religion, really, to cooking, gardening, the joy of keeping chickens, Harry Potter and murder mysteries.

Eva realized she was surprised, which caused her to be slightly annoyed with herself. Just because Sigrid Meyers was a pastor, didn’t mean she wasn’t a regular person, who liked to read all the things other people did also.

In the background, Sigrid’s voice rose in surprise, Eva could tell, but she couldn’t make out the words.

The inspector’s eyes traveled to the bottom of one of the bookcases, where Sigrid Meyers kept her DVD’s. She couldn’t suppress a smile when she discovered some movies she had enjoyed watching with her nieces and nephews.

“The pastor’s into Disney,” she chuckled to herself, relaxing a little more. Until that moment, Eva had not realized she had been a little nervous. Growing up with parents who attended church every week, had left her slightly guilty for not continuing that tradition and she had been a little apprehensive in having to deal with a member of the clergy. But Sigrid Meyer’s collection of books and DVD’s showed her the woman was not all about religion.

Settling into the rocking chair a little more comfortably, Eva stretched her legs out in front of her, enjoying the warmth from the woodstove and stared at one of the pictures on the wall. It was a painting of a rocky coast, with a white lighthouse in the far distance. A female figure was standing on the rocks, shading her eyes with one hand, staring into the distance.

It was a nice painting and Eva leaned forward a little in order to be able to read the signature in the right hand corner. It was tiny and she couldn’t really make out the name.

“My sister painted that one,” a light voice sounded from the kitchen entrance.

A little startled, Eva looked up, seeing Sigrid leaning against the doorpost, her hands stuffed inside the pockets of her jeans. The light behind her in the kitchen, made her hair look a little blonder and with the still present remnants of sleep on her face, she looked very young and vulnerable.

“I like it,” Eva smiled, gesturing at the painting. “My guess is that it was painted somewhere in Maine.”

“Your guess is a good one,” Sigrid nodded. “My sister lived there for a while, just south of Bar Harbor, to be precise.” The expression on her face was a mixture of sadness and pride and Eva knew the painting had a story to it.

With a barely audible sigh Sigrid’s eyes left the painting and focused on the inspector instead.

“How do you take your coffee?” she asked.

“With just a bit of milk,” Eva answered. “Thank you.”

Sigrid send her a small smile, turned and disappeared back into the kitchen, to reappear a few minutes later with two steaming mugs of coffee.

Eva breathed in the scent of freshly brewed coffee and she shot Sigrid a grateful look.

“I’m afraid I’m a coffee addict,” she confessed, carefully taking a sip.

“That makes two of us,” Sigrid chuckled. “It’s one of my many vices.” When she saw the curious interest in the green eyes across from her, she laughed. “Nothing illegal, inspector, I assure you.”

“That’s good to know,” Eva smiled, feeling herself relax even more. Maybe this interview wouldn’t be as nerve wracking as she had imagined.

“So, Inspector Clemente, what can I do for you?” Sigrid asked after a brief silence in which both women sipped their coffee.

“There are a few things I’d like to discuss with you,” Eva started in a soft voice. “This is a very small town and murders don’t happen here very often. In fact, if the records are correct, this is the first one since 1832, when farmer Jones found a travelling salesman in bed with his wife and proceeded to wring his neck. Quite literally,” Eva said dryly, which made Sigrid chuckle.

“I don’t think I can blame farmer Jones,” the blonde spoke, seeing the surprise in the inspector’s eyes. “What?” she asked. “I might be a pastor, but that doesn’t make me inhuman,” Sigrid sighed. “Of course, wringing the salesman’s neck probably wasn’t the best choice, but still, he might have had a bad temper.” She glanced over at Eva who clearly was trying to figure out whether Sigrid was joking or not.

“I’m sure God forgave him,” the blonde continued with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Are you teasing me?” Eva dared to ask after a brief silence and Sigrid laughed softly.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. You look like you can’t make up your mind about me. It’s okay, inspector,” she quickly said when Eva was about to reply. “I do get that reaction a lot, believe me. It’s okay.”

“It’s just that…,” Eva sighed and raked her fingers through her thick, dark hair. “All clergy I’ve ever met were…”

“Old,” Sigrid provided helpfully.

“Well, that too,” Eva nodded. “But they were so…serious and…official.” That last sentence was spoken so carefully Sigrid laughed out loud.

“It’s alright, I’m not laughing at you, inspector. I…”

“Eva, please.”

“Eva,” Sigrid nodded. “I’m not laughing at you. But you have no idea how many people are surprised when they find out what I do for a living. It’s funny, really. Sometimes I think there would be less amazement if I’d tell them I race cars for a living.”

“I think it’s safer to be a pastor,” Eva responded with a smile.

“Until yesterday morning I would have believed that, too,” Sigrid sighed, pushing her hair away from her forehead. “Now I’m not that certain anymore.”

Eva nodded and sipped her coffee, while her eyes took in the woman who was sitting in the recliner opposite from her. The light-blue sweater she was wearing set off the blue in her eyes. To Eva, Sigrid looked very North European, but during her years on the police force she had learned never to assume things. The twinkle had left the pastor’s eyes that were now clouded with worry.

“It must have been a very frightening experience for you to have found a murder victim in your church,” Eva spoke and there was genuine warmth and understanding in her voice. She clearly remembered the first time she had seen a person whose life had been taken by violence. It hadn’t been pretty and the image had haunted her dreams for a long time.

Sigrid nodded and pressed the warm coffee mug against her cheek.

“It was,” she admitted. “It’s…I don’t think it would have made a difference if I’d walked into the…the…victim somewhere else. It would have been just as horrible, but what really gets to me is the fact that I thought he was alive when I came in that morning. I can’t help thinking that, if I’d gone over to him right away, he might not have died.”

“But he would have,” Eva calmly spoke. “He was dead before you entered the church that morning, Sigrid. The medical examiner estimates the time of death to be between midnight and about four in the morning.” She paused for a moment. “The cause of death was a bullet through the head, which would have killed him immediately,” she added softly, noticing Sigrid’s wince. “I apologize if that sounds crude.”

“It’s the truth, though,” Sigrid spoke. “Do you…Have you any idea who he…is…was?”

“Actually, we were able to identify him,” Eva nodded. “That is one of the reasons I wanted to talk with you this morning. Does the name Michael Allen Bell sound familiar?”

Eva’s eyes studied Sigrid and she wasn’t disappointed when the expression on the pastor’s face was one of genuine denial.

“I don’t know anyone by that name,” she answered. “Was that…?”

“That’s the victim,” Eva nodded, leaning back in the rocking chair.

“That doesn’t mean I’d never met him,” Sigrid continued. “I just don’t recognize the name, so I don’t believe he’s a local.”

Eva reached into her pocket and withdrew a copy of the driver’s license picture. Without speaking she handed it to Sigrid, who took it and looked at it for a long time. Again, Eva studied the expressions on the other woman’s face. Sigrid frowned in concentration while focusing on the picture and after a long silence she let out a sigh.

“No, he doesn’t look familiar at all,” she spoke, sounding almost apologetically. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Eva replied, putting the picture back in her pocket and shooting the pastor a quick smile.

“There are a few more names I’d like to run by you, if that’s okay?”

“Sure,” Sigrid nodded.

“Do any of the following names ring a bell?” Eva took a deep breath, her eyes focused on Sigrid’s face. “Devon Brown, Alistair Harvey, Melinda Jacobs and Connor Laughlin.”

Sigrid’s face had turned pale after the first two names, but when Eva had mentioned all four of them, she was as white as a ghost. A nervous tingle made itself known in the pit of Eva’s stomach and all of her senses were on high alert. It was clear the names were familiar and now she had to wait for a reaction. Would Sigrid Meyers tell her the truth?

“Where…how…where did you get those names?” Sigrid finally asked and there was an audible tremble in her voice.

“I’ll tell you in a moment,” Eva promised, not unfriendly. “First I’d like you to answer my question. Does any of these names sound familiar?”

“All of them do,” was the answer. Sigrid took a deep breath and looked Eva square in the eyes. The inspector was surprised to see a shadow of anger in the clear blue.

“Where did you get those names and why are you asking me if they are familiar?”

“They were written on a piece of paper we found in Michael Allen Bell’s wallet,” Eva explained, putting her empty coffee mug on the low table beside her.

“They were?” the look on Sigrid’s face was one of astonishment and Eva saw the anger slowly dissipate, leaving confusion on its wake.

“Yes, they were,” Eva nodded. “Can you tell me who these people are?”

“Were,” Sigrid answered softly.

“Excuse me?”

A pair of pained blue eyes looked up at her and the expression in them made Eva realize her investigation was about to become a little more complicated.

“Were,” Sigrid repeated. “Those four people you just mentioned? They’re all dead.”

Part 3

Eva stared at the hardwood floor, trying to arrange her thoughts into some semblance of order. Whatever reaction she had expected from Sigrid, it wasn’t the one she had received. Her brain was in overdrive; frantically trying to put all the pieces together, only there were so few of them it was impossible to create a clear one. Frustrated she raked her fingers through her hair, trying to still the images that were flashing before her mind’s eye.

“You look like you could use some more coffee,” Sigrid’s voice penetrated the flow of thought that was still swelling in size. “I know I do.”

The pastor stood up and walked to the kitchen and Eva, too wired to sit still, jumped up and followed her. Leaning her hip against the kitchen counter, she watched the blonde turn on the stove top, so she could heat water and fill a two cup French press.

“I’ve got one of those as well,” Eva spoke.

“They make the best coffee,” Sigrid answered in a tired voice.

“They do,” Eva nodded.

Her words, spoken in a soft voice, were followed by a long silence, in which both women were lost in thought. No matter how many images, words and possible scenarios tumbled through Eva’s brain, she constantly kept coming back to one particular one. It was a concerning thought she had not yet shared with the visibly upset pastor.

“Come on, Eve, you’re the law enforcement officer here. Stop postponing the inevitable and take charge,” an angry voice in the back of her mind reminded her.

“You know I need to ask you for specifics,” she started and she saw Sigrid nod. The blonde had her back turned to her so she could keep an eye on the water kettle and the way she was holding her body told Eva the pastor was very tense.

“Alistair and Connor were partners,” Sigrid answered in a pain-filled voice. “They were very good friends of mine.” She took a deep breath and let out a shaky sigh. “I conducted their ceremony when they married,” she continued in a barely audible voice. “Two years ago, in Massachusetts.”

The water had started boiling and Sigrid carefully poured the steaming liquid into the French press. Immediately the comforting scent of coffee filled the air.

“What happened?” Eva asked in a quiet voice.

“A boating accident. They were sailing on Lake Winnipesaukee when they were hit by a speedboat. Alistair drowned and Connor was severely injured. He died a week later.” Sigrid took a deep breath and turned around so she could face the inspector. “A year after I married them I conducted their funerals.”

“I’m sorry,” Eva said, feeling guilty for having to put the pastor through relating her painful memories. And the worst thing was that she had two more names to inquire about.

“Devon Brown I knew through work, she was a Chaplain in a Boston hospital,” Sigrid continued. “She died in a car crash a little over two years ago. Drunk driver,” she added with a sigh. “And Melinda Jacobs was a good friend of mine who died of a massive heart attack. She was born with a weak heart and never expected to live as long as she did,” Sigrid’s face showed a small smile. “She beat a lot of odds during her life.”

Sigrid poured coffee and a little milk in both of the coffee mugs and handed Eva her beverage. A pair of blue eyes looked at her quizzically.

“What I’m wondering is why those names were on a piece of paper in Michael Bell’s wallet,” she said.

“I’m wondering the same thing,” Eva answered slowly.

“And what I’d really like to know is how you connected the names of my friends to me,” Sigrid asked, seeing Eva’s eyes widen in surprise.

Eva did not try to avoid the questioning eyes that were determined to hold hers, eagerly searching for an answer. She had just met Sigrid Meyers and officially she could not erase her from her list of potential suspects yet, but still, the woman deserved an honest answer, especially if she had nothing to do with the murder on Michael Allen Bell.

“There were five names on the list,” Eva answered calmly, seeing the expression on Sigrid’s face change from surprise to curiosity to astonishment.

“And my name is the fifth one on the list?” she asked and mentally Eva applauded the woman’s keen intellect.

“It is,” the inspector admitted, taking a sip of coffee and welcoming the strong taste and rush of caffeine. For some reason, the distress and confusion the other woman was going through was painful to watch.

“What do you think that means? Does that mean my friends were murdered?” Sigrid wanted to know. Her voice was very soft, but controlled and Eva wouldn’t be surprised if she was already anticipating the answer she’d be giving her.

“It could mean different things,” Eva avoided giving a direct answer, studying the pastor’s reactions.

“It could mean you think it’s a hit list and that this Michael Bell killed four of my friends, was going after me, but I killed him first,” Sigrid rushed to say. “At least, that’s what I would think if I were you,” she added, looking miserable.

“That’s only one theory,” Eva drawled.

“I’m sure there are more and if you’re able and willing to share them with me I’d be happy, especially if they don’t involve me as a murderer,” Sigrid muttered, putting down her coffee mug and rubbing her face with both of her hands. “My friends died in accidents. Nobody ever mentioned foul play. What is happening here?”

“I’m not sure, not yet,” Eva answered truthfully. “But as of this morning, the deaths of Devon Brown, Alistair Harvey, Melinda Jacobs and Connor Laughlin are looked into and investigated as possible homicides.”

“You knew who they were and that they were dead before you even asked me about them didn’t you?” Sigrid accused.

“I did and I’m sorry I had to put you through that, but I needed to hear your answers,” Eva replied outwardly calm. “Currently we have more questions than answers.”

“Am I on your list of suspects?” Sigrid asked bluntly.

Involuntarily, Eva smiled at the pastor’s courage and directness and slowly shook her head.

“No, you’re not.”

“Why not?” the blonde challenged.

“Because I think the list was planted in Michael Allen Bell’s wallet. Someone wanted us to find it and put you on the list of suspects.”

Sigrid looked at Eva with horror and she inhaled deeply, clearly needing a few moments to regain her composure.

“This is getting better and better,” she finally grunted, rubbing her temples where she could feel a massive headache brewing. “What makes you think all that?”

“It’s just a theory,” Eva explained. “Although this morning it became a little firmer.” She reached inside her pocket and put on a pair of latex gloves, handing Sigrid another pair to put on. Seeing the confusion on the pastor’s face, Eva sent her a reassuring smile. “I need to take this to the lab and have it fingerprinted, but I’d like you to see this.”

Reaching back into her pocket she withdrew a small envelope. “This was in your mailbox when I took your paper out,” she said, handing the small, white envelope to Sigrid who took it with trembling, gloved fingers.

“S. A. Meyers, sinner,” it read on the front.

“This was in my mailbox?” Sigrid asked in disbelief. “And you have read it?”

“Considering the investigation we’re in, I did,” Eva admitted. “I was pretty sure that the way it’s addressed said something about what’s inside.”

“How bad is it?” Sigrid asked wincing.

“It’s pretty hurtful,” Eva warned.

After taking a deep breath, Sigrid reached inside the envelope and pulled out a folded piece of paper. She carefully opened it and her blue eyes grew wide when they took in the picture she was confronted with.

“That’s me,” she whispered, leaning against the kitchen counter for support. “I was right, someone was there.”

Her eyes were glued to a picture that was taken inside the church, from the front, looking toward the doors, where, in the background, Sigrid could clearly see herself peeking into the sanctuary. In the front was the body of Michael Allen Bell, his eyes staring into nothingness, a trickle of blood on the side of his face. Underneath the picture was a bible quote: ‘Psalms, chapter 104, verse 35: ‘But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more. Praise the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord.’ The note ended with: “Murderer!”

Sigrid’s hands shook when she quickly handed the note back to Eva. She turned around, gripping the edge of the counter with both hands, breathing deeply.

Eva gave her a few moments to collect herself, in the meantime keeping a close eye on the pastor.

“Why?” Sigrid’s voice sounded hoarse and was filled with unshed tears.

“I wish I could answer that question,” Eva replied softly, reaching out a hand to put on the other woman’s shoulder, but halfway there thinking the better of it. Her hand fell helplessly alongside her body.

“Do you have any enemies?”

“Define ‘enemies’,” Sigrid’s voice rasped. “I’m sure there are people out there who don’t agree with me all the time, if ever, but would they do something like this? I can’t think of anyone who would.” She turned around and shot Eva Clemente a tear-filled look. “I’m sure you already figured out what the common demeanor is between the friends on my list and me, besides the fact they were my friends?”

Eva slowly nodded.

“You’re all gay,” she answered calmly.

“Yes,” Sigrid nodded, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, a gesture that made her look so much like a hurt, little girl it went straight through Eva’s heart.

“This note makes me think we should focus on the religious circles you’re in,” Eva said, patting the pocket where she had stored the small envelope.

“The church I work for is open-minded; everyone is welcome, from every walk of life. There are a lot of gay people who are members of my church. It’s hard to believe one of our members would be able to do all this without having projected some of the hate and bigotry before. I’d like to believe I would have noticed that.” Sigrid let out a soft, humorless laugh. “Besides, this is New England, The Episcopal church here in New Hampshire has the very first openly gay bishop.”

“Who had to wear a bullet proof vest during his consecration,” Eva added.

“You’re pretty up-to-date,” Sigrid replied with a sigh.

“I was there,” Eva shrugged. “I was part of the security detail that day.”

Sigrid nodded slowly and stared at the contents of her mug, without really seeing the coffee. The image in her mind was that of Michael Bell’s staring eyes, without expression or light; broken eyes and blood. Involuntarily she shivered and Eva, who noticed looked at the blonde with genuine concern.

“Why don’t we go back into the living room, so you can sit down,” she suggested.

“Don’t worry, I won’t faint,” Sigrid replied, but she did push away from the countertop and walked back toward her recliner in front of the woodstove. When Eva silently took a seat as well, Sigrid shot her a quizzical look.

“What happens now?”

“I’ll call Charles Benoit, since he’s my partner in this investigation and will ask him to join us. I’d like to hear his opinion first and then we’ll come up with a plan. In the meantime I’d like to hear those voice mail messages from yesterday.”

“The messages that weren’t messages,” Sigrid nodded. “I have to admit that, after everything that happened yesterday, it did spook me a little, although I still believe it might have been someone from town who just didn’t want to leave a message.”

“Is that what you believe or what you’d like to believe?” Eva asked in a friendly voice.

“It’s what I’d like to believe,” Sigrid admitted. “Right now I feel like my whole world is upside down and I don’t know what to make of all the things that are going on. I’m even starting to think that someone interfered with plowing my driveway.”

Eva sat a little straighter in her chair and looked at Sigrid with sharp eyes.

“What do you mean?”

“I called Terry to ask him if he was alright, since he never plowed my driveway this morning. He said he’d got a message yesterday that I’d cancelled, because I wasn’t feeling well and didn’t plan on going anywhere. The message said I’d call him when I’d feel better.” Sigrid let out a nervous laugh. “Until a few minutes ago I thought that was just a case of mistaken identity, but now I’m not so sure anymore.”

Eva’s green eyes had turned a few shades darker and unexpectedly she jumped out of the chair and walked toward the picture window that overlooked part of the backyard and the woods behind it. Everything was covered in a layer of snow that was at least three feet deep. It was a beautiful view, but that wasn’t what the inspector was interested in. Her eyes scanned the surface of the snow, searching for anything that seemed out of the ordinary.

“Do you have a lot of wildlife here?” she asked, all of a sudden sounding all business.

“The usual,” Sigrid answered. “Moose, deer, bear and every now and then, when I’m lucky, I catch a glimpse of a bobcat.” Sigrid slowly got up as well and joined Eva by the window. “Rumor is there might even be a mountain lion roaming around. I’ve never seen it, but my neighbor claims he has.”

“What are you looking for?” she asked, deep down inside already knowing the answer and not liking it one bit.

“Tracks,” Eva answered. “Made by humans.”

“Because….?” Sigrid inquired, feeling her heart rate increase and her mouth go dry. “Because someone might be…?” Sigrid didn’t finish her sentence, but when Eva glanced aside it was easy to see the fear in the other woman’s eyes.

“I’m not sure,” Eva tried to reassure her. “But I’d like to find out.” She turned away from the window and pulled a cell phone from her pocket, quickly checking to see how many bars the display showed. Cell service in New Hampshire wasn’t a given and was often very much ‘no service’ depending on the area one was in. It wasn’t unusual for people only to find a signal in part of their house. Eva was glad to see she had full service and she flipped open her phone and quickly dialed Charles Benoit’s number.

“Chuck, hi, it’s me,” she greeted her partner. “Listen, I don’t want to go into details while on the phone, but I’m at Sigrid Meyers’ house and I think you’d better come here.”

###

“Good grief, woman, would you like me to drive?” Grace Anderson, also known as Twitch exclaimed when Meg Jones barely managed to steer her car out of a skid.

“Don’t even think about it,” Betty Avery’s voice sounded from the backseat. “If you get a cramp in your right leg we all end up in the ditch. There’s a reason your doctor told you it’s not a good idea to drive.”

“What do doctors know?” Twitch muttered and Meg let out a nervous chuckle.

“I’m starting to believe checking up on our beloved pastor might not have been such a wonderful idea,” Meg sighed, wondering if her eyes were getting tired from peering through the clouds of snow the wind was blowing up all around them or if she needed to see her optometrist some time soon. “Where the heck is her driveway?”

“I’m sure it’s where it’s always been,” Twitch replied dryly. “The wind might have moved the entrance,” she added jokingly. “I have to say though, Meg, I’m glad you defied your husband and brought this gas guzzling four wheel drive monster. Without it we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we are now.”

“There!” Betty suddenly exclaimed, startling Meg who almost steered her car into a snow bank.

“Betty,” she hissed annoyed, but when she saw where her friend was pointing to she let out a relieved sigh. “There it is. Good eyes, Betty.”

“Is this thing going to make it up to the house?” Twitch wondered aloud.

“You bet,” Meg answered with determination. “Buckle your seatbelts, Ladies and thank you for choosing Meg Jones’ Wild Winter Wonderland Adventure Tours.”

“I hope you’re not expecting a tip,” Twitch sighed, making sure to check her safety belt. A quick look over her shoulder showed her Betty was doing the same thing and she nervously bit her lip. “My granddaughter is going to have my hide when she finds out what we’ve been up to.”

“Isn’t that wonderful?” Betty asked with a grin. “Between the three of us we’ve lived more than two-hundred and ten years and right now we’re acting like teenagers. I love it!” she added with a laugh.

“Do you girls remember that movie, ‘’Fried Green Tomatoes?” Meg wanted to know. “Good,” she continued when, from the corner of her eye she saw Twitch nod. “Here goes: Towanda!” she yelled, steering her car up the driveway and feeling it labor to pull the vehicle through at least five inches of snow.

##

“So, what do we do now?” Sigrid wanted to know after she finished drinking her coffee in silence.

“We’ll wait until Chuck gets here,” Eva answered. “I’m sure I can ask you a lot of questions, but I’d prefer it if you’d only have to answer them once. Chuck and I have the habit of asking a lot of the same questions,” Eva added with a small smile.

“Have you been partners long?” Sigrid wanted to know, appreciating the distraction and the opportunity to get to know a little more about the Inspector who seemed so aloof.

“Five years next month,” Eva answered with a small sigh. “Saying that aloud makes me realize time has just flown by. I…” the Inspector paused, tilting her head in a gesture of intent listening. “It sounds like there’s a car coming up your driveway.”

Sigrid felt her body tense and immediately gave herself a mental scolding. There was no reason to be so jumpy and even if there was, she refused to show fear. Whatever was going on could be resolved quickly. At least, that’s what she hoped for. Deep down inside she knew she was fooling herself though. Just the thought that friends might have fallen victim to an extreme zealot made her stomach churn to the point she was glad she had not eaten breakfast that morning. The cold lump inside of her belly would most likely reject any sort of company.

“Just stay here,” Eva suggested, seeing the expression on the pastor’s face. “I’ll check it out.”

Before Sigrid could protest, Eva had already left the kitchen and was peering through the small window in the door through which she could see part of the driveway. When she saw the car and its occupants she felt her body relax, although her brain immediately started working on the puzzle that was their unexpected presence. At the beginning of her career she would have wondered what harm elderly ladies could do, but more than ten years as a police officer had taught her that idea was a misconception. She had seen her share of damage done by the ‘elderly and frail’.

“It’s the ladies from your church,” Eva called over her shoulder, waiting for the three women to exit the car. It appeared they were in a heated debate and Eva did not want to open the door and let the cold air in longer than necessary.

“Really?” Sigrid’s surprised voice sounded from behind her.

“I take it’s an unplanned visit?”

“Yes, it is actually. I guess they want to make sure I’m alright. What are they doing?” Sigrid asked. She had joined Eva at the door and looked through the window. “Oh, arguing about something,” she sighed, but there was a smile in her voice. “Those three always find something to disagree about. In the meantime they’ve been friends since high school.”

“Their discussions might not be too heated then,” Eva nodded.

“Apparently not,” Sigrid agreed, opening the door when the three friends exited the car. They slowly made their way across the snow covered path. Betty and Grace were walking arm in arm, while Meg walked closely behind them, ready to lend a supporting hand whenever needed.

The body next to her shifted and Sigrid reached out a hand to stop Eva from going outside.

“For some reason they object to being helped,” she explained. “Trust me, I’ve taken my share of scolding for trying to help the ‘little old ladies’. It’s not easy, because I have visions of all three of them slipping and ending up in a heap of broken hips. It hasn’t happened yet and they’ve assured me time and time again that will never be the case, but still, I get a little nervous around them sometimes.”

“No kidding,” Eva muttered, stepping away from the door to let the three friends enter.

“Good morning, sweetie,” Meg Jones greeted Sigrid with warmth, giving her a quick hug and a peck on the cheek. “Your driveway is a horror.”

“But we love the four wheel drive,” Betty piped in with a cheerful laugh. “Without it we would have been stuck somewhere halfway down the driveway. Or in the ditch,” she added with a chuckle.

“Dead and frozen,” Grace nodded with a grin.

“Here, honey, some breakfast for you. After yesterday we thought you deserved a treat and…” Meg who had thrust a bag from the local bakery into Sigrid’s hands fell silent when she noticed Eva Clemente, who had stepped into a darker corner when she had moved away from the door.

“Oh, good morning Inspector,” she said. “I’m sorry, I hadn’t noticed you before. I guess it’s your car then that’s parked behind Sigrid’s.”

“Is that what you ladies were arguing about?” Sigrid smiled.

“Sort of,” Betty answered with a nod. “We were trying to reach a consensus on whether Twitch had seen a moose, a deer or a man. Personally, I…”

“Where?” Eva suddenly interrupted, stepping forward with eyes that were completely focused on Betty Avery and Grace Anderson.

“Well, um…about a couple of hundred yards back toward the road, on the left hand side,” Betty answered, a little taken aback by Eva’s response. “It was a dark shadow and Meg didn’t see it. I only saw it from the corner of my eyes and couldn’t tell what it was.”

“It looked like something that walks on two legs,” Grace huffed. “A genuine biped. And before someone asks, no, it wasn’t a Bigfoot.”

Grace’s words send a chill down Sigrid’s spine and when her eyes met Eva’s she could read the tension in the other woman’s gaze. The Inspector seemed ready to bolt out of the door, but then her body relaxed and Sigrid let out a relieved sigh. For a moment it had seemed Eva Clemente would run outside to investigate Grace’s statement, leaving Sigrid with the three elderly ladies. The pastor was surprised by her own reaction. During all the years she had lived by herself she had never been afraid. Of course her name had never before been found on what looked like a hit-list either. A heavy pressure behind her eyes announced another headache in the making and Sigrid rubbed her forehead.

“Sigrid, honey, let’s close the door and go inside,” Meg Jones suggested, noticing the pastor’s pale skin and the dark circles underneath her eyes. “Have you eaten anything yet today?”

When she shook her head, Sigrid was herded back through her kitchen into the living room.

“Sit down, while I make you a cup of tea and warm up one of those sticky buns we bought. I know it probably makes me sound like your mother, but you need to eat something. So do you,” Meg added, casting a stern glance in Eva’s direction.

Before she could protest, Sigrid was seated on her own couch, near the fire, while Betty and Meg were rummaging around in her kitchen.

“Well, it’s good to see the girls still know how to take control,” Grace muttered while she carefully sank down in one of Sigrid’s dining room chairs. “Excuse me for being so up front, young lady, but you look like you didn’t sleep at all last night.”

“Thanks, Grace,” Sigrid answered with a sigh. “And you’re right, I barely did.”

“Did the Inspector here keep you up?” Grace asked bluntly, ignoring Sigrid’s wide eyes and Eva Clemente’s amused ones.

“I only arrived a little while ago, Mrs. Anderson,” Eva answered politely, skillfully drawing the attention away from Sigrid. “There are still a few things that need to be discussed.”

“Mrs. Anderson was my mother-in-law, bless her heart,” Grace answered with a chuckle. “Please, call me Grace or Twitch. And I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. Having said that, I’d better keep quiet before I say anything else that’s taken the wrong way.”

“Could you tell me what it was you saw a few minutes ago?” Eva asked. “What makes you absolutely sure it was a person you saw?”

“I’ve seen moose, deer and bears all my life. This was a person and God only knows what he, or she is doing out there in the cold. If it’s snowmobiling they’re completely nuts.” Grace took a deep breath before continuing. “Anyway, how do I know it wasn’t an animal? Because I saw glasses and I’ve never seen a bear wear those.”

“What kind of glasses?” Eva asked.

“Probably the ones they wear while skiing, those big, dark ones,” Grace answered. “And this idiot was wearing something like camouflage, because they were almost perfectly blended in with the trees and rocks.”

“Almost perfectly?”

“It would have been perfect had it not been for something red sticking out of a pocket. My guess is a handkerchief, or something. Bears don’t carry those around either,” Grace added with determination.

“As soon as Chuck is here I’ll go look for tracks,” Eva told Sigrid, who shot her a quizzical look.

“What’s going on, Sigrid?” Grace asked with genuine concern in her voice.

“I wish I knew,” the pastor mumbled, running he fingers through her hair. “Inspector Benoit is on his way here also.” Sigrid cast a look at Eva who, almost imperceptibly shook her head. “But I’m sure Inspector Clemente wouldn’t appreciate me discussing what we talked about this morning”

“Secrets, secrets,” Betty muttered as she walked into the room, but there was a smile on her face when she handed Sigrid a plate with a pecan-cinnamon roll. “Eat this. Your tea is in the making. So is yours, Inspector,” she added, handing Eva a plate with the same kind of treat. The Inspector mumbled her thanks while she, all of a sudden realized she was hungry. The sweet smell of cinnamon and nuts made her mouth water. Not able to resist, she took a bite and hummed in delight when an explosion of sweetness hit her palate.

“Oh, this is good, thank you,” she said, sending Betty a smile.

“And there’s more, if you’re interested,” the elderly lady responded. “You kids can easily eat a lot of that stuff without packing on the pounds,” she added with a sigh of regret, patting her plump hips.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Sigrid responded from the couch.

“Me neither,” Eva commented. “It’s not like I’m still twenty.”

“Then, how old are you, dear?” Betty asked with a wink.

“Oh, very smart, Betty,” Sigrid chuckled, glancing at Eva who had just taken a healthy bite out of her bun and was not able to comment. “Beware of those three ladies, Insp…Eva,” she warned. “They have a way of gathering information that would make Sherlock Holmes look like an amateur.”

“You should know,” Meg Jones commented, carrying in a tray with mugs of steaming tea. “You’ve been the victim of our inquiries on more than one occasion.”

“At least they were painless,” Grace replied. “It’s not like we’re members of the Spanish inquisition.”

“We’re more subtle than that,” Betty spoke with a chuckle.

“That’s what’s so scary,” Sigrid mumbled, aware of Eva’s smothered chuckle. She smiled, realizing it was nice to see the aloof Inspector actually possessed a sense of humor. During their first encounter Eva Clemente had been all business, something that had made Sigrid a little nervous at times. Even though she herself knew she was not in any way, shape or form involved in the death of the stranger in her church, it had been somewhat nerve wrecking to feel the need to prove that fact.

“I hear a car,” Betty spoke, looking at the police woman who immediately sprung to her feet and walked toward the kitchen.

“That must be Charles,” Eva commented, letting out a sigh of relief when she recognized her partner’s car. She would never admit it, but the presence of the three elderly ladies had made her a little uncomfortable. Their zest for life and adventure was charming, but their curiosity was unnerving, especially because they seemed to possess the capability of making her feel like she was made of glass: transparent and fragile.

“Stay put. And don’t open the door, unless it’s for Chuck or me,” she ordered, putting her plate with the half-eating sticky bun on the table. She hurried through the kitchen, grabbed her coat and within a few seconds she was outside, leaving the other four women behind in a cloud of silence.

Sigrid was very aware of three pairs of eyes that looked at her with different levels of curiosity and she smiled weakly.

###

One look at Eva Clemente’s face told Charles Benoit enough. His partner’s eyes were a few shades darker than usual and there was a subtle tension in her face. He could tell by the way she clenched her jaws her stress level had been raised a few notches since the last time he had seen her.

“Do we need reinforcements?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” she answered, heading down the driveway. “I’ll make up my mind if someone starts shooting at us,” she joked, hearing Charles snort next to her.

“What are we looking for?”

“Someone who was standing a little off the road, wearing camouflage and ski glasses.”

“How long ago?” Charles wanted to know.

“About fifteen, maybe twenty minutes,” Eva answered while her eyes scanned the trees that lined the driveway.

“That sounds pretty suspicious,” Charles admitted, reaching underneath his coat to unclip his sidearm, having seen Eva doing the same thing.

“It is,” Eva nodded. “Especially since I almost ran into a snowmobile on my way up here. It crossed the road where, according to the pastor, there should be no trail.”

“Same person?”

“I wish I knew,” Eva sighed, feeling how the icy cold wind was doing a good job of turning her lips numb. “I only saw him, or her, for a split second when they crossed the road right in front of me. It made me end up against a snow bank.”

Halfway down the driveway, Eva slowed her pace and her eyes scanned the right side of the road, looking for anything out of the ordinary. The road was lined with snow banks, pushed up by the plow during the long winter. The bottom of the bank was chunky and hard because of the ice, but the top was soft, thanks to the layer of fresh snow that had fallen. Nowhere on the right side of the driveway could she see footsteps or any other disturbance. The wind was still blowing fiercely and the sound of bare branches slamming against each other and neighboring tree trunks added to her feeling of discomfort.

“Nothing?” Charles asked after a long silence, his voice muffled by the thick, woolen scarf he was wearing.

“There,” Eva pointed with a gloved hand.

Without hesitation she stepped over the low wall of snow and ice, followed by Charles, who was very careful not to slip and fall. When Eva stepped aside he saw what she had found. A small area underneath a big red maple tree was trampled and it was obvious someone had been standing there. A track leading away from the tree was carefully wiped clean with what seemed an object with a flat surface. All footprints had been wiped out.

Silently, Eva pulled a small digital camera out of her pocket. She had to take off her gloves to use it and she winced when the cold metal hit the bare skin of her hands. She quickly made a few images and shot her partner a look that was a mixture of worry and irritation.

“It seems like someone has something to hide,” she finally spoke, her voice low and almost inaudible, drowned out by the wind that was pounding them with what felt like icy blows. Eva’s fingers were already stiff and she quickly slid the camera back in her pocket, glad to be able to put her gloves back on.

“I guess you’re right,” Charles nodded, turning his cold face away from the freezing air. “Who else would go through the trouble of erasing his trail?”

“I don’t know,” was the police woman’s answer. “But I’m sure as hell going to find out.”

###

“Tell us, honey, what’s going on?” Betty Avery asked Sigrid as soon as Eva Clemente had securely closed the door behind herself.

“Yes, Sigrid, all of this is making me nervous,” Grace added with a sigh. “What are you involved in?”

Sigrid raked her fingers through her hair, casting a look out the window that overlooked the land behind her house. The familiar view had not changed, but it felt different to her anyway. What if Eva’s concerns were justified? The idea that someone could have been watching her from underneath the cover of trees wasn’t something she had ever considered possible. But now she wasn’t so sure anymore and that insecurity was feeling like a chunk of ice in the pit of her stomach.

“Sigrid?” Grace repeated.

“Oh, sorry,” the pastor mumbled, slowly turning away from the window.

“Something strange is going on,” Meg decided. “I saw the look that police woman gave you and I understand she doesn’t want you to talk about it, but we are your friends and would do anything we can to help you.”

“I understand that, Meg,” Sigrid managed a small smile. “But I need to honor her request. I’ll ask her when she comes back in if there’s anything I can share with the three of you.”

“That’s okay, sweetie,” Betty chimed in, sending Meg a warning look. “It’s obvious the Inspector is worried about something and we should know better than to pressure you into telling us what’s going on.” Betty raised a hand in a gesture to silence Meg, who was about to speak again. “We can get the scoop later, Meg.”

Sigrid was aware of Grace’s frown and Meg’s scowl, but to their credit the other women listened to Betty and the inquiries Sigrid had expected did not come.

“Maybe it’s better if we’d leave,” Grace suggested with some hesitance.

“Let’s wait until those two investigators are back,” Meg answered. “I’d hate to run over them on my way down.”

“Wait until Terry has plowed,” Sigrid sighed. “He should be here soon.”

“I meant to ask you,” Betty turned to Sigrid and looked at her with a worried frown. “Why wasn’t your driveway plowed? Is Terry alright?”

“Yes, he is,” Sigrid answered with a small smile she hoped was reassuring. “It was a mix up. He thought I canceled him.”

“He did?” Grace softy snorted. “I’ve always wondered about that boy, but then there was no better snow plower than his grandfather. I guess it’s hard to live up to that standard.”

“I hardly think it’s Terry’s fault,” Sigrid defended the young man. “He has always done a great job.”

“Unless…’” Betty suddenly sat straight up in her chair and looked at her friends with barely hidden excitement. “Maybe it was a set-up.”

“What on earth are you talking about, woman?” Grace frowned. “I say, Betty, you’re watching way too many police movies. The most excitement this little town has ever had was when Doctor Swann was kicked by Davy Bentsen’s horse just after he delivered Davy’s son. And that’s more than forty years ago.”

“Actually, in 1832 farmer Jones killed a traveling salesman for sleeping with his wife,” Sigrid corrected with a small smile.

Grace who was an authority on local history stared at the pastor with a mixture of admiration and annoyance.

“You’re right,” she said after a brief silence. “How could I have forgotten that incident? I must be getting old. How did you know that?” she asked Sigrid with a sigh.

“Eva told me,” the younger woman confessed. “I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

“Is she a history buff?” Grace asked eagerly.

“Oh, no, look what you’ve done,” Meg Jones groaned, rolling her eyes at her friend’s enthusiasm. “Now we won’t be able to shut her up anymore. Once Grace starts about the history of this area, it’ll be night before she’s done.”

“I think it’s cute the two of you are on a first name basis,” Betty said unexpectedly, effectively steering the conversation away from history. Grace looked at her with open mouth and Meg started laughing. Betty shrugged her shoulders and sent Sigrid a wink.

“Let’s not go there lest we embarrass our dear friend here,” Meg laughed, reaching out a hand and giving Sigrid’s knee a friendly pat. “So, tell us, is there any information you can share? For example, are you safe here, in your own house?”

“Why shouldn’t I be?” Sigrid answered, avoiding the older woman’s eyes.

“That’s a good question,” Meg nodded with a sigh. “I’m curious to hear the answer to that.”

“Maybe we should ask the Inspectors about that,” Betty suggested, shooting Sigrid a worried look. “You can stay with me, sweetie,” she immediately added.”There’s no reason for you to be all alone here in the woods. I’d be scared, too.”

Sigrid was about to deny she was afraid, but before the words could actually be formed into sound they died on her lips. If she was honest with herself, she had to admit the fear that had settled in the pit of her stomach was still there. No matter how hard she tried to ignore it, the nagging feeling was very present. Eva Clemente had stayed calm and collected, but Sigrid had seen the occasional frown while they talked and the fact that the police woman had found it necessary to call her partner, told Sigrid more than she really wanted to know.

“You might want to rethink getting a gun,” Twitch helpfully provided, which earned her a glare from her friends.

“No, no guns,” Sigrid shook her head and her voice sounded determined.

Part 4

“What do you think, Chuck?” Eva asked, trying to ignore the cold that was slowly, but surely creeping through the layers of clothing she was wearing. With longing she thought about the fire in the woodstove. It would only take her a few minutes to walk back to Sigrid Meyers’ house, where it was nice and warm. But she and Chuck had decided to follow the trail they had found just off the driveway leading to the pastor’s house.

“It’s obvious someone went through quite a bit of trouble to prevent us from following their actual footsteps. Of course, this attempt to wipe the trail is suspicious enough.”

“I doubt we’ll find anything useable though,” Eva muttered, glancing aside at her partner and wishing she would have had the presence of mind to wear a thick woolen hat that was lined with fleece. Of course she’d first had to own one. Charles Benoit’s wife had made him the hat and no matter how often his co-workers teased him, he was the one laughing, because he stayed nice and warm.

“Do you know where this trail leads to?” Charles Benoit asked, narrowing his eyes against the cold wind.

“I have no idea,” Eva shrugged, trying not to shiver. “We can ask the pastor. I bet she’d know.”

“Do you want to go back?”

“I’d love to,” Eva sighed. “I plan on following this trail, but I need to change into some warmer gear first. Frostbite is not high on my list of things I’d like to experience.”

Charles, who knew Eva had a bag of winter gear in her car nodded in approval.

“Are you going to get your long-johns on?” he teased.

“You bet,” Eva nodded with a grin, looking forward to slipping into her smart wool long underwear and undershirt.

“Good thing I’m already geared up like that,” Charles grinned, following the younger woman back toward the house. “While you get changed in a cold bathroom, I’ll warm up in front of the fire.”

To Eva’s delight the bathroom she used to change her clothes was not as cold as she had feared it would be. She quickly shed the clothes she was wearing to put on the protective, warm layers that would, hopefully, keep her from freezing. Fleece-lined pants followed suit and after she slid on two pairs of socks and a lightweight, insulating jacket that would be covered by her winter coat she felt ready to go back outside and brace the elements.

“It’ll be spring, eventually,” Eva mumbled when leaving the bathroom.

“Although sometimes that seems like a dream,” she heard a soft voice behind her and quickly the police woman turned around.

“I’m sorry if I startled you,” Sigrid apologized with a weary smile. “I thought you might like something warm to drink before you head out into that arctic blast again,” she explained, holding up a cup of steaming coffee.

“Oh, you’re a lifesaver,” Eva smiled, gingerly taking the cup out of the other woman’s hands, careful not to spill any of the hot liquid. “This is just what the doctor ordered.”

While taking a sip of coffee she noticed the pensive look on Sigrid’s face.

“You look like you’re about to ask me something,” she stated softly.

Managing a smile, Sigrid nodded.

“What do you expect to find at the end of the trail?”

Eva did not immediately answer. She leaned against the wall, cradling the warm cup of coffee in her hands.

“I don’t expect to find anything,” she answered after a few moments of silence. “But I hope I’ll come across some clues, something…anything that helps me make sense of something that completely eludes me right now.”

“That’s pretty cryptic,” Sigrid replied drily, which made Eva chuckle.

“I realize that and I’m sorry. It’s hard to put into words what my intuition is trying to tell me. It’s a…feeling, or a hunch.”

Sigrid nodded in understanding and with a sigh she raked her fingers through her hair. She looked tired and worried and Eva realized she wished she could wipe the sorrow off the pastor’s face, if only to see a sparkle in her eyes.

“If I could tell you more, I would,” Eva added.

“Thank you,” Sigrid sighed. “For some strange reason I wish I could come along. Anything is better than to sit around and wondering why someone would hide around my house, or hurt my friends or me. I can’t make any sense of it.” There was a quiver in her voice and Eva felt for the woman.

“I don’t think it would be wise to come along,” she started slowly, deliberately choosing her words. “I don’t know who or what Chuck and I will run into and…”

“You don’t want me in the way,” Sigrid interrupted. “Don’t worry, I understand. It’s just that I am so frustrated about this.”

“Are your friends staying for a while?” Eva asked.

“Terry just arrived to plow the driveway, so I guess they’ll be leaving soon,” Sigrid answered. “But that’s okay. I have a lot of things to think about and am not very good company right now.”

“I could call in someone from the local police department to stay with you,” Eva offered.

“That’s not necessary, thank you,” Sigrid responded politely. “You and Inspector Benoit are roaming around my property, so I hardly think someone would stick around for the two of you to ask them a lot of hard questions.” Sigrid opened a door and motioned Eva to follow her, which she silently did. They had entered a small office and the first thing Eva noticed were the bookshelves that lined two of the three walls. The fourth one was mostly window, overlooking the driveway.

“More books,” she smiled with appreciation.

“Oh, yeah,” Sigrid nodded. “I have books everywhere. It makes moving a lot of fun,” she added, making a face. “Here, I just remembered I have a map with all the trails around the house and in the area. It might be helpful.” She handed the Inspector a neatly folded map and Eva sent her a warm smile.

“Excellent,” she said unfolding the paper and looking at the map. “This is great. Thank you, Sigrid.”

Sigrid leaned in closer and pointed at an area at the map.

“If I was trying to get away from someone around here, I’d head this way,” she said, gently tapping the surface. “There’s a brook there that is very rocky. Even in frozen conditions, hopping from rock to rock will make it possible to follow the brook to where it meets the road. There’s a small bridge and an intersection of two roads. Across from the bridge, here,” Sigrid tapped another part of the map. “is a popular trail for snowmobiles.”

Eva studied the map quietly and slowly nodded.

“This is very helpful, thank you, Sigrid.”

“You’re welcome,” the pastor answered softly, taking a step back. “Beware of the deep snowdrifts. If you stick to the right side of the stone wall, you’ll be okay. There are steep slopes on the other side and the snow will hide those, so it could get a little treacherous. Be careful.”

“I will, thank you,” Eva smiled. “Don’t open the door for anyone and if anything happens, anything at all, which includes strange phone calls, call me.”

“This is rural New Hampshire , Eva. The cell service is pretty patchy,” Sigrid smiled.

“Then call the police department here in town,” Eva decided. “Please,” she added after a brief silence.

“I will,” Sigrid promised, hoping she looked braver than she felt. The thought of the two police inspectors leaving, no doubt followed by her friends made her want to close the curtains in the living room, so she could shut out the world and feel safe.

Sigrid felt Eva’s eyes on her and for a very brief moment she looked up.

“I promise” she emphasized, before letting out a sigh.

“If I’d ask your friends to stay, I know they would,” Eva added, feeling uncharacteristically tense.

“Absolutely, but there’s no need,” Sigrid decided. “I can take care of myself and will be okay. I live in the woods and have never been afraid before. I refuse to start now”

“Chuck and I will be back as soon as we can,” Eva promised, tucking the map in one of the pockets of her jacket. She sent Sigrid a smile and followed the pastor back to the kitchen.

###

Soon after Charles Benoit and Eva Clemente had left, the lady volunteers followed, although reluctantly. Meg had promised her husband to be home in time, so he could use the four wheel drive to get to his doctor’s appointment.

“Men,” Meg fussed, while getting into her coat. “It’s not like he has to drive through the woods or anything. The hospital is right down the road.”

“Yeah, ten miles down the road” Betty chuckled. She gave Sigrid a quick hug.

“You can always stay with me, honey. You know that, don’t you?”

“I do and I won’t forget,” Sigrid promised. “But I’ll be fine.”

“You don’t look it,” Twitch mumbled.

“I just need some sleep,” Sigrid sighed, rubbing her dry and itchy eyes. “I’ll take a nap and tonight I’ll go to bed early. How’s that?”

“Sound good to me,” Betty nodded. “I’ll call you later, just to check up on you, honey.”

“That’s fine, Betty, thank you,” Sigrid answered. Part of her was not looking forward to being alone, while another part longed for the quiet and solitude that she knew would bring her peace.

She waved her friends goodbye and as soon as their car disappeared around a bend in the driveway, Sigrid closed the door, making sure to lock it. Leaning her head against the cold glass of the window she became acutely beware of a pounding headache.

“As if I needed that,” she muttered, walking to the bathroom where she kept Tylenol and Advil. “If I could only sleep a few hours, my head would be clearer and I’m sure I’d feel a lot better,” she told her reflection in the mirror. She quickly swallowed a couple of Advil and let her thoughts stray. She wondered if Eva Clemente and her partner had found any clues yet. Even though the idea that, for some reason, somebody was out to hurt her was very disturbing, Sigrid forced herself to consider the possibility. What if Eva was right? And if she was, who wanted to hurt her? As far as Sigrid knew she did not have any enemies or no scorned lovers from the past. There was no one in her church she could think of. It was a small, very liberal church and Sigrid knew she wasn’t its only gay member.

Slowly walking back to the living room, Sigrid tried to think of any unpleasant discussions she had ever had, but she couldn’t think of any. From the moment she had moved to the small, New Hampshire town she had felt welcomed and accepted as she was. Even the non-members did not seem to have a problem with her.

“I don’t get it,” she muttered, sinking into a chair that faced the window. Her eyes traveled to tree line, searching for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. Eva had not seen any tracks or footsteps and Sigrid was relieved the snow still formed a pristine blanket and its only disturbances were the wave-like shapes that were created by the wind. “I just don’t get it.”

###

“I don’t know how you are doing, youngster, but certain parts of my body feel like they’re flirting with frostbite,” Chuck Benoit muttered, glancing at Eva Clemente, who was carefully searching the icy surface of the road they were standing on. She and Chuck had followed the destroyed tracks until they reached the road, where ice and packed snow littered with tire and snowmobile tracks made it impossible to follow the only lead they had.

“He, or she, must have parked here somewhere,” Eva finally answered her partner. “And right now they’re laughing. Hard,” she added with a grim expression on her face. “Because we look like a bunch of idiots.”

“Hey! Speak for yourself,” Chuck answered. It was meant as a joke, but his face was so cold he could hardly pronounce the words so they were audible.

“I don’t like it when the bad guys make fun of me, Chuck,” Eva sighed, casting a look at her older partner. In spite of his warm clothes and comfortable, knitted hat he looked very cold and Eva mentally slapped herself. Chuck was close to retirement and not as young and fit as he used to be or as she was. Sometimes she forgot that and Chuck would not remind her. He’d rather freeze to death.

“Let’s go back,” she suggested. “I’m starting to get cold. I swear, this wind could blow straight through rocks.”

“Oh, that makes me feel better,” was the muttered answer and Eva smiled, deciding she would take her partner out to lunch at a local place she knew. They had a woodstove that she knew was burning hot. It was something to look forward to. Sometimes, the only thing that made it bearable to be out in the cold was the promise of getting warm again in front of a fire.

“Wouldn’t it be better to follow the road?” Chuck asked when Eva started back on the trail they had just left. “Or do you think you might pick up a clue or two we missed on the way down?”

Eva grinned and shrugged her shoulders.

“You know me, Chuck. I’m an optimist.”

“So am I,” he answered. “But one with a lot of experience, so, if you don’t mind, I’ll follow the road. I bet it’s a lot quicker.”

“Do you want to race?” Eva chuckled.

“Against you? Never,” Chuck smiled. “But I’ll meet you at the pastor’s place in about twenty minutes. I’ll see if I can pick up some leads alongside this road.”

“Be careful,” Eva couldn’t help but saying.

“Of course,” Chuck promised. “I’ll be retiring in a few months and you know I hate missing parties.”

Eva waved at her partner and headed back to the tracks that would lead her back through the forest, to Sigrid Meyer’s house. Although she and Chuck had found nothing that even remotely resembled a clue, she still had a nagging feeling in the back of her mind that told her she missed something. A track back up the hill toward the house would tell her if that feeling was right.

###

Sigrid had just put another log into the woodstove and wondered if she would be able to take a nap. Her anxiety level was still very high, she could tell by the tell-tale sign of her heart rate that seemed to be a lot faster than usual, which the amounts of caffeine she had consumed did not help. She was tempted to call her mother, for the simple reason that talking to her always made her feel better, but she was afraid her mother would become so worried, she would take the first flight north. Ann Marie Meyers could easily read her daughter, even through the phone.

“Forget that,” Sigrid muttered. “But I’d better send her an email, before she wonders why she hasn’t heard from me in days.” She suppressed a yawn and reluctantly headed toward the hallway and the small office at the front of the house. She was very conscious of the fact that, as soon as she turned her back to the windows in the living room, she felt like she was being watched. A shiver ran down her spine and Sigrid took a deep breath, ignoring the urge to run out of the room. As soon as she entered the hallway the feeling dissipated, but her heart was still beating wildly.

“I’m going insane, Minnie,” she said to the cat who had followed her out of the room. A sorrowful meow was the answer.

After she sank down in her office chair, Sigrid turned on her computer and waited for it to boot up, something that usually did not take long, since her parents had given her a state-of-the-art laptop that was very fast. Their ulterior motive had been regular updates from their daughter, which Sigrid was well aware of. Her parents had not liked the idea of their daughter moving to New Hampshire . They tried to visit her at least every three months and regularly sent her a ticket to come and visit them at home, in Florida . Those gifts were always welcome to Sigrid, especially during the long winter months.

“Oh, look, Minnie, I’m popular today,” Sigrid said when her inbox popped up. There were three messages from her mother, one from her brother and two from her sister. The first message she clicked on was the one from Erick, her brother. She laughed when she read his message about their mother trying to convince him to come home for the summer. Erick was the youngest of the three Meyers children and was in graduate school in California . He loved his family, but had a very busy life and not always time to visit his parents when his mother wanted him to, which ideally was every month, as he complained to Sigrid.

“Been there, done that, brother,” she chuckled, moving to her sister’s message.

Kirsten was three years older than Sigrid and lived in Florida , close to her parents, which was a good thing, because she was married and the mother of a one year old. She had once told her sister her parents would never have forgiven her had she moved out of state with their grandchild.

Sigrid’s eyes scanned the email and she smiled while reading about her little nephew, but when she started reading the next topic, she frowned.

“A package delivered at your house, addressed to me?” she wondered, immediately feeling a nervous ball settle in the pit of her stomach. After everything that had happened during the last day, a message like that made her nervous. That feeling grew stronger when her mother’s email also mentioned the fact that a package had come in the mail, but, just like he sister Kirsten had done, Ann Marie Meyers had re-addressed it and send it to New Hampshire .

“It will be there tomorrow or the day after,” she wrote.

“That could be today and I’m not sure if I’m looking forward to that,” Sigrid muttered, nervously rubbing the bridge of her nose. She hit ‘reply’ and started typing a message back to her mother, knowing from experience that if she would not answer her soon, Ann Marie Meyers would surely call within the next few hours.

“And no matter how much I love you, mom, I’m looking forward to a nice, long nap,” Sigrid mumbled after hitting the ‘send’ button.

She was just about to answer her sister’s email as well, when a muffled sound reached her ears. Sigrid frowned and unconsciously tilted her head, listening intently. The sound had reminded her of something heavy falling in the snow and with lightning speed her brain went through all the possibilities. She came up empty-handed, making a concerted effort not to think about any of the scenarios that would increase her heart rate even more.

Sigrid thought about the cell phone in her pocket, knowing she would not be able to use it, since the only place in the house she could get a strong enough signal was the kitchen. Her eyes traveled to the cordless phone on her desk and she remembered her promise to Eva Clemente; if anything would happen, she would either call Eva, or the local police department. Sigrid hesitated, not eager to make a fool of herself, but then she heard the sound again and she quickly reached out to grab the phone.

###

Eva plowed back through the snow that, at times, almost reached her hips. Those were the drifts Sigrid had warned her about, treacherous and hard to get through. Eva knew it would make more sense to try and go around them, but for the last few minutes she had felt an urgency to get back to Sigrid Meyer’s house as fast as she could. She had pulled out her cell phone, wanting to give the other woman a call, but there had been no signal. The only thing left to do was move faster, which she was trying hard to do.

“I hope you’re right and took the shorter route, Chuck,” she muttered through clenched teeth, desperately trying to hold her balance when her foot slid of a rock, hit the invisible root of a tree and went down a hole. “Damn,” she cursed, feeling a hot stab of pain in her ankle. Eva felt herself sink deeper in the snow and she quickly reached out to grab a low hanging branch of a nearby tree. While hanging on to the tree she was able to regain her balance and she slowly pulled her, now throbbing ankle out of the hole, experimentally moving it in different directions to see how it would hold up. No matter what direction she moved into, it hurt and she knew she had, at least, sprained her ankle.

“Good job, Clemente,” she scolded, wincing when another hot stab of pain shot through her foot. The hurt ankle would slow her down but Eva was not going to give up. With gritted teeth she loosened the shoelaces of her boot, grabbed a handful of snow and stuffed it inside. The cold substance would keep the swelling down and hopefully numb her sore ankle enough for her to make it back to the house.

With determination and anger written all over her face, Eva continued her uphill walk, leaning against tree trunks and large granite boulders for support. The pain in her foot had done nothing to suppress the uneasiness she felt inside and the rush of adrenaline the feeling brought with it enabled her to quicken her pace, even though she knew that later that day she would sincerely regret that.

###

Sigrid sat quietly inside the closet in the office, something the police dispatcher had told her to do and her heart was beating so fast and so loud, it drowned out any other noise in the house. While she had been on the phone with the local police department, she had heard the sound of breaking glass and when she had mentioned that, the dispatcher, a young woman Sigrid new from Church, had ordered her to go into hiding.

“Are you still there?” she heard a voice close to her ear.

“Yes, not going anywhere,” Sigrid breathed.

“Hang in there, they’ll be there in a few minutes,” the dispatcher said, both to her own comfort and that of the pastor. “You don’t happen to have a gun, do you?”

Sigrid almost burst out in a nervous giggle and pressed her hand to her mouth.

“No,” she whispered. “I don’t like guns.”

“Anything else you’d be able to use as a weapon. You know, just in case,” the voice hesitated.

“If you’re trying to make me feel better, I’ve got to tell you it’s not working,” Sigrid muttered. “There’s nothing in this closet I can use as a weapon, unless there’s something I can do with a fleece blanket and mittens I don’t know about.”

There was a brief silence and the voice said: “What kind of mittens?”

In spite of the situation, Sigrid almost burst out laughing. The conversation with the dispatcher was just too outrageous. Just when she was about to make a reply, she heard a soft rustling sound that seemed to come from only a few feet away. Afraid to breathe, Sigrid pressed against the back of the closet, trying to blend in with the wall, acutely aware of her pounding heart and the need to take a deep, cleansing breath, something she was afraid to do. Suddenly a loud voice almost made her jump and as far as Sigrid could tell, it was coming from the driveway.

“Stay where you are,” the voice boomed and unconsciously Sigrid dove even deeper into the corner of the closet.

There was a brief silence and then the thud of heavy footsteps running through her house, followed by the crashing noise of breaking wood and glass. Sigrid thought it was coming from the living room and she held her breath, waiting for what would come next.

“Goodgodsonofagun,” the deep voice boomed and to her intense relief Sigrid recognized it as Charles Benoit’s. Her ears also picked up the sound of police sirens rapidly approaching and with a sigh of relief she pressed the phone closer to her ear.

“I think they’re here,” she croaked, feeling completely out of breath.

“They are,” the voice answered. “Stay where you are though, until they actually come in to get you. I’ve told them where you are. Just hang on a few more minutes.”

“I will,” Sigrid replied, moistening her dry lips. Her heart was still pounding in her chest, her hands were clammy and her mouth felt parched. The voice of Charles Benoit though had soothed some of her nerves and Sigrid started longing for her escape out of the closet, it was pretty cramped and after a while the lack of space had become almost suffocating.

“Sigrid?” Charles Benoit’s voice sounded like he was just on the other side of the wall, in the hallway behind her. “Pastor Meyers?”

“Sigrid will do, Inspector, please,” Sigrid answered, opening the door of the closet. She took a deep breath and stepped into the small office, freezing in horror when her eyes fell on an object in the middle of the floor.

###

The moment Eva Clemente staggered out of the forest, into Sigrid Meyers’ driveway she was almost tackled by a tall, burly police officer.

“Hold on, Jack,” a voice called from the front door. “That’s Inspector Clemente.” Peter Elders turned away from the door and frowned when he saw Eva limp. “Help her up the stairs, Jack, please,” he spoke, half expecting her to decline the gesture, but to his surprise she simply nodded her thanks and grabbed the police officer’s arm.

“Did she call you?” Eva called out, aware of the nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“What happened?” Peter Elders asked.

“Ploughed through a snow drift and slipped off a rock,” Eva grimaced. “Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. What happened?”

“You’re lucky,” the burly officer spoke. “You could have easily broken your leg.”

“I guess that’s true,” Eva muttered, impatient to find out what was going on. “What happened?”

“The pastor called us because someone was breaking into her house.”

“Was there?” Eva asked sharply. “Is she alright?”

“She’s a little shaken up, which is understandable, but she’s in one piece,” Peter Elders answered, grabbing Eva’s arm to help her up the last two steps.

“Someone broke into her house?” Eva asked, forgetting the pain in her ankle, until she accidently put her weight on it. “Ouch! Damn,” she hissed between clenched teeth.

“You might want to get that looked at,” Peter remarked, supporting Eva until she had regained her balance. “And what happened to your face?” he asked eyeing an angry scratch just above Eva’s right eyebrow.

“Later. I need to speak to Chuck first. He is here, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he beat us to it, almost ran into the guy.”

“Almost?”

“The guy jumped through the backdoor, glass and all and disappeared. Had a snowmobile waiting at the tree line.”

“Is…”

“We’ve a couple of guys on the trail, but I doubt it will get us anywhere. Unless he dropped a few huge clues on the way out.”

“Eva! Are you alright? What happened?” Charles Benoit grabbed her arm and led her to a chair.

“I was stupid,” she sighed. “What have you got?”

“Not much,” Charles answered with obvious disgust. “Whatever he planned on doing, I disturbed him and he ran off.”

“He?”

“My assumption,” Charles shrugged. “He was built like a linebacker and dressed in some heavy duty gear. I spotted him when he appeared from the hallway, but I didn’t see a face,” he added when he saw the expression on Eva’s face. “He was wearing a ski mask.”

“He must have double-backed, or something,” Eva said, feeling utterly stupid. “He played me for the fool I am.”

“Us,” Charles corrected her. “And yes, I share your sentiment.”

“How did he get in?”

“Basement. He broke one of the windows and simply climbed in.”

“And then he ran into you?”

“Not immediately,” Charles shook his head. “He made it upstairs and…”

“Did he try to…?”

“I don’t know what the plan was, Eva. Sigrid had heard the breaking glass, called the local police department and hid in a closet in her office.”

“So she never saw him?”

“No, she didn’t. But he was in the room with her.” Charles put a hand on Eva’s shoulder and felt the tension in her body.

“How do you know that?”

“I’d like to show you something. Can you walk?”

Eva grimaced and got on her feet.

“I made it back here, I can make it to the room next door,” she stated bravely, but she didn’t fool her partner. Charles had known her a long time and could tell when Eva was in serious pain.

“Come on,” Charles encouraged, extending a hand which Eva grabbed with gratitude.

“Where’s Sigrid?” she asked, not having seen the pastor in the kitchen or hallway.

“Freshening up in the bathroom,” Charles replied in a soft voice. “The combination of stress and…this,” he gestured toward the entrance to the office, “was a little too much for her.”

Mentally bracing herself, Eva stepped into the small office, immediately seeing what her partner was referring to. She sucked in a breath, feeling a wave of hot anger flow through her body with such intensity it drove away the pain in her ankle until the throbbing was only a distant memory. Without taking her eyes off the object that was dropped in the middle of the floor, Eva slowly circled around it, taking in every detail of it.

“Did anyone touch it?”

“No, not yet, we’ve been taking pictures,” Chuck answered, tapping the camera he was holding. “What do you think?”

Eva sucked in her bottom lip and slowly crouched down to get a closer look.

“It looks like real blood,” she answered softly. Her eyes were troubled when she studied what at first glance looked like a tangled mess of twigs, rope and feathers. “A pigeon,” she continued after a heavy silence. “It looks like its…its head is gone and it looks like it’s body is just…torn open,” she finished. Eva leaned closer and tried to detach herself emotionally from the shredded bird in front of her. “It looks like he made a sort of a table and tied the bird to that.”

“An altar,” Sigrid Meyers’ voice sounded from the doorway. Eva looked up in a pair of pained, blue eyes set in a pale face. “Crude, yes, but that’s what it looks like.”

“A sacrifice?” Eva asked quietly. “Does it refer to anything in…in religion?” she asked awkwardly.

“It reminds me of something in the bible, in the book of Leviticus,” Sigrid swallowed hard and leaned against the wall behind her, grateful for its sturdy strength that was helping her to remain standing. Eva noticed the other woman’s struggle to keep her composure and slowly got back to her feet, stepping closer to the pastor and gently taking her elbow.

“You look like you need to sit down,” she urged.

“No, that would be you,” Sigrid answered. “You’re limping and your face has a cut that’s bleeding. What happened?”

“Why don’t both of you sit down somewhere?” Chuck interrupted, pointing to the living room. “I’ll finish taking the pictures here and will join you after I’m done.” He raised a hand when Eva opened her mouth to protest. “No, Eva, go. Please. This room is not big enough for both of us to run around in and look for clues. I’ll do my thing here and then come and talk to you.”

Eva, who felt the throbbing pain in her ankle return reluctantly nodded and followed Sigrid out of the room, toward the living room, where she sank down in the same chair she had favored that morning. In spite of everything she had to smile at herself for being such a creature of habit.

“Let me look at your foot,” Sigrid suggested, kneeling in front of Eva and ignoring the activity around her. There were two police officers who were studying the splintered door and glass, hoping to find some fabric or better yet, skin or hair to give them a clue as to whom had jumped through it. Outside, another officer was taking pictures of the tracks in the snow, careful not to disturb any of them. He was standing knee-deep in the cold, white stuff.

Eva glanced at the bent head in front of her and the worried look in her eyes deepened.

“You don’t have to do that,” she responded in a soft voice.

“Yes, I do,” Sigrid argued with a small smile. “I am a trained EMT and have seen my share of foot injuries. Do you need help taking off your boot?”

For a brief moment Eva stared at the other woman who shot her a questioning look.

“An EMT?” Eva echoed, immediately regretting her response. The last thing she wanted Sigrid to think was that she was as stupid as she sounded.

“I still work per diem,” Sigrid explained. “Usually a few days and nights a month, just to keep my skills up.”

“Good for you,” Eva mumbled, wincing when the pastor carefully slid the leather boot off her foot. “I have a feeling I won’t be able to get back into it,” Eva spoke through clenched teeth, feeling Sigrid’s warm hands gently peeling off her wet sock that had small chunks of snow stuck to it.

“I think you’re right,” Sigrid nodded, skeptically eying the swollen ankle. “This needs some ice. Lots of it.”

“Why don’t I just stick my foot in a snow bank?” Eva suggested with a hint of frustration in her voice.

“That would probably have the same effect, but it wouldn’t be very comfortable,” Sigrid smiled. “Just sit here, put your foot on this stool,” she suggested pulling a low, padded bench closer. “I’ll get a cold pack, something to clean that cut in your face and something warm to drink.” Sigrid got back to her feet and abruptly halted, all of a sudden feeling incredibly insecure. “Although I guess tea will have to wait until they give me my kitchen back again,” she added with a small sigh.

“What happened?”

“Let me get some ice for your foot and then I’ll tell you,” Sigrid promised, sending the other woman a small smile before heading into the kitchen. She was back within a minute, with a frozen gel pack wrapped in a towel. Carefully she draped the cold pack across Eva’s foot and handed her a damp washcloth she could use to clean the cut above her eyebrow, before sitting down on the floor, resting her back against the couch.

“Thank you,” the police woman spoke, silently hoping the cold would quickly numb the pain. Her eyes rested on the blonde who had her arms wrapped around her pulled up legs, resting her cheek on one of her knees. In Eva’s eyes she looked incredibly young and vulnerable. She was aware of a brief flash of anger that surged through her system when realizing someone had managed to break into the pastor’s house, right under her, Eva Clemente’s nose, scaring the living daylights out of the younger woman.

“I was in my office, checking my email,” Sigrid started her story, unaware of the turmoil behind Eva’s green eyes “I heard a sound I thought was something heavy falling on top of the snow and at first didn’t think much about it.” Sigrid paused and glanced up at Eva, who had the washcloth pressed against her forehead, but whose posture showed she was listening intently. ‘You know the sound of snow sliding off the roof?” Eva nodded, but remained silent. “Anyway, I thought that’s what it was,” Sigrid sighed. “But then, a few seconds later, I heard it again and this time it sounded like it came from the basement. I…it was pretty scary, so I wanted to call…you, but realized you probably wouldn’t have a cell signal in the woods, so I called the police department instead.”

“Good thinking,” Eva complimented, which earned her a watery smile.

“That’s what you told me to do. I told the dispatcher what was going on and she told me to try and hide somewhere, if I wasn’t able to get out of the house. At that time I thought I heard someone coming up the stairs, so I was afraid to leave the office and I knew trying to get out through the window was going to be pretty noisy.” Sigrid sighed and raked her fingers through her hair. “Besides, I wasn’t wearing any shoes,” she added with the ghost of a smile. “Hiding in the closet was my only option, so that’s what I did, while the dispatcher kept telling me not to hang up. I’m not sure how long I was in there, but all of a sudden I heard a voice call out and then running footsteps and the crashing noise of someone jumping through my living room sliding doors,” Sigrid’s voice was soft, but Eva was still able to detect a barely audible tremor. “When I finally came out of the closet, pun not intended,” she added with a wry chuckle, “I stood fate-to-face with the…with what was left in the room.”

“Can you tell me about the symbolism?” Eva asked, her eyes glued to the troubled ones of the woman on the floor.

“The Old Testament is full of laws and regulations. A lot of it is about atonement for sins through sacrifice. I’m not exactly sure about the chapter, but I’m pretty sure that somewhere in the book of Leviticus the sacrifice of a dove, or pigeon, is described. The bird needs to be torn open by its wings, without severing it and then burnt on the wood on the altar.”

“The pigeon’s head was gone” Eva spoke calmly, seeing Sigrid flinch.

“The head of the bird needs to be wrung off and the blood drained. The crop also needs to be removed,” Sigrid explained in a tired voice.

“It wasn’t there,” Eva said with a frown. “At least, not that I could see.”

“It’s not,” Sigrid sighed, glancing up with tired eyes. “But right now I have a pretty good idea where the missing parts are.”

###

It took a few hours before the police officers who had swarmed her house had finally left. Sigrid knew all of them personally and had been touched by their concern for her. Their town was a small, sleepy one, except in the summer when it was swarmed with tourists visiting the lakes and hiking trails. Crime was fairly uncommon and thus a shock for everyone, including the local police.

After Charles Benoit had closed the door when the last office was leaving, he walked back into the living room and sat down on the couch. He eyed the two women who were quiet and seemed deep in thought. The cut in Eva’s face was cleaned and covered with a bandage and the police woman was staring at the ice pack on her foot. Only because Charles knew her so well, he could tell that, mentally, she was miles away. Sigrid sat on the floor, using the couch as a back rest, with her forehead resting on her pulled up knees and he could not tell if her eyes were open or closed.

“How are the two of you doing?” Charles finally asked.

Sigrid slowly raised her head and glanced up at the elderly man. She looked tired and her eyes were dull, with dark circles underneath them.

“I’ve felt better,” she answered listlessly and Charles nodded in understanding.

“What about you, Eva?”

“I can’t believe I sprained my ankle,” she answered with what resembled a frustrated growl.

“I can’t believe you didn’t break a leg,” Charles responded dryly. “That was treacherous terrain.”

Eva mumbled something incoherent and her partner suppressed a smile. There was one thing that could get Eva Clemente in a foul mood real quick; if she thought she had done something stupid. Always very understanding of others it was amazing how little forgiving she was when it came to herself.

“Sigrid has told me more about the present in her office,” Eva began, changing the subject. “It looks like a sacrifice for atonement.”

“Biblical?” Charles asked with interest.

Sigrid nodded and in a soft voice she told the inspector what she had told Eva. When she mentioned the missing head and crop, he frowned and softly muttered under his breath when Sigrid told him she expected the packages from her sister and mother to contain the rest of the pigeon. Letting out a deep sigh, the pastor raked her fingers through her hair and leaned her head back against the couch.

“But why?” she wondered. “Why would he send something gruesome like that to my family, addressed to me? He should have known they’d send it on.”

Sigrid noticed the look Charles and Eva exchanged and her eyes traveled between them, trying to read the expression on their faces.

“Why?” she insisted.

“It’s possible he wants to send you a message,” Eva answered slowly, carefully choosing her words.

“I believe he already did by breaking into my house and leaving me a nice note in my mailbox this morning. Oh, and let’s not forget the dead body he left in my church. That was a pretty clear message. I think that…oh, my god,” Sigrid turned even paler than she already was and her eyes looked huge when she looked up at Eva. “He’s telling me he knows where to find my family,” she whispered in horror

“I’m afraid that’s the message,” Eva nodded with brutal honesty, which earned her a roll of Charles’ eyes. She shrugged almost imperceptibly; Sigrid’s life could be in danger and the pastor needed to realize that. The visit of the perpetrator had completely changed the situation from a potentially dangerous situation to an actual dangerous one. That they did not have a clear motive or a suspect worried her to no end. The fact that she sprained her ankle and would not be able to do any fieldwork made everything so much worse.

“But what does he want?” Eva heard Sigrid say in a voice that was heavy with despair. “He’s only been making threats. What does he want from me?”

“I wish we knew,” Charles replied, string at Eva with a thoughtful look. The police woman could tell by the look in his eyes that he was thinking about something she would not like. At all. She opened her mouth to say something to him, but before she could do so, Charles raised a hand and sent her a small smile.

“How are your parents doing, Eva?” he asked with an innocent smile.

A pair of green eyes stared at him in disbelief, and then slightly narrowed when realization set in.

“Oh, no,” Eva shook her head. “No, no, no, no.”

“Eva,” Charles started, but he was immediately interrupted.

“No, Chuck. Absolutely not.”

“You know it’s a great idea. Can you come up with something better?”

“I’m not leaving! I can do desk duty and follow up on tons of leads, no need to…”

“You can do that while being with your family and the pastor will be safer.”

The last remark caught Sigrid’s attention and she shot Charles Benoit a confused look.

“Excuse me?” she asked politely

Charles sighed and leaned back into soft cushions of the couch. He feared he needed to do some serious convincing before his plan would be accepted.

“Eva, please, hear me out. Your ankle is sprained and I’m by far no medical person, but it looks like you won’t even be able to get your foot back in your boot. Ergo, you will not be able to do any fieldwork any time soon. I’m sorry,” he added in a soft voice. “But I know where you’re from and it seems like such a better choice to hang out while your ankle heals. Besides,” he added with a small smile. “You’ll get paid to hang out with your family.”

Eva scowled and stared at her ankle for a few moments, completely disgusted with herself for getting injured like that. Charles was right, deep down inside she acknowledged that, though it was hard to admit it out loud, especially because doing so made her feel like such a loser. The murderer of Michael Bell could easily be the same person who had broken into Sigrid’s house and left the silent, but threatening message. They had no clue about his motives or identity and Eva would not be able to chase any physical leads. It definitely made her cranky and she fought the urge to snap at her partner; it was not Charles’ fault and his suggestion was reasonable. Eva knew she would give in, the question was; would the pastor? Taking a deep breath she turned to the woman sitting on the floor and tried hard to look confident when she was confronted with a pair of blazing blue eyes.

“I can’t leave here,” was the first thing Sigrid uttered with a determined look on her face. If the situation had not been so serious and if her ankle had not been throbbing the way it did, Eva might have smiled at the stubborn look on the pastor’s face. Sigrid Meyers seemed by no means a helpless woman and Eva appreciated that. Her instincts though, honed by years of police work told her the young woman could be in danger and just the thought of someone hurting the young pastor gave Eva enough incentive to mentally square her shoulders and do her best to convince Sigrid she could not stay in her house. Charles had known that would be her response. She shot him a quick look and he winked at her. The old fox.

“Sigrid, please listen to what I have to say first and then make a decision. Alright?”

“I don’t think I want to hear what you have to say,” Sigrid muttered in all honesty and Eva suppressed a smile.

“I realize that, believe me. But just a few hours ago, someone broke into your house and we have sufficient evidence to belief his intentions are bad. You could be in danger.”

“Do you really think so?” Sigrid asked in a soft voice.

“Yes, I do,” Eva nodded, shifting the icepack on her foot and trying not to wince when those movements made a sharp pain shoot through her foot, all the way up to her knee. “What Charles wants is for you and me to go to…” a small movement of Charles’ hand made her pause. Damn, he was right. The unwanted visitor could have left a listening device. The local police had not checked for that, because they didn’t have the right equipment. “Charles wants us to leave. You’re not safe here and he…we think it’s best to get you out of harm’s way. Your local police force does not have the manpower to keep an eye on you around the clock. I know a place where we can go where I can do all the research I need to do and Charles can follow whatever lead I find. My ankle will be able to heal and you will be safe.”

“But I can’t just pack up and leave,” Sigrid protested. “I appreciate the fact that you want to keep me safe, but I have a life here and my work. I can’t just leave like that.”

“What do you do when you go on vacation?” Eva asked quietly.

“Jim Farrow, he is a retired pastor who takes over when I’m gone or sick. He lives about twenty miles north from here.”

“Does he need a lot of time to come and…take over?” Eva wanted to know.

“Not usually,” Sigrid muttered. “But it would be courteous to give him a couple of days.”

“I agree, under normal circumstances,” Charles spoke. “Do you think he might be willing to be here tomorrow morning?”

“I guess I could try,” Sigrid sighed. “But what about my cat? I usually bring Minnie to ‘Whiskers ‘n Paws’. It’s a pet place,” she explained when she saw Eva’s raised eyebrows.

“Can you bring her there now also?” Eva tried, knowing that a simple ‘yes’ would probably not be forthcoming.

“They’re closed in February,” Sigrid said.

“Take your cat with you,” Charles suggested with a smile. The young pastor reminded him of one of his daughters and he knew there wasn’t a lot he could refuse her. She was too cute. A dark look from Eva almost made him chuckle. It was obvious his partner had caught on and was not happy with it.

“Is that okay?” Sigrid asked Eva with such genuine hope in her eyes Eva Clemente felt her resistance melt. She, too, was wrapped around Chuck’s daughter’s little finger.

“Yes, that would be fine,” Eva sighed, sending the pastor a small smile. “There are pets where we’re going, but I’m sure your cat will be fine.”

“Where are you planning to take me?” Sigrid wanted to know.

“Somewhere safe,” Eva answered.

“That sounds really patronizing,” Sigrid snapped, feeling her anxiety rise to uncomfortable levels. “I’m not a four year old, Inspector.”

Eva’s eyes widened at Sigrid’s outburst and she cast a look at Charles, who smiled at her and gave her an encouraging nod. Eva suspected he had way too much fun at her expense.

“I will tell you exactly where I plan on taking you, but I can’t just now,” the police woman started to explain. “Your house has not been swept for bugs, listening devices,” she added, immediately seeing understanding dawn in Sigrid’s eyes.

“Oh, I see,” was the response and Eva let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding. She was grateful for Sigrid’s understanding, because the last thing she wanted was fighting with the pastor.

“I’m sorry, Eva,” Sigrid continued. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you.”

“You’re under a lot of stress,” Eva replied with a small smile. “Don’t worry about it.”

“So, what happens now?”

“You’ll have the rest of the day to arrange for Jim Farrow to take over your work from you, to pack and prepare like you usually do when you go on vacation.”

“But I don’t know how long I’ll be gone,” Sigrid sighed, pushing a strand of hair away from her forehead.

“No, that’s something we don’t know,” Eva nodded, pleased with Sigrid’s surrender to the situation. “Hopefully, it won’t be long.”

####

“Damn you all to hell,” a male voice spoke, while carefully cleaning his face and hands with a washcloth. He had been lucky, because he only had a few scratches and they hardly bled. It would have been a bad thing to leave drops of blood in the pastor’s house. He had no intention of jumping through the French doors the way he had done, but when he had heard the voice of the person entering the kitchen, he had panicked.

“Thank, God for adrenaline,” he grumbled, angry at the police and Sigrid Meyers for disturbing his plans. He had it all planned out so beautifully and now he had to make changes, which took time if he wanted to do it right. At least she had received the letter he had put in her mailbox and the message he had left on the floor in her office. He knew she had been hiding in the closet, he could feel it. But then that damn policeman had walked in, messing up his plans. Maybe he should deal with him also. Maybe he could kill two birds with one stone.

He giggled at the pun and reached out to grab a clean towel, so he could dry his face. He was happy to see there was only a small cut in his chin. People would think he had cut himself shaving, so that would be good. He did not want to come up with some insane explanation of his injuries. He wanted to focus on Sigrid Meyers. He had worked on it long enough and his time was near. He knew it.

###

The fire in the woodstove was burning bright, spreading wonderful warmth that enveloped the body like a hug. The glow of the dancing flames painted the two occupants of the room in soft hues of orange. Sigrid was stretched out on the couch, a book in her lap and a glass of red wine in her hand. While taking small sips, her eyes took in the figure of Eva Clemente, who was sitting in the recliner, one icepack covered foot on the stool in front of her and a laptop on her knees. Her face was a picture of concentration while her eyes scanned whatever was on the monitor. If Sigrid had to describe the woman with one word, it would have been ‘focus’. The pastor suspected it was a good trait to have for a police investigator and she silently wondered if the woman was always that intense. She sure was serious. But then, they were in a serious situation.

Involuntarily, Sigrid’s eyes traveled to the large windows and the French doors that were sealed with layers of thick plastic to keep the cold out. Charles Benoit had promised Sigrid he would make sure to personally supervise its repair. The insurance agent was scheduled to stop by in the morning and after that Sigrid and Eva would leave. They had not discussed their destination, but Eva had pulled up a map on her computer and pointed to a small coastal town in Maine , so the pastor at least knew where she would be going. She had nodded in understanding, trying to picture Eva Clemente as a child, growing up in Maine . It had not been very hard to do, because Sigrid had the impression the police woman liked the outdoors. Besides, she remembered how Eva had looked at the painting in her office the previous day and she had seen the longing in those interesting green eyes.

“Interesting?” Sigrid frowned, shaking her head. Eva Clemente was gifted with a beautiful bronze skin and dark, curly hair that she kept fairly short. Her eyes stood out against the color of her skin and Sigrid couldn’t help wondering about the woman’s ancestors. Judging by her name and looks, she had to be a combination of different ethnicities. Maybe she would ask her about it some time.

Sigrid sighed and tried to turn her attention back to her book. She had read the same page three times already and she still didn’t know what the story was about. Making a face, she closed the book and put it on the table. Sipping her wine she stared into the flames, wondering who was out to harm her. It was as if her thoughts went around in loops, always starting with the ‘who’ question and ending with wondering what tomorrow would bring, how freaked out Eva’s family would be, if she and the police woman could spend five hours in a car without running out of things to say.

Sigrid cast another look through the window, but all she saw was darkness. She tried not to think of who or what could be out there, but it was hard to ignore her vivid imagination.

“You keep looking at the windows,” Eva’s voice broke the silence and Sigrid almost jumped in surprise. She was tempted to ask the police woman how she knew, but decided against it. Eva Clemente was an investigator. She probably used senses Sigrid had never heard about.

“I can’t help wondering what is out there” Sigrid confessed. “It’s amazing how my perception of things have changed just within the last day or so. I never bought curtains for those windows because I love the open feel of it, but now it makes me nervous,” she sighed, shaking her head at her own fears.

“That’s not unusual, seeing what you’ve been through,” Eva answered.

“But I’m usually not scared like that,” Sigrid replied, wondering why it was important to her to tell Eva she was made out of tougher material.

“I assume there is not usually someone who threatens you, send you scary messages and leaves a dead body in your church either,” Eva smiled, glancing at Sigrid over her laptop.

“No, not really,” Sigrid admitted with a nervous laugh. “I wonder when things will go back to normal again.”

“Depends on what is normal,” Eva answered and for a moment Sigrid thought she saw a twinkle in the police woman’s eyes.

“I know, normal is a loaded statement,” the pastor admitted with a shrug. “But to me, normal is enjoying my interactions with the people in this town, trying to support them when they go through tough times, share in their joy and find contentment and peace in sharing common spiritual ground.” Sigrid paused and took a deep breath. “I wonder if I can ever stand in front of the church again and feel one hundred percent comfortable.”

“Why wouldn’t you?” Eva wanted to know, somehow touched by the distress that showed in the other woman’s eyes.

“Because I feel that the person who…who killed someone in my church and broke into my house his morning could very well be part of the church I work for.”

Eva slowly closed her laptop, but kept it on her knees, her hands resting on top of the shiny black surface.

“What makes you think that?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Sigrid answered with a sigh. “It’s just a feeling I have. This…this person has connected people from my past to me, people who were very dear to me. People who are now dead, something he might have had a hand in. He knows where I work. He knows where I live. He probably knows what time I go to work on Mondays so he stuck around after killing this poor man to make sure I was there and would find the body. I wonder why he didn’t kill me as well yesterday. It’s obvious he had the opportunity.”

“Do you really want an answer to that?” Eva asked softly, feeling for the distressed woman and wishing she could help ease her mind.

“No…yes…I don’t know,” Sigrid answered with a half-sob. There were tears in her eyes when she looked at Eva. “Do you think he is enjoying the game, is that it? Does he thrive on my fear?”

“It’s hard to tell,” Eva answered, choosing her words carefully. “He might enjoy the game, I don’t know. Another possibility is that it was not according to his plan to…to…harm you yesterday.” Eva took time to reposition her leg and gather her thoughts. “Sigrid, if this person has delusional ideas, it’s a possibility he is mentally ill. He could be very compulsive, which means it’s possible he has a set timeline that he needs to stick to. His religious referrals might indicate that he feels he’s on a mission, given to him by a higher power. He will have to obey that higher power, including the timeline set for his actions. By moving you out of here and out of town, we will aggravate him tremendously. Hopefully enough for him to make a mistake so we can find out who he is and take him off the streets.”

“Your theory sounds really scary,” Sigrid said with a watery smile. The hand that was holding the wineglass trembled slightly.

“It is scary,” Eva admitted. “But we have to consider all possibilities and this is one of them. In fact, we’re doing background checks on all male members of your church right now.”

“You are?” Sigrid breathed, not knowing whether she should be angry or relieved. “How did…oh, Betty gave you a member list, didn’t she?”

“She was very helpful,” Eva nodded. “So were the other two ladies.”

“I’m sure they were,” Sigrid sighed with a small smile. “They love it when something happens here. If they can be in the thick of it, it’s even better.” She glanced up, noticing that Eva was looking at her with a mixture of curiosity and concern. For some very strange reason it made her feel a little better. The situation she was in was nerve wrecking, but at least she wasn’t alone.

“Are you ever scared?” Sigrid asked after a brief, comfortable silence.

“Yes, I am. Often,” Eva answered in all honesty.

“You are?” Sigrid seemed surprised and Eva sent her a small smile. “I mean, I know fear is something we all face, but somehow I…”

“Somehow you thought I’d deny being scared,” Eva interrupted dryly. “Because I’m a cop and carry a gun.” She laughed when she saw the expression of guilt on Sigrid’s face, the first genuine laugh the pastor had heard from her. It was a nice laugh, she decided; it was warm and somehow made her smile.

“So now you’re going to tell me I’ve watched too many police shows on television?” Sigrid wondered.

“Have you?” Eva quipped, enjoying the direction their conversation had taken.

“Not too many,” Sigrid drawled.

“What is your favorite show?” Eva wanted to know, but before Sigrid could answer she raised her hand. “No, wait. Let me guess.” Her eyes slightly narrowed when she stared at the pastor as if she could see straight through her. It was quiet for a long time and Sigrid patiently waited, sipping her wine and studying Eva who was still staring at her.

“I think that would be Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” Eva finally said. “Am I right?”

“And you know this because you’re a really good cop or because you’ve seen the DVD’s on the shelf behind you?” Sigrid asked with a chuckle.

“Busted,” Eva sighed, leaning back in her chair and laughing softly.

“The acting was pretty good,” the pastor admitted. “So is your memory. You must have an eye for detail.”

“That’s experience,” Eva answered. “I always try to make use of all my senses when I visit a crime scene.”

“So, when are you scared?” Sigrid asked, taking a sip of wine.

“Like I said, lots of times. When I enter a house, knowing someone might be in there, waiting to take a shot at me, I’m scared. When I chase a suspect in a car, which I’ve done a few times, I’m scared on different levels; I’m scared for me, but also for other people on the road, because they don’t know what’s going on and could get hit by an idiot in a car at any time. Whenever children are involved, I’m scared.” Eva paused and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “When I have to go to tell parents their child, a minor, has been involved in a crime, I get scared also,” she admitted. “I’ve experienced some very nasty reactions.”

“You don’t do those things alone, do you?” Sigrid asked with a worried frown.

“Oh, no,” Eva shook her head. “I always have someone with me and sometimes we have even more back-up, just in case.”

“Do any of the things you see on a regular basis ever give you nightmares?” It was a personal question, Sigrid realized that as soon as the words had left her mouth, but they were out now and she was genuinely interested in the police woman’s answer.

Eva cast down her eyes and Sigrid could tell she had hit a nerve. The police woman bit her lower lip and was clearly uncomfortable with the question. Mentally, Sigrid slapped herself.

“I’m sorry, that was too personal. I shouldn’t have asked that, I…”

“Yes, they do,” Eva spoke in a soft voice. “I have nightmares. It’s one of the reasons I decided to do something else. I’ll be teaching at the police academy, starting next month. I might still be pulled into a case or two, but I’ll mainly be teaching.”

“Is that something you’re looking forward to?”

Eva smiled and nodded.

“Actually, yes, I’m looking forward to that. I like teaching.” Eva paused and glanced at Sigrid, who was curled up on the couch, sipping her wine. She still looked very young, but there was a depth to her that only years could have given her. She wondered how old Sigrid was. It was something she could easily look up in one of the files Charles had emailed her, but Eva decided against that. It would be more of a challenge to get to know the pastor better without that advantage.

“Is this part of your job? Making people open up and tell you things?” Eva asked curiously.

“I’m not sure,” Sigrid laughed, amused by Eva’s question. “People confess things to me on a regular basis, which never ceases to surprise me. Our denomination might be a Christian one, but we don’t practice confession and absolution. I feel it’s not up to me to forgive someone their perceived sins. Still, I think part of it comes with the job, because sometimes all people need and want is a listening ear and no judgments.”

“And you provide that,” Eva concluded.

“I try to,” Sigrid nodded.

“And how do you keep from being sucked dry? I mean, it sounds like you pour a lot of yourself into it. Isn’t that draining?”

“Sometimes it is,” Sigrid confessed. “That’s why I love my little house here, where I can retreat, be quiet and just be me. And if I had a really bad day and need to get rid of some pent up frustration I chop wood, go for a run or play one of those kick-butt video games in which I am the heroine who saves the world.”

Eva couldn’t help but laughing. She recognized some of what the pastor was telling her and admired her for her honesty.

“Does that surprise you?” Sigrid wanted to know.

“Yes and no,” Eva admitted. “You have to forgive my ignorance when it comes to…to…clergy. I must have had some preconceived ideas of my own, because in my mind they are old men in long robes, who live in an overstuffed house, with a maid who comes daily to cook for them, while they visit people and drink wine.”

Sigrid raised her glass and sent Eva a playful wink.

“You’ve got the wine part right.”

“I guess I exaggerated, but it has a kernel of truth in it. I confess to having had a prejudice there. I apologize. I know better now.”

“I hope so,” Sigrid chuckled. “I’d hate to be compared to an old man.”

“You’re not. Really,” Eva was quick to admit, which earned her a smile.

For a very brief moment they smiled at each other and all of a sudden Sigrid decided the long drive to Maine might not be as boring as she had expected. Eva was proving herself to be good company, which was an enormous relief, especially since they would be in close proximity for an undetermined amount of time.

“So, what is the plan for tomorrow?”

“I’d anticipated that question. Come here and I’ll show you,” Eva said, flipping open her laptop. Sigrid obediently stood up and knelt next to Eva’s recliner. The police woman’ finger pointed at a part of the screen where Sigrid could read the plan for the next day.

“Charles is aware of that?” she asked softly. The previous ten minutes of conversation with Eva had managed to temporarily chase away all the fear and anxiety from her mind, but now reality came rushing back with such ferocity Sigrid felt almost breathless.

“He and I emailed back and forth, so, yes, he’s aware,” Eva answered. She shot Sigrid a sideway glance. “Are you alright?”

“I’d like to say I am, but I’d be lying,” the pastor admitted with an audible quiver in her voice. “It feels like I’m dreaming. All of a sudden my life is turned upside down and things are not what I thought they were. It’s all very confusing and frightening.” She raked her fingers through her hair and slowly shook her head. “I’m waiting to wake up from all of this.”

“I’m sorry,” Eva said and she meant it. “If I could fix all this, I would have done it already and put the bad guy behind bars. I’m afraid it’s not that simple.” She looked at Sigrid and from this close, the pastor could see tiny golden flecks in the other woman’s eyes. “All I can promise you is to do my best to keep you out of harm’s way.”

Sigrid slowly nodded, trying not to look at the windows that only showed the darkness outside, that, at the moment, she felt was filled with evil.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

###

It had not been part of the plan, but he simply could not help himself, he had to go and look, if only to convince himself she had done what he had expected to. It wasn’t time yet, although it was close. Soon he would execute the grand finale of the plan he was chosen for. It was something he had sacrificed everything for, but it would be so worth it.

“The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining,” he whispered while he carefully made his way around a fallen tree. A few more steps and he would be able to see the house. “The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining,” he repeated over and over again. “The darkness is…” Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks. Through the trees he could see the light in the living room was on.

“No,” he whispered. “She can’t be. She can’t be. That wasn’t the plan. She was supposed to leave. The light….darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. There’s light, but it can’t be. It’s wrong, all wrong. It’s the wrong light,” he muttered, frantically searching his backpack for his binoculars. As he raised them to his eyes, he saw Sigrid stand up from a crouched position near the recliner. She emptied her glass of wine, which made him wince in disgust. She walked to the kitchen, her cat running out in front of her, but before she entered, she cast a look over her shoulder and he could see her lips move. He frowned and moves his binoculars to the left. It took all he had not to let out an angry yell when he noticed the pastor had company.

“It’s that police woman,” he whispered. “She’s there. What now? What now? The darkness is passing…” he started to recite again, rocking back and forth, with his arms wrapped around his middle. “She’s not part of the plan, she’s not. What now? What now?”

In spite of the freezing cold temperature, he stood there, up to his middle in snow, rocking back and forth, until he finally calmed down.

“I have to go and think. Look it up. Yes, I’ll look it up. The answer is there for those who seek the truth. I’ll find it. I’ll find it.”

He turned around and for a brief moment the feint moonlight reflected off the snow, illuminating the hair peeking out from under his hat, the dark eyes and soft, clean-shaven skin of his face. The only thing that marred the almost female features was a small cut in his chin.

###

The weather was calm and there were no snowstorms or any kind of precipitation in the forecast when Sigrid drove Eva’s car down to Concord , where the police woman’s division was stationed. According to Eva she had to run in and quickly grab some ‘stuff’ from work, as she called it and then needed to stop by her house to pack a few of her personal belongings before they headed to Maine.

She made Sigrid come into her office with her, ‘just in case’ and true to her word, it only took her a few minutes to gather the things they needed, before they headed out again and continued on to Eva’s house.

“Come on in,” Eva invited, getting out of the car and limping to her front door. She had been offered a pair of crutches but had politely, yet determinately declined. It was bad enough she had sprained her ankle. Using crutches would be adding insult to injury.

“Cute house,” Sigrid complimented, taking in the small cabin that was situated at the end of a dirt road in a suburb of Concord , the capital of New Hampshire .

“Thanks,” Eva replied, absent-mindedly. “It’s nice and quiet here, but still very close to the city, which comes in handy when I’m called in at some ungo…some inconvenient time.”

“I’s okay to say ungodly, Eva,” Sigrid chuckled. “I’ve heard worse, trust me, and used it myself, believe it or not. I might be a pastor, but I’m not a saint.”

“That’s good to know,” Eva smiled before exiting the car. “Turn off the engine and come in. It might take a few minutes.” The police woman groaned when her injured foot touched the ground. When she saw that Sigrid wanted to say something she made a face and quickly limped to the small porch in front of the house. It was snow and ice free, which was a good thing, because the last thing Eva knew she needed, was to slip and fall. Again.

“Come in,” she gestured to the pastor who had followed her up the few steps. “Have a seat and make yourself at home. I shouldn’t be long,” Eva promised, disappearing into the hallway that led to one of the two bedrooms.

Sigrid nodded, curiously looking around the living room. She slowly walked to a cozy looking chair and took a seat, taking in her surroundings with a small smile. The way the room was decorated fit Eva, Sigrid decided. It looked very functional, without being clinical. The floor was polished hardwood, covered with a colorful rug in the sitting area. There was a sleek looking computer on small desk in the corner, a couple of bookcases, a couch, chair and coffee table. There was no clutter, which Sigrid had not expected.

“I bet you’re hardly ever home,” she mumbled, eying the books on the shelf. With appreciation she noticed a few books she liked as well and she made a mental note to remember that, just in case they ran out of things to talk about on their drive up to Maine .

Sigrid’s eyes traveled to the only picture on the wall. It was a black-and-white photo of waves pounding a rocky coast under a dark sky. It was a very dramatic shot, conveying a wild beauty that drew the viewer into the picture. Even though its first impression was one of darkness, Sigrid couldn’t help but admiring the composition and the raw power it exuded.

“A friend took that one, years ago,” a voice suddenly sounded behind her, startling Sigrid out of her thoughts.

“It’s beautiful in a sort of wild way,” Sigrid replied, slowly turning to the police woman. She immediately noticed that Eva had changed into a pair of faded blue jeans and a thick, woolen sweater. She was carrying a duffel bag and had a backpack slug over her shoulder.

“That was fast,” Sigrid noticed and Eva nodded.

“I usually have a bag ready to go. It’s an occupational hazard to be called out to all corners of the state on the weirdest days and times,’ she explained. “That part of the job I will not miss,” she smiled. Before Sigrid could ask what parts of her job she would miss, Eva shouldered her bag and gestured to the door.

“Shall we go?”

“Do I have a choice?” Sigrid half-joked. Even though she had started to feel a little more comfortable around Eva Clemente, she still had a hard time accepting she had to leave her home and her life because someone was trying to hurt her.

“The available options are not in your favor,” Eva answered softly, but honestly. “I’m very sorry about that,” and Sigrid could tell she meant it.

“I am too,” the pastor sighed. “Alright, let’s go, Inspector. I guess it could have been worse.” When Eva cast a questioning glance over her shoulder, Sigrid shrugged. “I could have been tossed into a witness protection program.”

“You watch too many police movies,” Eva replied drily and Sigrid chuckled.

Part 5

Charles Benoit looked at the screen in front of him and rubbed his tired eyes. He had not gotten a lot of sleep and suspected Eva had suffered the same fate, since he had found a few emails from her that she had written in the middle of the night.

“Good thing the pastor is driving,” he mumbled. “So, what do we have here?”

He had just received a report about the newspaper that was found on the bench in the church and his eyes scanned the concise, dry report. Before he could finish reading the last page, his phone rang and with a muttered curse he answered it.

“You beat me to it, again,” he complained. “You really should allow an old man his moments of glory, Eva. Besides, how come your Blackberry works on the road? Isn’t service a little finicky?”

“Not in this city,” his partner answered, sticking to the agreement to not mention anything that could give away a clue as to where they were. “We’re having a quick bite to eat at a gas station.”

“Anyone following you?”

“It doesn’t look like it, but that doesn’t mean a thing. We don’t know if our murderer is only one person or more. I’d rather err on the side of caution. So, were you reading the report?”

“I was and truly hoped that, for a change, I could call you to tell you something you didn’t know yet. I was hoping you were dozing in the car. Unless the pastor is a bad driver and you’re suffering waves of anxiety and near-death experiences.”

“No, she’s a good driver, actually,” Eva answered and Chuck could hear the smile in her voice. “I’ll sleep later, when we’re where we need to go. I’m sorry I can’t follow this lead to Boston.”

“Does that mean you know this bar?” Chuck wanted to know.

“The ‘Dress ‘n Drag’? Yes, it’s incredibly popular,” Eva answered. “Do you think the circled ad from the bar is something you want to follow up on right away?”

“What kind of bar is it?” Chuck wanted to know and he smiled when he heard Eva chuckle.

“Come on, partner, you’re not that old! If you have to label it, it’s a gay bar, although the general public is very mixed, just all gay-friendly. There’s a drag show every Saturday night. It draws crowds from all over the place.” There was a brief silence. “I wonder if Michael Bell was a regular visitor.”

“He might have been, after all, he was wearing a dress.”

“Yes, he was, although that wasn’t the normal, flamboyant drag queen style,” Eva mused. “It’s possible someone wants us to think he frequented a place like the ‘Dress n Drag’, just to point us in the wrong direction. Has his family been located yet?”

“He was an only child and his parents are both deceased. Apparently, he didn’t have a lot of family. There is a cousin who works on an oil-drilling platform somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“Sounds like a lonely existence,” Eva sighed. “Is there anything else? Something about friends? Work? The reason his apartment was totally cleared out?”

“I wish,” Chuck answered, scratching his skin. He hadn’t taken the time to shave that morning and his face was becoming unbearably itchy. “His landlord had only met the guy once, when he just moved in, which was three years ago. He always paid his bills, never caused any trouble, didn’t associate with any of his neighbors. The guy was a ghost, Eva.”

“There has to be something , somewhere,” was the frustrated answer.

“I’ll leave it up to you to dig that up, while you’re resting your foot,” Chuck decided. “You’re better with all that internet snooping than I am. I’m too old and set in my ways. Hang in there, Eva. Let me know if there’s anything new, alright? And make sure our pastor is taken care of.” He broke the connection and grinned, knowing that his last remark would have irked his partner. God, he was going to miss her after she left. Good thing his retirement was just a few months away. He would not have to break in a new partner, which was very fortunate, because compared to Eva Clemente nobody would be good enough.

###

‘Chez me’ was only one of two local places to eat and was usually fairly busy around lunch time, even during the winter months. The owners, Claire and Bill Spencer, who had run the business after taking over from Bill’s parents twenty years ago, had kept the place in the original style of the 50’s, although modern conveniences like wireless internet access were present. Three elderly ladies, sitting in a corner near the front window were engrossed in something on the screen of a laptop.

“I don’t understand,” Meg Jones muttered. “I thought everything and everybody could be noodled on this thing.”

“Googled, Meg, it’s googled,” Betty Avery corrected her friend with a look over the rim of her glasses.

“Whatever,” Meg shrugged. “Noodled, googled, it’s all the same to me. Anyway, where is the information we’re looking for?”

“I’m not sure, ladies, but don’t you think there’s a reason Sigrid didn’t tell us where she was going?” Grace Anderson, who went by Twitch, wondered, taking a sip from her coffee, while sending her friends an inquisitive look.

“Come on, Twitch. Don’t be such a spoilsport. Something’s up, something big and we need to know what.”

“Why?” Twitch asked reasonably.

“Because Sigrid is our friend. Her family is in Florida, so she needs our support,” Betty answered and Meg nodded.

“And looking up information about the Inspector helps, how?” Twitch wanted to know.

“It doesn’t, but it would satisfy our curiosity,” Meg replied in all honesty, making Betty chuckle. “I say, all this worrying about private information on the internet is overrated. We can’t even find a police person on it.”

“Maybe for good reason,” Twitch sighed. “I’m sure Eva Clemente wouldn’t want every criminal she ever put behind bars to know where she lives. Anyway, maybe we’re not doing it right.”

“I asked the kid from the gas station,” Betty muttered. “You’d think he’d know.”

“Which kid?”

“Jeremy Brothers’ youngest, Jake.”

“Cute boy,” Meg nodded. “Has he started shaving yet? He’s got such a baby-face, but then, so has his dad.”

“We’re straying from the mission,” Betty sighed. “Maybe we’re spelling her name wrong,” she suggested.

“I think we spelled it right,” Meg muttered. “I think we didn’t expect to get more than five million ticks after we put her name in that noodle…google thing.”

“Hits, Meg,” Twitch automatically corrected.

“Whatever,” Meg shrugged. “By the time we finish reading through all that information, my body will already have turned to dust. I love Sigrid, but I don’t plan on spending my last years on this planet finding this Inspector woman. There must be another way.”

“Like what?”

“Like, maybe something really old-fashioned like calling the NH Major Crime unit in Concord and asking for her?”

“That might not be such a bad idea,” both Betty and Twitch admitted. “I bet we can find their phone number somewhere in that cyberspace thing.”

The three friends turned their attention back to the laptop again, unaware of the figure in the parked car across the road in the parking lot of the local grocery store, who had displayed more than normal interest in the actions of the friends.

###

Eva stared at the road in front of her. She was grateful for the lack of snow and ice, because it had allowed them to make good time. Soon they would pull into the roadside service plaza of Kennebunk where they would switch cars again. She suspected they were not being followed and tried not to feel foolish for being too careful.

“Are you tired?” she asked Sigrid, whose hands were still holding the steering wheel in a firm grip, although Eva had noticed the pastor had started blinking her eyes more and more.

“A little” Sigrid admitted with a small sigh. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Eva replied, having not slept at all. “Do you want a bit of a rest?”

“I’d like to be tough and say I’ll be fine, but I really could use a bit of a rest. If I could only close my eyes for fifteen minutes or so, I know I’d feel a lot better.”

“Then we’ll do that,” Eva promised.

“Are you sure?” Sigrid asked, risking a quick glance aside.

“I’m sure,” Eva smiled. “Do you see that dark-green SUV about four cars behind you?”

“I do,” Sigrid nodded, casting a look in the rearview mirror. “Is that one of your co-workers?”

“Benjamin Toussaint,” Eva replied. “He’ll keep an eye on us until we arrive at our destination. He’ll keep watch.”

“Has he been there all the time?” Sigrid wanted to know.

“No, only since Portsmouth. From Concord to Portsmouth it was Anne Wiskowski,” Eva explained. “She was driving a red Honda Civic.”

“I feel pretty stupid for not noticing them,” Sigrid muttered, after another look in the mirror. “You’d think that after yesterday I’d be more aware of my surroundings.”

“You’re tired, Sigrid” Eva answered quietly. “So am I. That’s why they’re there.”

“But how did you know? You’re not even driving.”

Eva held up her Blackberry, sending Sigrid a small grin.

“Cheater,” the pastor accused, but she was smiling.

“By the way, your friends are trying to track me down,” Eva said with a small smile. Deep down inside she had to give Sigrid’s elderly friends credit for their protectiveness toward their young pastor.

“Did your Blackberry tell you that?” Sigrid wanted to know, relieved to see that the Kennebunk service plaza was only two miles away.

“It did,” Eva nodded. “With a little help from Chuck. What do you think? Should I call them?”

“I’m not sure if it’s worry or curiosity. I told them this morning I couldn’t say where I was going, only that I had to leave for a little while and that you knew about it.” Sigrid glanced at Eva and there was a small twinkle in her eyes. “I didn’t want them to think I’m running from the law.”

“Good thinking,” Eva commented drily. “Maybe they’re checking your story?”

“And you think watch too many police shows,” Sigrid quipped, making Eva chuckle. “Am I allowed out of the car? I really could use a bathroom break and some coffee.”

“You’re allowed,” Eva answered, looking forward to getting out of the car and stretching her body that was sore and stiff. Her ankle was still very painful and she was afraid she would have to relent and use the crutches that were in the back of the car. Sigrid had not asked Eva if she wanted to bring them, she had silently tossed them in the car, shooting the police woman a challenging look, which Eva had not responded to. Deep down inside she was laughing because the pastor was proving to be pretty feisty.

“Is it okay if I call Betty and the girls?” Sigrid asked after a brief silence, steering Eva’s car off the Interstate, into a large parking area that was fairly deserted. “Thanks,” she said when she saw Eva nod.

According to the Inspector’s instructions , she parked next to a car that was identical to the one she was driving and with a sigh she turned off the engine. She unbuckled the seatbelt and shot the police woman a questioning look.

“Do you want to use the crutches I tossed in the back?”

“I really don’t want to, but I guess I should,” Eva relented with something that closely resembled a scowl.

“Just think of it this way; if someone tries to attack us you can whack them with it,” Sigrid suggested while getting out of the car.

“I’d just shoot them. Much easier,” Eva replied, opening the door to get out and missing the amused grin that crossed Sigrid’s face. Without protest she accepted the crutches Sigrid handed her and in spite of her reluctance to use the aid to walk she sent Sigrid an appreciative smile.

“I can’t help feeling I’m living a story right now,” Sigrid remarked when they walked across the parking lot towards the doors that would lead them into a large hall with several fast-food places and a Starbuck’s. She opened the door for Eva and gestured the police woman to go inside, which the police woman did, but not after her eyes swept the parking lot.

“No unwanted followers?” Sigrid wanted to know.

“Not as far as I can tell,” Eva answered and she sounded relieved. She knew from experience it only took one mad person with crazy ideas to do something drastic like a drive-by shooting. Even though she knew the likelihood that she and Eva were being followed was very small, walking across the parking lot had made her feel vulnerable. She couldn’t help wondering how she would protect Sigrid and herself being in the open like that, walking with the help of crutches.

As soon as they had stepped inside the building, Sigrid pointed to the left and Eva nodded. A bathroom break was a good idea.

“Wait for me,” she told Sigrid, before the pastor disappeared in a stall. She thought she heard her mutter: “Yes, mom,” and shook her head. Sigrid had been a good sport, she had to admit that. But then, how could she not be while her life might be in danger and it was Eva’s assignment to keep her safe? Eva felt that, every now and then, to the police woman’s amusement the pastor’s rebellious streak surfaced. She couldn’t blame the woman. Within a few hours her life had been turned upside down, forcing her even to leave her home and friends. Eva wondered if she would have taken it as well as Sigrid appeared to do. Probably not.

When she exited the stall and walked toward the row of sinks, Sigrid was already waiting for her. She was leaning against the wall with her hands stuffed inside her pockets, eying Eva with a pensive expression. Eva pumped some soap into the palm of her hand and started washing her hands. A look in the mirror showed her Sigrid was still studying her and she was just about to ask her what the pastor was thinking, when a woman walked into the restroom. Upon seeing Eva and Sigrid she halted. She only looked at the women for a very brief moment, but for Eva it was enough to move her body between the stranger and Sigrid and to notice there was room to move to the left, out of the immediate line of fire. The strange woman however gave them a curt nod and disappeared into a stall in the far corner. Only when the door had closed behind her, Eva noticed her wet, soapy hand had automatically moved to the gun she was wearing in a shoulder holster, underneath her jacket. Exhaling slowly, she withdrew her hand and reached out for a towel.

“Are you alright?” she asked Sigrid, noticing the pastor had turned a little paler than the worry and lack of sleep had already left her.

“It’s…I saw that,” Sigrid breathed. “You were reaching for your gun and it…I…,” the pastor swallowed hard and moistened suddenly dry lips.

“Let’s get out of here,” Eva suggested, grabbing her crutches from the spot where they were leaning against the wall. “We can talk over some coffee.”

Sigrid nodded and walked out in front of Eva, who was keenly aware of the fact that the strange woman had not left the stall yet.

“Let’s get some coffee,” she told Sigrid as soon as they entered the food court. Silently they headed to a Starbuck’s in the corner, where they ordered a large latte. Eva paid, waving Sigrid’s objections away with a shrug and a smile and the pastor carried their hot beverages to a small table closest to the exit, where she sat down and waited for Eva to join her. The police woman was quietly talking into her phone, while her eyes were focused on the woman from the restroom, who had just walked out of the building.

“What did just happen?” Sigrid asked softly, when Eva sat in front of her, reaching out for her coffee.

“I asked Ben to track that woman’ license plate,” Eva explained, sipping her coffee and immediately pulling a face because it was so hot it almost burnt her tongue.

“Why?” Sigrid asked.

“Gut feeling,” was the calm answer. “The way she looked at you when she walked into the restroom was a little suspicious.”

“So you were about to pull your gun,” the pastor stated with a small quiver in her voice.

“I was,” Eva admitted. “I can’t take risks, Sigrid. We don’t know who you’re running from. Not yet anyway.”

Sigrid nodded and Eva was glad to see some of her color had returned to her face. She quietly sipped her coffee and it was clear to the police woman she was processing all the information and events.

“What if she just thought I’m cute and she wanted my phone number?” Sigrid asked, chuckling when Eva looked at her with wide eyes. “Relax, I’m just kidding,” she added with a soft laugh. “Although, I would be bummed if you’d get between me and a cute woman, just because you’re carrying a gun,” she teased.

“Oh, ha, ha,” Eva shook her head, but she was smiling. “Is it your habit to pick up strangers?” she asked and Sigrid, who was just taking a sip, almost choked on her coffee.

“Oh, God, no!” she coughed, quickly putting down her cup. She coughed again and shot Eva an accusing look. She wiped her eyes and cleared her throat, letting out a laugh.

“I guess I deserved that, for teasing you,” she said. “And to answer your question: no, I don’t pick up strangers.”

“I thought I’d ask, just in case. I’d hate to pull a gun on someone who’s just checking you out,” the police woman shrugged, but there was a twinkle in her eyes and Sigrid laughed, grateful for the light banter. It helped her keep the anxiety at bay.

“Well, just in case, I’ll be very careful. So, how far do we still have to go?”

“About two hours, or so,” Eva answered, eying her Blackberry as if she wanted it to ring.

“Are…is your family okay with me being there?” Sigrid asked, suddenly feeling a little insecure. “I mean, I hardly think you do this often, taking people home because they might be in danger.”

“First time,” Eva nodded. “And my family is very accepting. They won’t ask any questions, because they trust me for having a reason for what I do.”

“It sounds like you have a good relationship with your parents,” Sigrid remarked.

“I do,” Eva answered with a smile that turned her eyes a lighter shade of green. It was the first time Sigrid had seen her face light up like that and the pastor couldn’t help admiring how it softened the usual serious features.

“Do you have any siblings?” Sigrid wanted to keep the conversation going, not just to see that smile again, but also because it gave her some sense of normalcy, to sit down, have coffee and chat with someone.

“I have two brothers and two sisters,” Eva answered, smiling when she saw Sigrid’s eyes widen. “I’m the youngest one.”

“Do they all live near?” Sigrid wanted to know, feeling slightly nervous. For some strange reason she felt intimidated enough by meeting Eva’s parents, but meeting four siblings as well would make it even worse. She usually didn’t shy away from meeting new people, but this time it was different. She was on the run and still felt really silly about it and she was not supposed to tell anyone the real reason for coming to Maine, including the Clemente family.

“I’m the only one who lives far away from home,” Eva said with a sigh. “It’s never been a problem for me, but my mother makes sure I’ll never forget how hard it is to not have me there.” The Inspector made a face and let out a soft laugh. “I guess I’m the black sheep of the family.”

“Are you the only one in law enforcement?”

“No, one of my brothers, Felix, is with the local police department, the other one, Leon is a fisherman, like my dad. He’s also a sculptor, but it’s hard to make a living doing that, so he helps dad on the boat. His wife, Connie, works at the local library.”

“What about your sisters?” Sigrid asked, wondering if any of Eva’s siblings would be like the Inspector. She hoped they would.

“Leah is the oldest. She’s married to David Fisher and has four kids, three girls and a baby boy, who is worshipped by his sisters. The poor kid will grow up with four mothers.” Eva chuckled. “Anyway, Leah is a stay-at-home-mom. My other sister, Iris, is less than two years older than I am. She’s married to her college sweetheart, Jesse Holbrooke, and they have two year old twins; a boy and a girl. Iris used to be a full-time art teacher, but resigned when the twins were born. Now she teaches a few workshops during the summer, while Jesse practices law.” Eva cast a look at Sigrid’s face and suppressed a smile. It was obvious the pastor was slightly intimidated by the amount of family members she was going to meet.

“You’ll be fine,” she tried to reassure the pastor. “They will all accept the fact that you’re there, no questions asked.”

“It makes for a lot of people,” Sigrid sighed, pushing her hair back from her forehead, a gesture Eva had already come to know as one of tension. “Do your brothers have children?

“Leon and Connie have a boy and Felix has two boys and a girl.”

“What’s his wife’s name?”

“Lisa,” Eva answered softly. “She died a few years ago, killed by a drunken driver.”

“Oh, Eva, I’m so sorry,” Sigrid responded, reaching out and briefly covering the Inspector’s hand with her own in a spontaneous gesture of comfort. “That must have been incredibly hard.”

“It was and still is,” Eva nodded, watching Sigrid’s warm hand leave hers. “The children were in the car with her and especially little Maura was badly injured. She made it though, which was a miracle.”

“Poor baby,” Sigrid whispered.

There was a brief silence and just as Eva was about to speak again, her phone started ringing. She cast a look at the display and quickly answered the call.

“Took you long enough,” she greeted the person on the other side drily. Sigrid watched the expression on the police woman’s face change from impatience, to surprise to confusion and finally keen interest. “Very interesting, Ben,” she said. “Can you send that to me in a file? Sure. Thanks a lot. Good work.”

“What is it?” Sigrid asked as soon as Eva put her phone back on the table.

“Not here,” Eva answered quietly. “We’ll talk in the car.”

Sigrid nodded slowly and felt reality settle back on her shoulders; its weight suddenly almost too much to bear.

“Are you alright?” Eva asked with concern.

“Yes. No. Oh, I don’t know,” Sigrid answered with a sigh. “For a few moments I was able to forget why I’m here. All of a sudden I remember,” she ended with a watery smile. “I guess it’s time to move on? No nap?”

“I’m sorry. I really am,” Eva spoke and Sigrid could tell the Inspector meant it.

“It’s okay. I’m sure I’ll be able to drive into a reasonable straight line for another two hours or so. The coffee sure helps.”

“Let’s grab something to eat,” Eva said, pushing back her chair and standing up.

“Don’t worry about me, I’m not hungry,” Sigrid answered.

“You need to eat,” Eva insisted. “Let’s grab some sandwiches. You can nibble on that while you drive,” she suggested.

Less than ten minutes later they were back on the road, heading north in a silver-colored Toyota RAV with Maine license plates that had been left for them by a fellow police officer. Their luggage was stored in the trunk. It had been Eva’s theory that switching cars would be easier if they would park the car they had driven to the service plaza next to one that was identical. Anyone following them would most likely keep an eye on both cars, to make sure they’d follow the right one. In the meantime, Eva and Sigrid would leave the building through the other exit and get in a different car. Benjamin Toussaint would wait until a few more cars had left the parking area and follow them from a distance.

The first few minutes back on the road were spent in silence. Nervously, Sigrid kept checking the rearview mirror, not really knowing what she expected to see, but she let out a sigh of relief when, in the distance she noticed a dark-green SUV.

“Do you think it worked?” she asked Eva, obediently accepting half of an oatmeal-raisin cookie that Eva had bought.

“I’m not sure we were being followed in the first place, but yeah, if we were, this might have thrown them off,” Eva replied.

“So, what was that phone call about, or can’t you tell?”

“I can and I will,” Eva answered with a small smile.”I had that license plate checked and surprise number one is that it wasn’t easy to do,” Eva explained. “Usually we enter the number in the database and the information pops up. Ben had to do some digging, but finally traced ownership of the car to Boston.” Eva slowly exhaled and glanced aside, noticing that Sigrid had her eyes on the road and both hands firmly on the steering wheel. “The owner of the car is Senator Richards.”

“From Massachusetts?” Sigrid asked, seeing Eva nod. “I thought Senator Richards was a man?”

“He is,” Eva replied.

“So, was that his…wife?” Sigrid wanted to know.

“Nope.”

“I had a feeling that would be the answer,” Sigrid sighed, casting a quick glance sideways at Eva, who was staring at the road ahead with a pensive expression. “So, what does this woman in the senator’s car have to do with us?”

“I don’t know yet,” Eva answered calmly. “But when she walked into the bathroom she recognized you and she was surprised to see you.”

“But I’d never seen that woman before,” Sigrid objected.

“And that’s exactly what I don’t like about this,” Eva explained, twirling her blackberry between her fingers. “With everything that has happened during the last few days I’m not willing to take any chances.” The policewoman was silent for a few moments. “Have you ever had that nagging feeling in the back of your mind that there is something you need to remember and you can’t?” Seeing Sigrid nod, Eva continued. “There’s something about this woman I know, but I can’t remember.”

“Then maybe it’s you she recognized?”

“I doubt it,” Eva replied with a sigh. “She looked at you, not me.”

###

As soon as she had left the service plaza at Kennebunk she had driven too fast, she knew that, but her anxiety level had grown by the second. Every moment she expected to see a police cruiser in her mirror, with flashing lights, forcing her to stop. It had not happened though and with relief she had taken the next exit off the highway.

The dark woman in the bathroom had looked straight at her and she was sure she had seen her hand move toward her jacket, most likely toward her gun. Running into the pastor and her most likely police protector had not been her plan. But what a lucky coincidence, because now she could tell them the woman was in Maine. Thirty-five thousand square miles to hide, but at least it was a start.

“Wonderful,” she sighed, flipping open her phone and impatiently punching in a number.

“Guess who I ran into,” was the first thing she said when the phone was answered.

What followed was a long silence in which she nervously bit her lip.

“Who?”

“Your pastor.”

A long silence.

“What? Where?”

“Maine. At the service plaza near Kennebunkport.”

“That is good news, very good, indeed. Did you talk to her?”

“No, I didn’t. I ran into her and some policewoman, at least that’s what I think she is, in the bathroom. I’m afraid I was so surprised to see her I stared at her a little too long. The damn police woman started to reach for her gun”

“Do you think she recognized you?”

“No, it didn’t seem like it. Besides, my face is not very well-known.”

“Not yet, anyway,” was the answer and she could hear the chuckle. “Are you still near them?”

“Are you nuts? Of course not! That police woman could easily have pulled a gun on me. Do you think I want to be shot?”

“For what? Looking at somebody?” was the snorted reply. “Last time I checked this was a free country.”

“With a lot of guns and a lot of ill-tempered people,” she replied wryly.

“Well, it definitely is worth looking into, though. Are you heading back this way?”

“I am now.”

“Good. I’ll see you in a few hours.”

###

Sigrid rapidly blinked her eyes that felt dry from sleep. The road in front of her seemed never-ending and she was so tired she could cry. The last hour or so Eva had been very quiet and every time Sigrid cast a quick look aside, the Inspector was staring out of the window with a brooding expression on her face. The only time she spoke was when she gave the blonde driving directions.

“Take a right at the next light,” Eva spoke in a soft voice and Sigrid nodded. Normally, she would have enjoyed the ride through Maine with its quaint little villages, forests, salt marshes and rugged coastline, but at present the only thing she cared about was getting to their destination in one piece. She could not remember a time she had been so tired. Physically and emotionally, she was completely drained and all she wanted was to find a reasonable soft spot somewhere where she could lay down and close her burning eyes.

“We’re almost there,” Eva’s soft voice interrupted Sigrid’s thoughts. “Twenty minutes.”

“This road is a dead-end,” Sigrid replied with a frown.

“There’s an old fisherman’s house and a dock,” Eva explained. “We’ll leave the car there.”

“And take a boat?” Sigrid asked in a tired voice.

“Just to make sure to shake off anyone who’s on our tail,” Eva explained while pointing at a small area for Sigrid to park the car. The spot was invisible from the road and if Eva had not been with her, Sigrid would have felt intimidated by the isolation the area provided.

“I sure hope you have a yacht waiting,” Sigrid sighed, opening the door and immediately feeling the cold wind bite her skin.

“I’m sorry, no yacht, just a lobster boat,” Eva apologized. “My brother Leon is here to pick us up.” Eva sent Sigrid a tired smile. “For what it’s worth, I think you did a great job today. Thank you for driving and getting us here in one piece. I know you’re exhausted.”

“Thank you and yes, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this tired before.”

“Let’s go then. This is going to be the last leg of the journey, I promise.”

Sigrid opened the trunk and started lifting her duffel bag, when all of a sudden a large hand gently pushed hers aside and grabbed the bag. Another hand grabbed Eva’s and when Sigrid’s tired eyes looked up it was in a male copy of Eva Clemente’s features.

“You must be Leon,” she said with a tired smile.

“The one and only,” he answered, flashing her a boyish smile. “I man my sister’s personal water taxi. Follow me, ladies, we’ll take care of introductions and pleasantries later. Let’s get out of this cold wind first.”

“Thanks, Leon,” Sigrid sighed, grateful that from now on she had only to make sure she would put one foot in front of the other and not fall in the cold water. She could leave the driving up to someone else.

With long legs Leon walked down the dock, jumped on board, stowed the bags and was back on the dock again before Eva and Sigrid were halfway. He gallantly offered Sigrid his hand and helped her on board, doing the same thing for his sister. But as soon as Eva was standing on the deck, he wrapped his arms around her to give her a warm hug.

“It’s good to see you, Eva. You look beat.”

“I am,” Eva smiled, playfully ruffling her brother’s hair before kissing his cheek. “Thanks for doing this.”

“Anytime,” Leon smiled. “Get inside, girls, it’s warmer than up here.”

“Let’s get out of the wind,” Eva suggested, pointing to a small door that lead to a cabin. Sigrid nodded and followed the police woman into a small cabin with a tiny galley, miniature stove and a table with two benches. While walking she leaned against the wall for support, not used to the gently rocking surface underneath her feet. She gratefully sank down on the bench, happy to be out of the wind.

“Are you alright?” Eva asked, casting a look at the pale face of the woman who was sitting across from her.

“Just tired,” Sigrid mumbled, rubbing her sore, burning eyes.

“Hang in there, in less than thirty minutes we’ll be home. We’ll just have to go around the point.” She cast Sigrid a worried look. “The bay is a little choppy right now. Will you be okay?”

“Now she asks me if I get seasick,” Sigrid sighed with a tired chuckle. “I honestly don’t know, Eva. I have never tried my sea legs before. But if I get sick, I’ll let you know.”

“There’s a window right behind you,” Eva deadpanned and Sigrid smiled.

“I’ll keep that in mind. How is your foot?”

“Okay,” Eva shrugged, not at all willing to admit the throbbing in her ankle was painful enough for her to think longingly about an icepack to put on it.

“Liar,” Sigrid mumbled, which earned her a tired smile. She closed her eyes and put her head on her arms that were resting on the table. She only wanted to close them for a moment, to ease the burning, but the next thing she knew was a hand gently shaking her shoulder, waking her from slumber.

“We’re here, Sigrid,” Eva’s voice sounded soft and tired.

Slowly, Sigrid lofted her head, feeling incredibly groggy.

“I guess I fell asleep,” she croaked, moistening dry lips. “Wow, I’m sorry about that.”

“Don’t be,” Eva shook her head. “You’re tired. You only need to wake up long enough to walk down the dock, across the yard and into the house. There’s a bed waiting for you.”

“Oh, a bed,” Sigrid groaned. “Sounds like heaven.”

“You should know,” Eva couldn’t help saying and Sigrid let out a tired chuckle.

“Funny, Inspector.”

“Sorry, that just slipped out,” Eva apologized.

“No problem, it was funny,” Sigrid replied, handing Eva her crutches.

The women entered the deck where Leon welcomed them with a warm smile. He helped them both off the boat, before grabbing their bags and following them down the dock.

“Wasn’t there supposed to be a cat coming with you as well?” he asked, casting a look at his sister who was navigating a few uneven wooden boards on her crutches.

“The cat’s coming later,” she answered. “We changed cars a couple of times and that would have been difficult with a cat to worry about. One of my coworkers will drop her off in the next couple of days.”

“Okay, good,” Leon nodded. “I’d hate to think about the poor thing being alone.”

“You are your mother’s son,” Eva grinned, casting a look at Sigrid who sent Leon a grateful smile.

“We can’t all be heartless, like you,” Leon teased.

Eva stopped dead in her tracks and turned around so she could look at him.

“You’re lucky I’m on crutches.”

“I know,” Leon nodded with a big grin. “If you hadn’t been I’d be in the water right now.”

“As long as you remember that,” Eva growled, but there was a twinkle in her eyes. “And for the record; I am not heartless.”

“Just realistic,” Leon nodded. “After poor Sigrid here has had a good sleep, I’ll tell her a few of your realistic encounters with some of the local critters.”

“Somehow I should have expected that,” Eva sighed, continuing her walk. She stepped off the dock, closely followed by Sigrid who had her coat wrapped tightly around her body, trying to fend off the cold wind and followed a path that was leading up to a white house with dark green shutters and a large, wrap-around porch, its wood faded to a dull grey. A few colorful buoys were hanging off the railing and underneath the porch some lobster cages were stacked.

Sigrid’s tired eyes took in the surroundings and suddenly she understood why Eva had arranged for them to be picked up by boat. Tall trees in the front shielded the house from view, so no-one would have been able to see them enter, unless they had been on the water and Sigrid had not seen any other boat.

She was so deep in thought, she had not noticed that Eva had stopped and only a quick hand on her shoulder prevented her from plowing into the other woman.

“God, I’m sorry,” she apologized, grabbing Eva’s arm. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Eva frowned. “You look like you’re asleep on your feet.”

“Almost,” Sigrid mumbled, pushing a strand of hair from her forehead.

“You can crawl into bed in a few minutes, I promise,” Eva smiled, withdrawing her hand from Sigrid’s shoulder, but not after she had given it an encouraging squeeze. “Come on, we’ll take the door into the kitchen and…”

Eva could not finish her sentence, because the kitchen door was opened and a tall, slender woman appeared. Her hair that used to be red was streaked with white and her friendly, round face was sprinkled with freckles.

“Eva,” she exclaimed, folding the Inspector into a hug. “Oh, honey, it’s so good to see you. What did you do to your foot?”

“Hi, mom,” Eva replied, slowly extracting herself from the warm embrace. “Just sprained my ankle, that’s all.”

“Did you have it looked at?” Agnes Clemente asked with a worried frown.

“Sigrid looked at it, she’s an EMT,” Eva explained, quickly taking the opportunity to change the subject. “Mom, this is Sigrid Meyers,” she introduced the sleepy-eyed blonde.

“Hello, Sigrid, it’s nice to meet you,” Agnes smiled warmly. “Please, come in, it’s nice and warm inside.” She gently grabbed hold of the pastor and led her inside the house. Sigrid let out a happy sigh when she felt the warm air inside the kitchen touch the cold skin of her face.

“Thank you, Mrs. Clemente,” Sigrid smiled.

“Please, call me Agnes,” Eva’s mother replied. “Here, let me take your coat. Would you like something to eat or drink? Eva?”

Agnes Clemente turned to her daughter who was shrugging off her own coat, dropping it in her brother’s extended hand.

“Not for me, mom, all I want is a shower and then a nap. A long one,” she added with a sigh. “What about you Sigrid?”

“Bed, definitely,” the blonde answered, suppressing a yawn.

“The off to bed it is, with both of you. We’ll talk and visit later. Eva, show Sigrid where she can find towels and such. I put you up in the backroom.”

“Thanks, mom,” Eva leaned in and kissed her mother on the cheek, patted her brother’s head and gestured Sigrid to follow her, which the blonde did after an apologizing smile to her hostess.

“It’s alright, dear,” Agnes responded to the silent apology. “We understand. Have a good sleep.”

“Thank you,” Sigrid smiled, following Eva out of the kitchen, into a hallway. The Inspector silently crossed the hallway and started climbing a set of steep stairs, using the railing to pull herself up. Sigrid had no eyes for the upstairs hallway, with its many doors and the gorgeous view out over the bay. All she could think of was to crawl into bed, any bed, close her eyes and go to sleep. Automatically following Eva, she entered a room, barely noticing the two double beds, desk, bookcases and open door to a bathroom.

“Pick a bed,” Eva said with a tired smile.

“Oh, I don’t care,” Sigrid sighed. “I just want to brush my teeth and crawl in.”

“Go for it,” Eva replied, grabbing the bag that Leon had carried upstairs for her and reaching for her laptop. “I’ll check in with Chuck first.”

Sigrid nodded while yawning, grabbed her toiletries and a shirt to sleep in and disappeared into the bathroom. In the meantime, Eva had booted up her laptop and was logging into the secured website that contained her email. Her eyes scanned the subject lines of the various emails. Nothing seemed to be too urgent, but before going to sleep for a while she wanted to read an update from Chuck.

“Wow, that was fast,” she mumbled when she read what Chuck had found out about the death of some of Sigrid’s friends. She quickly read the report and was relieved to find out that Melinda Jacobs, Sigrid’s friend had died of a congenital heart defect. There had been no traces of toxins in her system, or any signs of violence. No foul play. Devon Brown, the other friend had been hit by a car while crossing a road in dark, rainy conditions. Those conditions, combined with a motorist who had consumed a little too much alcohol and whose reflexes were slower than usual had led to the accident. The driver had been an elderly man, who had passed away six months after the accident.

Eva rubbed her tired eyes and closed the laptop. There was so much pain and sadness out in the world. And so much of it was brought on by bad decisions. Her eyes traveled to a familiar photo on the wall. Her family knew about tragedies like that. It had caused wounds that would never completely heal.

Eva looked up when Sigrid entered the bedroom, clad in an oversized t-shirt that almost reached her knees. A pair of tired blue eyes looked her way and Eva smiled.

“Crawl in and go to sleep,” she encouraged the pastor. “I’ll have a shower and will do the same.”

“I’d be happy to,” Sigrid sighed. “Thanks, Eva.”

Sigrid pulled back the heavy quilt that was covering the bed, crawled between the clean, cool sheets, let out a sigh of contentment and, to Eva’s amusement she was asleep in seconds. Curled up on her side, fast asleep, Sigrid Meyers looked so incredibly young it made Eva shake her head in amazement.

“There are people who’d be willing to pay a lot of money to be able to look like that,” she muttered, slowly getting up from the edge of the bed. Stretching to her full five foot nine, Eva felt the tired muscles in her back pull and she winced, realizing a hot shower would be good, painful ankle or not. She grabbed a clean shirt, knowing she would find anything else she’d need in the bathroom and headed for the shower.

###

“Okay, we’re obviously not getting anywhere with this,” Meg Jones said with a frustrated groan, while putting down the phone. “Charles Benoit is a very charming man, but he refused to tell me where Sigrid went or how to reach the Inspector.”

“He’s just doing his job, I suppose,” Betty mumbled, staring at the cup of tea that was sitting in front of her. The three of them were in Betty’s kitchen, trying to figure out what exactly was going on.

“She’s on the run, our Sigrid, that’s clear,” Twitch concluded. “What we don’t know is if the Inspector is with her, or if the Inspector is chasing after her.”

“With her,” both Betty and Meg said at the same time.

“Something happened yesterday that made the Inspector take our pastor away from here and I bet it’s for her own protection,” Betty said with conviction.

“If that’s the case then maybe we should focus on why,” Twitch suggested. “Let’s assume Sigrid had to leave, because she’s not safe here, or something. The Inspector is with her, so she’s in good hands.” Twitch waited a moment, wanting to be sure she had the full attention of her friends. “What we could do, as her friends who want to help, is to find out why she left. What happened? Who is threatening her and why?”

“That’s all very noble of you, Twitch,” Meg Jones replied with a sigh, “but we’re not the police. Don’t you think they’d be trying to figure out these things as well?”

“Of course, but they can do only so much,” Twitch stated. “Besides, girls, our police force never deals with anything like this. And with all due respect, I don’t believe they have the appropriate skills to get the facts on the table. No, it’s up to us,” she said, grabbing her purse and pulling out a notepad and pencil. “Let’s make a list of people we need to talk to and things we need to investigate.”

“Twitch, I’d hate to bring this to you, but we’re not Charlie’s Angels.”

“I know that,” Twitch laughed. “They had the looks, but we have the brains.” She leaned across the table and unconsciously lowered her voice. “Listen, we can do this, I know we can. All we have to do is ask the right people the right questions. And we’ll make a list, so we can be selective.”

“You’re nuts,” Betty responded, but she didn’t sound convinced. “How can we compete with all those young people and all that technology they’re using?”

“Simple, we have more experience and more wits. We’re ‘old people’ and most of the town folk know and respect us. Let’s use that in our advantage.”

“Abuse is more like it,” Meg couldn’t help responding, but Twitch’ idea started to sound appealing. “But, if we can help Sigrid in any way, I think we should.” She took a deep breath and nodded. “I’m in.”

“I guess I’m too,” Betty sighed. “Someone will have to keep an eye on you two old fools.”

“I knew you’d see it my way,” Twitch said with a wide grin. “Now, let’s make that list and then get ready.”

“Get ready for what?”

“To visit the pastor’s house.”

“But Twitch, she isn’t home and…wouldn’t that…are you suggesting we’d break in?” Meg gasped.

“No, we visit,” Twitch send her friends a smug smile. “I know where she keeps the spare key.”

Part 6

It was a soft and warm place Sigrid was in. She was so comfortable she felt like she was floating. It was a great state to be in and she wrinkled her nose when slowly but surely sounds started to penetrate the perfect haze. It still took a few minutes for her sleepy brain to start processing what she heard and when it did, she became aware of the sound of lazily crashing waves, a seagull’s call and the distant bark of a dog. Slowly opening her eyes, she noticed the thin rays of light peeking through an opening in the curtains and for a moment she was confused about where she was. When she lifted her head and her eyes fell on the other bed in the room that was empty, but clearly had been slept on, all came back to her again. She was at the Clemente’s house in Maine and had arrived, when? Sigrid cast a look at the alarm clock next to the bed and her eyes grew wide. It was eight-thirty in the morning, which meant she had slept more than fourteen hours.

When Sigrid’s eyes traveled back to the nightstand again she saw a note and she quickly rolled onto her side to grab it.

Sigrid,

I hope you slept well, you sure needed it. So did I! Whenever you’re awake enough to find and read this note you might be awake enough to appreciate the thought of some fresh coffee. Come downstairs whenever you’re ready and please, make yourself at home.

Eva

“Oh, coffee,” Sigrid smiled, silently complimenting the Inspector on the right incentive to get her out of bed. She yawned, stretching her body and feeling the pull of her muscles all the way down to her calves. “But, first a shower.”

She threw off the covers and slid out of bed, still yawning. Her body was stiff from sleeping such a long time, but Sigrid knew a warm shower would take care of that. She disappeared in the bathroom and hopped in the shower, thoroughly enjoying the warm water on her skin. It helped her wake up more also and when she turned off the water and grabbed a towel, she was awake enough to realize her stomach was growling. No wonder, since her last meal had been a very long time ago. After she slipped into a pair of navy sweatpants and a light-blue sweater and made her bed she headed downstairs to where she thought the kitchen was. Her arrival the previous day was only a vague memory, because she had been so exhausted. As Sigrid walked down the stairs, a door opened downstairs and Eva appeared.

“Good morning,” the Inspector smiled. “Did you have a good sleep?”

“Absolutely,” Sigrid nodded with a smile of her own. “I can’t remember ever sleeping that long.” She arrived at the bottom of the stairs and cast a look at Eva, who was dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a white v-neck sweater. She looked very relaxed and well-rested and full of self-confidence.

“Good morning,” Sigrid smiled. “Your note said something about coffee?”

Eva laughed and opened the door behind her, gesturing Sigrid to step inside.

“I just made a fresh pot. Unfortunately, my nephew broke the French press, so I hope regular coffee will do.”

“Does it have caffeine in it?”

“That’s the only coffee I know,” Eva chuckled, while grabbing two mugs and pouring the steaming coffee into them. She added a dash of milk to both and handed Sigrid a mug, which the blonde took with a grateful smile.

“This is good,” she sighed, after taking a first, careful sip.

“Sit down,” Eva gestured, pulling up a chair at the large table.

“This kitchen is huge,” Sigrid admired, looking at the oversized stove and long countertop. “But then, your family is quite large.”

“And this is where we always end up hanging out, in the kitchen with mom.”

Sigrid smiled and took another sip of her coffee while her eyes took in the cabinets that were painted a fresh, crisp white. A lot of the accessories were blue, although there were a lot of different colors decorating the large space. It gave her a very homey feeling and she understood why Eva and her siblings would want to hang out in the kitchen. The large window allowed an unobstructed view of the bay and, even in winter, the sight was breathtaking. Sigrid knew that, if she would have been a resident of the house, she would have lived in the kitchen also.

Tearing her eyes away from the winter blue sky and gently rolling waves, Sigrid turned to Eva and shot her an apologetic look.

“I feel bad I didn’t really introduce myself to your mother yesterday. That doesn’t say a lot about my manners, does it?”

“You were exhausted,” Eva calmly replied. “And my mother understands that, don’t worry.”

“Is she here?” Sigrid wanted to know, eager to make up for the lack of polite introduction.

“She’s at the clinic, but will be in for lunch, or earlier, if there are no more patients.”

“Clinic?” Sigrid frowned.

“I’ll give you a tour after you finish your coffee and have something to eat. The clinic is in the front of the house.”

“It is?” Sigrid looked puzzled and Eva grinned.

“My mother is a veterinarian,” she explained. “She’s always been a ‘work at home mom’, as she puts it.”

“Wow, five children and a veterinarian, busy life.”

“She always says the animals kept her sane,” Eva smiled.

“Now I understand you being so comfortable with me bringing Minnie,” Sigrid understood. “You said there were pets around.”

“Always,” Eva nodded. “Listen, Sigrid, I heard back from Chuck about some of your friends.”

“And?” Sigrid asked, clenching the mug in her hands with such force the knuckles of her hands were going white.

“The death of Devon Brown was due to congenital heart disease and there is no reason to suspect foul play. Melinda Jacobs’ death was due to an unfortunate accident, brought on by an intoxicated driver in dark, rainy conditions. The driver was an elderly man and there were no ties between him and anything that resembles an organized crime.”

There was a brief silence in which Sigrid processed the words she just heard and Eva allowed her the time to do so.

“Deep down in my heart I’m glad that’s the case,” Sigrid finally said. “Although it does deepen the mystery about my name being part of that list. Did you find out anything about Alistair and Connor?”

“Not yet,” Eva answered softly. “But hopefully that won’t take long. As soon as we know where we stand with that, we can start going down our list of theories.”

“What is your main theory? Are you allowed to share that with me?”

“Somebody is trying to incriminate you,” Eva replied calmly, taking a sip from her coffee. Her green eyes studied the woman across from her, something Sigrid was well aware of. “The question is why.”

“I believe it’s become a little more than incrimination,” Sigrid muttered. “I feel like my life is being threatened.”

With a pensive expression, Eva continued to study Sigrid’s face.

“But why?” she repeated.

Sigrid quietly sipped her coffee. She could tell that the wheels inside Eva Clemente’s brain were spinning and deep down inside she wished she could give the Inspector a clear answer.

“You must know I do believe you have nothing to do with the murder of Michael Bell,” Eva finally said, her eyes registering the widening of Sigrid’s eyes.

“But…?” the blonde asked.

“But my gut feeling keeps sending me these tiny signals that make me wonder what I’ve missed. I have missed something, Sigrid, and I wish I knew what it was.”

The pastor put down her coffee cup and took a deep breath, before raising her eyes and meeting the Inspector’s gaze.

“Do you trust me?” she asked softly and Eva could hear the weariness in her voice. Sigrid sounded tired and all of a sudden the tiny lines around her eyes showed she wasn’t in her early or late twenties anymore.

“You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t,” Eva answered in a soft, controlled voice.

“I’m sorry you have been dragged into this mess and now your family is…,” Sigrid stared, but a warm hand on her arm efficiently stopped her.

“I am an Inspector with New Hampshire’s Major Crime Unit and being in this mess is part of my job. The fact that we’re here, in my parents’ house is because I decided you would be safe from whatever, or whoever, is chasing you.” Eva’s hand lingered for a moment, before she slowly let go of Sigrid’s arm. “As for me, it will give me the opportunity to do some research and track some paper trails while my stupid foot heals.”

Sigrid nodded and slowly exhaled, although Eva did notice her fingers were still clenched around the mug. The pastor was tense and her body-language gave that away.

“Were you able to…do some research this morning?” Sigrid asked. “If there’s anything I can do to help, I’d be happy to do so. I brought my laptop with me as well.”

“I know,” Eva smiled. “And I’m sure you’ll be a great help.”

Sigrid nodded and cast down her eyes, unable to meet Eva’s. There was too much compassion and understanding radiating from the police woman and she was afraid that the tension that was coiled tightly deep within her body would reduce her to a puddle of tears. And crying in front of Eva Clemente was the last thing Sigrid Meyers wanted to do.

“To answer your question, yes I did do some research this morning and I’ve exchanged quite a few emails with Chuck already,” Eva said, all businesslike again. “We’ve run background checks on the male members of your church, but nothing of interest has popped up.” Eva paused and she sent Sigrid a quizzical look. To the blonde, it was as if the Inspector waited for a response.

“That’s good,” Sigrid finally replied, somewhat puzzled. “I’m glad no member of the church is involved in anything criminal.”

“I bet you already knew that though,” Eva smiled.

A pair of blue eyes widened and looked at the Inspector with a mixture of confusion and trepidation. Sigrid waited for Eva to elaborate on her statement, but the Inspector was leaning back in her chair, sipping her coffee, while calmly studying the pastor who was clearly trying to regain her composure.

“You said you trusted me,” Sigrid finally spoke, her voice barely audible.

“I do,” Eva answered, leaning forward without taking her eyes off the other woman. “But you know as well as I do there is more to the story and I’m curious to hear it. From you,” Eva added a little more forceful.

“What information do you want me to share with you?” Sigrid sighed, raking her fingers through her still damp hair.

“Whatever will help with this case,” Eva replied. “To make you feel better, my boss has talked to the powers that be and after what I’ve been told, I’m sure there’s an email waiting for you,” the Inspector continued. “I’m sure the cooperation between my unit and yours will be very helpful.”

While talking Eva had turned her laptop so the screen was facing Sigrid and to her surprise she was confronted with a very familiar log-in screen. She took a deep breath, ready to say something, but then changed her mind. She exhaled slowly and, after a few moments of quiet deliberation, she quickly entered a name and password. Her eyes flew over the screen and Eva saw her bite her lip while she slowly nodded. When the blue eyes looked up from the screen there was a level of awareness in them that Eva had not witnessed yet. She suppressed a contented smile and leaned back into her chair again, waiting for Sigrid to talk.

“When did you find out?” Sigrid finally asked with a sigh of resignation.

“The night of the murder.”

“Really?” Sigrid asked, clearly surprised. “How?”

“I got lucky when searching some databases I have access to. The fact that your resume list a Bachelor’s in Religious Studies made you pop up all over my screen.”

“Oh,” Sigrid replied softly.

“It also helps to have connections,” Eva nodded, not longer able to hide her smile.

“Sure, rub it in,” Sigrid muttered. “Who did you talk to?”

“Lauren Darkwolf from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation

“How do you know Lauren?” Sigrid wanted to know, rubbing her forehead, feeling the signs of an approaching headache.

“I’ve met Lauren and her partner during a training. We stayed in contact.”

“What else did your database tell you?”

“Degrees in Psychology, Criminal Justice and Law. You must have been a heck of a student, Sigrid,” Eva added, not able to hide the admiration in her voice. “You are from Florida and you have worked with and for law enforcement on numerous occasions.” Eva paused to take a sip of coffee. “What I don’t know is why you ended up in New Hampshire.”

With slow movements, Sigrid turned the laptop back around so it was facing Eva. She wrapped both her hands around the mug and breathed in the calming aroma of coffee. After a long silence she let out a deep breath and looked up; her blue eyes were clear and calm.

“I need you to know that I am an ordained minister and have really enjoyed the years I’ve been working as a pastor.”

“I believe you,” Eva nodded with a small smile.

“I’d never do anything to hurt the people of my church and I dread the day I’ll have to tell them their pastor is also working closely together with the FBI.” Sigrid shook her head and nervously rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Interesting mix of careers, huh?” She let out a soft, humorless laugh. “No matter how I look at it, I can’t help feeling I’ve been deceiving some very good, decent people.”

“With good reason, I assume,” Eva objected quietly.

“My first degree was in Religious Studies. I did some pastoral work in a women’s prison and became interested in psychology and criminal justice, so I decided to get a degree in those two fields as well. I caught the eye of one of the professors and he asked me if I was interested in helping him doing some profiling. At that time I didn’t know he was helping the FBI with a case, so…”

“You caught their eye also,” Eva concluded.

“I did,” Sigrid nodded, putting her now empty mug in front of her on the table.

“And before you knew it you were on your way to Quantico.”

“Not exactly,” Sigrid smiled at Eva’s attempt to lighten the mood. “I had to do a lot of thinking before I made that decision. I was very interested in the investigational, psychological and human side of the work, but I hated the idea of having to learn how to use a weapon. I did not want to ‘work in the field’ as they call it and carry a weapon.” Sigrid paused and let out a shaky breath. “Before I accepted this assignment, I did receive some training, just in case.”

“What do you use?” Eva couldn’t help asking.

“A Beretta 950,” Sigrid sighed, reaching behind her and pulling the semi-automatic handgun out of the waistband of her jeans, making Eva almost snort out her coffee in surprise.

“What?” Sigrid frowned.

“Nothing,” Eva coughed, trying not to laugh. “It’s just that, all of a sudden you go from a sweet, peaceful pastor to gun-toting FBI Agent. It’s a bit of an adjustment.”

“I guess I’ll take that as a compliment,” Sigrid replied with a smile and Eva nodded. “But, just to be clear, I am not an FBI agent. Because of my position as a pastor and my previous experience doing some work for the FBI, I was asked to participate in this particular investigation.”

“Anyway, a few years ago I worked closely together with the NYPD on a case that involved human trafficking,” Sigrid continued. “Women and young girls are smuggled into the country and used in prostitution. They were moved between some major cities and a lot of them ended up in New York. We were able to close some major trafficking routes, but sometimes it feels like mopping the floor while the water’s still running. One of the routes comes in from Canada, goes through New Hampshire to Boston and from there to New York and Philadelphia. It’s very well organized and some leads that we are following point to some powerful people in D.C.” Sigrid paused and her blue eyes were troubled. “Because of my previous experience with the FBI, my old professor suggested the Boston bureau put me on this case. I could do my job as a pastor and use my ears and eyes to gather information.”

“Have you?” Eva asked curiously. “Is that why they’re after you?”

“It has taken me three years, but I finally gathered enough information to start putting things together and we’re building a real case now,” Sigrid nodded. “Being a pastor in a small town in a rural area is a good cover, but it also requires being very careful, because I’m so visible. I actually found a lot of interesting tidbits while working as an EMT. But I’m still surprised that would be the reason to try and get me out of the way.”

“Did you know Michael Allen Bell?”

Sigrid shook her head and bit her bottom lip.

“I honestly don’t, but when I just read the email from the Boston bureau’s Director I was told he was an FBI informant.”

“Yeah, that’s what Chuck emailed me this morning,” Eva sighed. “It makes me glad we took you away from New Hampshire right now. His body in your church was clearly a warning, don’t you think?”

“It seems that way,” Sigrid agreed. She took a deep breath and raised her eyes to met Eva’s. “What do you know about human trafficking, Inspector?”

“I’m not intimately familiar with the statistics,” Eva answered slowly, carefully choosing her words. “It creates a lot of heartache and suffering and is big business.”

“About thirty billion American dollars a year, yes,” Sigrid nodded. “Worldwide, more than two million people are the victims of trafficking each year. Half of those victims are children. Almost half of the total number of victims is sexually exploited, most of them are females. Children,” Sigrid said in a soft voice. “Every year, between twelve and fifteen thousand people are smuggled into this country. One way in is across the Canadian border into New England.””

“Modern day slavery,” Eva replied with a sigh, slowly shaking her head.

Sigrid stood up from her chair and walked to the window, staring out over the bay. Even though she trusted Eva it was hard to summarize all the work she had done during the past three years in just a few minutes.

“They smuggle them in trains, cars, buses,” Sigrid explained, while her eyes followed a seagull that was diving into the waves. She knew the water was ice cold and the sight of the bird fearlessly plunging in the icy bay made her shiver. “They lure them to the United States and Canada with promises of work, a better life and student visas. Sometimes they’re kidnapped. Once they’re here they lose their passports and money, if they even have that and are forced to work as prostitutes or farm labor. One night, last year, I was pulling a shift as an EMT when a speeding van went off the road. Inside we found four girls and two boys who could not have been older than nineteen. The driver had fled the scene.” Sigrid took a deep breath and turned around to Eva. The Inspector immediately noticed the sad look in her eyes.

“They didn’t make it,” she concluded softly.

“Only one did,” Sigrid sighed. “A thirteen year old boy from Romania, who was sold by his mother to traffickers for one hundred Euros. His mother was an alcoholic and prostitute,” Sigrid explained.

“What happened to him?”

“Once authorities figured out who he was and that his own mother had sold him, they put him in foster care. He had already spent almost a year in Canada. They were moving him and the other ones in the van to another city, probably Boston or New York.”

“What exactly is your role in the investigation? I’m sure it’s more than just gathering informational tidbits.”

Sigrid nodded and walked back toward the table, aware of Eva’s eyes following her every move.

“We have reason to believe there is some political involvement,” Sigrid started, carefully choosing her words, relaxing a little when she noticed Eva was patiently waiting for her to explain. The raised eyebrows and look of patient expectation were indications that Eva Clemente expected more information than she had just been given.

“I guess you want more details?” Sigrid asked, more to gain a few more moments to gather her thoughts than to receive an actual answer.

“The bureau in Washington D.C has received tips about the involvement of a senator in human trafficking. I’ve been told the source is reliable and no, before you ask, I don’t know who it is. The involvement consists of a money trail to the illegal sex business. Believe it or not, but accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands are involved as well. One of the money trails, though, leads to a local New Hampshire bank.”

“Is the senator from New Hampshire?”

“We’re not sure. We believe he or she is from New England. If we add the body of Michael Allen Bell to the few clues we have, it’s not farfetched to believe that.”

“Don’t forget the warning you were given.”

“I don’t,” Sigrid shook her head. “Trust me, it’s been solidly on my mind for the last forty-eight hours.”

“So, you have a money trail, a reliable tip, the body of Michael Bell, who was an FBI informant, the threats to your life and a trafficking route from Canada to Boston and New York,” Eva summed up the information she had been given. “No concrete evidence or witnesses?”

“Not yet,” Sigrid sighed. “But what puzzles me is the threat to my life. I am a pastor in a tiny New Hampshire town and the only times I’ve encountered victims of trafficking was when I was working as an EMT. It doesn’t make sense to threaten me because of that.”

“Then there must be something else,” Eva concluded, looking at the blonde whose eyes were unfocused while she stared off into the distance.

“Maybe we can come up with something if we figure out who knows where your family lives,” Eva suggested.

“I was just thinking about that,” Sigrid responded with a small smile. She walked back to the table and reclaimed her seat across from Eva. “That train of thought provides me with possibilities I’d rather not think about.”

“Because it means there could be a leak,” Eva spoke softly.

“Or someone pretty high up has access to my files,” Sigrid nodded. “If that’s the case, the question remains: how would that someone know I’m more than just a pastor?”

“Because someone pointed them in that direction,” Eva answered.

Her words made Sigrid flinch and she reached out to cover Sigrid’s hand with her own, giving it an encouraging pat before she withdrew again.

“Just for argument’s sake, let’s assume there is a leak in the Boston office. Do you have any idea who could be the one?”

Sigrid shook her head, while biting her bottom lip, a sign Eva had come to recognize as stress.

“How many people know you’re on an…undercover assignment?” Eva tried.

“As far as I know the Director and two other people I send reports to, they’re both Agents assigned to human trafficking cases.”

Eva frowned and her fingers played with a pencil, twirling it around and around.

“I have a theory,” she spoke after a brief silence. “You say Michael Allen Bell was an FBI informant. Someone killed him and dumped him in your church. Maybe that person thinks you’re an informant also and they’re trying to scare you off.”

“Where do the threatening letter and the dead, sacrificed pigeon in my house fit in?”

“Diversion,” Eva stated. “They’re trying to get us to focus on some religious zealot, possibly homophobic, as a distraction from them. We could waste a lot of time by chasing the wrong leads.” Eva shook her head and tapped the pencil on the surface of the table. “But then, how would a religious zealot know where your family lives?”

“With a little help,” Sigrid spoke slowly. “The person who would use that kind of diversion tactic, might have access to my file and made sure the one leaving the altar in my office had the addresses of my family.” Raising her eyes to meet Eva’s, the Inspector could tell Sigrid’s brain was working overtime. “That could actually be a plausible theory.”

“Thank you,” Eva smiled. “At least it’s something to focus on right now. Do you know any religious zealots?”

“Plenty,” Sigrid snorted softly. “But most of them wouldn’t do this kind of thing. They just stick to hurtful words and insults.”

“Anybody local?”

Sigrid’s eyes locked with Eva’s and she slowly nodded.

“A couple.”

###

“Are you sure about this, Twitch?” Betty asked, nervously looking over her shoulder.

“Positive,” was the confident answer.

“I’m still not sure, girls,” Meg sighed. “What if we get caught?”

“We won’t. Besides, in the unlikely event that we do, we just tell them that Sigrid gave us the key to check up on her house. To make sure the pipes won’t freeze and the plants are watered.”

“I’m just glad there’s been no recent snow,” Betty muttered. “At least we won’t be leaving any fresh tracks.”

Twitch chuckled and opened her purse to retrieve the key they had found in Sigrid’s church office. It had been so easy to just walk in, grab the key and leave again.

“Wouldn’t it have been so much more entertaining if someone would have asked us what we were doing in the office?” she mused.

“No,” Betty and Meg answered simultaneously. “Now, hurry up and open that door,” Betty urged. “The sooner we’re leaving, the better.”

“No sense of adventure,” Twitch muttered while opening the door to Sigrid’s house. The three women stepped inside and the first thing they noticed was the cold.

“My goodness. Did she turn off the furnace?” Betty wondered, walking into the kitchen, all fears of getting caught forgotten. She was followed by her friends who, unconsciously, stayed close to her. Just in case. As soon as the three friends entered the living room they halted, looking around in horror. All Sigrid’s books were haphazardly thrown on the floor, some with the covers ripped off. CD’s and DVD’s were taken out of their cases and had joined the jumbled mass of paper on the floor. The houseplants were yanked out of the pots and thrown on top of the books, their stems broken. The pillows on the couch were shredded, their contents added to the chaotic pile on the floor, while the coffee table was turned on its side, one of its legs broken.

“What on earth happened here?” Meg whispered, with her hand still pressed against her mouth.

“I think that’s clear,” Betty muttered. “Someone sliced open that plastic covering the door and just walked in.” She took a tentative step inside the room. “Somebody must have been looking for something.”

“Looks like they didn’t find it,” Twitch mumbled. “Otherwise, why trash the place?”

“What if they’re still here?” Meg suddenly whispered and her friends looked at her with wide eyes. Betty immediately took a step back, ready to disappear into the kitchen again, but Twitch slowly nodded, opened her purse and pulled out a small, but deadly looking revolver. Betty and Meg gasped in surprise when their friend calmly clicked her purse shut and unlocked the safety of the gun.

“Twitch,” Betty whispered heatedly. “Are you crazy?”

“No, just old enough to know I don’t have to take crap from anyone,” Twitch answered calmly.

“You think she’s got early dementia?” Meg asked Betty, her eyes never leaving the gun.

“Early?” Betty softly snorted. “She’s four years older than I am and I’m ancient.” In spite of the situation they both giggled, before turning their attention back to Twitch.

“Twitch, put that thing away. I’m sure nobody is hiding here. Whoever did this must have left hours ago.”

“How do you know?”

Betty pointed at the ripped plastic that had covered the splintered door. On the rug, just inside the door was a very thin layer of ice.

“It took a few hours for that to happen,” she explained.

“I’m not taking your word for it,” Twitch muttered. “I’ll hang on to this thing, just in case. If anyone tries to pull something on us, I’ll be ready.”

“Whatever you say, Twitch. Just don’t point that thing at me,” Meg requested, eying the small gun with trepidation. “Besides, I think we’d better leave. This place is such a mess, we’d better notify the police.”

“And tell them what? We’re breaking in, Meg,” Betty said. “I’m pretty sure they won’t be happy about that.”

“Maybe we could leave an anonymous message,” Twitch suggested.

“I think we should have a quick look around,” Betty spoke. “Just to make sure we’re not missing any clues. Since we’re here anyway.”

“Okay, what are we looking for?” Meg wanted to know, carefully navigating a broken vase on the floor, while making her way to the hallway.

“I’ve got no clue,” Betty answered, following her friend. “Twitch? Any ideas?”

“I guess we should look for something that is unusual for Sigrid to have.”

“Like what? Murder mysteries?” Meg asked, pointing to one of the coverless books in the middle of the floor. “Books about atheism? Rock and Roll music?”

“No, that’s all Sigrid,” Twitch answered undaunted. “Just…look, if there’s something off, we’ll find it.”

“I wish I had your level of confidence,” Betty muttered, but her eyes scanned the floor.

“See, someone was looking for something and my guess is it’s something our dear pastor didn’t want to be found.”

“If that’s the case, don’t you think she would have taken it with her?” Meg reasoned.

“Possibly,” Twitch muttered under her breath. She looked up at her friends and rolled her eyes. “Okay, we might not find a thing, but while we’re here we might as well look around. Besides, we might find a clue about who did this.”

The three women made their way into the hallway. The door to Sigrid’s office was open and one look inside showed them the same mess as the living room. Quietly they made their way to the bedroom. The walk-in closet had been emptied of all clothes and the mattress of the bed was leaning against the wall, sliced open, its contents spread across the carpet.

“Oh, my goodness,” Meg was the first one to speak. When her friends looked at her she silently pointed to the wall behind them. Red, angry letters decorated the once pale yellow wall.

“You can run, but you can’t hide,” Betty read, not able to hide the quiver in her voice. She swallowed hard and turned to her friends. “I think we should leave now,” she whispered. “And I do believe we should call the police.”

“You’re right,” Meg replied and Twitch nodded.

“Let’s go,” Betty encouraged. Carefully not to trip over anything on the floor, she made her way to the door. Her eyes were cast down and she didn’t see the gloved hand that took a hold of the doorknob. Only when the door slammed shut, the three women looked up, startled.

“Was…was that the wind?” Meg wanted to know, but there was no answer.

“Not unless the wind can shut and lock the door,” Betty spoke in a hoarse voice. Her hand was on the doorknob and no matter how hard she pulled, the door didn’t open. Slowly, she turned back to her friends. Her face was pale and there was fear in her eyes.

“Someone locked us in.”

Part 7

“What do we do now?” Meg whispered, eying the locked door with her glasses balanced on the tip of her nose.

“I can shoot the lock out,” Twitch suggested.

“Are you crazy?” Betty replied with annoyance. “If you do that you’ll get us all killed.”

“It works in the movies.”

Meg turned around and glanced at her friend with a look that was a mixture between irritation and amusement.

“Twitch, we’re not in a movie. This is real,” she said patiently.

“Fine,” Twitch muttered. “Do you have a better idea?”

“Not yet,” Betty drawled, looking around the bedroom. “Let’s take a few minutes to look around. We might find something that will help us open the door.”

“I already have something,” Twitch replied, waving her gun. Immediately her two friends ducked, shooting her angry glares.

“Something else,” Meg insisted. “I’m not ready to have my brains plastered all over the wall. Put that thing away!”

“Alright, alright,” Twitch sighed, dropping the gun in her purse. “But if we get killed, I’ll blame you two.”

“Fair enough,” Betty mumbled, slowly walking through the piles of clothes, books and magazines. She was headed for the dresser with the contents of its drawers scattered around the room. The top of the dresser seemed relatively undisturbed and she hoped she would be able to find something to pry open the door. Her eyes, enlarged through the glasses she was wearing, hardly blinked when she took in the few trinkets that sat on top of the dresser. With careful fingers she opened a small jewelry box and she smiled when she saw a children’s bracelet. It was gold and was decorated with tiny little teddy bears. It looked well-worn and Betty could almost picture and small Sigrid, proudly wearing her bracelet.

“Maybe I should take it for safe-keeping,” she mumbled. “Just in case.”

She opened her purse and meant to put the small box in its side pocket, but it slipped out of her hands, hit the floor and bounced underneath the dresser.

“Oh, great,” she sighed, slowly sinking to her knees. “Here I go, old lady crawling on the floor.”

Sitting on her knees in front of the dresser, she felt underneath for the small box she had dropped. With a frown and a groan she extended her arm until she touched the wall, blindly patting the floor she finally touched the little box and slowly started pulling it toward her. It scraped the underside of the dresser and Betty silently hoped it wouldn’t scratch the pretty little box. All of a sudden she felt something drop on her hand and she let out a surprised gasp.

“What the heck was that?” she muttered, ignoring the inquisitive stares from her friends, who had walked closer. “Here, take this,” she said, handing the jewelry box to Meg. “There’s something else underneath here.”

“I hope it’s a screwdriver,” Twitch mumbled, still miffed that her friends would not let her use her gun.

“No, not a screwdriver,” Betty answered slowly when her fingertips touched a small, rectangle piece of plastic. She pulled turned away from the dresser and opened her hand for her friends to see.

“Oh, it’s one of those beam thingies,” Meg knew.

“Flash drive, Meg,” Twitch corrected, reaching out and taking it from Betty. “It’s sticky.”

“It was taped to the underside of the dresser,” Betty explained. “Alright, girls, I need a hand up. Gravity is not my friend these days.”

With the help of both Twitch and Meg, Betty was hauled back to her feet again. She took Sigrid’s jewelry box and slid it in her purse and then accepted the flash drive from Twitch, turning it around and studying it carefully.

“We’ll need a computer to see what’s on it,” she mused.

“And that brings us right back to our original problem,” Meg sighed. “How do we get out of here?”

“Through the window?” Twitch suggested. “We can climb up that chair and let ourselves fall in the snow bank.”

“Maybe as a last resort,” Betty nodded. “I prefer not to break a hip.”

“Here, look at this,” Meg said triumphantly after rummaging through Sigrid’s closet. She held up a field hockey stick and sported a wide smile. “I bet we could use this to whack open the door,” she said.

“We sure can try,” Betty nodded, stepping aside to let her friend pass her.

With unbridled enthusiasm Meg lifted the field hockey stick and struck the door as hard as she could. The sound of wood crashing into wood made the other women cringe and both Betty and Twitch took a step back.

“This is great,” Meg beamed, pushing her glasses back into place.

“Is there something you want to talk about, Meg?” Twitch asked cautiously. “Is there a reason for this display of…aggression?”

Meg didn’t respond and Betty wondered if she had heard Twitch’ words at all. She took another swing at the door and laughed when the doorknob gave away to the violent treatment, rolling down the carpet and coming to a rest against a shredded pillow.

“Okay, you just killed the knob,” Twitch spoke, stepping forward. “Does the door open now?”

Meg pushed the door, frowning when it didn’t move at all.

“This is not good,” she mumbled, staggering backwards. The steadying hand of Betty kept her on her feet.

“It’s okay, Meg, we’ll just keep trying,” Betty spoke in a comforting tone. “I think that…”

“No, not the door,” Meg interrupted her. “Look. That is not good,” she pointed at the hole the doorknob had left behind. To their horror the three women watched a small tendril of smoke waft into the room. For a few moments they stood frozen, too shocked to respond.

“We need to get out of here,” Twitch was the first one who spoke. “And I mean now.”

“Not through there,” Betty pointed to the door. Her eyes traveled to the window that was wide. The windowsill was about the same height as her hip and Betty knew it could possibly their only way out of the house. “We need to go through the window,” she spoke in a determined voice. “Come on.”

“But, Betty, if we fall we’ll break a hip,” Twitch objected.

“If we go through that door we’ll die of smoke inhalation, or we burn to death. I’d prefer to break a hip,” Meg replied. “Let’s grab that chair over there, so we can climb through.”

Without hesitation, Betty and Meg placed a chair underneath the window.

“You go first, Twitch,” Betty decided, knowing that her friend needed both Meg and her to climb on the chair. “Use the hockey stick as a crutch.”

“This isn’t funny anymore,” Twitch sighed, feeling her friends’ hands steadying her when she kneeled on the chair. From her kneeling position she cautiously stood up, grateful for the support her friends were providing. Unlocking the window was easy and she slid the window open as far as it could go. Immediately she was greeted by a blast of cold air and she shivered.

“What does the landing look like?” Meg joked.

“Pretty big snow bank,” Twitch answered nervously. “Maybe I should just jump and see what happens.”

“Go for it,” Betty answered, eying the door and noticing the smoke was coming in through the hole, but also from underneath the door and from around its edges. “The smoke is coming in faster, so, today would be good, Twitch,” she added with a nervous chuckle.

“Here goes,” Twitch groaned, putting one foot on the windowsill. She gripped the sides of the window with both hands and pulled herself forward, while pushing off with her leg. Betty and Meg saw her disappear out of the window, hearing her hit the snow bank with an audible thump.

“Are you, okay? Twitch?” Betty yelled.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” was the muffled reply. “I think I just made a snow angel.”

###

“Maybe we should make a list of people you’d classify as religious zealots who could have been manipulated to harm you,” Eva suggested, looking at the fidgeting woman across from her. Sigrid pushed her hair away from her forehead with a gesture that was becoming familiar to the Inspector. It showed her the pastor was nervous. The next thing she would do was fidget with anything she could get her hands on. Eva suppressed a smile when Sigrid’s fingers grabbed the pencil that had been on the table and started twirling it in her fingers.

“Are you hungry?” she asked, wondering if distracting the blonde would calm her nerves a little.

“Starving,” Sigrid sighed. “But I’m not sure if I can eat right now. There are so many things racing through my mind right now, I…”

“All the more reason to have something to eat,” Eva decided, getting up from her chair. She stretched to her full length before limping to the fridge.

“Why don’t you sit down and let me?” Sigrid suggested, hopping from her chair and putting a hand on the taller woman’s arm.

“Why don’t you both sit down and let me take care of it?” a voice sounded from the doorway and when Eva and Sigrid looked up it was in the smiling face of Agnes Clemente.

“Good morning, girls,” she greeted them both walking into the kitchen. She kissed Eva on her cheek and gave Sigrid a friendly pat on the back. “Sit down, girls. Sigrid, you are our guest and Eva, I’m a better cook than you are.”

“Never argue with my mother when she wants to cook,” Eva grinned. She took Sigrid’s elbow and guided her back to the table, gallantly pulling up a chair for her.

“It’s good to see you still have the manners your mother taught you,” Agnes smiled, opening the fridge and pulling out some eggs, bread, cheese and vegetables.

“How does an omelet sound? Do you like eggs, Sigrid?”

“I do, thank you,” the blonde sent Agnes Clemente a grateful smile, aware of her growling stomach and when she noticed Eva’s grin she made a face. “It’s been a while since I ate, you know,” she said softly.

“I’m aware of that,” Eva smiled. “So, while Mom whips up some eggs, would you like to see the clinic?”

“Sure,” Sigrid nodded.

“While you’re there, please check on the Sheltie in the back cage,” Agnes asked. “Let me know if she’s still shivering.”

“Anything else?” Eva asked, used to always having a few task when entering the clinic.

“Watch out for that black cat.” Agnes looked at her daughter with a ‘I’m not kidding’ look. “He bites people he doesn’t know.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Eva chuckled, opening the door for Sigrid. She led the way through a long hallway with two doors on the left and one to the right. “This is the door to the basement, this one leads to the garage,” Eva pointed to the doors on their left. “And this one is the clinic’s,” she explained, opening the door on the right.

The first thing Sigrid noticed was the light that fell into what looked like a waiting area. The floor was covered with light-colored tiles and all the woodwork was maple. The walls were decorated with animal pictures and on the counter of the reception desk stood a big jar with dog treats.

“Nice,” Sigrid mumbled, looking around and taking it all in.

“The treatment rooms are here,” Eva pointed to two doors off the waiting area. “And this is where the animals are,” she stated when opening the door behind the desk. The scent of antiseptic and bleach tickled her nose and Sigrid sneezed, which made Eva chuckle. “I used to do that all the time, until I got used to it,” she explained.

They walked into a large area with six large kennels on one side and four smaller on the other side. In one of the kennels Sigrid noticed the dog Agnes had told them about. She got to her feet and weakly wagged her tail, whimpering softly.

“Hey, girl,” Eva greeted the animal, scratching her behind an ear. “How are you doing? Are you cold? You don’t seem to be. I guess that heat lamp is working for you, huh?”

The dog licked Eva’s hand and stared up at the Inspector with soulful brown eyes.

“She’s cute,” Eva smiled. “Well, what do you think?”

“Very cute,” Sigrid admitted, deliberately misunderstanding the other woman.

“The clinic,” Eva chuckled.

“Impressive,” Sigrid nodded with a smile. “It’s big and I’m amazed at how clean it is. Most animal clinics smell like wet dog.”

“Not with my mother around,” Eva mumbled. “She hates that smell.” Her eyes followed Sigrid who had walked to window, looking at the view and nodding in approval.

“You can’t even see the street from here,” she said with contentment. “I guess that as long as they don’t use a boat to stalk us, they’d never know we’re here.”

“That was the plan,” Eva nodded. “Hopefully we’ll be able to hang out here for a few days, or at least as long as my ankle takes to feel better.”

“A few days should be enough,” Sigrid agreed. “And then what? Do you have a plan?”

“Not yet,” Eva shook her head. “Future plans depend on what we’re able to find out in the next couple of days.”

“I suppose that’s as much as a plan I could come up with right now,” Sigrid sighed.

“That’s because we both need some food,” the Inspector smiled. “Let’s go back to the kitchen and have something to eat.”

The moment they walked back into the kitchen Agnes Clemente put two plates on the kitchen table.

“Timing is everything,” she commented drily. “Enjoy, girls.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Eva chuckled, pulling out a chair for Sigrid which made the blonde roll her eyes.

“Thank you, Agnes,” Sigrid smiled at the older woman.

“You’re welcome, Sigrid. Don’t let it get cold.”

“Aren’t you going to eat, Mom?” Eva inquired, casting a glance at her mother when she sat down next to her with only a cup of coffee.

“I’m not hungry right now. Louise Ferguson came in to have her dog’s nails clipped and brought a plate of cookies and I couldn’t help myself,” she explained with a laugh.

“And you didn’t save me any?” Eva asked with a frown, chuckling when her mother playfully punched her arm.

“Nope, they were for staff, so I shared them with Paul and Joan.” She turned to Sigrid. “Paul is my assistant and Joan is our receptionist and secretary,” she explained. “I gave them the rest of the day of, because it’s pretty quiet today.”

“Mom, did…” Eva was interrupted by the buzzing of her phone. She looked at the display and quickly grabbed the device, mumbling an excuse as she stood up and left the table.

“Hi, Chuck. Any news?” she asked in a soft voice as she walked toward the living room, leaving her mother and Sigrid chatting about the clinic. She didn’t have to turn around to feel the blonde’s eyes following her every move and inwardly she sighed. Had her mother not been there, Eva would have put her phone on speaker, but she didn’t want to expose her family to the case she was working on. Before closing the door behind her, the Inspector glanced at Sigrid, sending her an encouraging smile.

“Okay, Chuck,” she sighed. “What’s going on?”

Sigrid had already finished her omelet and helped Agnes clear the table long before Eva finally walked back into the room. The Inspector’s eyes were troubled and the blonde felt a nervous tingle settle in the pit of her stomach. She had the distinct feeling that whatever Eva was going to tell her, wasn’t good news.

“Mom, I need to talk to Sigrid for a few minutes. I’m sorry,” Eva said, sending her mother an apologetic look. “We’ll be in the living room.”

“Sure, honey, I’m right here if you need me,” Agnes answered. She was used to the private phone calls her daughter often had to make, even when she was home for a visit. It was the same with her son Felix, who worked for the local police department. Both her children always tried very hard to keep their family life and working life separated. Agnes appreciated that, but it didn’t make her worry less. She knew both Felix and Eva had professions in which they could easily get hurt.

“What happened?” Sigrid asked, immediately after the door closed behind them.

“I received a phone call from Chuck,” Eva started, more calm and collected than she really felt. “Have a seat, Sigrid?”

“Is…is it my family?” the blonde breathed, still standing. Her hands were clenched into fist and Eva had never seen her look tenser.

“Your family is fine,” the Inspector quickly replied, immediately seeing the relief flood Sigrid’s entire body. “Please, Sigrid, have a seat,” she repeated, taking the blonde’s elbow and guiding her to the couch. They both sat down and Eva half-turned so she could look at the other woman.

“If it’s not my family, something else must have gone horribly wrong,” she stated in a soft voice. “Tell me, Eva,” she urged.

The Inspector nodded and raised her eyes, meeting troubled blue ones.

“Your house was broken into. The place was practically pulled apart. Then it was set on fire.”

Sigrid’s face paled and her eyes went wide as she looked at Eva in shock.

“What?” she whispered.

“I’m sorry,” Eva said softly, grabbing one of Sigrid’s hands in between her own. It was cold to the touch and unconsciously she gently rubbed the cool skin with her thumb.

“It sounds like someone was looking for something, but didn’t find it,” Eva concluded.

“That’s because all my files are on my laptop,” Sigrid answered in a tired voice. “I did have a copy, only with some partial information, but I guess you’re right, they didn’t find it. That’s probably why they burnt the house.” She swallowed hard and for a moment she stared at their entwined hands. Eva’s skin was warm, which felt good, because Sigrid was chilled to the core.

“There was some graffiti on the wall in your bedroom,” Eva continued. “It said ‘You can run, but you can’t hide’.”

The hand in between Eva’s clenched and the Inspector increased the pressure, not willing to let go of the contact. Sigrid looked like she was going to be sick and Eva knew she needed the contact, if only to ground her.

“It’s a good thing I left,” Sigrid finally whispered. “It looks to me like they’re dishing out more than just a warning.” The blonde slowly shook her head as if to clear it and when her gaze met Eva’s her eyes were clear and steady.

“There’s something else, something you haven’t told me yet,” she concluded, while her eyes were studying Eva’s face.

“Your friends, Betty, Meg and Grace, they…um…they were there…when the fire was set.”

“What!?”

Sigrid would have jumped up if Eva’s hand had not kept her in place.

“They were…at my house? What…? How…?”

“They apparently wanted to check up on you and knew you had a spare key to the house in your office. When they arrived, they noticed the place was pulled apart. Instead of leaving immediately, they decided to inspect the rest of the house. While they were in your bedroom, someone locked the door behind them. They tried to break down the door, but when the doorknob came off they noticed smoke.”

“How did they get out? Please, tell me they got out,” Sigrid breathed, using her free hand to grab Eva’s arm.

“They got out and they are safe.”

“How?”

A small smile tugged on the corner of the Inspector’s mouth and she slowly shook her head. It was still hard to believe how the elderly ladies had left the burning house.

“Through your bedroom window.”

“What?” Sigrid exclaimed. “But, there’s this huge snow bank and…,” Sigrid paused and realization set in. “They jumped out of the window into the snow bank?”

When Eva nodded she let out a sound that was a mixture between a laugh and a sob.

“Are they okay? They’re not hurt, are they?”

“They are fine,” Eva reassured the blonde. “Meg sprained her wrist, but only because she almost landed on Grace, or so she says”

“I should have called them yesterday,” Sigrid sighed, withdrawing her hand from Eva’s arm and raking her fingers through her hair. “This is my fault. If I had called them, they wouldn’t have gone to my house. Damn. I wanted to call, but…”

“But you were exhausted,” Eva calmly interrupted. “Don’t blame yourself, Sigrid. It’s not your fault. Your friends are very capable to make up their own minds and, in my opinion, they are as curious as kittens. I don’t think they would have passed up on a chance to play sleuths, even if you’d have called them.”

This time Sigrid did let out a soft laugh.

“You’re right about that,” she agreed. “But still, I feel bad about it. What if…?” She took a deep breath and involuntarily she shuddered. “What if they wouldn’t have been able to get out of the house? What if…”

“Don’t,” Eva said forcefully, gently squeezing the hand she was holding. “Sigrid, ‘what if’s’ are useless, they’ll only drive you crazy. They did get out and they’re in one piece, just keep that in mind and forget about what could have happened.”

Sigrid let out an explosive breath and slowly nodded.

“You’re right,” she admitted, staring at their hands with a pensive expression on her face. “Are there any clues to find out who trashed and torched my place?”

“Not yet, but they’re still searching.” Eva paused a moment. “The fire was started in your living room. Someone poured gasoline over your books and set them on fire.”

Sigrid nodded and quietly pulled her hand away from Eva’s, immediately regretting the loss of warmth. She stood up and walked toward the window, pressing her forehead against the cold glass.

“Are all my things…lost?” she asked in a hoarse voice. “How much of the house burnt down?”

Eva stood and stuffed her hands in the pockets of her jeans. Sigrid looked controlled, but she knew that was a carefully crafted and maintained exterior, she had seen the turmoil in her eyes just before she had gotten up from the couch.

“It’s…Chuck says it’s a total loss. I’m so sorry,” she said softly, seeing the pastor’s shoulders slump. “I’m sorry,” Eva repeated, not knowing if Sigrid had heard her. She saw the blonde wrap her arms around herself like she was cold, while her forehead was still pressed against the window.

“It’s just…stuff,” Sigrid finally answered with sadness and before Eva could respond she walked to the door and into the hallway, leaving Eva staring at the floor, completely lost in thought.

“Eva, honey?” Agnes’ voice broke the silence and with tired eyes the Inspector looked up at her mother who was standing in the doorway, a troubled look on her face.

“Is…are you alright? Did you and Sigrid have an argument?”

“No, we didn’t,” Eva sighed, raking her fingers through her curly hair. “Why?”

“Because your friend just walked out of the backdoor, I believe she was crying.”

“Crap,” Eva muttered, heading toward her mother.

“Take a coat for her, too, honey. She’ll be cold in just a sweater.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Eva mumbled, kissing her mother on the cheek before quickly putting on her coat, grabbing Sigrid’s and following the blonde out of the backdoor. As soon as she stepped outside she felt the cold wind on her skin and she shivered. From inside the house the weather looked perfect; the sun was shining and the sky was a clear blue, but the wind made Eva realize winter was not over yet. She spotted Sigrid standing on a sturdy deck that gave a perfect view of the bay. It was a favorite hang-out for Eva’s family during the summer. Right now it was devoid of any furniture, except for two weathered Adirondack chairs that were a permanent fixture. Sigrid was leaning against the railing and every now and then Eva noticed the blonde’s hand coming up to wipe her face.

“Oh, Sigrid,” she sighed, heading into the direction of the blonde, who must have heard her coming, because she turned around, overlooking the bay. Eva didn’t hesitate. As soon as she reached Sigrid, she silently put the woman’s coat over her shoulders, hoping it would protect her a little from the biting wind. Sigrid did not speak, but Eva could see the hand go back up to her face again and she knew the blonde was crying, so she stepped a little closer, tentatively placing a hand on Sigrid’s shoulder. Eva’s hand increased the pressure on Sigrid’s shoulder, giving it a little tug.

“Come here,” the Inspector encourage, gently turning the other woman around. Her arms slipped around the blonde and without a word Sigrid stepped closer, burying her face against Eva’s shoulder, while the Inspector’s arms held her close.

Eva had no idea how long they were standing there in the cold wind, before Sigrid finally spoke.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, without moving from her spot against Eva’s shoulder.

“Don’t be,” the Inspector replied, resting her cheek against the top of Sigrid’s head.

“I’m usually not a cry-baby,” Sigrid continued, wiping her eyes on her sleeve before looking up at the other woman. Her blue eyes were red-rimmed and puffy and she looked cold and miserable.

“I believe you,” Eva smiled, brushing a strand of hair out of Sigrid’s eyes. “You went through a lot the last few days. The fire in your house is just the proverbial straw on the camel’s back. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose all your personal belongings.”

“It feels….weird,” Sigrid sighed. “It feels…naked. I know it’s just stuff…material things, but…it was my stuff and the idea that someone broke into my house and went through all the things I own and then, without disregard just burned it makes me feel…violated. Does that make sense?”

“Perfect sense,” Eva nodded, not consciously aware of her hand that was rubbing soothing circles on Sigrid’s back.

The blonde sighed, slowly extracting herself from Eva’s embrace, trying not to wonder why it felt so good to be held by the Inspector. She didn’t want Eva to think she was too emotional to do her job. They had some puzzles to solve and she was determined to pull her weight in the investigation they were both part of. If only they could find a few answers.

“Thank you,” she whispered, sending the slightly taller woman a grateful smile.

“You’re welcome,” Eva smiled back, using her thumb to brush away a tear that was clinging to Sigrid’s cheek. “Are you ready to go back inside and warm up? I know there still is hot coffee.”

Sigrid nodded and on the short walk back to the house she was grateful for Eva’s arm that was casually draped across her shoulders, adding a sense of safety and warmth for her to draw from.

“Have a seat, Sigrid, I’ll pour some coffee,” Eva said as soon as they entered the kitchen. “Mom’s run off to do some errands,” she remarked, holding up a note that was left for her on the counter, next to the coffee pot.

“Are you always this nice?” Sigrid wanted to know when Eva put a cup of coffee in front of her.

Eva laughed and sat down, taking a sip from her mug.

“That depends on who you ask,” she replied with an amused smile. “I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who don’t believe I’m nice at all.”

“But those are the bad guys you put away,” Sigrid replied with a small smile of her own.

“I’m afraid they’re not the only ones, though,” Eva disagreed. “When it comes to my work I sometimes have a bad case of tunnel vision and I have stepped on some toes here and there.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Sigrid mused.

“What? The tunnel vision or the stepping on toes?”

“The tunnel vision,” Sigrid answered. “You seem to be very…focused. A little intense. That’s not a bad thing,” she hastened to say when she saw Eva was about to reply. “I think it’s a good thing when you solve crimes for a living.”

“It usually gets me results,” Eva nodded. “But whenever results are elusive, being so intense and focused only adds to the frustration.”

“I can see how that would be the case,” Sigrid nodded. There was a brief silence n which both women were lost in their own thoughts.

“Eva?”

The Inspector looked up into a pair of eyes whose color seemed to be in complete sync with the mood of their owner. Right now they were a few shades lighter than before and they projected the mixture of gratitude and shyness Sigrid felt.

“Thank you,” Sigrid’s voice was soft and serious. “This has been a very difficult couple of days and I don’t know how I’d have gotten through them without your help.”

“You’re welcome,” Eva replied, equally soft, making a conscious effort to leave her hands wrapped around her coffee mug, fighting the urge to reach out and cover the blonde’s hand with her own. Usually, she wasn’t a touchy-feely person at all, except with her family. The fact that she had caught herself on different occasions wanting to reach out for the pastor puzzled her. But she was determined to push those thoughts to the back of her mind; there was a crime to solve and a friend to keep safe. That last thought startled Eva. When had she started thinking about Sigrid as a friend? Her eyes took in the blonde who was sipping her coffee, oblivious to the thoughts that were swirling around in Eva’s head. A friend? Eva frowned and had to admit to herself that the urge to protect Sigrid, combined with the easy communication, light banter and enjoyment of her company would certainly fit into the realm of friendship. Suddenly Eva became aware of a questioning look that was directed to her and she sent Sigrid a small smile, quickly taking a sip of her coffee.

“Alright, we talked about religious zealots in your church who might be manipulated into sending you notes and dead pigeons,” Eva’s voice was calm and businesslike. “Why don’t you write down their names and addresses, if you have those, so we can run a background check on them.”

“Can you access the database remotely?” Sigrid asked, seeing Eva nod. “Cool,” the blonde grinned.

“I also would like to see your files,” Eva continued. “There’s a reason your house was broken into and set on fire.”

The smile disappeared and all of a sudden Sigrid felt the heavy weight of loss settle back onto her shoulders. The change in her was visible and the Inspector saw the darkening of her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Eva spoke, this time not able to control her urges. She reached out and covered Sigrid’s hand with her own. “We’ll do our best to figure this out,” she promised.

“I know,” Sigrid sighed, trying to ignore the pleasant weight of Eva’s warm hand, which was almost impossible to do, because the small, friendly gesture made her want to crawl back into the Inspector’s embrace. “I’ll make a list with names. It will be a short one, though, because even though some people I know are pretty rigid in their religious beliefs, I know they’d never do anything to harm me.” Sending Eva a small smile, Sigrid slowly and reluctantly withdrew her hand from underneath the Inspector’s, so she could push back her chair and get to her feet. “I’ll go grab my laptop so I can show you the files,” she said.

“Great,” Eva nodded. “If you give me a name, I can get started.”

“Jeremy Brothers, he’s the first one that comes to mind,” Sigrid answered. “He was a member of the church before I became pastor. As soon as he found out I’m a lesbian he quit and joined a small, new church in the next town over. He never misses an opportunity to point out my sinful ways. Every time I see him he reminds me that all I have to do is repent, change my ways and I’ll be saved.”

“What kind of church is he in now?”

“Soldiers of penance,” Sigrid answered. “It’s the only one in the tri-state area. There are a few more down south, I believe.”

“What’s their …what do they believe?”

“They take the scriptures quite literal, although, they do omit some rules and regulations.”

“Because it doesn’t suit them?” Eva softly snorted.

“That would be my guess,” Sigrid smiled at the Inspector’s barely veiled disdain. “I don’t know a whole lot about them, because they’re pretty secretive and the few times I wanted to have a dialogue with Jeremy I only achieved being bible-bashed.”

“I’ll run him through the database,” Eva muttered, pulling up her log-in screen. “If there’s anything on him, I’ll find it.”

###

“Cleansed and baptized by fire,” the voice whispered, looking at the smoldering ruins of what once was Sigrid Meyers’ house. “Anything that can withstand fire must be put through fire and then it will be clean. But it must also be purified with the water of cleansing. And whatever cannot withstand fire must be put through water.” The tip of a tongue moistened dry lips and eyes, burning with excitement stared through binoculars at tendrils of smoke that slowly billowed in the cold air.

“A sacrifice, reaching out to the heaves,” the voice whispered in awe. “It is accepted, it is clean.” The binoculars were lowered and a dark-clad figure carefully made its way back through the trees to the waiting snow mobile. “Whatever cannot withstand fire must be put through water. Fire and water. She needs to be put through water to be clean. Fire and water. Where is she? She needs cleansing, she needs to be pure…”

Part 8

It was silent. The only sound was the occasional tapping of fingers on a keyboard and the scribbling of a pencil on paper. Eva Clemente was staring at the screen of her laptop, leaning her elbow on the table with her hand supporting her head. The fingers of her other hand were impatiently drumming on the table. Sigrid sent her an amused look, but did not comment. Eva seemed so focused the pastor did not want to disturb her with random comments. When the other woman suddenly started talking Sigrid almost jumped.

“I’m trying to keep an open mind here, but have you ever visited the website of this church of swords and trumpets for the glory of God? It’s not exactly an example of tolerance. There’s a lot of bigotry and prejudice here.” Eva looked up from her laptop. “Do they actually teach these things in their church?”

“They do,” Sigrid nodded.

“But they’re spreading hate,” Eva muttered. “Here, listen to his: ‘God hates those who defy his commandments and laws and He will turn away from them. Because of the sins of gays and those who condone abortion, God has turned away from us. Against His will, we have accepted Islam terrorists as our neighbors. The only way to please Him is to make those who sin see the wrong of their ways. When the heralding of the trumpet does not work, they will be made aware by the sword. There is no room for sinners in this world. As instruments of God we will carry out the judgment he bestows on those who have turned against Him.” Eva paused and took a deep breath. “I’ve got the feeling your God is different.”

“But there’s only one God,” Sigrid replied in a quiet voice. “The difference in how people experience their beliefs is in how they interpret the scriptures. What I interpret as symbolism, some people believe is literal. We all pick and chose what suits our beliefs the best.”

“The difference is that ‘Love thy neighbor’ is not high on the list of these …people,” Eva said. “They seem to believe that ridding the world from gay people and Muslims will get them back in God’s grace. It’s appalling. How can they say things like this?”

“First amendment,” Sigrid replied drily. “Freedom of speech and religious freedom.”

“It’s infuriating,” Eva muttered.

“I can tell,” Sigrid answered and when the Inspector looked up she noticed a twinkle in the blonde’s eyes. “I am not laughing at you,” she quickly said, before Eva could respond. “I’ve heard all this stuff before and decided a long time ago I’d try to just shrug it off. Your honest indignation and defense of gays and other ‘sinners’ is very much appreciated and also kind of cute,” Sigrid added with a wink, glad to see she made Eva chuckle.

“Thank you, I think,” Eva responded, grateful for Sigrid’s light tone. “How did all this affect you? I mean, you’re a gay pastor. Wasn’t it hard to integrate the core of your being with what you believe?”

Sigrid leaned back in her chair and took a moment to gather her thoughts. Looking at Eva she could see the honest confusion and curiosity in the other woman’s eyes and she wanted to give her a clear, honest answer.

“I know my story is not the same as that of other people,” Sigrid started. “I’ve talked to a lot of gay men and women who had struggles of epic proportions because of their religious upbringing, but I never had. I was raised by very liberal parents who were members of a very liberal church. Homosexuality was never an issue in the church I grew up in.” Sigrid smiled at Eva who was listening intently. “Like I said, that’s not a given and I realize how lucky I was, how lucky I am. My family has always accepted me the way I am. I have a friend, a gay friend, who grew up in a very religious environment and she went through hell and back coming to terms with her sexuality. Coming out was a traumatic experience for her and it has taken her a good ten years to come to terms with her identity. She lost her family in the process,” Sigrid added with sadness. “Before I started this…assignment, I was involved in an organization of…clergy….that is focused on helping gays who are caught between their identity and religion, or religious background.”

“I’m glad to know there is such an organization,” Eva sighed. “There are probably a lot of people who need the help.”

“Oh, yes, many,” Sigrid nodded. She took a breath as if she was going to say something, but then she slowly exhaled and almost imperceptibly shook her head. The question that was on the tip of her tongue would have to wait until later, if there would be a later. Things were already complicated as they were and she didn’t want to add another layer to it.

“Is there anything on the website we can use to find out more about Jeremy Brothers?” Eva asked.

“You don’t need the website,” Sigrid responded, tapping the touchpad of her laptop.”I’ve got a file on them.”

“Really?” Eva’s eyebrows rose into her hairline and she shot Sigrid a pleasantly surprised look. “Were they on your list of ‘things to keep an eye on’ as well?”

“More or less,” Sigrid shrugged. “It’s a personal file I started after a few run-ins with Jeremy Bothers. He…I…,” she sighed and sent Eva an apologetic look. “Bad vibes,” she added. “Not a reason for an official investigation, I know, that’s why the file is a personal one.”

“Hidden underneath layers of security,” Eva admired, looking at what Sigrid was doing on her computer. “Don’t tell me you have a degree in Information Technology or computer forensics as well.”

“No, I don’t,” Sigrid smiled. “My brother does, though and he taught me a thing or two.”

“Very handy,” Eva softly whistled. “I’d like to meet your brother.”

“I’ll make sure to tell him that,” Sigrid chuckled, turning the laptop so they could both read the screen. Her finger pointed to the window she had opened. “This is the information I was able to gather.”

Eva’s eyes flew over the text that was displayed on the screen, eager to find anything that would be able to give her an angle into the case they were working on.

“They’re pretty vocal about what they believe in, but it doesn’t look like they’ve broken any laws,” Eva sighed after a few minutes of silence. “I’ll stick to my original opinion though; they’re scary.”

“I scanned in some clippings from local newspapers and flyers as well,” Sigrid said, guiding the pointer on the screen to a separate folder. “Just to keep a tab on things. I know they haven’t done anything illegal, but some of their members seem a little…unstable and it might not take a whole lot to set them off.”

“And that’s exactly what I think happened,” Eva replied. “I’m very curious if we’ll be able to find a link between this church and the murder of Michael Bell.” The Inspector leaned back in her chair and stretched her legs out in front of her. Her brain was working overtime and Sigrid could almost see the wheels churn inside the police woman’s dark head. “What do you know about the church itself?” Eva asked after a brief silence. “I mean the building. Is it privately owned?”

Sigrid nodded and reached out a hand to tap a few keys on her laptop. A new window popped up and Eva leaned forward with a smile on her face.

“You’re thorough,” she complimented the blonde. “No wonder the Feds snatched you up.” She redirected her attention back to the screen. “Alright, so the church building is privately owned.”

“The owner of the land and the building is Archibald Tate,” Sigrid provided. “It’s an old barn that was renovated and turned into a church a few years ago.”

“What do you know about Tate?” Eva wanted to know.

“Not much,” Sigrid replied with a shrug. “It’s been on my list to find out more about him, but I haven’t gotten around doing that yet. I’ve only met the man once; he’s a bit of a hermit and only comes into town about once or twice a month.”

“Let’s see if my database has something,” Eva muttered. She entered the information and when another screen popped up she looked at Sigrid. “How old do you think he is?” she asked. “I’ve got a couple of hits here.”

“Late sixties, early seventies.”

“Archibald Ferdinand Tate,” Eva read aloud after refining her search. She looked up with a grim expression on her face. “Did you know he is a registered sex offender?”

“What?” Sigrid exclaimed, getting up from her chair and walking around the table so she could look over Eva’s shoulder. “He did fifteen years for sexual assault, got arrested once for possession of marijuana, he has two DUI’s and a rap sheet as long as my arm.” Sigrid cast a look at Eva and slowly shook her head. “Does he strike you as a particular religious person?”

“Not really,” Eva agreed. “What is interesting is that he has been an exemplary citizen for the last three years.”

“Maybe he saw the light?”

“Or maybe this church somehow has something to do with his behavior.” Eva pushed back her chair and got to her feet. She needed to move around to think clearly and started pacing the area between the table and the window. “Let’s assume he saw the light, as you put it. It’s a possibility, but I’ve dealt with people like Tate for a while now and although there are exceptions, my experience is that the involvement in religious activities is either a cover-up or there’s financial gain.” Eva paused her pacing and glanced at Sigrid who was leaning against the kitchen counter with a pensive expression on her face. “But then, I’m a police officer and naturally distrusting,” she joked, making Sigrid smile.

“Or he’s being blackmailed,” Sigrid suggested.

“That’s possibility number three,” Eva agreed. “Just out of curiosity, let’s explore these theories. We might dig up something. I will shoot Chuck a message and ask him if he can pull up some financial records on Tate and his church.”

“You don’t need Chuck for that,” Sigrid replied, pushing away from the counter and walking back to her laptop. “I can do that.”

Eva’s eyes followed the blonde and she chuckled, making her glance up with a quizzical look.

“It’s good to have you on the team,” she explained. “It makes things a lot faster.”

“This will take a few minutes, though,” Sigrid said, looking at the screen in front of her.

“You’re not hacking into the IRS database, are you?”

“As tempting as that may sound, no, I’m not,” Sigrid laughed. “My access is legitimate.”

“I’m truly impressed,” Eva sighed. “You have many skills.”

“You only think that because you haven’t seen me shoot yet,” Sigrid mumbled.

“Are you trying to tell me you’d shoot your own foot?” Eva teased.

Sigrid looked up and made a face.

“Not mine. Yours, maybe,” she quipped, making Eva laugh. Her eyes returned to the screen and with a small smile she leaned back. “Okay, it’s searching. It says here that Tate is retired and lives off social security. If that’s all he….” Sigrid paused and leaned forward, her eyes going wide while staring at the screen. “Wow, I’d like a social security check like that when I retire. Look at this,” she turned the laptop so Eva could see the screen and the Inspector’s eyes went wide.

“Income from investments,” Eva read. “He must have a talented stockbroker to accumulate four hundred thousand dollars in just over three years. Or, he had a lot of money to invest. A whole lot of money,” the Inspector added. Her eyes traveled to Sigrid. “Do you know what I think?”

“You’d like to talk to him?”

“Absolutely,” Eva nodded. “It’s very…interesting to see these numbers. If he declares this much money, I wonder how much is stashed away somewhere.”

“Maybe he’s laundering?”

“One thing is certain; the blackmail theory just went out of the window.”

“Maybe Chuck can get a warrant for Tate’s bank records,” Sigrid suggested. “I’d like to see if there was a substantial donation around the time Michael Bell was murdered.”

“I like the way you think,” Eva smiled. “I’ll give Chuck a call.”

###

Casey Planters leaned against her editor’s desk, watching him read the article she had just handed to him.

“Looks good, Case,” John Landau said, handing her back the sheets of paper. “Just make sure the facts are triple-checked. Has it been copy edited yet?”

“Twice,” Casey nodded.

John leaned back in his chair, glancing up at the brunette in front of him. He had worked with her for a number of years and knew she was thorough and dedicated. Her latest article was very good, but there was something about it he couldn’t put his finger on.

“Are you one hundred percent behind what you wrote?” he suddenly asked, aware of the guarded look in her brown eyes.

“The facts don’t lie,” Case answered.

“That’s not what I asked,” John replied. “I feel some hesitation. You know that this article will make waves, facts or not. I need to know if you can handle the pressure and fallout.”

“Have you ever known me not to?”

“Not yet,” he answered in all honesty. “But this is not an article exposing a meth lab or illegal dog-fighting ring. Are you absolutely sure your source is right?”

“Never steered me wrong before,” Casey answered with a tight smile.

“Still, you’re hesitant,” John concluded. “Why is that?”

“I saw her, John. I mean, I had the picture, of course, that’s why I recognized her, but I saw her when I ran into her and the other woman. First impressions are important to me and my gut feeling tells me things might not be what they seem.”

“Are you asking me to hold off on printing this Sunday?”

Casey Planters exhaled slowly and her brown eyes were troubled when they looked at her editor and long-time friend.

“Would you?”

“I would,” John nodded. “You’re one of the best investigative journalists I have, Case. If you feel there’s more to the story, I’ll go with that.”

“Thanks, John,” Casey sighed, raking her fingers through her short brown hair.

“What are your plans?”

“I’d like to go to Concord, New Hampshire, and talk to some people there, just to make sure. “

“Really?” John asked with raised eyebrows. “Even you can’t just waltz into the Major Crimes Unit and start asking questions.”

For the first time during their conversation, Casey smiled.

“Don’t worry, John,” she replied with a wink. “I’ve got an in.”

###

Sigrid stifled a yawn and rubbed her eyes that felt dry and tired. The most strenuous thing she had done all day was staring at the screen of her laptop, but she was still tired after the two tumultuous days she had been through.

“Nap time?” Eva asked with amusement.

“That sounds tempting,” Sigrid admitted. “But I doubt I’d be able to relax right now. There are too many questions that need an answer.” She sighed and slowly shook her head. “I’ve got the feeling there is a connection between Michael Bell and Tate.”

“I share that idea,” Eva nodded. “But we need something to link them together.”

“Well, it’s a long shot, a very long shot,” Sigrid said with a roll of her eyes. “Michael Bell was murdered in the church. Correct?”

“Yes, forensics was able to track the trajectory of the bullet and they found a slug in one of the wall panels,” Eva nodded. “He was definitely killed inside the church.”

“Michael Bell was an informant for the FBI and, as far as I know, he was gathering information about human trafficking in Boston and he lived in Manchester. Yet, he was killed in my church, hours away from Boston. His apartment was completely cleaned out. Right?” Sigrid looked up at Eva for confirmation. The Inspector nodded and quietly leaned back in her chair, intrigued by Sigrid’s thought processes.

“What if the killer or killers of Michael Bell were after information he’d collected? Let’s assume they caught up with him, asked for whatever information he had and then killed him when he didn’t want to give it up? I assume he didn’t want to give it up, because why else would his apartment have been emptied?” Sigrid paused for a moment to gather her thoughts. “If the information he had was important enough to kill him, I’d be surprised if he kept it in his apartment.” Blue eyes rose to meet pensive green ones. “I bet he was carrying it with him.”

“We didn’t find anything on him, though,” Eva objected.

“What if he hid it in the church?” Sigrid mused. “Information can be stored on tiny devices these days. What if he stuck it underneath the bench? It would be very hard to detect.” She took a deep breath. “Did anyone search the church?”

“Just the usual forensic stuff,” Eva replied slowly. “We found the newspaper on the bench, which, for some reason, points to the Dress ‘n Drag.”

“Maybe Michael Bell left it there as a clue?”

“That’s not impossible,” Eva slowly nodded. “He was wearing a dress. Was he trying to disguise himself as a woman or did he just come back from visiting the club in Boston?”

“You know, Eva? I’d like an answer to all those questions, but I’ve got the feeling we won’t be able to find them here.”

Eva nodded and a smile tugged on the corner of her mouth. Her eyes were dancing when she looked at the blonde who was sitting across the table from her.

“Are you suggesting we go back to New Hampshire?”

Sigrid bit her lip and slowly nodded, a little unsure of what Eva’s reaction would be. The Inspector looked like she wanted to laugh.

“It might be dangerous for you to go back. It’s the reason we left.”

“I know, but no offense, Eva, being here with all those questions jumping up and down in my brain will drive me nuts.” She paused when Eva laughed and shot the other woman a knowing look. “I know you suffer from the same condition,” she added in a sweet voice. “Don’t deny it.”

“I won’t,” Eva immediately replied. “If it wasn’t for my ankle, I would have never left.”

“What about the keeping me safe part?”

“I would have come up with something,” Eva answered with confidence.

“So, if we’d go back, you’d come up with something to keep me safe!” Sigrid concluded.

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” the Inspector softly snorted. “But yes, I’d keep you safe.”

“Then there’s no reason not to go back,” Sigrid stated, very pleased with herself.

Eva quietly studied the woman in front of her and she realized she had to give the blonde credit for her courage. And for her spunk. Mentally, Eva chuckled when she noticed the mixture of expectation, trepidation and defiance in the clear blue eyes that were following her every move. It looked like the blonde had made up her mind.

“Ever thought about becoming a lawyer?” Eva teased.

“Briefly,” Sigrid nodded with a grin. “Does that question mean you’re convinced we should go back?”

“Maybe. Do you have a plan?”

“As a matter of fact, I do,” Sigrid nodded, pulling her laptop closer and clicking on the internet icon. A few keystrokes pulled up a map of Maine and New Hampshire. “We can go up north, to Augusta, then go west to Bethel then north until we cross the border with New Hampshire at Umbagog State Park, keep going until we get to Colebrook and then go south to Lancaster. Eventually we’ll hook up with I-93 again.”

“I assume there is a reason for this elaborate detour?”

“First, no-one will expect us to come from the north, I’m sure. Secondly, there is a safe house alongside that route I’d like to check out.”

“A safe house?” Eva frowned.

“It’s where they keep people who are being trafficked until there are enough to fill a van,” Sigrid explained. “We can do some exploring and see if we can come up with any clues.”

“Okay, and then what? It will be a long drive, more than six hours and only when the roads are passable. Any idea where we’ll stay? I don’t think it’s a good idea to announce our presence.”

Sigrid reached into her pocket and pulled out a key, dangling it in the air with a satisfied smile.

“My parents own a cabin close to Franconia Notch State Park. It’s modest, but winterized. We could use it as our base camp.”

“I guess you’ve got it all figured out,” Eva sighed. “We’ll need supplies, a good, reliable car with four-wheel drive and snow chains. Provisions, enough warm clothes in case we get stranded.”

“We’ll make a list,” Sigrid nodded. “I’m sure we’ll be able to pick up some gear on the way.”

“No need,” Eva shook her head. “We used to camp out in the winter all the time. All the gear we need should be in the attic.” She exhaled slowly and shot Sigrid a troubled look. “The hardest part will be convincing Chuck we’ll be going on an adventure.”

“Do you think he’ll try to stop us?”

“Oh, yes,” Eva laughed. “He’ll try anything to keep me cooped up here until the whole case is solved. But he also knows he won’t be able to stop me.”

“Are you going to tell him where we’re going?” Sigrid wanted to know and Eva saw a small, worried frown appear.

“Do you think I shouldn’t?”

“I think the more people who know, the bigger the chance information leaks. Personally, I trust Chuck, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has access to a lot of things we do. I think we should keep it quiet.”

Eva slowly nodded. Sigrid’s words troubled her deeply, but she knew the pastor was right; it was possible there was a leak somewhere. She knew it wasn’t her partner, but it could be someone higher up the chain of command. They would have to stay out of view and be very careful with the way they shared information.

“I’ll tell Chuck we’ll be investigating some leads and will be off the grid. I’ll have to buy a prepaid cell phone to stay in touch with him, so we can’t be traced.” Eva’s eyes were dark and the look in her eyes was brooding. “We’d better start that list now. The family is coming over for dinner and we might not have enough time later.”

###

“So, how does this thing work?” Twitch asked, looking at the small plastic item in Betty’s hand.

“We’ll stick this end in this port,” Betty explained. “And then we’ll be able to see what’s on it. It like the old fashioned floppy drives, but different.”

“I never liked those things,” Twitch muttered. “They made great coasters though.”

“Well, these won’t,” Meg chuckled, pushing her heavy glasses back onto her nose. “Let’s have a look, Betty,” she encouraged her friend. “Maybe what’s on here was worth setting Sigrid’s house on fire.”

“Nothing was worth setting her house on fire,” Twitch protested.

“I know, I know,” Meg soothed her friend. “That was not what I meant, it came out wrong. What I meant to say is that I’m curious to see what kind of information is on this stick thingie. Someone might find it important enough to destroy.”

“Let me see…,” Betty muttered. “Here…oh, there’s a whole list of files.” She clicked on the top one and softly cursed. “I need a password,” she said disappointed.

“For all of them?” Twitch wanted to know. “Just click all of them and see what happened.”

Betty did as she was asked and every time she clicked a file, the system asked for a password.

“That’s discouraging,” Meg sighed, watching Betty fruitlessly click on one file after another. “I guess we need to come up with something else.”

“I’m afraid you right,” Betty responded clicking on the bottom file. “I guess I..hey…this one does something.”

“What?” both Meg and Twitch called out.

“It’s a map,” Betty said enlarging the window. “Look,” she pointed at the screen and glanced at her friends who had both leaned in closer to get a better look.

“A map of what?” Meg mumbled, staring at the picture in front of her.

“Look, that’s I-93,” Betty pointed to a vertical red line. “And I know the shape of that area, see, the one that sort of looks like a half a circle in all that green?” Betty looked up with a radiant smile. “Girls, we’re looking at a map of White Mountains National Forest.”

“Are you sure?” Meg asked.

“Absolutely,” Betty nodded.

“Okay, so it’s a map of the park. Now what?” Twitch wanted to know. It looks like just a map to me.”

“Maybe,” Meg drawled. “But do you see that little black circle? I bet that wasn’t on the original map. In fact, there’s nothing on here, but that circle.”

“I wonder what it means,” Betty mused.

“There’s only one way to find out,” Twitch sighed. When her two friends looked at her with wide eyes she shrugged. “Don’t look at me like that. You both know that the only way to get an answer is to drive up there and have a look. I bet that circle has a lot to do with that dead body in the church. And with Sigrid’s disappearance.”

###

“You’re having a family dinner tonight?” Sigrid asked, trying not to sound apprehensive. ‘The whole family?”

“Every one of them,” Eva grinned.

“Well, I bet they’ll be thrilled to see you, so why don’t I make myself scarce tonight and…”

“Is that what you really want?” Eva asked curiously. “They already know you’re here and are looking forward to meeting you.”

“Really?” the blonde asked weakly.

“Really,” Eva nodded with a smile. “I talked to Leah this morning, when you were still asleep.”

“Oh and um…who do they think I am?”

Eva suppressed a grin, because she had never seen Sigrid flustered before, but the pastor was definitely squirming.

“A friend and co-worker who needed a few days off and volunteered to drive me here, because of my ankle.”

“And they believe that?”

“Why wouldn’t they?” Eva frowned. “Besides, it’s true, sort of, any way.”

“Sort of,” Sigrid echoed with a sigh. “Have you done that more often? Bringing co-workers and friends home?” For some reason the answer to that question was very important to the blonde, although she would never admit that aloud.

“Never,” Eva replied quietly. “But if it’s uncomfortable for you to meet my family, I’d understand. It’s not like there are only a couple.”

“I’d love to meet your family,” Sigrid answered with a smile. “I really do, it was just a little unexpected, that’s all. I met Leon and your mother and I like both of them.”

“And you know me,” Eva chuckled. “Although you might not like me, but hey…”

“No, I do like you,” Sigrid interrupted the Inspector with a soft voice. Their eyes met and after a brief silence they smiled at each other.

“So, that’s settled then?” Eva wanted to know.

“Absolutely,” Sigrid nodded. “Does your mother need help peeling potatoes?”

“Probably not,” Eva laughed. “But we’ll see what’s on the menu. Do you drink beer? I know you drink wine.”

“Yes, I drink beer. Why?”

“Because my brother-in-law brews a mean ale,” Eva chuckled. “And Leah promised to bring a few bottles.”

Part 9

Eva had been right; Agnes Clemente did not need or want any help in the kitchen. Instead, she sent her daughter and Sigrid into the living room to set the table for the dinner she was preparing.

“How many again?” Sigrid mumbled, eying the huge table.

“Twelve adults and ten children,” Eva replied, casting the blonde an amused look. Even though she didn’t show it, the Inspector new Sigrid was a little nervous about meeting her family. “The little ones usually don’t sit at the table for long,” Eva continued. “They usually end up in the den where my parents keep a bunch of toys.” She put the last plate she was holding in its proper place on the table and her eyes sought the blonde’s.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked a little hesitantly. “I know the last few days have been pretty tough and I’d hate for you to think that…”

“I’m fine, Eva,” Sigrid interrupted with a smile. “It will be a nice distraction from the tornado in my brain.”

“That’s for sure,” Eva nodded with a grin, tilting her head in an unconscious gesture of closely listening. “I hear a couple of familiar voices,” she smiled. “I think Iris is here.”

Before Eva was even finished speaking the door was opened and two dark-haired children practically tumbled into the room.

“Talking about tornadoes,” Eva chuckled, bending down to scoop one of them in her arms. “Let’s see who we have here. Ah, it’s Oscar,” she laughed, looking into a pair of dark-brown eyes.

“Me too,” a voice sounded and Eva looked down into the begging eyes of her two year old niece.

“Hello, Olivia,” she greeted the little girl, picking her up also. Both children went silent when they noticed and stared at the blonde with wide eyes.

“Sigrid, meet Oscar and Olivia, Iris and Jesse’s twins. They’re two years old and might seem shy right at this moment, but that will pass real fast.”

“Hello Oscar and Olivia,” Sigrid greeted with a smile, amazed by the resemblance between the twins and Eva. They had the same color hair and skin-tone. The only difference was the color of their eyes. It made her curious about Eva’s sister and if the two siblings looked that much alike as well.

That question was answered when a dark-haired woman stepped into the room. She looked so much like Eva that Sigrid could only stare.

“Put those kids down and give me a hug,” the woman laughed, walking toward Eva with outstretched arms. The Inspector chuckled and put the twins back on the floor, only to disappear into a warm embrace. Iris held her sister tight and for a long moment they stood there, holding each other silently, until Iris pulled back a little so she could look her sister in the eyes.

“I’ve missed you,” she said softly and Sigrid noticed Eva’s sister had tears in her eyes. “Are you doing okay?”

“I am,” Eva answered with a hoarse voice.

“Promise?”

“I promise,” Eva nodded, giving her sister another hug before she turned her to face Sigrid. “Iris, this is Sigrid Meyers. Sigrid, this is my sister, Iris.”

“Where are my manners?” Iris mumbled, quickly wiping her eyes with the back of her left hand, extending her right one to the blonde. “It’s nice to meet you, Sigrid,” she smiled warmly.

“It’s nice to meet you as well,” Sigrid smiled. “I can’t believe how much Eva and you look alike. You could have been twins.” She cast a look at the twins who were still eying her with a mixture of curiosity and shyness. Iris saw her look and she let out a chuckle.

“Strong genes,” she explained. “I know those two look like they could have been Eva’s.” She gave her sister a playful swat across the stomach and added:”It makes me very impatient for her to have children. I want to know what they’d look like.”

“You’ll have to wait, Iris,” Eva grinned. “But if our genes are as strong as you like to profess, they’d look like yours.”

Iris laughed but didn’t reply, because at that moment a tall woman with short auburn hair stepped into the room, greeting Eva with an enthusiastic hug.

“Hello, stranger,” her voice sounded playful. “It’s good to see you.”

“Likewise,” Eva smiled, grabbing the woman’s arm and looking at Sigrid.

“Sigrid, this is Jesse Holbrook. Jesse, this is Sigrid.”

Jesse shook the blonde’s hand warmly, not aware of the slightly startled look on her face. Iris had noticed though and she sent Eva a questioning look. Sigrid had recovered quickly from her surprise and was exchanging pleasantries with Jesse, while Iris stepped closer to Eva, elbowing her in the ribs.

“Your friend looked a little frazzled for a few seconds,” she said softly. “Is she…?”

“No, she isn’t, she’s very open-minded,” Eva replied, equally soft.

“I guess she has to be, since she’s your friend,” Iris teased.

“Thanks,” Eva replied with a wry smile. “I love you, too.”

More voices sounded in the kitchen and Eva looked at Sigrid, who sent her a reassuring smile. For a brief moment their eyes locked. Sigrid’s eyes were pensive, but warm and Eva wished she could take the blonde to a quiet corner and do some explaining, but more family was entering the house, so it would have to wait. Raising one eyebrow she asked a silent question, which was answered with a warm smile and a barely noticeable wink. Relieved, Eva turned to her sister Leah who was entering, aware of the warm feeling in the pit of her stomach that she knew Sigrid’s smile had put there.

A few hours later, Sigrid had met the entire Clemente family, dinner had been a slightly noisy, but pleasant experience, the children were playing in the den and the adults were sitting around the table, engrossed in a variety of conversations.

“Did you have enough to eat, Sigrid?” Rick Clemente asked in a deep voice.

“Oh, yes, more than enough thank you Mister Clemente,” the blonde replied. “I mean, Rick,” she added with a smile. She had taken an instant liking to Eva’s father. He was tall with unruly dark hair that was sprinkled with gray. His skin was dark and weathered by being outside on the water so much. Even though Agnes Clemente was an attractive woman, it was easy to see that Eva had inherited her father’s good looks.

“Those almond cookies won’t last all night, you know,” he smiled, pointing at the quickly dwindling freshly baked treats in the middle of the table.

“They’re really good,” Sigrid nodded. “And it’s tempting to eat another one, but I don’t want to explode.”

“They’re my grandmother’s recipe,” Iris, who sat on Sigrid’s left side, explained. “She gave mom the recipe when she married dad, because they were always his favorites.” Eva’s sister took a sip from her tea and smiled. “And exploding would be messy,” she added.

“It would,” Sigrid nodded answering Iris’ smile.

Iris looked past the blonde and seeing that Eva, who was sitting on Sigrid’s right side, was talking to her father, Leon and Felix she turned back to Sigrid.

“I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but I couldn’t help noticing you looked a little surprised when Eva introduced Jesse as my partner,” she spoke softly.

“I was,” Sigrid replied with a nod and a smile. “But not because you’re both women. Eva had listed all her family members, so I was a little prepared, but she only mentioned that her sister Iris was married to Jesse.”

“Maybe she wasn’t sure how you’d feel about that?” Iris mused in defense of her sibling.

“I’m pretty sure she does,” Sigrid chuckled. “She knows I’m gay.”

Iris eyes went wide and traveled between Sigrid to Eva and back again.

“Oh,” was all she said, before adding: “In that case I guess you wouldn’t object.”

“That would be a little hypocritical, wouldn’t it?” Sigrid nodded. “Sometimes things are so normal to us, we don’t give it a second thought. I assume Eva didn’t feel the need to explain anything because she knew I’m gay.”

“How long have you known each other?” Iris wanted to know.

“Not that long. We met through…work,” Sigrid explained, knowing she couldn’t give too many details, but also unwilling to lie. “It’s been less than a week, although it feels like I’ve known her a lot longer than that.”

“Eva can have that effect on people” Iris smiled. “But only if she lets her defenses down. There are people that have known her almost her entire life and they still don’t really know her, if you know what I mean.”

“I guess I’m lucky then,” Sigrid smiled, casting a sideway glance at the subject of their conversation. Unexpectedly, she looked straight into a pair of sparkling green eyes and immediately felt her heart rate pick up.

“Is my sister spilling family secrets?”

“As if,” Iris snorted, reaching around Sigrid to punch Eva’s shoulder. “No, darling, Sigrid and I are merely discussing you character flaws, which are not a secret.”

“Nice,” Leon commented from across the table. “Don’t forget you and Eva are twins who were born two years apart, so whatever you tell Sigrid about her reflects on you.”

“I was only telling Sigrid how wonderful our baby sister is,” Iris chuckled. “How intelligent, charming and talented.”

“In that case, don’t forget stubborn, single-minded and opinionated,” Jesse chimed in from Iris’ other side, making everybody laugh.

“But you love me anyway,” Iris stated with a smug smile, leaning in to give her partner a quick kiss.

“And what does that tell you about me?” Jesse teased with a dramatic sigh and a roll of her eyes.

“Trust me, honey, you don’t want to go there.”

Sigrid laughed along with the rest of them, turning back to Eva when she felt a soft touch on her elbow.

“Are you properly distracted?” she wanted to know, referring to the conversation they had earlier. When Sigrid nodded, she gave her arm a friendly squeeze, before withdrawing her hand. The soft light from the lamp over the dining table spread golden highlights in Sigrid’s hair, making the clear blue eyes stand out even more and Eva felt herself drawn to that source of warmth more and more. It made her tremble inside and mentally she scolded herself for losing focus like that. She swallowed hard and took a deep breath, aware of the questioning look Sigrid was casting her.

“Don’t let Leon eat all the cookies,” she joked in a quiet voice, finally pulling her eyes away from Sigrid’s. When she picked up her coffee cup she noticed the slight tremble of her hand and inwardly she cursed, hoping no-one else had noticed.

###

It was close to midnight when Sigrid walked out of the bathroom, ready to hop into bed and, hopefully go to sleep. The evening had been a pleasant one. Eva’s family members all seemed to be kind people who had accepted her presence without question. Without exception they had all been welcoming, for which the blonde was grateful.

When she left, Iris had given her a hug, whispering she expected to see her again soon, which had left Sigrid slightly puzzled. Especially because she had witnessed a whispered, seemingly heated exchange of words between Eva and Iris a few minutes before that.

“You’re frowning,” Eva drawled from her position on the bed, comfortably stretched out in a t-shirt and a pair of gray sweat pants.

“I am?” Sigrid sighed, sinking down on the edge of her own bed. She pushed her hair away from her forehead, realizing she was more tired than she had thought she was.

“You are,” Eva smiled, rolling on her side and supporting her head with a hand. “Is everything okay?”

“Define ‘okay’,” Sigrid replied quietly.

“You look like something is troubling you,” Eva explained.

Sigrid pulled up her legs underneath her, leaning into the pillows beside her. Her eyes were darker than usual when she looked at Eva, a testimony to the turmoil inside.

“When I was brushing my teeth it suddenly hit me I won’t be looking into my own mirror again,” she spoke softly. “My house is gone. When we solve this case, I don’t have a place to go back home to,” her voice was slightly hoarse from emotion. “The more it sinks in, the more lost I feel,” she said. The pain in her voice was audible.

“I can only imagine what it feels like to lose your house like that,” Eva sighed, pushing herself up and off the bed. It only took her a few steps to reach Sigrid and sink next to the blonde. “Is there anything I can do for you right now?” she asked softly. “I feel a little helpless.”

“You’re being a friend. That’s all I can ask for now,” Sigrid produced a watery smile and brushed her fingertips across Eva’s arm. “Thank you for that.”

“I wish I could do more though,” the Inspector complained.

“Well, if you can wave a magic wand, solve this case right now and repair my house, I’d be very grateful,” Sigrid sighed. She cast a look aside and made a face. “No such chance, huh?”

“I’m afraid not,” Eva softly chuckled, stopping Sigrid’s finger from drawing circles on her arm by grabbing her hand.

“Ooops, I’m sorry,” Sigrid chuckled. “I tend to fidget when I’m stressed or upset.”

“I don’t mind,” Eva smiled. “But you were tickling me.”

Sigrid looked at her hand, resting in Eva’s slightly larger one and wordlessly she entwined their fingers, liking the feelings that simple gesture caused inside. When the Inspector did not pull back, she used the fingers of her free hand to gently stroke the skin of Eva’s hand.

“You have beautiful hands,” she finally said, without looking up.

“Thank you,” was Eva’s soft reply.

“I couldn’t help noticing Iris has the same hands.” This time Sigrid did look up and she sent Eva a small smile. “I’m still amazed at how much the two of you look alike.”

“There’s no denying we’re related, that’s for sure,” Eva nodded.

There was a brief silence and Eva could tell by the restless movements of her fingers that the blonde was trying to work something out inside her mind.

“I was wondering,” she finally started. “Since you and Iris share so many genes…I…” she paused, not knowing how to continue and with a frown she stared at their joined hands, until Eva’s free hand covered her fidgeting one.

“If I’m right and know what you think right now, the answer is ‘yes’,” the Inspector softly spoke, suppressing a smile when Sigrid’s head jerked up and a pair of startled eyes caught hers.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Sigrid wanted to know. There was no sign of blame or irritation in her voice, just curiosity.

“I wanted to be able to keep a distance,” Eva explained honestly.

“Why?”

“Because…at the time I felt it wouldn’t be appropriate to share a lot of personal information with you. The first hours after you called in the murder I had to treat you as a possible suspect.”

“But that didn’t last long,” Sigrid remarked with a small smile.

“No, thank goodness, it didn’t,” Eva nodded. “But then I started to suspect you were more than just a small town pastor and…,” Eva took a deep breath and cast down her eyes, unwilling to face Sigrid.

“And what?” Sigrid pressed on, suspecting what Eva wanted to say, but needing to hear it.

“And I realized how…how attracted I was to you,” Eva whispered. “This case is becoming more and more complicated and I…I need to be able to focus.” She lifted her head and there was a worried look in her eyes. “I know you are trained as an Agent, but still, someone out there wants to hurt you and it’s my job to keep you safe.” Eva swallowed hard and her eyes were pleading. “I can’t allow myself to be distracted, Sigrid.”

“I know,” the blonde answered in a very subdued voice. “I feel the same, trust me. It’s hard to focus when, in the back of my mind, I’m constantly wondering about you…us.” She gave Eva’s hands a friendly squeeze and smiled. “I guess I don’t have to do that anymore.” Her face became serious again as she looked up at the other woman. “So, what happens now?”

“We leave for New Hampshire in the morning, solve this case and take it from there?”

“That sounds reasonable,” Sigrid sighed unhappily, making Eva chuckle.

“Did you have anything else in mind?” Eva’s voice was teasing.

Sigrid looked at the other woman and her eyes slowly traveled from the green eyes to the full mouth and back again.

“You’re doing that on purpose,” Eva whispered, swallowing hard.

“Doing what on purpose?” Sigrid asked in a soft voice.

“Looking at me like…like…”

“Like I’d die if I don’t kiss you right now?” Sigrid asked quietly, aware of her heart beating wildly in her chest.

“Something like that,” Eva breathed. “Sigrid…” she swallowed and took a deep breath. “I meant it when I said that being distracted wouldn’t be a good idea right now.”

“How can I not be distracted when you sit so close to me? I can feel the heat of your body and smell the scent of soap on your skin and I can’t help wondering what it would feel like to kiss your lips. They look so soft, Eva,” Sigrid whispered, extracting her hand from between Eva’s so she could reach up and brush her fingertips across the Inspector’s cheek. “I think I’d be a heck of a lot less distracted if I actually could kiss you, so I know what it’s like and I don’t have to wonder about it anymore.”

There was a sparkle in Sigrid’s eyes and Eva smiled, feeling herself drawn closer to the blonde. The sensation of Sigrid’s fingertips on her skin made her entire body tingle and she could feel the heat spread like a wildfire, making her skin glow and her stomach muscles clench.

“You come up with some pretty solid arguments,” she said with difficulty, brushing Sigrid’s bottom lip with her thumb, eliciting a groan from the blonde that only amplified the effect of her fingers on her skin.

“Thank you,” Sigrid breathed, acutely aware of her body’s response to Eva’s close proximity. “Does that mean that…?” She never finished her sentence, because the mouth she had admired and wondered about prevented her from speaking when it descended on her lips, soft and slightly hesitant at first, but with growing confidence and passion.

Sigrid moaned into the kiss, wrapped her arms around Eva and pulled the other woman closer, only aware of the feel of those lips and the way her body responded, craving contact that was even closer, losing herself completely in the feel of the other woman. Both women lost themselves completely in the close, intimate contact. Every passing second their need for more contact increased and unconsciously their hands slipped underneath the loose fabric of their sleepwear, touching and caressing soft, warm skin that was growing warmer by the moment. After a very long time, Eva found herself half covering Sigrid’s supine body and with an enormous amount of self-control she slowly withdrew herself from the blonde, who whimpered softly at the loss of proximity.

“Sigrid, we have to stop,” Eva spoke with difficulty, closing her eyes and moaning when blunt nails raked the sensitive skin of her stomach. “Sigrid, please.”

“I know,” the blonde finally answered, unable to keep herself from touching the Inspector’s skin. “But you feel so good and I don’t really want to stop. I want to keep going,” she added in a heated whisper, feeling her wandering hands caught by Eva’s slightly bigger ones.

“And I want that, too,” Eva replied, not able to stop herself from kissing the sensitive skin of Sigrid’s neck. “But you deserve so much more than this, and so do I.” She slowly withdrew her lips from Sigrid’s skin, letting her hands slide down the blonde’s arms to grab her hands. “Sigrid, it would be so easy to do this, to make love to you, right here and right now. But there are so many reasons why we shouldn’t.” Eva swallowed hard and with a small smile she brushed a strand of hair away from the blonde’s forehead. “It’s not my habit to sleep with someone that quick. I’d like to get to know you better, build up something between us that is more than…than…,”

“Animalistic lust,” Sigrid provided with a small smile and Eva nodded.

“Yes. I am sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Sigrid replied in a soft voice. “You are right. And it’s not a habit of me either. I usually don’t jump someone like this when I barely know them.”

“That’s good to know,” Eva smiled, trying not to moan in disappointment when Sigrid’s roaming hands withdrew from underneath her shirt. It had felt so good, but common sense prevented her from continuing what they had started.

“I would really like to get to know you better, before we take this…,” she motioned between Sigrid and herself. “Before we take this any further. Call me old-fashioned,” she added apologetically.

“I would like that, too,” Sigrid replied with a smile. “Although, I have to admit my primal senses are not happy.”

“Neither are mine. I need a cold shower,” Eva admitted, chuckling when Sigrid groaned.

“Is kissing allowed?” the blonde wanted to know.

“God, I hope so,” Eva breathed and this time Sigrid chuckled. She looked up at the dark-haired woman and her eyes turned a few shades darker.

“You’re beautiful,” she whispered, not able to stop her hand from brushing through Eva’s hair. “Am I allowed one more kiss?”

Eva didn’t answer, but with a small smile she brought her face closer to the blonde’s and lightly brushed her lips with her own.

“You call that a kiss?” Sigrid complained, but her eyes were dancing.

“No, I don’t,” Eva truthfully answered. “But considering the fact that I’m practically laying on top of you, I guess a chaste kiss right now is safer than the alternative.” The expression on her face grew serious. “It would be so easy to lose myself in you right now, Sigrid, believe me. But how would you look at me in the morning? How would I look at myself in the mirror?” Slowly, the Inspector rolled off the blonde, although she didn’t break the physical contact. Her right hand was resting on the blonde’s stomach, while she supported her head wither other hand.

“I have too much respect for you to take this further right now.”

“And I appreciate your honesty,” Sigrid replied, mirroring Eva’s position on the bed, her left hand resting on the other woman’s hip. “And I am grateful for your respect, I really am. Thank you.”

Her words were sincere and made the Inspector relax.

“When this case is solved, I plan to court you thoroughly,” Eva smiled, tracing Sigrid’s eyebrows with the tip of a finger.

“And I will let you,” the blonde promised, while her eyes looked at Eva with a dreamy expression. “To be honest, I can’t wait to see where this goes.”

She reached up and pulled Eva’s face closer, kissing the dark-haired woman’s lips unhurriedly, before her hand left Eva’s neck to limply lie on the bed. “Is it very bold of me to ask you to sleep with me tonight?” she whispered. “I mean sleep…sleep, not…the other…sleep,” she hurried to explain when she noticed the rise of Eva’s dark eyebrows. “I just…with everything that has happened I’d just like…I’d like some comfort and you bring that,” she added softly.

Eva did not answer but she pulled the pulled the comforter up, rolled onto her side and wrapped her arm around Sigrid, pulling her against her body.

“Is this what you have in mind?” she quietly asked, smiling when Sigrid snuggled a little closer.

“Perfect,” the blonde sighed. “This feels so good. Thank you, Eva.”

“Goodnight, Sigrid,” Eva answered, dropping a kiss on the blonde’s temple.

Within a few minutes, both women were fast asleep.

###

Betty Avery made a face and softly chuckled when she stuffed a fleece vest into the overnight bag she was packing. It was always good to make sure one was prepared for everything. The plan was to drive northwest to the spot marked on the map they had found, investigate and return the same day. According to the weather forecast it would be dry and the chance of precipitation was only thirty percent. But, one never knew, so Betty made sure she had enough warm clothes to make it through a blizzard.

When the phone rang she looked up from what she was doing and reached out a hand to grab the cordless device she had tossed on the bed.

“Betty, it’s me, Meg. Listen, I just talked to Twitch and she’s bringing a couple of guns. I thought I’d warn you.”

“She’s what?”

“Bringing a couple of guns. The old fool thinks that we might need guns to protect ourselves, just in case…,” Meg explained, sounding a little nervous.

There was a short silence, before Betty let out a resigned sigh.

“Well, I know we can’t convince her to leave those things at home, but I hope they’re registered.”

“I asked her and she said they are,” Meg answered with a chuckle. “She went to the shooting range this afternoon, to practice.”

“Oh, my goodness. I hope she didn’t kill anyone,” Betty couldn’t help but exclaiming.

“She said she did good, whatever that might mean,” Meg sighed. “So, do you really think we should go ahead with this?”

“Don’t you?”

“I guess…yes, I believe so,” Meg replied. “I’ve got this feeling though, like, I don’t know, like we’ll get more than we’ll bargain for,” she added slowly.

“Then maybe it’s a good idea to bring some fire power,” Betty chuckled. “Who knows, it might come in handy.”

“So, we’ll meet around seven tomorrow morning?”

“We will. I’ll see you then, Meg, and bring extra clothes, just in case.”

“Don’t worry, I did,” Meg answered. “No nasty surprise will cause me to freeze to death.”

Part 10

It was very early in the morning when the alarm on Eva’s phone softly beeped. With a sigh, she tightened her grip on the woman in her arms, not ready to leave the warm comfort of the bed they were in.

“Is it time already?” Sigrid’s sleepy voice sounded close to her ear and Eva mumbled something unintelligible that meant to be a confirmation. The body in her arms shook with silent laughter and Eva felt a pair of warm lips press a kiss just below her ear.

“Not a morning person?”

“Only in the summer.” Eva mumbled and snuggled closer to Sigrid.

“Ah, I can see the logic in that, I think,” Sigrid answered. “Maybe we can just ignore the alarm and stay in bed a little longer.”

“Leon and Felix would never let me live that down.” Eva sighed and rolled onto her back, but maintained her grip on Sigrid. “Leon will be here at five o’clock.”

“Is he taking us by boat again?”

“Yes and Felix is waiting with the car we’ll be taking. He’ll hitch a ride back with Leon, who’ll drop him off at the dock in town.”

Sigrid wrapped an arm around Eva’s middle and pressed her face against a cotton-clad shoulder.

“I usually don’t have a problem getting up early in the morning, but right now I am sinfully comfortable and I don’t want to move.” Eva’s phone beeped again and Sigrid raised her head. “Where’s that thing?”

“Next to the bed I was supposed to sleep in.” Eva chuckled and pulled Sigrid’s head back down against her shoulder.

“Do you think it will stop beeping, eventually?” Sigrid asked in a sleepy voice.

“Eventually. But my phone has a pretty good battery life, so it won’t stop any time soon.” She reached out an arm and turned on the light on the side of the bed. She smiled when Sigrid groaned, looking down at the tousled blond head.

“Good morning.” She smiled.

“Good morning.” Sigrid looked up. “You look positively adorable and seductive.” She sighed and untangled herself from Eva’s arms. “So the best course of action is to get up and moving, before my body’s cravings overrule my brain.” She gave Eva a quick kiss. “Even in the morning you look absolutely stunning.”

“The light is shining in your eyes.” Eva quipped. She ruffled Sigrid’s hair.

“No it isn’t. I don’t care what you say, I know I’m right.”

“Somehow I don’t feel like arguing about that early in the morning, so, thank you, I guess,” Eva answered. She dropped a kiss on Sigrid’s forehead. “This feels…comfortable. Very familiar almost, as if we’ve been waking up like this for a long time already,” she said.

“I know. Sigrid nodded. There was a brief silence and then she smiled broadly. “I like it.”

“So do I.” Eva admitted. Her hands itched to pull Sigrid, who was slowly getting up, back into her arms. Her body instantly missed the warm softness and she exhaled slowly . I know there will be other nights, but before those come around we have a long drive ahead of us.

“Are you ready to solve a murder?”

Sigrid looked up and smiled.

“I’d rather concentrate on other things right now, but I guess I’m ready to solve some puzzles and arrest some bad guys.” She stretched her arms over her head and exposed her abdomen.

Eva averted her eyes and pushed herself upright.

Later.

******

It was still early when Charles Benoit exited his car. A watery sun painted the horizon pink and gave the heavy, gray clouds in the sky a colorful lining. Charles winced when a blast of cold air hit him square in the face. He was counting the days until his retirement. Just the idea of being able to stay in bed, or even stay indoors during cold winter mornings made him almost do a happy dance.

“It’s almost March,” he muttered. “I bet it’s Spring somewhere.”

“We’ll have to wait until May, Chuck,” a female voice said cheerfully and, startled, Chuck looked up, narrowing his eyes when he recognized a familiar figure, dressed in multiple layers of clothing.

“Are you that cold?” he asked with a grin.

“I’m from Boston and spend most of my days indoors,” Casey Planters nodded. “I don’t do cold well.”

“Ever considered moving south?” Charles smiled, walking to the building, knowing the reporter would follow him inside the warm hallway.

“Briefly,” Casey shrugged. “The winters here are long and cold, but I wouldn’t want to miss the other three seasons.”

“You’ve got that right,” Charles nodded. “I’m a little surprised to see you here, Casey. Are you chasing something in this area?”

Casey glanced up at the man who was now holding the door open for her and stepped inside the warm entrance.

“Cut the bull, Chuck. You know why I’m here.”

“I honestly have no idea,” Charles replied, shaking his head, while extracting his identification card out of his pocket.

“The Church murder,” Casey spoke, her eyes never leaving Charles’ face. She knew his facial expression would stay neutral, but one could hope.

“What about it?” Charles wanted to know.

“I’ve got information from a reliable source that I want to verify with you.”

“Really?” Charles responded with mild surprise, knowing the reports in the local news reports had been brief, because they were still holding a lot of facts under wraps in order not to jeopardize the on-going investigation. “What information might that be?”

Casey laughed and shouldered the briefcase that was sliding off her shoulder. She knew Charles Benoit would not be forthcoming and she was enjoying the challenge.

“Chuck, please, give me a break. Do you really think I’d cough up any information only to have you tell me: ‘Thanks’ and not share anything with me? I’m not a rookie.”

“No, you’re not,” Charles admitted, leaning against the wall and regarding the reporter with a pensive look. “What do you want from me?”

“I want you to verify some of the…facts…I have,” Casey answered, mimicking his posture at the opposite wall.

“I might not be able to do that,” Charles explained. “There is some information we’ve been able to keep out of the news, so there are things I will not be able to confirm, or deny for that matter.”

“I know that, Chuck, trust me.”

“Then why would you share information with me?” the elderly police officer wanted to know. “Have you all of a sudden become altruistic?”

“I can’t say I have,” Casey shook her head, sending Charles a wry smile. “But I do have my…motives,” she added with a sigh. “Listen, can we talk about this anywhere else than the entrance? If it’s not possible to take me inside, then let’s go to ‘Jazzy Java’ on the corner. I could use a good cup of coffee.”

Charles took a few moments to study the woman in front of him. He had known Casey Planters for a few years and liked her articles. She was a good reporter; honest and not driven by the desire to bring sensational news. Her articles were always thorough and her facts were always correct. Having a cup of coffee with her to hear what she had to say could be beneficial.

“Alright,” Charles said, pushing himself away from the wall. “Let’s get some coffee. You’ve made me curious.”

###

Betty Avery glanced over her shoulder and cast the woman in the backseat a nervous look.

“Where’d you put them, Twitch?”

“Where did I put what?”

“Those guns you told Meg you were going to bring. Where are they?”

Twitch sported a toothy grin when she patted on the bulky purse that was sitting right next to her on the seat.

“Both of them?” Betty wanted to know, trying to sound calm.

“Yup, but one’s a really little one,” Twitch explained, holding her thumb and index finger slightly apart to show her friend the size of her fire arm. When she noticed Betty’s frown she hurried to explain. “It will still put a decent hole in somebody,” she said, nodding her gray head. “Only if needed, of course,” she quickly added when she saw Betty’s eyes widen in alarm.

Meg who had slid into the passenger seat chuckled softly and shook her head. She couldn’t believe the adventure they were going to have. It was excellent. A gun toting Twitch made the whole expedition even funnier. As long as she didn’t accidently shoot anyone, of course.

“Do you have the map?” she asked, turning to Betty, deliberately changing the subject to prevent Twitch from pulling her guns out to give them a demonstration.

“I do,” Betty nodded, turning the key in the ignition and starting the engine. “I know exactly where we’re going.”

“Good, lead on, Sherlock,” Meg grinned, wiggling a little to get more comfortable in the leather seat.

Betty put the four-wheel drive in the right gear and slowly pulled out of Meg’s driveway. Meg lived at the north end of town so they could leave without the entire community knowing about it.

“Alright, girls. Let’s do some sleuthing,” Betty said, pushing her sunglasses a little firmer on the bridge of her nose. Even though it was cloudy, there was enough bright light reflecting off the snow to make looking at the road in front of her uncomfortable. But the gas tank was full, the inside of the car was already comfortably warm and Meg and Twitch were humming camp songs. It was going to be an interesting day. She approached a dirt road, grateful that the car that was turning off of it had stopped to let her pass. Even though the roads were clear, it was still early morning and it was possible that patches of black ice had formed overnight. Hitting the brakes hard was something Betty would want to avoid.

Within a few minutes they passed a sign that showed they passed the town limits and with a smile Betty joined her friends in the singing, not aware of the car that was following her.

###

“That was nice of your brother to get us a super large, fresh cup of coffee,” Sigrid commented, looking at out of the car window, noticing houses were scarce in the area they were driving through.

“It was,” Eva replied, casting a quick glance aside. She grinned when she noticed the expression on the blonde’s face. “Did it go straight to your bladder?” she wanted to know.

With a sigh, Sigrid nodded, slapping Eva’s knee when the other woman started laughing.

“It’s not funny, trust me. I’ve been on the look-out for a gas station, store or whatever, but there’s not much of any of that around here, is there?”

“Nope,” Eva acknowledged, a little too cheerful to Sigrid’s liking.

“So, what do I do? If we don’t find a place to stop soon, I’ll dive into the bushes, I swear.”

“That could get a little chilly,” Eva warned in an amused voice.

“I don’t care,” Sigrid sighed. “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

Eva smiled and briefly touched Sigrid’s knee in a gesture of encouragement.

“Can you hang in for another ten minutes? I know there’s a tiny town with a gas station coming up soon.”

“Ten minutes,” Sigrid promised.

“Ten minutes,” Eva smiled.

A companionable silence descended on the car and Sigrid leaned back against the head rest, studying the woman who was driving the car with a quiet smile.

“Was Iris upset with you last night?” she suddenly asked, seeing the surprise in Eva’s eyes when a startled look was sent her way.

“Iris? No, I don’t think so. Why?”

“When she left she…never mind, it’s none of my business,” Sigrid said. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be so curious.”

“If you don’t ask, you don’t know,” Eva replied reasonably.

“And curiosity killed the cat,” Sigrid quipped, making Eva laugh.

“Iris wasn’t happy with me leaving so soon,” the Inspector explained. “She had hoped I’d have stayed for a few more days.” Eva sighed and Sigrid noticed she gripped the steering wheel a little tighter.

“They’ve missed you,” Sigrid concluded.

Eva knew she could leave it at that, but she wanted to be open and honest with Sigrid, especially after the previous evening. Secrets and half-truths would ruin her chances to build a relationship with Sigrid Meyers and that was something she did not want to risk. Eva did not fall in love easily, but deep down inside she knew that was exactly what had happened.

“Yes, they have,” Eva nodded. “But there’s more to the story though,” she admitted, aware of the shifting body next to her.

“So there is,” Sigrid responded in a soft voice. “You don’t have to tell me, Eva. I’ve already been too curious and…”

“But I want to,” the Inspector interrupted her. She moistened her lips and swallowed. “It’s…it’s not a pretty story, but if…if…you and I want to see if…we’re…able to build…something…together, I need to tell you this.”

“Okay,” Sigrid nodded, reaching out a hand and gently squeezing Eva’s knee. “We just passed a sign for a service station. Do you want to have a pit-stop first? Maybe we can find a quiet place to talk as well,” she suggested.

“Okay, that sounds good,” Eva replied, sending Sigrid a grateful smile. “Thank you.”

Much to Sigrid’s relief they reached the promised gas station in less than ten minutes. Before the car came to a full stop, she opened the door and practically jumped out. She knew Eva was laughing at her, but she didn’t care. She hurried across the parking lot and almost slipped on an icy patch. Fortunately, she grabbed the doorknob of the service station and was able to keep her balance. She opened the door and glanced over her shoulder. Eva was shaking her head at her and Sigrid stuck out her tongue.

Brat .

A few minutes later she emerged carrying two bottles of water and a small bag of snacks.

“Hungry?” Eva pointed at the plastic bag Sigrid was carrying.

“Not yet, but I will be.” Sigrid closed the door behind her and rubbed her hands together. “It’s a lot colder here than at your parents’ house.” She peered up at the sky, while unzipping her coat. “I hope it won’t snow.”

“It will,” Eva said. There was so much conviction in her voice that Sigrid chuckled.

“I didn’t know you had meteorological skills.”

“I don’t.” Eva shrugged and pointed at the radio. “The weather guy just said it would.”

“Did he say how much?”

Eva looked at Sigrid and made a face.

“Five to six inches, if we’re lucky.”

“What if we’re not?”

“We’ll get slammed with ten inches and get stuck somewhere between here and your family’s cabin.”

“I’m sorry I asked.” Sigrid handed Eva a bottle of water and reached out to touch her knee. “I guess it’s best to keep going then, huh?”

“Do you mind?”

Sigrid took a sip from her water and recapped it with a thoughtful expression.

“Do you? I don’t want you to think you’re obliged to talk to me about what happened between you and Iris last night. I mean, I know you want to, but I don’t mind waiting.”

“We’ll talk later,” Eva said. “According to the forecast we can expect snow in the next hour or so. If we hurry we might make it to the cabin before the weather gets really bad.”

“How is your foot? Do you want me to drive for a while?”

“My foot is great, thanks.” Eva leaned closer to Sigrid and brushed her lips across her cheek. She took her time, enjoying the feel of soft skin. “Thank you.”

“You do realize that drives me crazy, don’t you?” Sigrid shot Eva a quick grin.

“Yes, I do.” Eva laughed and started the engine. “I love knowing that about you.”

******

Charles Benoit looked at the woman who sat across from him. Casey was sipping her coffee and in the harsh, fluorescent light of ‘Jazzy Java’ he could easily see the dark circles underneath her eyes. What she had told him was disturbing and much unexpected.

“Are you sure?” Casey nodded and he noticed the pain in her dark eyes.

“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t, she said.”I wish I was wrong, Chuck, trust me.”

Chuck leaned back into his chair and tried to organize his thoughts.

“I am by no means a rookie, but I wish Eva was here right now.” He picked up his coffee and took a sip. “That girl has an amazing mind.”

“You’ll miss her when she leaves.” Casey smiled.

“Why do you think I’ll retire?” Chuck grinned and took another sp of coffee.

“Can you call her?”

“I’m afraid she’s in an area where there’s not much of a signal. But she’ll get back to me after she reads the message I sent her.” He glanced around at the other occupants of the shop. Nobody seemed to be interested in them and he leaned his elbows on the table. “My question to you, Casey, is what do you want to do about it?”

“Nail the bastard,” she said. The brown eyes were hard.

“It’s going to create a big stink, all the way to D.C.” Chuck studied Casey’s face and all he saw was determination.

“I admit it’s a delicate matter, but I don’t care.”

“They’ll try to drag you down.” Chuck warned her. “Are you ready for that? There might be a way we can do this, while leaving you out of it.”

“Are you kidding?” Casey’s eyes were blazing. “First of all, I’m an investigative reporter and feel it’s my duty to expose crap like this, no matter how personally involved I might be, or have been.” She paused and Chuck noticed she clenched her hands into fists. “I feel used, Chuck. And incredibly stupid. I should have known better.”

“That’s easier said than done when your emotions are involved. Don’t beat yourself up over it. I am glad you came to see me. Very glad. I think we have time to do some damage control.”

“Do you think Sigrid Meyers is in danger?”

“I know she is,” Chuck said. “But I also know she’s with someone who’ll be able to keep her safe. Eva is one of those honorable people; she’d rather take a bullet than expose her charge to danger.” He let out a slow breath and played with the phone he had put on the table. “Who else knows about this?”

“My editor, John Landau.”

“Do you trust him?”

Casey nodded. “He’s my friend.”

“Are all your files in there?” Chuck pointed at the laptop case she had put next to her on the table.

“Every one of them.” She patted the leather case and sent Chuck a small smile. “It’s like carrying around a time bomb.”

“We’d better get it somewhere safe then,” Chuck said. He pushed back his chair and stood up. “Let’s get back to the office. We need to talk to my Captain.”

******

Sigrid felt her eyes burn, but she was reluctant to take her eyes off the road.

“It’s starting to look like a total white-out,” she said. She cast a look at Eva whose face displayed pure concentration. “We should almost be there though.”

“That’s good,” Eva said without taking her eyes off the road. “It’s been a long time since I had to drive in conditions like this.”

“A least it’s hard to follow us.”

Eva laughed and slowed down when a stop sign appeared. The red metal was almost completely covered with snow and barely visible. The road was not in a better condition.

“I can barely see where we’re going.” Sigrid shifted in her seat and leaned forward. “But there should be a turn here soon.”

“Left or right?”

“Left,” she said. “There should be a small building on the corner.”I can’t believe the amount of snow that’s coming down.”

“I can’t wait to get out of this.” Eva readjusted her grip on the steering wheel. Sigrid could tell by the way she sat hunched forward her muscles were tense. She reached out and put her hand on Eva’s back. She rubbed her shoulders in slow circles, until she felt the body relax a little.

“That feels good, thank you.”

“There’s more where that comes from.”

Eva laughed and sent a quick glance sideways. “Are you flirting with me again?”

“I’m just trying to help you relax,” Sigrid said. “Is it working?”

“It might be so effective I’ll drive us off the road into a ditch.”

“That would be unfortunate.” Sigrid grinned and pointed to a fuzzy shape on the left side of the road. “That must be the building I was expecting. Turn here, Eva.”

Eva slowed down the car even more and steered toward what looked like a snow-covered track.

“Thank God for four-wheel drive,” she said.

“Amen to that.” Sigrid peered at the ground in front of the car. “It looks like a car went by here not that long ago.”

“Nutcases like us.” Eva slowly increased speed in order to crest a small rise.

“That’s weird.”

“What is?”

“I don’t remember that being here.” Sigrid frowned and almost pressed her nose to the window. “I wish I could see where the heck we are.”

“Are you trying to tell me we took a wrong turn?” Eva’s voice was calm and Sigrid thought she detected a hint of amusement in it.

“Would you be mad at me if we have?”

“No.” Eva let out a laugh and shook her head. “I can barely see the road, so, unless you have super vision, I don’t expect you to do a lot better than I have. We’ll just have to keep going and hope there’s a place we’ll be able to turn.”

“Maybe we should follow those tracks.”

“Good idea. Let me know if there’s anything you recognize.”

“Snow.” Sigrid joked.

Eva chuckled.”She’s not just cute, she’s smart as well.”

Sigrid risked a look aside. “Thank you. I think.” She returned her gaze to the road and smiled, aware of the tingling feeling in her stomach.

That suspiciously feels like butterflies.

******

“Okay, it’s official, we’re stuck.” Meg Jones pushed her glasses back on the bridge of her nose. “I always wondered if I would die peacefully in my sleep or not.” She paused and glanced at her friends. “I guess I’ll freeze to death.”

“There are worse ways to go, really.” Twitch’ voice was almost cheerful. “And you won’t be alone.”

“That’s for sure.” Betty Avery put the car in reverse and tried to pull it out of the snow bank. “I should have listened to my inner voice and turned around when it started snowing.”

“But your inner voice agreed with us.” Meg Jones sighed. “Twitch and I told you to keep going, so it’s our fault.”

“It’s nobody’s fault.” Twitch disagreed. “We’re in this together. Through thick and thin.”

“That sounds like something the Three Musketeers would have said.” Betty shifted the gears again, but the only thing that happened when she pressed down on the accelerator was that the car shifted sideways.

“It should stop snowing eventually.” Twitch spoke from the backseat.

“I’m sure it will. But if there’s no cell phone signal out here, it will be May before they find us.”

“Do you think that guy ran us off the road on purpose?” Meg said and she sent Betty a questioning look.

“I don’t know, Meg. It was creepy and I wonder if he has been behind us ever since we left town. I wish I had paid more attention to who was behind us.”

“It’s not like you could have known.” Meg reached out and patted her knee. “Don’t worry about it.”

“But I am.” Betty hit the steering wheel. “It’s maddening.”

“We could get out and walk.” Twitch’ suggestion made both Betty and Meg laugh.

“You’re funny, Twitch,” Betty said. “Where would we walk to?”

“Well, according to Sigrid’s map, we should be close to the spot she marked. Maybe it’s a house.”

“Maybe it’s her favorite fishing hole.” Meg’s voice was somber. “Or tree, or rock.”

“Or house.” Twitch did not seem willing to let go of her idea. “If you two are too chicken, I’ll go and check it out.”

“No, you’re not,” Betty said. She turned off the engine and turned around in her seat so she could look at her friends. “No matter what we do, we should stay together. The idea is tempting, Twitch, but it’s better to stay in the car.”

“And do what?” Twitch wanted to know.

“Wait.”

“For what? A miracle?”

“Stranger things have happened.” Meg said, turning around so she too could look at Twitch. “Besides, if all else fails you can end our suffering with a well-aimed shot. Right?”

“As long as you know I’d never eat you.” Twitch said. She grinned when she saw the horror in two pair of eyes. “You’re both too old and chewy.”

******

Eva narrowed her eyes in an unconscious gesture to see through the thick cloud of snow that surrounded the car. Next to her, Sigrid was doing the same. They inched forward in a nerve-wracking effort to stay on the road and out of the ditch.

“If this is the wrong road, we might not even make it back out.” There was a touch of anxiety in Sigrid’s voice. “This stuff is accumulating so incredibly fast.”

Eva nodded and cursed when, in spite of the crawling speed, the car fishtailed across the track.

“Damn frost heaves are not helping.” She let out a shaky breath when the car continued its snail pace. “Let me know whenever you think you see something you recognize, or an area where we can turn the car around.”

“What? Don’t you want to be snowed in with me?” Sigrid joked, but when she looked at Eva, her eyes were serious. “If we can make it back to the main road, we’ll have a chance to make it to the next town, don’t we?”

“Yes, but we’ll have to make it back first.” Eva risked a glance at Sigrid and sent her a small smile. “And yes, I’d love to be snowed in with you, just not in a car. I prefer a place with a heat source and a bathroom.”

“I can see the perks of that.” Sigrid nodded. She leaned forward and put her hands on the dashboard. “What is that?” She pointed to a shape ahead of them.

“It looks like a big lump of —.”

“It’s a car.” Sigrid interrupted her. “Look! There’s a red glow underneath the snow. Those must be the taillights.”

Eva nodded and slowly pressed the brake pedal. They skidded and stopped barely five feet behind the covered car. She reached behind her and grabbed a small pile of clothes. Wordlessly she handed Sigrid her gloves, scarf and hat. She donned her own and waited until Sigrid had done the same.

“I’ll grab the first-aid kit from the back. Let’s start with clearing the windows so we have an idea of what we’ll be dealing with. Ready?”

Sigrid nodded and opened the door.

“Goodness. This snow is deep,” she said.

“Be careful.” Eva kept an eye on her as they both struggled through the deep snow. It was hard to see clearly. The snow was coming down so hard they had to keep their heads down to keep the cold flakes out of their eyes.

Eva used her gloved hands to brush away the snow from one of the windows and saw that Sigrid followed her example with the other window.

“They’re in a snow bank.” She pointed to the side of the car. It was buried in a rapidly growing pile of snow. She heard a muffled sound from the car and used both her hands to clear the windows.

“Are you okay?” She called out to Sigrid who nodded. A bright blue scarf covered her entire face, except for her eyes. “You’re doing great for a Floridian.” Eva smiled when she heard Sigrid’s laugh. Cheering voices drew her attention back to the car. The windows were clear of snow and for the first time they were able to look inside the vehicle.

“What the hell?” Sigrid’s voice was full of amazement. “Eva.”

“I know. I recognize them.” She turned and shook her head. “Do you think they recognized us?”

“The way we’re bundled up? I doubt it.” Sigrid wiped snow away from her eyes.

“We need to get them out of here and then either find a shelter or make it back to the main road.” Eva cleared the handle on the driver’s side. “I’ll take Betty. I think Grace is in the back.”

Sigrid nodded. “I might have to carry her, because of her bad hip. What the hell were they thinking?”

“We’ll get them out first and ask questions later. Let’s go.”

Eva opened the door and stuck her head inside. “Is everyone alright? I — .” She stopped in mid-sentence and sucked in a breath.

“Hold it right there, Buster.”

Eva froze and slowly raised her hands. She was looking straight into the barrel of a gun.

Part 11

Eva slowly backed away from the car. From the corner of her eye, she could see that Sigrid stood frozen in place, her gloved hand still on the handle of the door. In her mind, Eva was busy calculating what move would get her out of harm’s way the fastest. A dive to the left would only bring temporary safety, at least until the owner of the gun had readjusted her aim. A dive to the right would definitely be a lot safer, but it would take out Sigrid. Maybe I can roll us both behind the car.

“For Pete’s sake, Twitch. If you don’t lower that gun right now, someone will get hurt.” Sigrid’s voice interrupted Eva’s thoughts, and startled she looked away from the gun that was still pointed at her chest.

“Sigrid?” Betty’s voice was a mixture of surprise and relief.

“Inspector Clemente?” Twitch lowered the gun, and only when Eva saw the safety slide back into place, she slowly exhaled.

“Yes, it’s me. Us. Sigrid and I. What are you doing here?”

“Following a map,” Betty said. “It must be on this road, the circle on the map, that is.”

“The circle on the map? You’re doing a treasure hunt in a blizzard?” Eva shook her head and cast a look at Sigrid, who was busy brushing snow off the car.

“It’s Sigrid’s map.”

“What do you mean it’s my map?” Sigrid walked back to Eva, and grabbed her arm for support against the howling wind that was rapidly increasing in strength.

“We rescued it from the fire.” Meg’s words were spoken with casual ease. “It was the flash… thingy, underneath your dresser.”

“The flash drive?”

“Yes, that.” Twitch nodded and pointed to a piece of paper Meg was holding. “We printed it out and we’re sure this road is where the circle is.”

Before Sigrid could respond, Eva put a hand on her back and leaned forward, so she was able to look at the three women inside the vehicle.

“Later. We need to get out of here. The three of you are stuck in a snow bank and there’s no way we’ll be able to get you out. We’ll get you into our car. One by one. Do exactly as Sigrid and I tell you.” Eva’s voice was stern. “Please,” she added as an afterthought. Eva turned to Sigrid and her gaze was concerned. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, just… blown away by all this. But yes, let’s get out of here. We can talk later.”

“Is there a building on this road?”

“If this is the right road then, yes, there is.” Sigrid nodded and pointed to the woods on their right. “That means my parents’ cabin is on the next road to the left. We took the turn too early.”

“I’m not sure we’ll make it there right now. Let’s find this building first and see if we can find shelter there.”

“It should be close.” Sigrid pointed to the road ahead. “See that tree that’s almost in the middle of the road? It’s to the left of that.”

“Let’s go.” Eva opened the door to the driver side and took a firm hold of Betty when she helped her out of the car. “Hold on to me.” She had to fight the wind on her way back to the car and tried to shield Betty as much as she could. Twice, they almost lost their balance, but Eva was able to keep them upright. As soon as she reached her car, she opened the door and practically lifted Betty inside. “There’s a blanket here somewhere.” She breathed hard, but turned around immediately to head back to help Sigrid with Twitch.

“We’re fine.” Sigrid had to yell for Eva to hear her over the wind. “Get Meg.”

Eva nodded and with her head bent, she made her way back to the car that was quickly disappearing underneath a thick layer of snow.

“Come on, Meg.” A loud, creaking noise made Eva look up. “Shit.” She reached inside, grabbed both Meg’s arms and pulled the woman out of the car with all the strength she possessed. The force made them stumble backward, and Eva felt the air leave her lungs when she landed in the snow with Meg on top of her. With a shattering noise, a huge branch landed on top of the car, blowing out the windows. A spray of glass mixed with snow and pieces of the tree landed on top of them.

“God almighty.” Meg shivered. “I’m getting too old for this.”

“I agree.” Eva coughed and gently rolled Meg away from her. “That was too close.”

“Eva! Eva, are you alright?” Sigrid appeared into her line of vision and landed on her knees in the snow beside her.

“Just got the wind knocked out of me.” Eva said, brushing snow, shards of glass and small pieces of branch away.

“You’re bleeding.” Sigrid reached out and brushed a hand across Eva’s forehead.

“It’s just a scratch. We need to get going, Sigrid. I don’t feel particularly safe here right now.”

With Sigrid’s help, Eva got to her feet and together they assisted Meg to their car.

“I’ll drive.” Sigrid walked to the driver’s side and climbed into the SVU. “There should be a driveway across from that tree.”

After a few moments in which the car only seemed to slide from side to side, the tires finally were able to get a grip on the slippery surface and slowly the vehicle plowed through the snow.

Eva cast a look over her shoulder. Meg, Twitch and Betty were all huddled underneath the same fleece blanket, and they looked miserable. “Are you alright, Meg? You didn’t get hurt, did you?”

“No, thanks to you. Had you not pulled me out when you did, I would have been dead.” Meg reached underneath the blanket and pulled out a tissue. She handed it to Eva with trembling fingers. “You’re bleeding.”

“Thank you.” Eva took the tissue and pressed it against her forehead. It was impossible to tell how bad the cut was, since her skin was still numb from the cold.

“Here’s the tree. The driveway should be here somewhere.” Sigrid leaned forward and peered out of the window. “Are those driveway markers?” She pointed to a couple of orange pointed sticks that were protruding from the snow.

“They seem to be.” Eva smiled and reached out a hand to pat Sigrid’s knee. “Good job.”

“We’re not there yet. Let’s see if the cabin is where it’s supposed to be.” Sigrid steered the car into the invisible driveway. “I hope the markers are all in the right spot, otherwise we might end up in a ditch after all.”

“I don’t think so. Look.” Eva pointed to a dark shape. “That looks like it can be a cabin.”

“It sure does.” Sigrid said. “I’ll try to get as close as I can. I’m sure no one would mind me blocking the driveway on a day like today.”

The dark shape became clearer as they approached and, to Eva’s relief, it was a cabin. It was small and dark and it was probably cold inside, but they would be away from the raging wind and blowing snow.

“How are we getting inside?” Betty sounded tired, but curious, and Eva smiled.

“Just leave that up to me.”

As soon as Sigrid stopped the car, Eva reached inside the glove compartment and pulled out a small box and a flashlight. “I’ll be right back.” Before anyone could respond, she exited the car and headed toward the front door of the cabin. It was only partially shielded from the wind and Eva gasped at the icy gusts that hit her square in the face. She used the flashlight to study the lock of the door. Piece of cake. She pulled a slim instrument out of the small box and inserted it in the lock, carefully moving it around. After a few seconds, the lock made a clicking sound and Eva grinned. Bingo. It’s good to know I haven’t lost my touch. She opened the door and stepped inside, letting the beam of the flashlight dance across the unfamiliar space. The room was sparsely furnished. She noticed a couch, two recliners, and a table with four chairs. A brick fireplace held a small woodstove and she smiled when she noticed a neatly stacked pile of wood next to it. At least we’ll be warm.

******

“Stay on the couch, underneath the blanket. Eva and I will get some stuff out of the car and make a fire.” Sigrid guided Twitch to the couch and gestured to Betty and Meg to follow her. “Hopefully we’ll be able to warm this place up quickly.”

“She needs to take care of that cut.” Meg’s voice was thin and her teeth were chattering.

“Don’t worry, I’ll see to it that she does,” Sigrid said, patting Meg’s back. She headed back to the door, almost running into Eva who was carrying an armful of items. “Here, let me give you a hand,” she said, taking a bag with food-items. “If we can get the fire started, we might be able to heat up some soup.”

“No kitchen?” Eva asked.

“No electricity.” Sigrid gestured to an electric stove in the corner of a small kitchenette.

“Of course.” Eva made a face and handed Sigrid the last of the bags she was carrying. “I brought in an old paper, so we can start a fire.”

“Why don’t you let me do that? Go clean up your face, so I can have a look at that cut.” Sigrid pointed to a door off the main living area. “I bet that’s the bathroom.”

“There’s probably no water, either.”

“No warm water, no, but maybe just cold, if we’re lucky.”

“Very domestic.” Meg remarked from the couch.

Sigrid looked up and frowned. “What do you mean?”

“The two of you, seamlessly dividing chores. It’s very domestic, like you’re an old married couple.”

Sigrid grinned and turned her attention to the newspaper Eva had given her. She ripped up big pieces and crunched them into tight balls, lining the bottom of the woodstove with them. Then she added a layer of kindling, topping it off with a couple of thicker pieces. As soon as she lit a match and touched the newspaper, it caught fire. Slowly, she closed the door, watching the flames dance behind the glass. “I do hope the chimney is in good shape,” she said. She turned around and glanced at Betty, Meg and Twitch, who were sitting on the couch, covered by a blanket. All three of them managed to avoid her gaze.

“Who wants to tell me what the heck you are doing out here in the middle of a blizzard?”

Meg and Twitch looked at Betty, who was sitting in the middle and who must have felt their stares, because her head turned first to Meg and then to Twitch. “Am I the spokesperson now?”

“Well, you are the most eloquent one,” Twitch said with a nod.

“Besides, you were driving,” Meg added.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Nothing, but it sounds good.” Meg sent Betty a wide smile.

Sigrid chuckled. “I don’t care who tells me the story, I just want to hear it.”

“Maybe we should wait until the Inspector is back in the room, so I don’t have to repeat myself.” Betty gazed up at Sigrid and shrugged her shoulders. “Besides, I think she needs to know about this man.”

“What man?” Sigrid frowned.

“What man?” Eva came walking back into the room, wiping the cut on her forehead with a washcloth.

“The one who tried to kill us,” Twitch said in a calm voice.

“What?” Sigrid walked closer to the couch and knelt down in front of it. “Someone tried to kill you?”

“All three of us.” Twitch gestured between herself, Betty and Meg.

“When?”

“We’re not sure if he was trying to kill us, but he did follow us for a while and then he ran of us off the road. At least, it felt like he did.” Betty’s voice was soft, but there was a hint of nervousness in it.

“What road? The one we found you on?” Eva frowned.

“Yes. We ended up in the snow bank.”

“Where did he go?”

“He turned around and raced out of here.” Meg pushed up her glasses and shot Sigrid a curious look. “You didn’t see him?”

“No, we didn’t. We must have missed him by a few seconds.”

“Too bad.” Twitch sighed. “I bet he looks good in shackles.”

Sigrid shook her head and rose to her feet. She reached out, grabbed the washcloth Eva was holding and gestured for her to lean down. Carefully she dabbed the cut. “It’s deeper than I thought it would be.”

“It was a big branch.” Eva met her gaze and sent her a small smile. “It could have been worse.”

“I know.” Sigrid’s voice was soft and she wished she could hug the woman who was standing in front of her. “No water?” She looked at the cloth in her hands . It was stained with blood and smelled like antiseptic.

“No water. I found a well-stocked medicine cabinet, though. I poured alcohol on this thing.”

Sigrid smiled. “Good thinking. I’ll have a look to see if there are any decent band- aids in it, so… ” She paused when Eva held up a hand. In it was a box with a variety of band-aid sizes.

“Very good. We’ll make an EMT out of you yet.”

“That would make my mother very happy.” Eva chuckled and turned her attention back to women on the couch. Before she could say a word, a muffled sound reached their ears.

“What was that?” There was anxiety in Meg’ voice.

“Maybe it was snow falling off the roof.” Sigrid cast a look at Eva, who slowly shook her head and reached inside her jacket, to pull out a gun.

Without saying a word, Sigrid reached behind her and pulled her own revolver out of the waistband of her jeans. She registered the shock and surprise on her friends’ faces, and pressed a finger against her lips.

“Do these cabins have basements?” Eva walked toward the kitchenette. There was a door in the corner.

“Some of them.” Sigrid’s voice was husky and she was aware of the rapid beating of her heart. “Eva. If I’m right, this is a safe house.”

Eva nodded and put her hand on the doorknob, slowly turning it. The sound of grating metal was very loud in the silent room. Sigrid slid beside her, making sure to stay away from Eva’s dominant hand that was holding the gun. Eva inched the door open and immediately they heard a sound that resembled the shuffling of feet. With a grim expression on her face, Eva gestured to Sigrid to stay to her left. Side by side, they entered a staircase. It was dark, and Sigrid felt cold air rush up from below. It made her shiver and she tightened her grip on the gun, determined to ignore her cold fingers. She tried not to think about what they might find in the basement, but concentrated on the silent cues Eva was giving her. They were vulnerable on top of the stairs, descending into the darkness. Her heart rate doubled and her breathing was rapid and shallow.

“If I say ‘down’, you drop.” The words were breathed in her ear and Sigrid nodded.

Eva took a careful step down and Sigrid followed. It was so quiet, the silence made her ears buzz and the only sound she was aware of was the beating of her own heart. The adrenaline that raced through her body made the palms of her hands sweat, and briefly, Sigrid marveled at how the cold had left her fingers. Just as she was about to take another step down, her ears picked up a soft sound. Next to her, Eva halted. Sigrid tilted her head and listened intently. There it was again. It sounded like ragged breathing, the way a person did when being very afraid. Or hurt. She leaned closer to Eva. “Trust me.” A sharp intake of breath was the response, but Eva didn’t try to hold Sigrid back when she took another step down.

“I know you’re scared.” Sigrid moistened her dry lips. “We won’t hurt you, I promise.” A soft whimper rose up out of the darkness, which gave Sigrid the courage to take another step down. She could feel Eva right behind her. “My name is Sigrid and I work for the police. My friend Eva here is with the police as well.” She paused, aware of a soft clinking sound in one of the corners. “Please, don’t be afraid of us.”

“There’s a light at the bottom of the stairs. On the right.” The voice was so raspy it was almost inaudible.

Without a moment of hesitation, Sigrid walked down the rest of the stairs. As soon as her feet hit the concrete floor, she reached out to the right. Her hand touched a large, hard plastic dome-shaped object, and she let her fingertips dance across the surface, until she felt a switch. She flipped it and, all of a sudden, the basement was bathing in a bright, halogen light. Behind her, Eva cursed and Sigrid quickly turned around. Her hand flew to her mouth and only the steady presence of Eva kept her upright.

“Oh, my God.”

Three forms were huddled in the corner, shielding their eyes against the harsh light. Each of them had a leg shackled to the wall behind them.

Sigrid took a few deep breaths in order to regain her composure, which was only partial successful. She felt her body shake and knew that was not only due to the cold.

“My name is Sigrid,” she said. “And this is Eva.” She gestured to the woman next to her, who was putting her gun back in its holster. Sigrid followed suit, before taking a step closer.

“Are you here to take us away?” It was the raspy voice she had heard before.

“Absolutely.” Sigrid sank down her knees so she was at eye-level with the speaker, a girl who could not be more than sixteen years old. Dark eyes in a too pale face looked at her warily.

“What is your name?”

“Morgan Bussier.”

“Where are you from, Morgan?”

“Portland, Oregon. Where am I?”

Sigrid bit her bottom lip and took a deep breath. The simple question rattled her nerves.

“New Hampshire.” Her voice sounded strange to her own ears. It was husky and shaky.

“Is it winter? It’s so cold here.”

A warm hand landed on Sigrid’s shoulder and gave it an encouraging squeeze.

“Yes, it is winter.” Eva’s voice was very soft, but composed. “We’ll get you upstairs, where it’s warmer.”

“The keys are on that shelf.” Morgan pointed to cupboard behind Eva.

“Who are your friends, Morgan?” Sigrid’s gaze traveled from Morgan to the others. Behind her, she heard Eva rummage through cabinet.

“This is Anjuli, she’s from India.” Morgan pointed to a small girl, who looked malnourished and scared. “The boy is Danh. He’s from Asia somewhere.”

“Hello, Anjuli and Danh.” The fear in Anjuli’s eyes intensified when Sigrid reached out a hand, palm up. “Did you find the keys, Eva?” Sigrid wondered how long she would be able to look at the shackled children without erupting into a fit of rage. She already could feel the anger boil underneath the surface. The last thing she wanted was the children in front of her to think she was angry with them.

“I have them.” Eva stepped passed her and knelt down, reaching out for the heavy chain that kept Danh tied to the wall. It only took her a few seconds to free him and the other two. “Can you walk, Morgan?”

“I think so.” The reply was hesitant and Sigrid offered her hand. Morgan took it, and grunted with the effort it took her to get to her feet.

“I will carry you up.” Eva did not wait for a response, but lifted Morgan into her arms, heading for the stairs.

“Let’s go, Danh.” Sigrid smiled at the little boy and he shyly grabbed her hand. She lifted him up and was about to climb the stairs, when Anjuli let out a whimper that was barely audible, but laced with so much fear, it halted Sigrid in her tracks. She cringed when she saw Anjuli shiver uncontrollably, and she quickly walked back, slowly extending her hand to the frightened girl. “It’s okay, I’m not leaving you here by yourself, I promise.” Sigrid was aware of the lump in her throat. “It’s okay, I promise, it’s okay.” A warm tear slid down Sigrid’s cheek and she quickly wiped it away. “We’ll wait for Eva and then we’ll go up together, okay?” She didn’t know if Anjuli understood any English, but she kept talking and slowly the tense body in front of her relaxed a little. “That’s right, we’ll wait for Eva.”

“I’m right here.” Eva walked down the stairs and took Danh out of Sigrid’s arms. “Will you be alright with the girl?”

“I should be. It doesn’t look like she weighs a lot.” Sigrid took a deep breath and cast a look at Eva, whose face was pale and drawn. “I’m trying so hard not to be incredibly furious right now.”

“I know what you mean.” Eva sent her a tight smile. “Let’s go upstairs. It’s already warming up.”

Sigrid nodded and extended her hand. Anjuli grabbed it and looked from her to the stairs and back again.

“We’re going upstairs.” Sigrid pointed to the top of the stairs. “It’s warmer there and we’ll get you something to eat. Are you hungry?”

Anjuli silently looked up with soulful brown eyes that were too large for her small, narrow face.

“Are you hungry?” Sigrid rubbed her belly, hoping Anjuli would understand what she meant. When the girl nodded and brought her fingers to her mouth in a gesture that resembled eating, Sigrid smiled and nodded. “That’s right. Food.”

Anjuli tightened her grip on Sigrid’s hand and slowly made her way to the stairs. It would be easier to just pick her up and carry her, Sigrid knew, but she wanted Anjuli to set the pace. Silently, she marveled at the girl’s stubbornness, staying right behind her on the stairs, just in case she would stumble.

******

Eva watched as Betty, Twitch and Meg silently handed the three children pieces of fruit, crackers and cheese. They devoured everything they were given and she wondered how long they had been deprived of food. A pot of melting snow sat on the stove, so they would be able to drink something warm. But then what?

“We can’t stay.” Sigrid’s voice was very soft and when Eva looked up it was in a pair of sad, blue eyes.

“I know. I want them to warm up, eat something, and drink a cup of hot cocoa, before we take them out of here. We should go to your family’s cabin.”

“At least we have a generator, so there will be heat and warm water. And my mother keeps the pantry stocked. Do you think it’s snowing hard enough to cover our tracks?”

Eva nodded and reached out to touch the back of Sigrid’s hand. “I believe so. If we leave within the next hour or so, our tracks will be invisible.”

“There are two ways to get to the cabin,” Sigrid said. “There is the main road, well, the road off the main road, but then there is also a little track that leads to the back of the cabin, to the dock. My dad uses it when he puts the boat n the water. If we would be able to use that one, nobody would know we’re there.”

“How do we get to that one?” Eva’s interest was piqued.

“When we’re back on the main road, it will be the second turn on the left.” Sigrid paused and raked her fingers through her hair. “The problem is that it will be almost impossible to see.”

“But it’s worth the try. Right?”

Sigrid smiled. “Yes, it will be.” She reached out and brushed her fingers across Eva’s cheek. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Eva smiled. “I am too.”

******

“I’m so tired I can sleep standing up.” Eva yawned and felt her already burning eyes tear up.

“You don’t have to. I’ll share the couch with you.” Sigrid grabbed Eva’s hand and pulled her with her. “My parents will never believe there are eight people bunking in their cabin tonight.”

“Remind me to thank your parents for installing a generator. That shower felt really good.” Eva yawned again and eyed the makeshift bed Sigrid had put together. It looked cozy, warm and soft.

“Don’t worry, I’ll tell them. Now, crawl underneath the covers. You’re so tired that looking at you hurts my eyes.”

“I wanted to check up on the kids one more time.” Eva’s protest was ignored by Sigrid who gently pushed her down on the couch.

“I just did. They are clean, have a full stomach and are fast asleep. Now it’s our turn.”

“As soon as I lay down, I won’t be able to get up anymore. Not for at least ten hours, anyway.”

“Good.”

“What if… ?”

“Eva, honey, if you don’t crawl under the covers right now, I will have to hurt you.” Sigrid increased the pressure on Eva’s shoulders, pushing her into a horizontal position. “You’re postponing cuddle time.”

“Cuddle time?” Eva looked up at Sigrid and chuckled. “What if the Three Musketeers find us in a compromising position in the morning?”

“They’ll be jealous, but I’m sure they’ll get over it.” Sigrid smiled. “Besides, they have the bedroom, so they can’t complain. We’ll just have to make do, and if cuddling softens the pain of not having a bed, so be it.”

“You’re perky.” Eva yawned again and slid underneath the covers. Laying down felt so good, she let out a soft moan. “Did you catch your second wind?”

“Second?” Sigrid softly snorted. “More like sixth. I was exhausted when we reached that safe house. And that was, when, six hours ago?” She slid in next to Eva, wrapped her arm around her middle and rested her head on her shoulder. “Oh, this feels good.” She let out a happy sigh and wiggled to get even more comfortable. “Now, if only I could forget about this day, just for the night.”

“It’s hard to get that image out of my mind,” Eva said. Her voice was somber. “Children, shackled to a wall in a dark, cold basement. What monster would do something like that?”

“Their shins are bruised and chafed.” Sigrid shivered and immediately, Eva pulled her closer. “I don’t think I’ll feel at ease, until we’ve had a doctor look at them.”

“I want to catch the ones responsible for this, Sigrid.” Eva buried her face in Sigrid’s neck and inhaled the scent of shampoo and soap. “I want to lock them up and throw away the key.”

Sigrid covered Eva’s hand with her own and entwined their fingers.”We will. I know we can’t single-handedly put a stop to human trafficking, but we can stop this branch. We will.”

“I really need to talk to Chuck. He might have been able to dig up some information about Tate and Brothers.”

“We usually have a signal in the cabin, when there’s no blizzard raging outside.” Sigrid shifted position, snuggling closer. “Maybe we’ll be able to get through to him in the morning.”

“We’ll have to get through to somebody.” Eva sighed, enjoying the feel of Sigrid’s warm body in her arms. “If the smugglers show up, I want the children and the musketeers out of harm’s way.”

******

“So, what do you girls think?” The sound of Twitch’s voice penetrated the darkness in the bedroom.

“About what?” Betty sounded wide-awake.

“About what? About all this, of course. Our pastor pulling out a gun, like she’s some kind of police heroine, children locked up in the basement and don’t forget about Meg, who almost got crushed by a tree.”

“It was a branch,” Meg said. “And I’d prefer not to think about that.”

“Do you think the guy who tried to run us off the road has anything to do with those poor babies being locked up in that cabin?” Twitch’s voice was pensive.

“I’m starting to think he does.” Betty sighed. “I have read about human trafficking. I know it exists, but actually seeing some of the victims with my own eyes gives me a whole new perspective.”

“I’d like to get a hold of the people responsible for their suffering,” Twitch said in an angry voice. “They should be shackled to a wall somewhere in a cold, dark basement. And nobody should let them out. Ever.”

“Sigrid knew.” Meg’s voice held a mixture of confusion and admiration. “It was her map, remember. The circle on the map was that cabin.”

“You’re right. How the hell did she know about it?” Twitch sounded surprised and curious. “And why is she carrying a gun?”

“New church policy?” Betty softly chuckled.

“Maybe someone confessed to her about it,” Twitch said. “On their deathbed. And before she could go to the police, she wanted to verify the information.”

“I didn’t think our church does deathbed confessions.” Betty’s voice was dry and held a hint of amusement. “You have too much imagination, Twitch.”

Twitch chuckled. “That’s what my late husband used to say. God bless his soul. It did provide us with some interesting activities in the bedroom, though. I guess, in a way it contributed to his heart failure, poor thing.”

Meg groaned. “That is too much information, Twitch.”

“But I haven’t even started yet.”

“Don’t.” Betty chuckled. “I have seen your toy collection.”

“Twitch has toys?”

“I like to say that I might be old, but I’m not dead.” Twitch let out a soft laugh. “Besides, bringing up the subject of my toy collection always generates interesting reactions.”

Betty let out a soft snort. “I wonder why.”

“Do you think Sigrid is mad at us?” Meg said after a brief silence.

“I don’t think so, Meg. What do you think, Twitch?”

“She’s too sweet to be mad at us. But then, she hasn’t had the opportunity yet to grill us.” Twitch let out a sigh. “I just hope she isn’t into water boarding.”

******

Charles Benoit looked at his watch. Only two minutes had passed since the last time he had checked. “Damn, Eva, where are you?” He picked up his Blackberry and stared at the screen. Wouldn’t it be great if a message came in just as I’m looking at it? He rubbed his chin, feeling the stubbles underneath his fingers. He had not been home since he had talked to Casey Planters. She had shared her files with him and even when he was only halfway through them, he knew the information was like a ticking time bomb.

“Do you want some coffee, Chuck?”

Charles turned to see one of the secretaries stare at him. The expression on her face was one of concern.

“Yes, thank you, Linda.”

“I’ll make it extra strong, since you’ve been here all night.” She sent him a smile, before disappearing into the hallway.

Charles walked to his computer and tapped the mouse pad. On the screen, a map of Maine and New Hampshire appeared. It showed the latest road conditions and his eyes tracked the route Eva would have taken the previous day. A few roads were closed, due to the incredible amount of snow that had fallen, but none of them would have been part of Eva’s scheduled itinerary. He glanced at his watch again and jumped when the phone on his desk rang. “Benoit.”

“Have you heard anything yet?” It was Casey Planters.

“Not yet.”

“It’s still early and they had a lot of snow up north.”

“I know.” Charles rubbed his face again. He would have to shave before he went home, if he would make it home anytime soon.

“Listen, Chuck, there seems to be a new development.” Casey sounded nervous and Charles took a deep breath. This can’t be good. “What is it?”

“There will be an arrest warrant.”

“What? How do you know?”

“Reliable source.” Casey’s voice was tense. “It means your hands will be tied.”

“Like hell they will,” Chuck said. He could feel the anger bible up inside.

“Listen. I know it’s bogus, but it might give him the time he needs to get rid of evidence. I’m driving up.”

“I’m coming with you.”

There was a brief silence and Charles could hear Casey sigh.

“You’re about to retire, Chuck. Don’t mess it up.”

“I’m not.” Charles grabbed his Blackberry and slid it into his jacket. “Officially I’m not aware of any of this. And cell service in the rural areas is really bad.” He grabbed his coat from the back of his office chair and slung it over his shoulder. “Where do I meet you?”

“I’m at Jazzy Java.”

Charles smiled and a warm feeling settled in the pit of his stomach.

“You’re awesome, you know that, right?”

“From your lips, to God’s ears. I’ll see you in a few.”

******

He stared at his hands as they rhythmically clenched and unclenched around the crucifix he was holding. It was soothing to stare at the motion, almost hypnotizing. His gaze traveled up and landed on the book in front of him. It was old and well used. It had belonged to his father and his father before that. The thin pages, its edges yellow from use, were a silent testimony to its frequent use. Father forgive me, for I have sinned. His eyes scanned the open page. Therefore, the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of righteous. He lifted his gaze and stared out of the window. They will not stand. The way of the wicked leads to destruction. With trembling fingers, he picked up the letter that he had received that morning. The instructions were clear. He knew he would be able to carry them out. He would not fail again. Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. He took a deep, cleansing breath and bowed his head in prayer. The only sound was a clock’s loud ticking.

Part 12

Sleeping on a couch was never as comfortable as in bed, yet Eva was able to ignore the irregular lumps her hip and side were resting on. The warm body that had draped itself around her like a vine was warm and soft. It made her limbs forget they were stiff and uncomfortable, and tempted her into relaxation. Even though her eyes were closed Eva’s mind was awake and alert. A soft noise had awoken her and she was aware of a presence in one of the chairs. Someone was observing them. She opened her eyes. “Hi, Morgan.”

“Hi.” Morgan’s voice still sounded hoarse and raspy. “Are you gay?”

Eva felt Sigrid stir and squeezed her a little tighter. What better way to start the day than a conversation about my sexual orientation with a teenager? “I am.” Eva saw the pensive look in Morgan’s brown eyes and waited for a reaction.

“My sister is, too.” Morgan’s voice was soft as she stared at the floor. “It’s why she left.” Her gaze lifted and met Eva’s. “My mom’s boyfriend kicked her out.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that.” Eva took a slow, deep breath, willing her voice to be calm and steady.

“She was sixteen.” Morgan drew an invisible pattern on her knee. “That was six years ago. I was ten.”

“What is your sister’s name?”

“Ellen.”

“Do you know where she went to?”

Morgan shook her head. “No. She wrote me a letter, but Phil ripped it up and threw it in the fire.” Morgan’s gaze landed on Sigrid. “Is it okay to talk? I mean, I don’t want to wake her up, or anything.”

Eva smiled and patted Sigrid’s back. “Don’t worry, she’s awake.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, Morgan.” Sigrid raised her head from Eva’s shoulder and turned around. “I was only half-asleep anyway.” She pushed herself away from Eva and into a sitting position.

Eva smiled. With her disheveled hair and crease in her cheek, caused by a wrinkle in Eva’s shirt, Sigrid looked adorable.

“Are you hungry, Morgan?” Sigrid raked her fingers through her hair, causing it to stick up even more, and even Morgan smiled.

“Just a little.” Morgan shrugged. “So, you are gay too?”

“I am.”

“And Eva is your girlfriend?”

Underneath the blanket, Eva’s hand had found Sigrid’s knee and she gave it an encouraging pat, leaving her hand resting on her leg.

“Yes, Eva is my girlfriend.”

“That’s good,” Morgan said with a nod. “Ellen’s girlfriend wanted to be a police officer too.”

“Do you remember her name?” Sigrid’s voice was gentle.

“Meredith. She was nice.”

“What about her last name?”

“Brooks.”

Eva studied Morgan’s face. The dark eyes held a mixture of pain, sadness, and desperation and it was clear she was still in some sort of shock. Knowing Sigrid had some experience in dealing with victims of human trafficking she was content to let her take the lead.

“Morgan.” Sigrid leaned forward and her gaze as focused on Morgan’s face. “Can you tell me what happened to you?”

“Mom died. She overdosed on drugs and just stopped breathing one night.” Morgan’s voice was void of emotion and her eyes were dull. “Phil said he didn’t have the money to take care of me, but he knew how I could pay him back. That way I wouldn’t have to go to an orphanage or live on the streets. That’s what he said anyway. I said I’d go find Ellen and live with her. He got mad.” Morgan bit her bottom lip. “He started beating me and when he was done he thought I had passed out. I waited until he was asleep, grabbed some stuff and ran out of the house.”

“When was that?”

“A few years ago. I was thirteen.”

“What happened next? Are you able to tell us?”

“I met this girl. She was very nice and said she had run away from home too, but had found people who helped her. She wanted to help me. So, I went with her to this house. There were more people there and they were all nice to me. They said I could stay and they would help me find Ellen. After a few days a man came, Ernie, and he said he could set me up with a job, so I could help with the food and all that.” Morgan paused and Eva noticed her shoulders slumped. “I wanted to help.” Her voice was no more than a whisper. When she looked up, her eyes were moist. “He made me … do things.” She audibly swallowed and Eva saw her shiver. “He said I could pay my way out, so I could go to school and have my own place. Whenever I didn’t do what he wanted, he beat me, or locked me up. I had to turn tricks and make sure to give him all the money. He said that if I’d tell anyone, he’d kill me. He almost did, once.” Morgan rubbed her left shoulder and slowly shook her head. “He broke my ribs and they had to take me to the hospital. The nurse asked me all these questions and I knew she didn’t believe me when I said I’d tripped over the cat and fell down the stairs. I hoped she didn’t,” Morgan said in a soft voice. “She was so nice to me. I heard her tell the doctor she was going to call the police. Ernie heard it, too and he told me to get dressed and to get out. That’s when they sent me somewhere else.”

“Have you been sent to different places often?” Sigrid’s voice was calm and controlled.

“I lost track,” Morgan said with a sigh. “They never tell me where they’ll take me. It’s always in the back of a van, where it’s dark.” Her gaze traveled up and met Eva’s. “I don’t have to go back, do I?”

“No, Morgan. It’s over. You will never go back there.”

“Promise?” Morgan’s lips trembled.

“I promise,” Eva said.

“What happens now?”

“We’ll get you, Danh and Anjuli to a safe place. A doctor will come and check you out, just to make sure you’re all fine and then we will ask you more questions. It’s important to tell us any name or place you can remember,” Sigrid said. “But we’ll take our time. You’ve been through a lot and the last thing we’d want is to hurt you more. So, you will be taking to a social worker and a psychologist who are specialized in helping young people like you.”

“What if those guys come back?”

“They won’t find us here,” Eva said. “It has stopped snowing, so hopefully I’ll be able to get through to my office and get some more people over here. If we’re lucky we’ll be able to wait for them at the cabin.”

“But what if you can’t?” The fear in Morgan’s voice was clearly audible.

“Then there’s plan B.” Sigrid’s voice was full of confidence. “And there’s a plan C and D as well,” she said, squeezing Eva’s hand underneath the blanket. “We will not let them get to you, Morgan. Besides, my experience is that as soon as they’ll find out you’re gone, they’ll panic and try to run as fast as they can.”

Morgan raked her fingers through her hair, not able to hide the trembling.

“I know you’re scared, Morgan,” Eva said. “It’s understandable and it’s okay. You’ve been through a lot, more than I could ever imagine. I will not let anything happen to you. You’re safe now, even though it might not feel that way yet.” She leaned forward and put a hand on Morgan’s fidgeting ones. Their gazes locked and Eva hoped Morgan would be able to see the confidence she felt. “You are safe now.”

####

“Damnit, Eva, answer the phone.” Charles hit ‘redial’ on his Blackberry. The previous six times he had called his partner there had been no answer.

“She’s probably somewhere without a signal,” Casey said. “I know you’re worried about her, but she can look after herself.”

“Yes, she can, but usually she has me to watch her back.” Charles rubbed his forehead and put the phone on his knee, staring at the lifeless display. “She should have been in contact by now.”

“You did send her those files, right?”

“All of them,” Charles said. He cast a look at the display of his phone again and tried to ignore the pounding of his heart. “I should have heard from her.”

“Chuck, you’re making me nervous.” Casey glanced aside and shot him a questioning look. “We’re almost at Sigrid’s church. Where do you want to…?”

“Church,” Charles said. “We’ll wait there until we hear something.”

“Do you have a strong enough signal here?”

Charles held up his phone so Casey could see the bars on the display. “More than enough.”

“Good.” Casey turned into the small parking lot in front of the church and parked in such a way they had an unobstructed view of the building and the road in front of it. “Take a deep breath, Chuck. You’ll hear from her soon enough.”

*****

Eva glanced at Betty who was talking to Morgan in hushed tones. The teenager was sitting next to her on the couch quietly listening to what the older woman was telling her. Eva could not hear the conversation, but when she saw Betty gently pat Morgan’s knee and Morgan’s small smile she winked at Sigrid who was looking at her with a quizzical expression on her face. Eva gestured to the couple on the couch and Sigrid nodded with a smile. For a few moments their eyes locked and immediately Eva wished they were still wrapped around each other on the uncomfortable couch. The warm softness of Sigrid’s body had more than made up for the discomfort of the lumpy surface. Sigrid’s smile deepened and Eva could feel a warm rush creep up her neck and cheeks.

“You’re blushing,” Sigrid mouthed unseen to Betty and Morgan.

Even across the room Eva could see the sparkle in her eyes. It gave her a warm feeling in the pit of her stomach and she shook her head, not able to hide her smile. I’d better go outside to cool off for a little while.

“I’ll be checking on the car and see if I can get a better cell signal outside,” she said holding up her phone.

“The best spot is the side of the house,” Sigrid said. She poured a cup of coffee and walked across to hand it to Eva. “Here you go. Stay warm.” She readjusted Eva’s scarf, gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, and patted her arm.

“Did anyone ever tell you you’re something else?” Eva said.

“Do you really want an answer to that?” Sigrid’s eyes were dancing and Eva let out a soft laugh.

“We’ll continue this later, I’m sure.”

“Definitely.” Her eyes turned serious. “Eva, I have the feeling we need to get out of her as soon as we can. With the children and our musketeers we’re too vulnerable,” she said in a low voice.

Eva nodded. “I know. I hope I can get through to Chuck and see what’s happening. I feel like we’ve been flying blind for the last day or so.”

“I know what you mean.” Sigrid sighed and gave Eva’s arm a gentle squeeze. “Good luck.”

****

“Eva! Eva is that you?” Charles Benoit screamed into his phone, making Casey almost jump.

“Hi, Chuck.” Eva’s voice was calm, but he could easily detect an undertone of fatigue.

“Where are you?”

“Where are you ?” Eva asked in a quiet voice.

“Out of reach from curious ears,” Chuck said. “I’m on my cell and you know I’ve got this thing on me day and night. It’s not bugged.”

“I know.” Eva sighed and Charles pictured his partner running her fingers through her dark hair while prioritizing which news she would share with him first.

“Did you get my emails, Eva?”

“I haven’t read them yet. Anything pressing?”

“All of it,” Charles said. “Right now I’m sitting in front of Sigrid’s church, with Casey Planters.”

“ The Casey Planters?” Eva sounded surprised.

“The one and only. She brought me some files that are pretty explosive my friend. I emailed you some of the contents.”

“Can she be trusted? Are the files genuine?”

“Looks that way to me,” Charles said. “Listen, Eva, we’ve got a whole lot to discuss, but first things first. Is Sigrid okay?”

“She’s fine. Did you get my message about that?”

“About our pastor working with the Feds?” Charles laughed. “I almost fell off my chair. I can’t say I saw that one coming.”

“Listen, Chuck. You’ll get the long version later, but we need to get out where we are now. We’ve managed to pick up three elderly ladies and three kids.” Her voice became grim. “Trafficking victims. The kids were shackled to the wall of a basement.”

“Sweet Mother.” Charles paused, trying to wrap his mind around what Eva just told him. “How old?” His voice was reduced to a whisper.

“The oldest one is sixteen, then there’s a little girl of about seven and a boy who can’t be older than six or seven.”

“Good Lord, Eva.” Chuck’s voice croaked.

“The ladies you’ve met, they’re from Sigrid’s church and had started their own investigation.”

“Where are you?”

“In a cabin that’s owned by Sigrid’s family, somewhere off Interstate 93, south of Franconia Notch State park. “

“I know the area. You’re about an hour or so away from where we are.” With his free hand Charles drummed on his knee. “What do you need right now?”

“To get out of here. Sigrid and I have a bad feeling about staying here too long. The place where we found the children is not far from here and they might come looking for them.” Charles could tell Eva was taking a deep breath. “Besides, those kids need medical attention.” Her voice was strained and Charles could tell she was trying to control her anger. “There are eight of us and one car, Chuck. I’ll have to send Betty, Meg and Grace with the children and squeeze Sigrid in somewhere just in case.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll hike my way out of here. I’m sure Sigrid will come back for me.”

“Too risky.”

“What? Sigrid coming back for me.” There was a touch of humor in her voice and Charles smiled.

“No, you all by yourself.” Charles took a deep breath. “We’ll be coming your way, as a matter of fact, we already are,” Charles said, casting a grateful glance at Casey who had started the engine and steered the car out of the parking lot. “Can you wait another hour?”

“Hopefully.”

“Good. Stay put and whatever you do, don’t call the local police station. There’s something you need to know.”

***

Sigrid was wrapping Anjuli in one of her sweaters and smiled at the way it reached all the way to the floor. “At least you’ll be warmer this way,” she said, brushing a strand of long, dark hair away from her forehead.

The sight of Anjuli in a seriously oversized sweater got a chuckle out of Danh, but as soon as Sigrid looked at him he bowed his head and stared at his feet.

A wave of sadness crashed over her and Sigrid had to bite the inside of her lip to force the tears back. Her instinct told her to pull the little boy into her arms, but she knew that would probably scare him even more.

“Danh,” she said, deliberately keeping her voice soft. “Danh, look at me.”

It took him a few seconds, but eventually Danh looked up and Sigrid saw the fear in his eyes.

“Danh. It’s okay to laugh,” she said, reaching out her hand to him. Immediately he stiffened, so Sigrid didn’t move, but just sat there reaching out to him. Danh’s body slowly relaxed and when he looked up again Sigrid was relieved to see he seemed apprehensive now instead of scared. She wiggled her fingers, which made him smile.

Very slowly Danh stepped closer, reaching out to touch Sigrid’s hand. She carefully wrapped her larger hand around his and waited to see what he would do next.

He stepped even closer and with a look of wonder on his face he reached out his free hand to touch her hair.

His actions gave Anjuli courage and she stepped closer to Sigrid as well, tentatively touching the blond hair with trembling fingers.

“They’re plucked from some village in the middle of nowhere.” Morgan’s voice was matter-of-fact and Sigrid wondered how many victims the teenager had been in contact with. “I don’t think they’ve ever seen anyone with your hair color.”

“How long have they been with you?”

“A little over a week or so.” Morgan shrugged. “It’s hard to keep track of time in the dark.” She knelt next to Anjuli and gave the little girl an encouraging smile. “I think I heard them say that Anjuli and Danh were smuggled into the country a few days before I saw them.”

Sigrid nodded and looked up in surprise when Anjuli suddenly leaned against her, wrapping a skinny arm around her neck and softly talking in a language she didn’t know.

“Oh, sweetheart, I can’t understand a word of what you’re saying.” She carefully folded an arm around the girl, pleased when she felt the skinny frame relax even more. “But if you want a hug, I have an endless supply.” Sigrid felt her eyes sting and she blinked against the tears when Anjuli pressed her face in the crook of her neck. The realization that she now was responsible for the children’s safety came crushing down on her, and for a moment she panicked. A gentle touch on her shoulder made her look up. Eva was standing beside her, looking down at her with a mixture of affection and concern.

“I’m fine,” Sigrid said. Her voice was soft, barely louder than a whisper, but Eva nodded.

“We’ll get them to a safe place today.”

“Yes.” Sigrid took strength from the conviction in Eva’s voice. “Yes, we’ll get them out of here.”

“I know we’re down to one car,” Betty said. She was standing in the small kitchen, pouring a cup of coffee for herself and Meg. “The girls and I can stay here until you send someone to pick us up. Right girls?”

“No problem,” Twitch said and Meg nodded.

Betty sent her friends a grateful smile before turning back to Eva and Sigrid. “Besides, we got ourselves into this mess, so it’s only fair to make room for those poor babies.”

‘I appreciate your attitude, Betty,” Eva said. “But there are some complications we didn’t foresee. “

Sigrid looked up and when she saw the expression on Eva’s face she knew t was serious.

“I need to talk to Sigrid for a moment. I promise to fill you in on as much as I can later.” She extended her hand to Sigrid, who grabbed it and let herself be led outside.

“What’s going on?” Her eyes registered the anger in Eva’s eyes and she reached out a hand to touch her arm. “Eva?”

“This case is a lot bigger than we thought it was,” Eva said. She sighed and pulled Sigrid away from the door.

“You talked to Chuck.” It wasn’t a question.

“I did. And I received a few emails from him as well.” Eva leaned her back against the side of the house, reached out and put her hands on Sigrid’s shoulders. “There’s an arrest warrant out for you.”

“What?” Sigrid was stunned into silence and all she could do was stare.

Eva gave her the time she needed to regain her composure, remaining silent. After a very long time she felt the body underneath her hands relax enough to lean forward. Without a word she wrapped her arms around Sigrid and pulled her close.

“That’s unexpected,” Sigrid finally said. Her voice was muffled by Eva’s jacket.

“Yes, it is.”

Sigrid had her arms around Eva and without letting go she leaned back a little so she could look up. “So, are you going to arrest me?”

“No.” Eva sent her a small smile, which was answered with a sigh.

“Are you willing to risk your career over that?” Sigrid moistened her lips. “Over me?”

“You’re innocent,” Eva said and her voice was calm and strong. “And yes, I am willing to risk my career over that.”

“What am I accused of anyway?”

“You’re a possible suspect in the murder of Michael Allen Bell, arson, and tampering with evidence.”

“Wow, I’ve been busy.” Sigrid rubbed her forehead against Eva’s shoulder and moaned softly when she was pulled tighter into a pair of strong arms. “Can I hide in here until it’s all over?”

“I wish.” Eva sighed and her lips brushed Sigrid’s forehead. “This case is becoming a big stink, Sigrid. I know you can’t pull out completely, but maybe…”

Sigrid did not let Eva finish her sentence. Instead, she silenced her with a brief kiss. “If there’s a question somewhere in there, the answer is ‘no’. I’ll see this through until the end. I did not kill anyone, I did not set fire to my own house and as for tampering with evidence, what did I do?”

“My guess is that they want to get their hands on your files.”

“Who?”

Eva rested her chin on the top of Sigrid’s head and stared at the snow covered car. The sun was out and the glare from its reflection made her narrow her eyes. “I’m almost afraid to say it aloud, because that makes it more real.”

“Is it that bad?” When Sigrid looked into Eva’s eyes she did not need an answer anymore. The green had darkened and beneath the surface the anger was brewing. “Tell me, Eva. You’re worrying me.”

“We were right about Tate. Chuck pulled some records and just before and after the Michael Bell died, he received large amounts of money.”

“Really? Do you know whom from?”

“Jeremy Brothers.”

“Ah, that’s a little suspicious.”

Eva smiled at Sigrid’s understatement. “Just a little. But there’s more.”

Sigrid nodded and exhaled loudly. “Of course, there always is more.”

“Chuck followed the money trail and that’s where things start to get tricky. It led to an account that is owned by a company. Its main business is an international business consulting.”

“The tone of your voice tells me they do more than that.”

“Agency work. They place housekeepers, nannies, provide reliable help for those who can afford it and are willing to pay a hefty sum.”

Sigrid’s body stiffened. “Are they involved in human trafficking?”

“We’re not sure yet, but it seems that way.”

“And I have something in my files they want.” Sigrid stared up at Eva who could see the comprehension dawn. “Do you think it’s the safe house?”

Eva nodded. “Possibly. But they’re too late, we’ve been there and it will no longer be used by them. We’ll have to go over all your files again, because we might have missed something.”

“Did Chuck’s investigation turn up more?”

“A name in Washington.”

Sigrid went very still. “I’ve got the distinct feeling you’re not referring to Washington State.”

“No, D.C.,” Eva said. “Someone in Senator Chandler’s office, if not the Senator himself.”

“Eva, honey, that’s a dangerous line of thought.”

“Not if I show you the files Chuck sent me,” she said, holding up her Blackberry.

“Is this what they call a hornet’s nest?” Sigrid tried to joke. “Maybe we should take the first flight out and find a secluded beach somewhere. We could go on a pre-date honeymoon and forget about all this, let someone else deal with the fall-out.”

Eva smiled. “You don’t mean that.”

“No, not about letting someone else deal with it. I’m serious about the beach though.” She extended her hand. “May I see the files?”

****

“I can do this. I must do this, for the glory of the Lord, whose sword is breathing fire. I can do this.” Breaths came in fast, shallow rasps. Hands were clammy and trembling. “The Lord goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them and he will subdue them before you. You will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the Lord has promised you. A devouring fire, a devouring fire, a devouring fire.” The words were repeated over and over again, a mantra to focus on. “Lord, God, help me breathe fire to devour those who sin against you. Their last sunrise has passed. Fire. Devouring fire.”

***

“Chuck, you do know someone is following is, don’t you?” Casey’s voice was calm. Only someone who knew her well would be able to detect the tension in it.

“I know. It’s not like he’s hiding it.”

“Does he look familiar?”

“I can’t really see his face. Why don’t you let him overtake us so we can have a good look at him?”

“Whatever you say,” Casey said with a small smile. She gradually decreased speed and the car behind her came closer and closer.

“Big crucifix dangling off the mirror.” Charles did not hide the fact that he was looking over his shoulder. “Old Subaru, few dents in the front. License plate ‘4jesus’. “ He looked at Casey and made a face. “He’s following us in a car with a vanity plate. He’s either very sure of himself or he’s completely delirious.”

“The second option worries me a little more than the first one, I have to admit.” Casey’s hands gripped the steering wheel a little tighter and she cast a look in the rearview mirror. “Can you see his face?”

“Not with the visor down.” Charles pulled out his Blackberry and quickly punched in a number from memory. “Paula, hi, it’s Chuck. Would you be able to run a plate for me? New Hampshire plates, yes, 4jesus. Sure, I’ll wait.” He didn’t have to wait long. “Are you sure? Alright, thanks Paula.”

“And?” Casey glance aside before casting another look in the mirror.

“The plate is not in the system,” Charles said. “I guess we didn’t consider that option. Maybe he’s a delirious, self-assured and smart person.”

“You’re not making me feel better, Chuck.”

“I’m sorry. I’d better call Eva and let her know we’ve picked up an unwanted guest.”

“I might be able to outrun him.” Casey’s suggestion made Charles smile.

“I’d like to keep an eye on him, so I know where he is. My gut feeling tells me he might be the one who broke into Sigrid’s house and later came back to set the fire.”

“If that’s the case he could be dangerous,” Casey said. Her voice was losing its calm and Charles gave her an encouraging smile.

“Don’t worry, Casey. I have a feeling he’s after Sigrid. What puzzles me though is how he knows where we’re going. Nobody knows about this.”

“He might have followed us before today.”

Charles head shot up and he sent Casey a quizzical look. “What do you mean?”

“Who did you talk to last night after I showed you the files?”

“Nobody. I stayed at the office all night and…shit.” Charles rubbed his face with both his hands, before clenching his hands into fist. “Damn that little weasel. The only person I talked to was the Captain. If that sorry excuse for pencil pusher has anything to do with this, I’ll wring his neck. Personally.”

“Let’s deal with this first,” Casey said. “If this creep behind us is after Sigrid we’ll just have to make sure to stop him.”

******

“Goodness, Eva, this is serious stuff,” Sigrid said, raking her fingers through her hair. “It makes me sick to think that some politician is involved in making money through human suffering.” She handed Eva back the Blackberry. “Is Casey Planters sure about all this?”

“She had an affair with Chandler, that’s how she got copies of some of the files. She broke off with him after finding them.” Eva shook her head. “That and finding out he was never going to divorce his wife.”

“Irene Chandler is known for her charity that involves children. If she happens to be involved in any of this I might lose my faith in humanity. And my breakfast.”

Eva stuck her phone in her pocket so she could wrap Sigrid in her arms again. “I don’t think she is, Sigrid. We’re not sure, of course, but let’s hope she’s not aware of any of this.” She dropped a kiss on the top of Sigrid’s head, very content with the warm body that was pressed against her front. “I could get used to this.” Eva didn’t realize she had spoken aloud until Sigrid looked up with a surprised expression on her face. “Um, did I say that out loud?”

Sigrid laughed. “Yes, you did, goofball.” Her face turned serious. “Did you mean it?”

Eva slowly nodded and then smiled. “Yes, I did mean it,” she said after a brief silence. “I love holding you in my arms. Does that sound sappy?”

“Not to me,” Sigrid said. She let out a happy sigh and wiggled herself even closer into the embrace. “I love that you’re a little taller. It provides me with the best spot to put my head, not to mention the easy reach for my lips.”

Before Eva could respond her lips were caught by Sigrid’s, who started a slow, thorough exploration. All she could do was hold on and softly moan when the tip of a warm tongue began a delicious torture of her bottom lip. For a moment she forgot about the investigation they were involved in, the children inside the cabin and the fact that Charles and Casey could appear at any moment.

“Sigrid.” Eva’s voice was husky and she sounded out of breath. She did not recognize it as her own. “Sigrid,” she said against a pair of warm lips. She wanted to tell her they could not lose themselves into each other like that, because it could be dangerous. But Sigrid’s lips were so warm and soft and she loved the way her body responded to the increasingly passionate caresses. A slow burning started in the pit of her stomach, spreading outward until her whole body seemed to glow from within. Rational thought was pushed to the background by Sigrid’s insisting lips and the soft curves of her body, and Eva willingly surrendered.

Part 13

The sun peeked through a couple of thick clouds turning the freshly fallen snow in a layer of crystals so bright they could easily hurt someone’s eyes. It was amazing how fast the temperature rose once the sun’s rays touched the surface. Sigrid was vaguely aware of the increasing warmth on her back, even though she was more occupied with the soft skin her lips were caressing.

“Sigrid.” Eva slowly pulled away and almost lost her balance. Only a pair of strong hands on her shoulders kept her from taking a nose dive into the snow.

“Yes, Eva?” Sigrid could not hide the amusement in her voice and she smiled when she pressed her lips against a rapidly beating pulse point.

“I really, really would want to continue this, but we should concentrate on getting the children out of here as soon as possible.” Eva let out a slow breath, seeing it form a small cloud in the cold morning air.

“You’re absolutely right.” Sigrid slid her hands off Eva’s shoulders and slowly backed away. “I’m sorry about that.”

“Don’t be. I am not.” Eva smiled and dropped a kiss on the tip of Sigrid’s nose. “We can continue this later. We will continue this later,” she added with a smile. “After we solve this mess.”

“It’s a relief to know you’re not going to arrest me.” Sigrid’s voice held a hint of humor, but also something else.

“Are you worried about the arrest warrant?”

“A little.” Sigrid raked her fingers through her hair. “I know your opinion about it, but what about Charles’?”

Eva laughed and pulled Sigrid into a quick hug. “He is extremely ticked off about the whole thing, so, don’t worry. He is on your side.”

“That’s good to know.” Sigrid breathed in deeply. “Who else in your department knows I’m with you?”

“The captain,” Eva said, looking at the snow-covered trees.

“You’re not looking at me. Why is that?” Sigrid’s hands grabbed Eva’s and gave them a squeeze. “There’s something you haven’t told me yet, isn’t there?”

“Chuck thinks the captain is involved, with the bad guys, that is.”

“Why?”

“Some things just don’t add up right,” Eva said. She finally looked Sigrid straight in the eyes and registered the shock and concern her answer had caused. At that moment her Blackberry started buzzing and with a scowl she pulled the phone out of her pocket. “It’s Chuck,” she said when she looked at the display. “Hey, what’s up?”

Sigrid looked at Eva’s face and saw her scowl being replaced by a look of worry. Her gaze traveled to the road and unconsciously Sigrid followed it. There was nothing to see but trees, heavy with snow, its branches bent down by the extra weight. The road was hardly visible and Sigrid knew it would take a car with four wheel drive to be able to plough through it. “So, what are you going to do about it?” she heard Eva’s voice and there was no denying the tension in it. “That’s risky, Chuck, we’re on a dead end road with six civilians, three of them kids.” Sigrid noticed Eva’s free hand went underneath her jacket to where she kept her side-arm. The gesture made her heart to a double-take and instinctively she knew their troubles would be getting worse soon.

“Alright, we’ll see you in a few.”

“What’s going on?” Sigrid asked, aware of the tension that had suddenly settled in the pit of her stomach. “Eva?”

“Someone is following Chuck and Casey.”

“How many?”

“As far as Chuck can tell it’s only one person.” Eva’s gaze settled on Sigrid. “Old car, Subaru, big cross dangling on the rearview mirror, vanity plate that reads:’4Jesus’. Does that sound familiar to you?”

For a moment Sigrid felt as if the world went completely still. The white of the snow that surrounded them became more intense, as did the winter blue sky. She became aware of the quickening of her pulse and when she let out a deep sigh that formed a small white cloud in the cold air she realized she had been holding her breath.

“It means something to you.” Eva’s voice reflected confidence.

“It does.” Sigrid cleared her throat because her voice had sounded funny to her own ears. “Jeremy Brothers has a cousin who drives a car like that. He’s in his late twenties and has some developmental issues. He has a job at the local hardware store and seems to be very conscientious.”

“Is he religious?”

Sigrid nodded. “Extremely. I’ve talked to him on several occasions, but ever since he found out I’m gay he’s been ignoring me.”

“Did he have a crush on you?”

“I don’t know, Eva.” Sigrid shook her head and rubbed a cold cheek. “He’s very withdrawn and shy and never seems comfortable talking to anyone, except when he citing scriptures.” Sigrid paused a moment and her gaze traveled to Eva’s. “He has always struck me as an innocent. If he’s involved in any of this it’s because someone has set him up to it. Frankly, I don’t think Donny has the mental capacity to do so.”

“Is that his name, Donny?”

“Yes, Donald Brothers, Jeremy’s cousin.”

“Here’s Jeremy again,” Eva said. There was a grim expression on her face as she gazed at the snow-covered landscape. “I’d like to have a chat with that man.”

“Get in line.” Sigrid tilted back her head and breathed in deeply. The air was clean, but cold and for a few moments she enjoyed the silence of the woods, knowing deep down inside that the peace and quiet would be disturbed very soon. “We need to get the kids out of here,” she finally said.

“And our sleuths.”

Sigrid let out a laugh. “Yes, sleuths is the right term. I can’t believe they drove up here for their own investigation. I know they made things more complicated for us, but you’ll have to give them credit for initiative.”

Eva smiled. “And curiosity.”

“Oh yeah, lots of curiosity.” Sigrid grinned and lazily stretched, feeling the muscles in her back pull. Even though she had enjoyed the sleeping arrangements, the couch had not exactly been comfortable.

“There are eight of us here and we have one car. I’m sure the seven of you can manage to squeeze in; the two little ones are tiny. They need to see a doctor and be in a safe place as soon as possible.”

“The seven of us?” Sigrid echoed. “I don’t think so, Eva Clemente. What are you going to do?”

“With Chuck on his way, I don’t have to hike out of here, so I’ll wait for him and hopefully take care of that Donny character. That is, if he follows Chuck all the way out here.”

Sigrid was about to answer when a rumbling noise caught her attention. She tilted her head in the direction it came from and listened intently. The sound was very feint but clear in the still morning air. By the expression on her face she could tell Eva had picked up on the sound as well. It took them a few moments to identify what they were hearing and locate the direction of the slowly increasing volume of the rumble.

“Snowmobiles.” Sigrid grabbed Eva’s arm and pulled her toward the door of the cabin.

Eva cursed under her breath. “They must know we’re here.”

“If your captain is involved he must have sent Donny after Chuck and told his other buddies where to find us. If they are heading this way we’ll be trapped, Eva.”

“That weasel!” She pulled out her phone and looked at it with disgust. “He must have tracked the signal. Damn! I should have used the pre-paid one.”

“You wouldn’t have been able to receive those emails,” Sigrid said in a reasonable voice. “Besides, Douglas Whitfield is no fool and he could have been tracking Chuck’s phone calls as well. We know he’s after me, so he must know about my family’s cabin. He just connected the dots.” She patted Eva’s arm and pulled her inside the cabin. “We need to get out of here.”

****

“We should almost be there,” Charles said, pointing at a landmark besides the road. “I’m glad at least this part of the road has been ploughed.” He half-turned in his seat to look out of the back window. “Still there.”

“He’s not even trying to hide the fact he’s following us,” Casey said. “Maybe we should just pull over and see what happens.”

“No, you’re a civilian and I can’t get you involved in a possible shoot-out.”

“Did you bring an extra piece?”

“A piece?” Charles chuckled and turned back in his seat. “You’ve been watching too many TV shows.”

“Did you?” Casey insisted.

“Maybe. Do you have any experience with handguns?”

Casey glanced in her rearview mirror and nodded. “My Dad insisted I’d learn.” She smiled. “He probably thought every investigative reporter would end up in situations only Lois Lane could put herself into.”

Charles was about to reply to her statement when his phone beeped. He quickly pressed a button and saw he had a text message. “Eva’s texting me,” he said, opening the message.

“Is she okay?” Casey asked when Charles cursed.

“There are some snowmobiles around and it sounds they’re heading their way.”

“If we keep going we’ll be trapped between them and the guy behind us,” Casey said, not able to hide the sudden tension in her voice.

“But if we don’t Eva and Sigrid are probably outnumbered trying to protect three old ladies and three kids. There’s no way they can all get out of there now.”

“What does she want you to do?”

“Keep going, we’re almost there.”

“Is that what she said?”

“No, that’s what I’m saying.”

“Maybe this is a good moment to get those guns out and get one ready for me to use.”

***

When Eva and Sigrid entered the cabin they were met with a wink from Grace, a whistle from Betty, and a knowing smile from Meg. Under normal circumstances Eva would have laughed at the reception, but her mind was occupied with more serious things.

“Meg, Betty and Grace, I need you to get into my car with the kids and get out of here. Don’t stop until you reach the road, take Route 3 south and get on Interstate 93 as soon as you have a chance. When you get to North Woodstock go West on 112 and stop at the police station there. Ask for Barry Jefferson and tell him Eva sent you. Do not talk to anyone else but Barry.” Eva looked at the worried faces in front of her and hoped she looked calmer than she felt. “Are the instructions clear?”

“Yes,” Betty answered, her gaze travelling between Grace and Meg. “Right girls?”

“I could stay and help, with whatever’s going on,” Grace suggested. “I have a gun and I do know how to use it, you know.”

“We know, Twitch,” Sigrid said with a small smile. “And that’s exactly why you need to go with the others, just in case they need that kind of protection.”

“Just make sure you don’t shoot any of us, you old fool,” Meg said. “What’s going on, anyway? Why do we need to run out of here all of a sudden?”

Eva walked to the door and opened it, listening intently. “We can hear some snowmobiles and we believe they might be on their way here. You and the children need to go.” She looked over her shoulder and registered the shocked faces. “Now,” she said softly.

Sigrid had opened a closet and pulled out some fleece blankets, carefully wrapping Anjuli and Danh in a warm cocoon. Both children looked at her with serious eyes and Eva could tell she was trying to be as calm as possible, talking to them in a very soft voice.

“Morgan.” Eva motioned the teenager to come closer and when the girl stood in front of her she put a hand on one of the small shoulders. “Our friends here are getting you out of here to a small town a little South from here. We’ll join you there are soon as we can. Barry Jefferson is a good friend of mine and you can trust him. He’ll make sure you, Anjuli and Danh will get something to eat and some different clothes. He’ll also get a doctor to look at you.” Eva paused when she saw the flicker of fear in Morgan’s eyes. “You can trust him, Morgan. He will not let anything happen to you. I promise.”

“You and Sigrid will come as soon as possible?” Morgan’s voice was husky and barely more than a whisper.

“I promise.”

“I can’t go back there, Eva, I’ll die if they get me.”

“They won’t, Morgan. I will not let that happen.”

Morgan looked up and glanced over her shoulder before settling her gaze back on Eva again. “Your friends are nice, but they’re old. Are you sure they can help?”

“Positive.” Eva smiled and gave Morgan’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze. “I know they’re not that young anymore, but they are courageous and very feisty. Come on, you can help me get the snow off the car.”

***

“I don’t have a very good feeling about this, Sigrid.”

Sigrid looked up from her kneeling position in front of the two small children and sent Betty a small smile. “It will be fine. As soon you as you’re in the car and head out of here, you’ll be putting distance between them and you. Eva and I will keep them busy and distracted.”

“I’m not worried about us, I’m worried about you.” Betty sighed and ran fingers through her short, gray hair.

“We’ll be fine, Betty.” Sigrid hoped her words conveyed more confidence than she felt.

“And how many situations like this have you been in, Agent Meyers?”

Sigrid smiled. “Not that many, I have to admit.” She stood and turned so she could face Betty. “When you and the children are on your way to North Woodstock, Eva and I only have to think about ourselves. I know this area really well and if things get sticky, we’ll be able to quickly get out of here.”

“Just make sure you do.” Betty’s sounded stern.

Silently, Sigrid enveloped her friend in a hug. “We will,” she said in a soft voice. “Get those kids out of here and to safety, Eva and I will be fine.”

Betty squeezed Sigrid closer before she let her go. Her eyes were moist and when she turned away Sigrid could hear her sniff.

The door opened and Eva stepped in, bring a blast of cold air with her. “Alright, the car is snow free, running and turned around. Time to get out of here.” She lifted Danh into her arms and immediately stepped out again, followed by Meg, Betty and Grace.

“Are you coming, sweetie?” Sigrid smiled at Anjuli who looked at her with eyes that seem too big for her face. “You’re going for a ride. Come on.” She stretched out a hand, saying a quick prayer to whoever was listening, asking that Anjuli would trust her enough to grab her hand, so she could lead her out of the door. Having to grab the girl to carry her out would most likely inflict more traumas.

After a very brief hesitation Anjuli grabbed Sigrid’s hand and walked beside her to the door. As soon as she saw the snow-covered world, she looked up and started a rapid dialogue in her own language.

Sigrid could not understand a word Anjuli was saying, but the small sparkle and look of wonder on her face did not need translation. “I know, isn’t it beautiful?” She carefully lifted Anjuli in her arms to carry her to the car, setting her between Morgan and Meg, who made sure she was securely strapped in.

“Okay, Betty, go.” Eva closed the door and patted the roof of the car. Immediately the vehicle started moving, slightly fishtailing when it turned unto the narrow road, but the four-wheel drive made sure it kept going. As soon as they disappeared around the bend, Eva turned to Sigrid and grabbed her arm. “Come on, we need to make sure they can’t follow them.”

“How are you going to accomplish that?”

“Put something under the snow, on the road that will stop the snowmobiles. When they see the fresh tracks they might believe we’re all gone and not even stop here.”

“Good thinking.” Sigrid headed to the side of the cabin. “Help me move this log.” It took a few moments of digging through the snow, but the large log was where she remembered. It was part of a huge branch that had fallen off one of the surrounding trees during a summer storm. Her Dad had kept it, planning on, eventually, using it as firewood.

Together, Sigrid and Eva hauled the ice-covered log toward the road. It was about ten inches in diameter and five foot long, and would most likely be effective in preventing the snowmobiles from blasting by. As soon as they had positioned it across the road, they covered it with snow, hoping that whoever was on their way would not look too closely to what was in front of them.

“Looks good, let’s go inside,” Eva said. “It sounds like they’re very close. We need a plan.”

“You mean other than keeping them from chasing the kids?” Sigrid patted Eva’s back and was rewarded with a wry smile.

“Yes, other than that. I don’t know about you, but I feel this whole situation is like a snowball rolling downhill.” Eva pulled out her sidearm and quickly inspected it, while Sigrid did the same. “How fast can you get dressed?” she asked, pointing at a small pile of clothes she had brought in from the car.

“Not as fast as getting undressed,” Sigrid answered with a grin, pulling a pair of snow pants out of the pile.

“Remind me to test that statement later.” Eva smiled at Sigrid’s chuckle and they quickly donned the bulky snow clothes, aware of the rapidly approaching snowmobiles.

Sigrid felt her heart rate increase and the palms of her hands were sweaty. The adrenaline that was rushing through her veins increased her core temperature and the heavy clothes she was wearing added more heat to it. “It’s hot,” she said, breathing in deeply in the hope it would slow down her heart a little.

“For now. Let’s hope we don’t end up plowing through snow banks for the rest of the day.”

“Optimist.” Sigrid stepped closer to Eva and gave her a quick kiss. “If we have to make a run for it, do you trust me to know my way around here?”

Eva smiled. “I am actually counting on that.”

“Good.” Sigrid pointed to the bedrooms that were at the back of the cabin. “We can exit through the windows or through the side door in the kitchen. The side door leads to a track downhill and eventually ends at the lake. The windows lead to the back patio and the woods. Uphill.”

“Side door,” Eva said without hesitation.

Sigrid nodded. “Good choice.”

“Are you ready?” Eva stepped closer and touched Sigrid’s face with her fingertips.

Sigrid’s skin, still a little cool to the touch after having been outside rapidly warmed underneath the fingers that were lightly caressing her. “No, I’m not ready.” Her voice sounded husky and she quietly cleared her throat. “But I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Try not to shoot your own foot,” Eva joked, referring to a remark Sigrid had made a few days earlier about her marksman qualities.

Sigrid let out a nervous chuckle. “I’ll try not to. Hopefully it won’t come to shooting, but if it does, I’ll have your back,” she promised, feeling the nervousness fade. What was left was quiet determination to keep anyone from hurting her friends, the children, and Eva.

The obnoxious loud noise of snowmobiles struggling through snow became louder and Sigrid walked to the door, staring through its small window. Her eyes caught movement through the trees and she swallowed, aware of her dry mouth. The fingers of her right hand shifted, adjusting to the grip of her weapon. “They’re here,” she said quietly.

***

“Is he still behind us?” Casey’s gaze was fixed on the narrow road in front of her. A thick cover of snow made it almost impossible to see where the road ended, so she chose to stay in the middle. Even that course of action was no guarantee they would not end up in a deep snow bank or ditch.

“Yup, still there.” Charles said. “Just keep going steady, you’re doing fine.”

“I can’t help wondering whether this guy is waiting for me to get stuck, so he can pound on us, like a spider in a web.” Casey wiggled her fingers a little. They were gripping the steering wheel so tightly they had started to go numb. “By the way, what is the plan when we arrive at the cabin? Get out and run?”

“You’ll stay just where you are, as a matter of fact you will duck and stay low, but I’ll get out.” Charles put a small Beretta on the console between them. “It’s loaded, just take the safety off and you’ll be good to go.”

Casey took her eyes off the road to quickly glance at the dull steel weapon. “Okay, I can handle that.”

“Only use it if I am incapacitated. You’ve no idea how much paperwork it is to explain why a civilian was using my back-up weapon.” Charles smiled and patted Casey’s shoulder. “You’ll be fine, trust me. It’s just one goon.”

“What about the snow mobiles?”

“There’s still a chance those are just regular, innocent people, enjoying some freshly fallen snow.”

Casey let out a chuckle that sounded nervous to her own ears. “And you believe that?”

“One can only hope.”

***

“Here they come.” Eva peeked through the kitchen window that was facing the road, careful to stay out of sight. “There are four of them.”

Sigrid did not answer, but from the corner of her eye, Eva could see her nod. “Are you alright?”

Sigrid tore her gaze away from the road and sent Eva a small smile. “I’m fine, thanks. Just wish I was home, drinking coffee in front of the woodstove.”

“Amen to that.” Eva sighed and brought her attention back to the four bright orange snowmobiles that had arrived. Two of them steered into the cabin’s short driveway. One of the riders gestured to the two behind him and without reducing much speed they flew past him, heading down the road. They were driving close together, too close, Eva realized and she winced when the front rider hit the log she and Sigrid had draped across the road. It had been a risk to put up a dangerous barrier like that, because she had not been one hundred percent certain whom the snowmobiles had been carrying. As soon as she had seen the possible leader gesture to continue down the road though, all doubt had vanished.

“Ouch, that must hurt,” she heard Sigrid mumble.

The rider who had run into the log had been thrown off the snowmobile and landed a considerable amount of feet further down the road. The second rider had, most likely in a reflex, steered his vehicle away from the first one and had gone straight into a snow bank before colliding with a tree.

Eva didn’t know she had held her breath, until she slowly exhaled when she saw both riders move. They slowly got to their feet; one was holding his right arm, the other one limped. “Two less to go after the kids,” she said to herself, watching how the other two riders climbed off their snowmobiles. They turned off the engines and the sudden quiet made her ears buzz.

“What the hell was that?” she heard a voice yelling, the sound muffled by a helmet and layers of protection. The man who had spoken was tall, with broad shoulders and long legs. Eva wondered if he could have been the figure Betty had seen while driving up to Sigrid’s house that day. His snowmobile resembled the one that had crossed the road just in front of Eva’s car that day.

One of the fallen riders, the one who limped, slowly shook his head and sank down to the ground, apparently still dazed by the crash. The tall man stepped toward him and tapped the helmet, which was hastily removed.

“How bad are you hurt? Can you walk?” The voice sounded clear, echoing off the granite, scattered through the woods. “Damn, bitches,” the tall man spat, turning around and glaring at the cabin.

Eva went very still. It was as if the man could look through the walls and her heart quickened in pace. A quick glance aside showed her Sigrid’s stance had changed as well; she could almost feel the tension rolling off her. It was interesting that the tall man had referred to them as ‘bitches’, which confirmed her suspicions that someone in the department who knew where she was had leaked information. Worse than that, they knew Sigrid was with here as well.

A soft click to her right told her Sigrid had taken the safety off her gun and Eva immediately did the same. She did not want a shoot-out, but she needed to keep the riders from going after the children long enough for Betty to get onto the Interstate toward North Woodstock. Even if that meant drawing them away from their snowmobiles by having them chase her and Sigrid.

“Get in that cabin and if anyone comes near, shoot,” the tall man commanded. “Help them,” he ordered the fourth rider, who had knelt next to the one who seemed to have broken his arm. He walked back to his vehicle and pulled out a rifle, no doubt to shoot the lock out of the door.

Eva took a deep breath and gestured Sigrid: it was time to leave. They stepped backward, away from the windows, before quietly making their way to the side door in the kitchen. They would be invisible from the road, but by leaving the door ajar they hoped to catch the men’s attention. It would be easy to follow their tracks in the snow, but the plan was to move downhill, follow the lake and then circle back to the road in the hope Betty had reached North Woodstock and help was on the way.

After Sigrid had stepped outside, Eva quietly followed her, making sure to leave the door open. As fast as the knee deep snow made possible they headed downhill, toward the lake. Eva made sure to step into Sigrid’s footsteps, hoping it would confuse whoever would be following their trail. Their snow pants and down parka’s would keep them warm and dry, so all they needed to focus on was to put a comfortable distance between themselves and their potential pursuers.

Part 14

“This road didn’t seem that long yesterday.” Betty clenched her hands around the steering wheel, while the car was plowing through a thick layer of fresh snow.

“Maybe it grew?” Meg joked in an attempt to lighten the mood.

Betty smiled when she heard Morgan chuckle behind her and she sent Meg a small smile.

“The main road can’t be too far away, it just seems that way because of all the fresh snow,” Grace chimed in from the backseat. “Just stay in the middle, though, because if we end up in another snow bank, I swear, I’ll never let you drive again.”

“If we end up in a ditch, I’ll make sure it’s on your side of the car.” Betty’s voice was tense as she peered at the road in front of her. Even though the sunglasses she was wearing were protecting her from most of the blinding glare, she still narrowed her eyes against the harsh light. “I feel like I’m driving through a painting,” she said.

“Don’t go poetic on us now, old woman,” Grace said in a teasing voice. “This is not the monthly book club meeting.”

“I wish it was, though,” Meg muttered. “Wait. What is that? Is that a car?” The alarm in her voice made Betty lean forward even more to peer through the window.

“Yes, it is. Two cars actually.”

“Oh, my God,” Meg whispered.

“Make sure the kids stay out of sight.” Betty’s voice was strained, but clear. “We’ll see who is in those cars first, before we do anything drastic.”

“Like what?” Meg wanted to know.

“We’ll think of something.”

***

Carefully breaking trail in the snow-covered woods, Sigrid intently focused on the area in front of her. The hill was fairly steep, with scattered boulders, trees in all shapes and sizes, and blackberry bushes one could easily get tangled up in. A quick glance over her shoulder assured her that Eva was a few steps behind her, carefully setting her feet in the tracks Sigrid left behind. Anyone following the tracks might think it was only one person who had made them.

It had been more than ten minutes since they had left the cabin and as far as Sigrid could tell they were still the only ones trying to make it down to the lake. Somehow she didn’t think the men on the snow mobiles would chase them quietly. Just the thought of having to encounter them made her quicken her step. Every minute they were alone on the trail put more distance between them, increasing their chances to outrun the men.

“How are you doing?” Eva’s voice was soft, but the woods around them were so quiet, it sounded quite loud.

“I’m doing alright.” Sigrid glanced over her shoulder and felt a warm feeling settle in the pit of her stomach when she saw Eva sent her a wink and a smile. “What about you?”

“Just peachy. We’re making good time. Hopefully we’ll be able to make it down to the lake unseen.”

“I’ll stay as close to the trees as I can.” Sigrid dodged a snow laden branch, easily ducking underneath it and she grinned when she heard Eva mutter something about having no respect for tall people. She carefully stepped around a boulder half her size, using the ice and snow covered rock as support. Beneath the thick soles of her boots she could feel the uneven surface of rocks and branches and for a moment she halted, taking a few seconds to make sure her footing was solid before she took another step. Just as she leaned forward to shift her weight a deafening sound made her throw herself down in the snow. Pieces of granite showered her face and she shielded her head with her hands. “Eva?” Sigrid barely recognized the sound of her own voice. When there was no reply she lifted her head, crawled behind the boulder and tried again, this time with more urgency. “Eva!”

A soft grunt made Sigrid look around her, until her gaze fell on the form of Eva, who had landed in a pile of soft, powdery snow, completely disappearing in it.

“Eva, are you alright? Please, tell me you didn’t get hit.”

Eva slowly rose to hands and knees and crawled over to where Sigrid was hiding behind the boulder. “Damn, that was close,” she said, shaking her head to fling clumps of snow out of her hair. Her eyes quickly scanned Sigrid and when they did not find any damage, she visibly relaxed. “We need to keep going. The fact that they’re shooting at us tells me they know where we are.”

“Strong work, Sherlock.” Sigrid tried to lighten the mood. “But I believe you’re right, so, run?”

Eva nodded. “Run. Don’t worry about the tracks we’re leaving. We need to put as much distance between them and us as we can manage. And stay under the cover of the trees. Ready?”

Sigrid took a deep breath and nodded. “I’m ready. Be careful, your ankle does not need much to roll again and you’re too tall for me to carry.”

“Understood.” Eva smiled and reached out a gloved hand to touch Sigrid’s cheek. “Let’s go.” She took a deep breath and followed Sigrid who darted away from the boulder they were hiding behind, heading for the trees. Speed was essential, but so was safety and it was impossible to see the surface they set their feet on. Eva could only hope they’d be lucky enough to not break a leg.

Sigrid was grateful she knew the terrain well. It gave her the opportunity to at least evade the deepest ditches and holes. She could Eva right behind her and without looking over her shoulder she knew she had positioned herself between Sigrid and whoever had shot at them. That knowledge made her all the more determined to stay within the safety of the trees. It made their descent more hazardous, but at least it would keep them out of sight. For now. In the distance she could hear shouting. The words were unclear but the tone of the male voice belayed anger. It fueled her determination to put distance between her and Eva and their pursuers. Even though they both had a weapon and knew how to use it, she would try and avoid a shoot-out at any cost.

***

Charles Benoit had heard a lot of colorful language during his career as a police officer, but when Casey hit the brakes and realized they were sandwiched on a narrow, snow-covered road between two cars with no way to escape he heard some expletives that made him raise his eyebrows. “Down, Fido,” he said with amusement. “We only have to worry about the one behind us.” He pointed at the SUV in front of them. “Those ladies are the good guys and they have the kids with them.” He opened the door, gun in hand. “Keep an eye on them, while I handle the guy behind us.”

Casey nodded, unclasped her seatbelt and grabbed the Beretta, glancing in the rearview mirror to see no movement in the car behind them. “Be careful.”

“Don’t worry, I still plan on retiring,” Chuck answered, before stepping into at least four inches of snow. He made sure his footing was secure when he slowly walked to the car that had been following them. Its engine was still running and the driver was sitting behind the steering wheel, his face obscured by the big cross that was dangling from the rearview mirror. Without taking his eyes off the still figure, Chuck slowly moved toward the car, hearing Casey talk in a soft voice somewhere behind him. As he approached the car he got a better view of its occupant. It was a man who looked to be somewhere in his twenties, with brown, shaggy hair that desperately needed a trim. His face however was clean shaven and when he stepped even closer, Chuck noticed he was wearing a hooded winter jacket, perfect for hunting because of its white, brown and grey camouflage design. If his pants were of the same fabric, and Chuck expected that to be the case, he would be almost invisible in the snow covered woods. The thing that struck Chuck the most when he was only a few steps away from the car was the serene expression in the driver’s large, brown eyes. For a moment it threw him off and he wondered if maybe Eva had been mistaken when she had sent him the email about Donald Brothers. Maybe this was someone different. Chuck relaxed a little although the grip on his weapon remained firm. He had too much experience to assume anything.

“Why don’t you get out of the car, son?” he said loudly, motioning for the driver to open the door.

With a smile, the young man nodded and he slowly opened the door, his gloved hands clearly visible. “Do you need any help, sir?” he politely asked as he stepped out of the car.

“I might,” Chuck answered. “It seems we’re all stuck here.” He took another step closer, his eyes trained on the young man’s hands and face, but before he could say anything else the sound of a gunshot shattered the silence. In a reflex Chuck’s head moved into the direction the sound had come from, realizing his mistake too late. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the man he assumed was Donny Brothers pull a shotgun from the inside of the driver’s door and for a split second Chuck froze. “Casey!” he shouted. “Get down.” He raised the hand that held his weapon, but before he was able to take aim, the dry crack of a shot filled his ears and a searing pain tore through his shoulder. Years of training and pure instinct had kicked in as soon as Chuck had seen the shotgun and the only reason he was not hit in the chest was because he had already started to move out of the line of fire. In spite of the pain he was able to raise his weapon, but the shooter had already disappeared between the trees, leaving behind deep tracks in the snow.

“Damn, damn, damn,” Chuck cursed, aware of the blood that was seeping through his clothes.

“Chuck! Are you alright?” Casey fell onto her knees beside him and shot him a frightened look. “You’re hurt.”

“I know. Little bastard. Grab my cell phone, Casey. I need to warn Eva.”

Obediently Casey reached inside the pocket of his jacket and pulled out the requested item. A quick glance at the display of the phone made her scowl. “There’s no signal here.”

***

“Did you hear that?” Sigrid panted, knowing Eva was right behind her.

“I did and that was not behind us. It came from the road. God, I hope everyone’s okay up there.”

“Maybe we should make our way back up there.”

“No, not yet. We don’t want those goons anywhere near the kids. And if we track back up and they’ll follow, we just lead them there. Let’s keep moving, away from the road. Maybe we can cross the lake somewhere.”

“Not for a few miles,” Sigrid said, ducking underneath the trunk of a dead tree that was leaning precariously against a neighbor.

“Can we make it there without giving up our tree cover?”

“We can.” Sigrid cast a quick look over her shoulder. “But it won’t be an easy hike.”

Eva chuckled at the attempt of a joke. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll need a challenge after this stroll.”

“Tell me about it.” Sigrid’s foot slipped and she had to quickly grab the icy surface of a boulder to stay on her feet. “I’m ready to trade this for a walk on a sandy beach, somewhere sunny and warm.”

Eva took a large step, balancing on her injured foot. She tried to ignore the pain by focusing on Sigrid’s words. “We will,” she said. “Blue ocean, white, sandy beach and plenty of sunshine.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.” Eva grimaced when a small branch hit her square in the face, thankful it missed her eyes. Warm wetness trickling down her cheek told her it had broken the skin. She wiped at it impatiently, almost colliding with Sigrid who unexpectedly halted.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, unconsciously keeping her voice down. She was standing so close to Sigrid her chest was pressing against her back. For a split second Eva regretted the thick layers of clothing that separated them, but she immediately scolder herself for such a trivial thought at a moment like that. “What?” she repeated when there was no answer.

Sigrid had tilted her head to the side and was listening intently. “I heard something.”

Eva trusted Sigrid’s senses and she took deep, slow breaths while listening to the woods that surrounded them. The wind rustled through the trees, moving small branches, which made a familiar sound. Every now and then snow fell from the trees, creating a dull whooshing sound. Behind them all seemed quiet and she wondered if their pursuers had given up the hunt. Part of her hoped they had, but another part wished they were still there, so their friends and the children would be safe.

“Sigrid I…” Eva paused in mid-sentence and felt her body stiffen. A sound that was not native to the surrounding woods had reached her ears. “There’s someone coming down the hill somewhere in front of us.” Frantically Eva’s brain went through a few different scenarios, trying to figure what options they had.

“Up?” Sigrid asked, her voice nothing more than a whisper.

“Yes, up.” Eva put a hand on Sigrid’s shoulder and gently nudged her around until she was facing the steep incline. “I know it’s a pain, but get out your gun. You might need it. Keep going until you reach the road. Chuck should be there and hopefully some reinforcements as well.”

“What are you going to do? You can’t…”

“I can and I will,” Eva interrupted. “See that big boulder you’ll pass in the next minute? I’ll be behind it, waiting for whoever is after us. If they want to find us they need to track us, which means they’ll be coming right through here.” Eva saw the troubled look in Sigrid’s eyes and allowed herself a moment to kiss her surprisingly warm lips. “I will see you soon.”

“Eva, you can’t…”

“Sigrid, I have to. Now go. Find some reinforcements and for God’s sake, stay safe.”

Eva saw the anger flash in Sigrid’s expressive blue eyes and silently braced for a confrontation. But as fast as the heat had surged, it seemed to die down.

“We’ll fight about this later.”

Eva nodded. “Yes, we will.”

With a small smile Sigrid turned around and began her climb up the steep hill, bracing herself with one hand in order to prevent sliding down. Eva was right behind her, but as soon as they had reached the large boulder she had pointed out, she halted, aware of Sigrid rapidly climbing the hillside. The separation was almost physically painful and Eva was tempted to call Sigrid back, but she knew she had made the right decision, no matter how difficult it was to know that every step Sigrid took put more distance between them. “You’re getting sentimental in your old age,” she muttered to herself, aware that the feelings she had for Sigrid were growing stronger by the day. “Not the right time, Eva Clemente. Focus.” She checked her gun and spare clip and stood quietly behind the granite boulder; waiting.

***

“O h, my God, Chuck, you’re hurt,” Casey exclaimed while kneeling down in the snow, next to his bulky form.

“Where did he go?” Chuck groaned, trying hard to ignore the pain in his shoulder.

“He ran off and disappeared in the woods. He’s like a ghost, the moment he stepped between the trees I lost sight of him.”

Charles stirred and struggled to sit up, knowing he would not be able to lift his weapon, let alone fire it. “Then he could still be around.”

Casey rested a hand on his good shoulder and shook her head. “I heard him through the trees, away from us. Besides, those friends of yours have our back,” she added, pointing to the car in front of them where Grace had exited the vehicle and was standing behind the SUV, her eyes focused on the spot where Donny Brothers had disappeared into the woods, and a gun clutched in her hand.

“God, I hope she has a permit for that thing,” Chuck groaned. “Can you help me up? I should be fine once I’m upright.”

“Let me guess; it’s just a scratch, right?” Casey muttered, but she grabbed Chucks arm and let him lean on her while he was getting back on his feet.

“Believe it or not, I’ve never been shot before,” Chuck breathed, feeling a little light-headed as soon as he was vertical again. “So close to retiring and I don’t duck fast enough. Eva’s never going to let me live that down.”

“I hope so, because I’d like to see her and the pastor make it back in one piece.”

“Check the phone again,” Chuck urged, watching over Casey’s shoulder when she pulled out his phone first and then her own.

“Nothing. No signal.” Casey let out a soft expletive. “Welcome to New Hampshire.”

“Not a country girl, I assume?” Chuck tried to keep his voice light, but it was obvious he was in pain.

“Can you blame me? Where are the police when you need them and where is the closest phone?” Casey grabbed Chucks arm and guided him to the SUV, where he was greeted by anxious faces.

“We need to get him to a hospital,” Meg exclaimed when she noticed the slowly spreading patch of blood on his jacket.

“We need to get out of here all right,” Betty said. She turned to Meg, making sure to keep her voice steady and calm. “Think about the children, Meg. Try to stay calm.”

“You’re right.” Meg cast a look at the children in the backseat and winced when she noticed the fear in their eyes. Anjuli was softly whimpering, while Danh had his hands clasped over his ears and his eyes shut tight. “It’s going to be alright, sweetie, these people are here to help us,” she said, reaching out to Anjuli, who immediately grabbed her hand with a strength that was amazing for such a little girl. “Just hang in there. We’ll be fine, I promise.”

***

Sigrid forced herself to take slow, even breaths, so her panting would not get into the way of listening what was going on around her. It wasn’t easy. She was fighting her way uphill through knee deep snow, very aware of the fact that somewhere close there were unscrupulous individuals who were more than willing to use the firearms they were carrying. Added to that was the knowledge that Eva was on her own until Sigrid would be able to return with reinforcements, her friends and the children were somewhere on the road, hopefully driving away from the shots that had been fired, and there was no way she was able to contact Chuck. All Sigrid could rely on at the moment was herself, her ability to rapidly climb a snow-covered, steep hillside and her determination to make it back to Eva as soon as possible. The sound of something heavy sliding down the hillside made her stop dead in her tracks. Tilting her head to the side, Sigrid listened intently. The sound had come from somewhere on her left, downhill from her. Someone was in a hurry to make it down the hill. She knew that eventually the tracks she and Eva had made would lead straight to the huge granite boulder. As she tried not to think about what could happen if Eva’s hiding place was discovered, Sigrid resumed her track up the hill, her weapon firmly clenched into her hand.” Please be safe,” sounded like a mantra in the back of her mind. She knew that in the short period she had known Eva something important had grown between them. Not one to fall in love easily, Sigrid was honest enough to acknowledge that falling in love was exactly what had happened to her. From the moment she had first met Eva, life had been stressful and frightening. It would be easy to explain that her feelings were caused by circumstances, after all she and Eva had shared some dangerous moments even Quantico could not have prepared her for. However, even though the murder and investigation had thrown them together, there was something that seemed to be the core of Eva that had called to Sigrid from the beginning. Her quiet self -confidence, gentle sense of humor, friendly demeanor and caring nature had made Sigrid feel at ease from the moment they met. Of course there was the physical attraction as well. Even though Eva was not a classical beauty, the combination of her skin tone and color of her eyes coupled with an easy smile and the way she carried herself had attracted Sigrid from the very beginning. Sigrid was aware of the brief fluttering in her stomach and in spite of the situation she chuckled softly when realizing that even the current situation, combined with more than two feet of snow could not put a damper on her attraction. “I’m almost there, Eva, hang in there.”

Sigrid looked up to see she was rapidly approaching the road. With every step she took the snow bank on the side of the road became more visible. As long as she would stay behind it, keeping the wall between herself and whoever was on the road, she would be relatively safe. The main thing was to stay out of sight and try to get help as soon as possible. Her first priority was to find Charles.

***

“We need to get you to the hospital as soon as possible.” Casey ripped open one of the packages that came out of the first aid kit. Even though she had no medical training it was easy to see that Chuck was bleeding profusely. A steady stream of blood saturated the sleeve of his jacket and drops of blood were landing on the snow he was sitting on.

“I’ll be fine, Casey. Just shove that wad of gauze against the hole. Did the bullet to go through?”

“How would I know? I am a journalist not a freaking Physician or nurse.”

“Is there blood on the back of my jacket? Did the bullet go clean through my shoulder?”

“Let me see.” Casey leaned back in order to inspect Charles’ shoulder. “How bad is it when the bullet goes all the way through?”

“Not bad at all. It’s what you would hope for when getting shot, because it means that the bullet did not take a detour, which means less damage inside. It hurts like hell though.” Charles took a deep breath and cast a look at Casey who nodded in understanding. “So, what do you see?”

“Well, it seems this is your lucky day.”

“I wouldn’t say that.” Charles groaned when Casey pressed the gauze against his shoulder. It was hard to breathe, because the pain was so intense. Even the slightest movement felt like being stabbed with hot pokers. The pain extended all the way down to his fingertips. Spasms made it worse and Charles had to fight back waves of nausea. The last thing he wanted however was to pass out. There were three terrified children in the car, as well as three elderly women and a reporter he needed to keep safe. In addition to that, he knew Eva and Sigrid were in trouble and needed help.

“Casey, you need to take everybody out of here. As soon as you can get a signal call the police station, or 911. Do not stop for anybody, until you reach the police station. I know the roads around here suck, but drive as fast as you can. We need some help out here.”

“I can’t leave you here, you’re bleeding all over the place, you need help.”

“There’s not much time, we need to keep those children safe and the only way to do it is to take them out of here. Listen to me Casey, you’re the only one who can get help fast. I need you to do as I tell you. Please.”

Just as Casey opened her mouth to respond the sound of snapping branches could be heard behind the snow bank. Charles mentally braced himself, knowing full well that any confrontation would be his last one. He clenched his teeth and tightened his grip on the gun. Turning toward the sound he thought about his wife and children, feeling a deep sadness settle in his chest. He never would’ve thought he would never see them again. And even if it would be the last thing he did, he’d made sure those children in the car would be safe. Even if that meant he would die trying.

***

Eva had lost all track of time. Although Sigrid had just left a few minutes before it felt like it had been much longer than that. It was quiet. The thick blanket of snow that covered everything around her seemed to absorb most of the natural sounds. From somewhere in the distance, probably around the frozen lake, came to sound of a snowmobile. The high-pitched sound of the engine seemed completely out of place within the quiet stillness of the snow-covered woods.

Eva shifted, careful not to make any sound. The granite boulder she was hiding behind was tall but still only barely managed to hide her from sight completely. She tried to focus on what was happening around her. It was important to pick up on any sound that seemed out of place, ready to react whenever it was needed. She had no idea how many people were actually tracking her and Sigrid. There had been three snowmobiles and three riders up at the cabin, but that was before one of them crashed. If Eva had to guess she would say that one person was tracking her and Sigrid’s footsteps in the snow, while a second person was probably sent after the car. At least that was how Eva would have done it. That meant she had to deal with her pursuer and whoever was making his way down the hill somewhere beside her. Even though that person tried to be very quiet, the occasional sound of snow gliding over snow and barely audible snapping of twigs gave him away. Eva was very aware of the fact that someone with a gun was approaching from the left, while an unknown person was trying to sneak up on her right. Even though the situation she was in was dangerous, she was glad Sigrid had left to get help. Even though the FBI agent had gone through only appropriate training, she was more a consultant than a field agent and Eva wanted her out of harm’s way.

A small smile tugged on the corner of Eva’s mouth when she remembered when Sigrid had joked about her clumsiness with a weapon. She knew it had been exaggeration, because Sigrid would never have been able to complete her training had she not known how to use a gun. Still, Eva would do anything she could to prevent Sigrid from having to use a gun.

Eva tensed when she heard a muted thump followed by a muttered curse. The sound came from the left and was most likely the man who was following her. He must have slipped and fell or hit his head against a branch; either way he had given away his position and Eva knew he was very close. She crouched down a little more, all her senses on high alert. Her ears pick up a sound from the right and she briefly wondered what would happen when her pursuer would run into the person who was making his way down the hill. If they knew each other and were working together, she could be in big trouble. If both of them would come after her she would have to react fast. The best chance would be to get behind one of them so she wouldn’t be in the middle. Just in case someone would start shooting. Getting shot was not on the list of things to do, besides if she’d get hurt Sigrid would be extremely pissed off at her.

***

Running up a snow-covered, steep hillside that was littered with granite boulders in varying sizes and covered with a dense forest had Sigrid gasping for air when she finally made it to the road. Cold air was burning in her lungs and more than once she had to suppress the urge to cough. The sound of voices had made her stop dead in her tracks, briefly taking shelter behind an old tree. She wasn’t sure but thought that one of the voices have been female, which was promising because none of the people in the snowmobiles had been a woman. Still, not knowing who was on the other side of the snow bank was risky.

Sigrid stuck her hand inside her pocket and pulled out her cell phone, quickly checking if she had a signal. She didn’t. She would have to glance over snow bank in order to see who was on the other side and if they would be friend or foe. There was no time to waste, Eva needed help. Rising up, crouched position Sigrid carefully extended her neck in order to visualize the road. There were two cars she did not recognize, but the third one she did and without giving it much thought she clambered over snow bank and slid down the other side.

“Sigrid.” The surprise in Meg’s voice was evident. “Quick honey, the inspector got shot.”

Immediately Sigrid ran toward the cluster of cars. As soon as Charles became visible she gasped. “Oh my God, Chuck, what happened? Did anyone call for help?”

“Good to see you Sigrid, where’s Eva?” Charles said lowered his hand that was holding his gun. He sounded slightly out of breath and Sigrid immediately went into EMT mode.

She knelt beside him in the snow and reached for the zipper of his jacket, tugging it down. “Who shot you?”

“That little punk who was following us in that car,” Charles said. He weakly gestured with his good hand and Sigrid glanced over her shoulder.

“I know that car,” she said. “It’s Donald’s. Is he here? Is he the one who shot you? Where is he now?”

“Yes, yes, on the way down the hill.” Charles grimaced when Sigrid put pressure on his wound. “Damn, that hurts.”

“Do you know if help is on the way?”

“I’m not sure, I’m afraid not. Where’s Eva?”

“She’s down that hill somewhere hiding behind a boulder. There were three guys at the cabin, they are armed. We were able to take out one by making his snowmobile crash, but that leaves two. One of them was following us.”

“Is that where the shots came from?”

Sigrid nodded while packing more gauze against Charles’ wound and applying pressure. “You need to get out here. And get us some help.”

“Eva needs help, I can’t just leave. Just stop me from leaking over the place and I will be fine.” Charles struggled to sit up and both Sigrid and Casey gave him a hand.

“I’ll help you get up and get into the car, but then I need all of you to leave and get me some help.” Sigrid looked up at Casey. “Take Chuck and the children out of here.”

“No, I’ll stay Sigrid,” Charles said in a weak but determined voice. “Eva needs me, dammit. I’m her partner.”

“Right now you’d be more of a hindrance than a help. If you really want to help you get out here and as soon as you get a cell phone signal you’ll call the local police station.”

“Sigrid, you can’t ask that of, she’s my partner.”

“I am not asking you, I am telling you. As an FBI agent I outrank you, Chuck. And I am telling you to get yourself and these children out of here. Now.”

“She’s right Chuck, let’s go.” Casey grabbed Chuck by the arm in order to lead him back to the car, her eyes met Sigrid’s and she nodded. “We’ll go as fast as we can. Stay safe.”

Sigrid turned to her friends in the other car and sent them a small smile. She could tell just by looking at them but they were pretty shaken. But she had known them for years and knew how tough they were. They would do anything to keep the children safe. “Save me some hot chocolate,” she smiled.

“Sweetie, make it back in one piece and I will give you enough hot chocolate to bathe in.” Betty blew her a kiss from within the car. Anjuli and Danh looked terrified, while the expression on Morgan’s face was pleading.

“I’ll see you later,” she mouthed, smiling when the teenager nodded. She turned back to Betty motioning for her to start driving.

“What will you be doing?” Betty wanted to know.

“Eva needs me. I’m going back down.”

Part 15

“What do you mean you can’t do anything about this? Isn’t that why I pay you, to clean up after me?” Even though the voice sounded controlled it was very easy to hear the underlying anger. It was a tone of voice many acquaintances feared. Especially since history had taught all of them that the subjects of his anger never fared well. “Don’t call me back until this is fixed.”

After slamming down the phone, the man got up off his chair and started pacing the room. It was impossible for him to sit still when his stress levels were increasing. As a self-made man who had never been afraid of getting his hands dirty, it was very hard for him to depend on others. But he had no choice. He was too visible and in his position too vulnerable to risk negative publicity. In spite of all the power he had, he too had to answer to someone else and any messy work or wrong decision could easily backfire.

He looked at the clock on the wall for the fifth time in the last few minutes, wishing he could do something, anything, to change the last 12 hours. The cell phone on his desk gave a quiet buzz and he quickly grabbed it, looking at the display before answering it.

“Hi sweetie, how was school today?” While listening to the answer his eyes traveled to the clock again. Only one more minute had passed.

***

As soon as Casey and Betty had started their slow journey through the snow, Sigrid tilted her head to listen intently. Any moment one of the snowmobilers could come flying around the corner. She was very aware of the sound of his engine and knew she didn’t have much time. Knowing that the road conditions were more favorable for a snowmobile than a car, she ran over to the abandoned Subaru and climbed inside. The keys were still in the ignition and with a flick of her wrist the engine roared to life. Without a second thought Sigrid slowly drove the car further down the road to where it narrowed. She steered to left until the car was completely across a road. She removed the keys from the ignition, hopped out of the car and ran back to where she had climbed the snow bank. The sound of an approaching snowmobile became louder and she knew she only had seconds left. She hurled herself over the icy barricade and started sliding down the hill. The Subaru would make sure that the person on the snowmobile would not be able to follow the cars. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t come after her and Sigrid knew she had to be fast. Having spent a lot of time in the area, she knew her friends would not be able to pick up a cell phone signal until they would reach the main road. A quick calculation showed her that in the best case scenario help would still be about 40 minutes away. So it was just her and Eva against three, possibly more adversaries. The odds were not in their favor, but Eva was smart and had a lot of experience, and Sigrid was familiar with the woods. All they would need was a little luck.

***

From her position behind a granite boulder Eva was very aware of the fact that she could hear two different people coming from different directions. It was just a matter of time before they would see each other and she was very curious how that would play out. She didn’t have to wait long.

“What the hell?” A voice sounded from her left. “What are you doing kid? Hunting season is over.”

“I could ask you the same thing,” another voice, lighter and younger said in response.

“Shut your damn mouth, kid.”

“Stop cursing. Don’t you know that cursing is bad?”

“Cursing is bad?” Eva could hear the sound of boots in the snow and she estimated the owner of voice was almost in front of her hiding place. “Wait a minute, I know you. Aren’t you the nephew of Jerry Brothers? The religious nut?”

“I’m Donny, and Jeremy is my uncle. He has warned me about you.”

“I’m sure he has.” The man laughed. “Damn, what are the odds of running into you right here in the middle of nowhere? So I’m asking you again, what the hell are you doing here?”

“Stop cursing.” Anger was creeping into Donny’s voice and Eva could tell he was getting upset. By the sound of his voice though he had not moved closer and Eva knew that if her pursuer would take another few steps, she would be able to get behind him, and not run the risk of getting caught between the two men.

“I’m on a mission,” Donny’s voice sounded.

“Really? And what kind of mission would that be?”

“Nothing you would be interested in.”

“Why don’t you try me?” The sound of a shotgun being reloaded was very loud in the cold morning air. Eva took a deep breath and momentarily relaxed her fingers around her gun, before settling them back in place again. Things were escalating rapidly.

“You can’t hurt me,” Donny said.

“Why is that?”

“Because I am doing the work of God, and nobody can stop me.”

“Like I said; religious nut.” The voice was full of contempt and unconsciously Eva held her breath, waiting for Donny’s response, which she hoped would be void of violence.

“The Lord goes ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them and he will subdue them before you. Lord God, help me destroy those who sin against you.” Donny’s voice was soft, he sounded very calm but void of any emotion.

It was the lack of emotion that worried Eva the most. Somehow she just knew things had escalated beyond repair and the next step would be violence. She carefully shifted to the left, still keeping the granite between herself and two men on the trail. Donny’s answer shed light on some of the questions the investigation had yielded. He must have been the one that had broken into Sigrid’s house and had left a religious symbol. It wouldn’t surprise her if he had also set the house on fire. But she also knew he was just a pawn in a bigger game where powerful people pulled strings. It was crucial to find out who they were and from where they operated. The safe house they had discovered the previous day most likely was only the top of the iceberg. There were probably many houses like that throughout the country. Eva’s mind flashed back to the moment they had found children in the basement, shackled to the wall and it made her physically sick to think many more children were undergoing the same fate, but had not been rescued yet.

“Kid, you’re crazy and I suggest you drop that gun.” The voice sounded him relaxed, almost casual, but Eva knew that if the man was a hardened criminal, and she suspected that he was, gunfire could erupt at any moment.

“God help me destroy those who sin against you.” Donny had barely finished speaking when a burst of gunfire exploded just a few feet away from her hiding place. Instinctively, Eva ducked and made herself as small as she could. Just in case. The shooting only lasted for a brief moment and the sound of something heavy falling in the snow told her one of the two men had gone down. The question was who?

“God destroys those who sin against him,” Donny’s voice sounded. He still seemed eerily calm and Eva knew from experience that those who are psychotic or delusional often are the hardest to apprehend, because they are driven by something that makes them lose touch with reality and are immune to logic, empathy, and compassion. There is only one thing on their mind; reaching their goal, no matter how delusional it is.

Eva slowly and carefully straightened up and took a step to the left. By doing so she was still taking a gamble, because she had no visual on Donny, but judging where the voices had been when the body had hit the ground she suspected Donny was still somewhere on her right. There was a small opening between the granite boulder and a couple of trees, and Eva carefully moved her body forward. Donny was quiet and she could not hear any movement at all, so she figured he was still there, where he had been before, somewhere to her right.

All her senses on high alert, Eva took a deep breath, ready to step around the boulder onto the trail. All of a sudden her body tensed and she could feel herself go rigid.

“Going anywhere?” Donny’s voice sounded right behind her and inwardly Eva cursed.

“Hello Donny.” Very slowly she turned around until she was facing a young man whose clean-shaven appearance made him look like he could not be older than sixteen.

“Hello,” he said and there was a hint of surprise in his voice. “I’m surprised to find you here.”

Eva tried very hard to focus on his face and not look at the gun he was pointing at her. It wasn’t easy, because she knew that with the same gun he had just shot somebody, probably even killed. She moistened her suddenly dry lips and forced down a wave of panic. “Why’s that?” She did her best to sound casual, like it was normal for her to run into an armed murder suspect in the middle of the woods.

“You’re supposed to be with the pastor, Sigrid,” he said. He frowned and it was a look of puzzlement on his face. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know.” Eva was hopeful her friends have been able to call for help by now and all she could do was by herself some time.

“You lie.”

“Actually, I’m not. Sigrid was with me before, but she went up the road little while ago.”

Donny narrowed his eyes and a look of anger crossed his face. “Why would she do that? She’s been with you for days now.”

“We have friends who needed help, Sigrid was trying to find some.”

“What friends? That police guy? I shot him.”

A wave of anger surged through Eva. She clenched her hand around the butt of her gun so tight, it was painful. But the last thing she wanted was for Donny to think he had gotten to her, so she took a deep breath and forced herself to be calm. Her gun was in her right hand, brushing up against a tree every time she moved. She wondered if Donny had seen it, if not, she might still have a chance.

“He could be dead by now,” Donny said. His voice was still devoid of any emotion and Eva wondered if he had been taking drugs as well. “Sigrid will be too late to help him. And praying over him won’t work, God won’t listen to her.”

“Why is that?” While her eyes never left his, Eva’s focus was on her right hand inching it away from the tree, trying to get into position so she could actually use it.

“She’s a sinner, and so are you. She has no right pretending to be a pastor.”

“She’s not pretending. I know for a fact she went to seminary, and she graduated.”

A flash of rage cross Donny’s face and he slapped her with the hand that was holding his gun.

Immediately, Eva felt a steady trickle of blood rolling down her face. The skin across her left cheek bone was split and she already could feel the area around her eye swell. The whole side of her face was throbbing and she knew the bruising would be ugly, that is, if she would live long enough for her face to bruise.

“She’s a sinner. You are sinner. And both of you will die.” Donny carefully enunciated the words, making sure Eva heard them clearly.

“Talking about dying, do you mind if I check up on the guy you just shot? He might need help.”

“He’s dead, I made sure of that. And you will be next.”

The look of determination on Donny’s face sent shivers down Eva’s spine. She knew she had run out of time. Slowly and cautiously she moved her right arm, never losing eye contact with Donny. All she would get was one shot, and it would have to be a good one.

***

Sigrid knew that she had to make her descent as quiet as possible. For all she knew their pursuer had caught up with Eva and she did not want to make a volatile situation even more explosive. Her cautiousness slowed her down, which significantly increased her adrenaline levels. But if she gave away her own position she could make things worse for Eva, and that was the last thing she wanted to do.

When she was about halfway down the hill she suddenly stood still and tilted her head, listening intently. After a few seconds of concentration she was certain she heard voices, coming from the direction where she had left Eva. She could not make out the words, but judging by the pitch of the voices there were at least two men talking. Sigrid’s first reaction was the desire to run down the hill as fast as she could, but she also knew that would be the most foolish thing to do. It would put her and Eva immediately in harm’s way. It was then that her ten-month training at Quantico automatically kicked in. The tracks in the snow clearly showed her ascent up the hill, but Sigrid ignored those. Instead, she veered to the left still making her way down the hill. If her calculations were right, she would hit the trail to Eva’s left, behind the area where she could hear the voices.

Sigrid could feel her heart hammering inside her chest and her mouth had gone dry. She knew one of the voices she heard belong to Donny, but the other one was a stranger. If he had been their pursuer, she knew he would not hesitate to use his gun. After all, he had already shot at them before. Donny had shot Charles and she knew he had to be considered armed and dangerous. That put Eva in a very precarious situation. Just as she thought she could see the outline of the huge granite boulder Eva was hiding behind, and unexpected, a loud bang made her stop dead in her tracks. For a brief moment Sigrid could not breathe. She covered her mouth with a gloved hand to prevent herself from shouting Eva’s name and pressed her forehead against the rough bark of a tree. “Eva,” she whispered, feeling her entire body shake. It took her a few seconds to regain her composure and forced herself to continue her descent. Without compromising caution, Sigrid made her way down as fast as she could, trying very hard not to think about what could have happened to Eva. She kept a careful eye on the boulder using it as a point of reference to make sure she would not stray from it too far. After a brief silence her ears picked up the sound of a voice again, it was Donny’s. When a lighter one answered, Sigrid felt such a surge of relief she had to lean against the tree for support, afraid her legs would not be able to hold her up. Eva was still alive and by the sound of it having a conversation with Donny, the innocent looking young man who had just shot Charles. Sigrid gritted her teeth and continued down knowing that if she would make it in time the odds would turn in Eva’s favor.

***

“May I ask you a question?” Eva looked straight into Donny’s brown eyes. Inwardly she cringed, he was just a kid and the thought that, right now she might have to shoot him in order to survive, made her feel cold inside.

“No.”

“Come on, Donny, you’re the one with all the power here, before you shoot me you can do me the courtesy of answering one question, don’t you think?”

“How do you know my name?”

For the first time Eva noticed a hint of insecurity in his voice and she was determined to use that in her advantage. She’d do anything to stall and buy more time. “I read about you.” She had decided not to volunteer any information, but made him work for it.

“Where? What did you read?”

“It was a police report, actually.” Eva still had her eyes trained on Donny’s face. She knew she had his undivided attention and used the situation to bring her gun slowly and carefully into position. All she needed was just a little bit more time. From the way he was holding his gun, Eva knew Donny was left-handed. That meant she would only have to lift up her gun just a little, in order to shoot him in the arm. If she would manage to do that, he would most likely drop his weapon. It was a shoddy plan, but at least it was something.

“What did it say? And you better answer, because I’m not going to ask you again.”

“It was a report about your uncle, Jeremy. You might not be surprised to hear that he’s involved in some pretty shady business.”

“You lie. He has turned around his life and is serving God now. What you talk about is in the past. Uncle Jerry is a God-fearing man.”

“Sorry to be the one to tell you this, Donny, but your uncle has been involved in some questionable actions, recent ones.”

“Like what?”

“Well, there are some strong indications he is involved in child trafficking.”

“You lie.” Donny raised his voice and Eva knew she had him off balance. She would have to tread lightly. “Uncle Jerry loves children.”

“I think he might love money more,” Eva said in a slow and deliberate voice, knowing full well her words could send he young men over the edge.

“I am a warrior for God, and I pledged to help him crush his enemies. You’re one of them and I’m going to enjoy killing you.”

As soon as Donny had showed up behind her, Eva had half turned. Right now the granite boulder was to her left and the tree was to her right. The opening between the two was narrow, but if she would manage to jump through it, she would be out of Donny’s line of vision for a few seconds. And that would be long enough to position herself and get in a clear shot. If she was lucky.

“What makes me an enemy of God? Investigating child trafficking? Putting criminals behind bars? I don’t know about you Donny, but it sounds to me like I’m one of the good guys.” Eva deliberately pushed Donny’s buttons now in the hope to bring him of balance a little more. If she could rattle his cage, she might be able to throw him off long enough to take that jump behind the boulder.

“You’re a sinner. You and the pastor both. I’ve seen how you look at her, disgusting. She’s gay and God hates gays. So he hates you and he wants me to kill you. I am doing His will, I’m helping him to rid the earth from sinners like you.” Donny’s words sounded like a mantra, something he was used to repeating over and over again. Eva knew that reasoning with him would be impossible. It seemed like she had bought all the time she could. She could tell by the expression in his eyes; his look was one of clear determination, laced with hate.

“You don’t want to do this, Donny. Just think about it for a moment, you kill me and end up in jail, how will that help your cause? Maybe we can work something out, you hand me your gun and we’ll talk.” The expression on Donny’s face told Eva she was not getting through to him and she decided on a different tactic. “Besides, what would you parents say about all this?”

The change in Donny was instant; the calm expression on his face was replaced by a mixture of rage, frustration, and pain. “Leave my parents out of this.” The words were hissed through clenched teeth. “My mother was a whore and my so-called dad was a drunk who liked using me for a punching bag. They were ungodly, filth in the eyes of God and I hope they burn in hell.”

Eva’s brain was working overtime, trying to make connections with the information Donny had just given her. From the report she had read she knew that Donny had moved in with his uncle after his parents died. The boy had been thirteen at the time. The mobile home thefamily had lived in had gone up in flames, trapping the couple inside. The investigation into the fire was inconclusive. There had been a pan on the stove that had caught fire, but it had been impossible to see whether that had been the cause. The look on Donny’s face steered Eva’s thoughts in a totally different direction. “You killed your parents.” It wasn’t a question.

“They deserved to die,” Donny spat. “They refused to let God into their lives. I did give them a choice, but they didn’t listen. So, it was their decision.”

“Are you going to give me a choice?” Eva already knew the answer, but she almost had her gun in position and needed a few more seconds. She could feel the adrenaline rush through her body. It heightened all her senses, and she was aware of the serenity of the snow-covered woods, the whining sound of a snowmobile engine in the far distance, and a typical smell of snow and trees. Donny was mumbling something incoherent and for a moment he was clearly distracted. Eva knew her time had come; it was now or never. Before she could change her mind, or even think about what she was going to do, she let herself fall back against the boulder and immediately turned to her right, sliding between the granite and the tree. She was aware of Donny’s curse and the sound of the gun being fired as she stumbled to regain her footing on the other side of her hiding place. From the corner of her eye she could see a body lying on the trail and since all her attention was on Donny, she hoped the person he had shot would be incapacitated and not able to fire a shotgun at her.

Donny was fast. Before she had completely regained her balance he was standing in front of her, shaking his head and laughing. “Do you really think you can get away from God?”

Eva saw him raise his gun and her finger tightened on the trigger. She knew she was fighting for survival and no one would blame her if Donny would die. Images of her family and Sigrid flashed through her mind when she took aim. The loud crack of a shot filled the air and with a strange sense of detachment, Eva saw the surprise on Donny’s face when his shot gun landed in the snow. The blood that poured out of this world was in stark contrast with the winter camouflage outfit he was wearing; warm red in a sea of grays and whites. A splash of color in a violent winter landscape. It was such an unexpected sight, that Eva was struggling to comprehend the situation. And it took the sound of a familiar voice to pull back into reality.

“Eva, are you all right?”

Still a little dazed, Eva noticed that Sigrid had taken away Donny’s weapon, while keeping our own gun trained on him. He was leaning against the boulder, his right arm supporting his injured one. His eyes were closed and it was clear he was in a lot of pain.

“Eva!” Sigrid’s voice sounded more urgent now. Without taking her eyes off Donny, she made her way to Eva. “Honey, talk to me. Are you hurt?”

“I thought you said you were a lousy shot,” was the first thing Eva managed to say.

“I guess I got lucky.” Sigrid’s free hand grabbed Eva’s arm and she carefully turned her toward her. “What happened?” With gentle fingers she touched her tender skin of her cheek.

“Believe it or not, he pistol whipped me.”

“It looks painful. Why don’t you grab a handful of snow to press against it? It will help with the swelling.” Sigrid gestured toward Donny and send Eva a reassuring smile. “Let me cuff him, before he gets the insane idea to escape.”

Still a little dazed, Eva stared as Sigrid expertly slapped him a pair of cuffs on Donny. He let out a groan of pain when she pulled his hands in front of him, before she attached the metal to his wrists. “I’m sorry if this hurts you, but I know you understand I can’t risk you running away.”

“You’ll be sorry about this, bitch. God will strike you down with fire and sulfur.”

“I know it is what you believe, Donny, but my philosophy is different from yours. I don’t pretend to speak for God, but I do know that hurting people just because they’re different is wrong.” Sigrid’s response was delivered calmly and with a certain amount of friendliness, which wasn’t easy to do. Had she arrived a few seconds later, Eva could have been shot. It had very obviously been Donny’s plan. Knowing that he would not go anywhere, at least not without any help, Sigrid holstered gun and hurried back to Eva. “Let me see,” she said gently pushing aside Eva’s hand. With careful fingers she probed the area around the cut. “That’s going to be sore for a while and I’m afraid you will have a nasty bruise. The cut will need some glue, or at least some steri strips.” Sigrid grabbed Eva’s snow filled hand and gently pushed it back against her cheek. “Here, keep it cold, it will help with the swelling.”

“Thanks, Agent.” Eva smiled. “My brain is still trying to catch up with what my eyes are seeing. Mind you, I’m not complaining, but how did you get back so fast?”

“It’s a long story and I will tell you later. I just need to know one thing, did Donny do this?” Sigrid asked, gesturing to the still body on the trail.

“Unless there is a third person around here somewhere waiving around a gun,” Eva said. “I was behind the boulder when it happened, but I’m pretty sure it was Donny who fired the shot.” She looked at Sigrid was kneeling beside the body. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

“Very. He took a bullet between the eyes.” Sigrid slowly stood up and shook her head. “My guess is he was dead even before his body hit the ground.” She looked at Eva. “Do you have any idea who he is? Do you think he’s the one that shot at us?”

“Most likely. I won’t know for sure until I trace back his tracks. If they lead us back to the cabin, then it was him.” Eva grabbed a fresh hand full of snow, pressed it between two hands and held the cold patty against her cheek him. “I guess that is one of the perks of being a cop in New England , plenty of snow to keep the bruising down,” she joked. The expression on her face turned serious again when her eyes fell on Donny. “How is Chuck?”

“He took a bullet to the shoulder, it looked like a clean entry and exit wound. He’s hurting, but should be okay. He was lucky.” Sigrid walked to where Eva was standing and wrapped an arm around her waist, giving her a quick hug. Probably not a very professional thing to do in the middle of a crime scene, but she needed the physical contact. Just the idea that she could have lost Eva was extremely frightening.

Eva rested her forehead against Sigrid’s, closing her eyes for just a second. To be able to feel her so close, felt like the best medicine. “And how are you? Are you still in one piece?”

“Pretty much. I’ll probably find some cuts and bruises when I hop in the shower tonight, but nothing dramatic.” Sigrid looked up and smiled. “Not like you. Does that mean I to get fuss over you now?”

“That all depends on the kind of fuss. I’m sure I will let you change cold packs though.”

“Well, Inspector Clemente, you sure know how to promise a girl a good time.”

Eva laughed, but then immediately grimaced. “Ouch, don’t make me laugh, that hurts.”

“I’m sorry,” Sigrid said, but her eyes were twinkling. “Why don’t you keep an eye on Donny, while I check for an ID on this man?”

“Are you sure? I can do it if you’d rather.”

“No, it’s okay, as an EMT I have seen far worse than this. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. Just keep an eye on Donny. Reinforcements should be here soon.”

***

“I can’t believe this! I really can’t. Where the hell did they get all this stuff? Don’t they know that Sigrid is the victim here? I mean, they want to arrest her? Well, I’ll tell you if that’s how it is they need to arrest me as well. After all, I was in the church when the body was found.” Grace’s eyes were burning with fury when she looked at the police officer who was standing in front of her. “Tell me, young man, who put you up to this?”

“It’s an order from the capitol ma’am,” he said clearly feeling very uncomfortable.

“On what grounds?” Betty wanted to know.

“I’m not privy to that information ma’am, so I can’t answer that question. All I know is that there is an arrest warrant out for Sigrid Myers.”

“So Sigrid risks her life to rescue those poor children from the basement, she gets them to safety, would’ve been able to come with us away from some maniac waving a gun, but instead she ran back into the woods to help Inspector Clemente catch the guy who shot one of your own, Charles Benoit.” Meg threw her hands up in the air. “Tell me, where is the logic in that?”

“If this is all a misunderstanding, I’m sure it will be cleared up as soon as Ms. Myers is in our custody.”

“In your dreams, son,” Grace said. The expression on her face was one of pure determination. “I have known Pastor Myers for years and she is the kindest, most gentle person I know. She would never, ever hurt somebody willingly. And I stand by what I said before; I was in that church the day they found the body. If Sigrid is a suspect in his murder then I should be too.”

“As I should be,” Betty said.

“And I,” Meg added. “So what are you waiting for? Put us in jail.”

“Yes, by all means, throw us into the slammer,” Grace said. “Just remember, we do get to make one phone call and I can promise you it will be a good one. After all, I am way older you are and have connections you can only dream of.”

“That’s right,” Betty said. “And since there are three of us that will make three very interesting phone calls, I can’t wait. I’ve always wanted to be on ‘Good morning, America ‘.”

“And don’t forget girls, that young lady that was with Inspector Benoit is Casey Planters. She’s an investigative reporter and if anyone can get to the bottom of this, it will be her.” Grace shot the young police officer look of triumph. “She’s on our side, and I’m sure her connections are even better than ours.”

“Ladies, please, all I want right now is to take your statements. If your friend is innocent we’ll know soon enough. Remember, in this country one is innocent until proven guilty.”

“He’s not only young, but idealistic as well,” Grace said with a laugh.

“At least he’s cute,” Meg added.

Betty chuckled but when she noticed the young police officer was blushing and was getting increasingly nervous, she took pity on him. “Listen, Officer Bradford, I apologize for giving you such a hard time. We know you’re just doing your job, but it’s our friend who’s in trouble and she doesn’t deserve that. Especially not after all the things she’s been through.” She looked up to him from the hard, wooden bench they had offered her as a seat. “The last thing I want is to make your life harder. My friends and I know you have a job to do, and we appreciate that, we truly do. But I hope you understand our frustration, because from the moment we set foot into this building, we’ve been separated from those poor little children. I know they are here somewhere, and I’m happy they’re safe, but do you have any idea how scared they are? Especially those two little ones. They don’t even speak our language. But we’ve been with them since yesterday afternoon and they know us. Is it too much to ask to let us into the same room they are in? Not just for our sake, but theirs. Especially theirs.”

“Can you imagine what they have gone through, Officer Bradford? They’ve been taken from their families, shipped to a different part of the world, to be sold like slaves.” Grace said with tears in her eyes. “In their young lives they’ve already experienced so much fear and hurt, they’ll most likely carry around the scars of that for the rest of their lives.”

“If we can just sit with them, and give them a little bit of comfort, I’d be very grateful,” Meg said in a soft voice. “Please.”

Officer Bradford slowly nodded and got up from his chair. He looked across the small room to where one of his fellow officers was sitting at a desk, waiting for a phone call from Concord . A silent conversation took place and when Officer Bradford turned back, the expression on his face was a mixture of determination and resignation. “Follow me,” he said. “I’ll take you to them.”

Part 16

“Maybe you shouldn’t be here when reinforcements arrive.” Eva’s voice sounded casual, but there was a worried look on her face when she glanced up at Sigrid.

“Why not?”

“Because of the warrant,” Eva said. She stepped closer to Sigrid and lowered her voice so Donny couldn’t hear her. “You know that any police officer who runs into you will have to arrest you, right?”

Sigrid groaned in frustration. “I had temporarily forgotten about that,” she said. “What do you suggest I do?”

“Make a run for it?” Eva smiled when Sigrid chuckled at her lame attempt to be funny. “Seriously, Sigrid, you know they’ll have no choice, whether they like it or not.”

“Then why don’t you arrest me?”

“Me? I don’t want to arrest you.” Eva’s eyes had grown wider and there was a shocked expression on her face.

“But you don’t have a choice either, if you let me go you’ll be in trouble. They could even accuse you of being my accomplice. Can you imagine that? Both of us in orange jumpsuits?” Sigrid noticed how Eva tensed and with a smile she started to rub soothing circles on her back. “Relax, I was just kidding.”

“You do have a point though, especially if Chuck and I are right and somebody in our department is involved in all of this.” Eva’s eyes darkened and it was obvious she was more than a little angry. “We’ve been seen together, so everyone will assume that I know where you are. If I let you go, I’ll be accused of helping you. If I arrest you, you’ll be locked up pending the investigation, and whoever is dirty in the department, will most likely sabotage me.” Her voice was tense and she frowned. “I have a feeling this case is way bigger than we could have ever anticipated. It’s ugly and most likely will get worse.”

“And I won’t be much help in prison,” Sigrid said. She sighed and rubbed her face. Reinforcements could arrive at any time now and she wasn’t sure what to do. “Maybe, if I go through my files, I’ll find what they’re looking for. If I share that , I might be off the hook.”

“I don’t want to be a pessimist, but I’m afraid it won’t be very helpful. Whatever information you have can be used against you. They can spin it in such a way that it seems you’re involved in all of this, especially when someone in the department gains by having you as a suspect. And my worst fear is that you will not be safe in prison. When you’re locked up, there’ll be nowhere to run.”

“Now you’re scaring me.”

“I’m sorry, that’s not my intention. I just want to be honest.”

“Having used my gun while being a so-called fugitive probably won’t help my case either.” Frustrated Sigrid kicked a pile of snow, sending it flying into the trees. “I don’t want you to get into trouble just because of me, so maybe I should just stay here and see what happens. If they lock me up, I’ll just have to trust you to get me out as soon as possible.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple. I wish it was, though. Sorting out the shooting that happened right here is going to be complicated enough, especially since I don’t think Donny will be cooperating much. He shot the unknown guy, you shot him so there’ll be a lot of paperwork. Ballistics will have to confirm which bullet came out of which gun. You and I know what happened because I was right here, but because there is an arrest warrant out for you, they might not just take my word for it.”

“I can tell by the look on your face you have a plan. What are you suggesting?”

“Follow Donny’s tracks back up to the road, but stay out of sight. Stay there until I pick you up, or have someone pick you up, someone I trust. I wish you could wait for me at your parents’ cabin, but I’m pretty sure that those two guys are still there, the one we knocked off his snowmobile and the one who drove into a tree. They’ll need some help as well, so I will send a crew that way.” Eva lowered the hand that was pressing snow against her cheek, and dropped the pink tinged melting substance on the ground. “We’ll go off the grid until we have this whole mess cleared up. The only person officially involved in this investigation I trust beside you, is Chuck.”

“This disappearing act sounds insane, but somehow very appealing. I must admit spending time in jail is not something I’m looking forward to. So if I can avoid that particular experience, I will.” Sigrid send Eva a small smile. “I have some good friends within the FBI, I’m pretty sure they’ll help.”

“Good, we’re going to need all the help we can get. I might have to call in a few favors as well. But first things first.” Eva looked at Donny who was still sitting in the same spot, with his back against the cold granite, supporting his injured arm. His eyes were closed and it was easy to believe he wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings, but that would be a dangerous assumption to make. “Do you think he’ll be okay?”

“He should be,” Sigrid said. “The wound’s a through and through, like the one he gave Chuck. He’s hurting, but the cold is slowing the bleeding, which is a good thing.”

“I’ll keep an eye on them. Help should be here any moment, so you better get going.”

“Take care of yourself, Eva. Stay safe.”

“And you do to same.” After a glance at Donny, Eva leaned in closer to Sigrid and gave her a quick kiss. “There’ll be more of this later,” she said with a smile.

“I’m counting on that, Inspector.” Sigrid’s voice was soft. “I really like those.”

“I’m happy to hear that, because I have an unending supply.”

“I’ll see you soon.” Sigrid turned around and followed Eva’s tracks back to the boulder. She stepped around Donny, keeping a safe distance. Even though he was injured she knew he was also desperate and she didn’t want to run the risk of him trying to grab her. Behind the granite boulder it was easy to pick up Donny’s tracks and Sigrid focused on where to put her feet, all the while trying to push down a surge of worry and fear.

***

Eva didn’t have to wait long, only fifteen minutes after Sigrid had left , she could hear voices calling out her name. To her immense relief, help came from the opposite direction Sigrid had taken. Unless there was a second group coming from the other side, Sigrid should remain hidden.

“Down here,” she called out, her eyes never leaving Donny. He too had heard the voices and started to fidget. Eva would not put it past him to try and escape. “Don’t even think about it, Donny,” she said when he looked at her.

“I don’t want to be locked up.” The calm expression had left his face and he looked haggard, almost feverishly.

“You should’ve thought about that sooner,” Eva said. She pointed at the still form sprawled across the path. “You killed him, just like that. You didn’t even know him, Donny. That is cold blooded murder and something you are accountable for. So you will certainly go to jail, but maybe, if you cooperate and help us with this investigation, the prosecution might be willing to cut you a deal.”

“I had to do God’s will. Uncle Jeremy understands, he knows what I’m talking about.” Donny rested his head against his granite backrest and closed his eyes. It was clear the conversation with Eva was over.

“Hello! Inspector Clemente, are you there? Hello?” The voices sounded very near and Eva felt a sense of relief. She was cold, in spite of her winter gear, she was tired, worried about Sigrid and Chuck, and apprehensive about the role her Captain played in the entire investigation. She wanted to be in a warm quiet room, with Sigrid at her side and a computer at her disposal. She needed time and space to figure things out, before it all became even more complicated. But first of all , she had to get Donny to a hospital, get help to the crashed snowmobilers, and get the man Donny shot to the coroner’s office, so the medical examiner could have a look at him.

“I’m down here,” she answered the anonymous voice, seeing the outline of people through the trees.

***

As soon as Eva stepped foot inside the small police station, she was surrounded by three enthusiastic elderly ladies. The amount of questions that were fired at her simultaneously was disorienting and Eva laughed and pressed her hands against her ears. “Give me a moment, please,” she said not unfriendly. “I just want to peel off a few layers of clothes, before I melt in here.” She unzipped her jacket, after which three pairs of hands started tugging on her sleeves.

“Where’s Sigrid?” There was a look of worry when Betty glanced up at her.

“I’ll tell you as soon as I can.” Eva lowered her voice, aware of the other police officers in a room. “She’s fine, that’s all I can tell you right now.”

Betty nodded in understanding and cast a look at Meg and Twitch. Eva could clearly see the warning in her eyes.

“I heard they send a snowplow to clear the road we were stranded on,” Betty continued. “Officer Bradford told me they will also pull our car out of the ditch and tow it back here, if they can.” She cast a look over her shoulder. “As a matter of fact, they should be here any moment. The insurance company is sending a rental car, so we can go home.”

“That’s great,” Twitch said. “I can’t wait to go home and have a hot shower, or even soak in the bathtub. Of course, I might never be able to get out of that thing again, but it still sounds good.”

“I assume all three of you gave your statements already?” Eva smiled when all three women nodded vigorously. “So you’re ready to go home?”

“Absolutely,” Betty said. “Is there anything we can do for you, dear? I know you must be tired. Get you something to eat? Something to drink? Maybe some dry clothes?” She glanced at the group of police officers who were all clustered in one corner. Betty lowered her voice. “Pickup Sigrid, maybe?”

“She’s waiting near the road where you got stranded. I told her I’ll pick her up myself, or send somebody I trust. I trust you. So, please, would you?”

“That’s a no-brainer,” Twitch said. “Sigrid’s our friend and we love her like a daughter. Don’t worry, she’ll be in good hands.”

“I know,” Eva said. “Thank you. I don’t know how long I’ll be, a lot of things happened on the trail and I’m pretty sure they won’t let me go until I have answered all their questions.”

“We’ll pick up your girl and take her to Betty’s place,” Meg said. “We’ll make sure she’s safe, warm and well fed.”

“I can’t thank you enough.” Eva smiled and enveloped all three women in one hug. “How are the children?”

“We stayed with them until some social workers picked them up. They’ve taken them to the hospital, so we’ll visit them later on today. Those poor kids, they’re so scared.” There were tears in Meg’s eyes. “When we arrived here, we had to fight for them to let us see them. We had to argue like a politician, but they finally let us stay with them.”

“It was that or end up in jail,” Twitch said and there was a twinkle in her eyes.

Eva smiled. “I’m afraid to ask.”

“Don’t worry, dear. We’ll tell you the story later,” Betty promised.

The door behind them opened and a young man, dressed in a warm winter coat stepped inside. As soon as his eyes took in the small group of women, he stepped closer. “Elizabeth Avery?” he asked with a pleasant smile.

Betty took a step forward. “That’s me. Are you our rescuer from the rental company?”

“That would be me, ma’am. I have your car waiting outside, warmed up and ready to go.”

Betty turned to Eva and gave her a quick hug. “Any messages for Sigrid?” Her voice was soft, only audible to Eva.

“Tell her to get some rest and stay out of sight until I pick her up. And when you get your stuff out of my car, grab that Navy brief case, it has her laptop in it. I’m sure she’ll find good use for it.”

“I’ll do that. Just hurry up here and join us soon.” Betty patted Eva’s shoulder, before turning around and following the young man from the rental company out of the door.

Eva took a deep breath and let it out slowly, willing her body and mind to relax. She knew the next few hours would be torturous. She’d rather be doing her own research, then answering questions. But she had to be patient, play the game because she knew her every move was being watched.

***

The brand-new Toyota 4Runner had no issues moving along the freshly plowed roads. It was solid and steady.

“We should have had this ride yesterday,” Twitch said. “We might not have ended up in the ditch.”

“And almost crushed by a tree,” Meg added.

“I thought you said it was a branch, not a tree.” Twitch chuckled and cast a look over her shoulder. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you’re trying to add some drama here, my friend.”

“Branch or tree,” Betty said. “It really doesn’t matter, because the car is crushed, and Meg was almost too.”

“If our children hear about our adventure, they would want to lock us up in a nursing home.” Twitch shuddered. “Personally, I’d rather go to jail.”

“Come on, Twitch, it’s not that bad. Nursing homes are great for those who cannot take care of themselves anymore.” Meg said.

“I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” Twitch said. “However, my children might disagree.”

“We’ll just not tell them,” Betty said.

“That’s right. And when our photos and names are all over the news because we have assisted in bringing down this child trafficking ring, there’s no way any of our children can say we’re not capable.” The tone of Twitch’s voice was so smug, Betty and Meg started laughing.

“Okay girls, Sigrid should be around here somewhere. Keep your eyes open.”

“We will, but she doesn’t know this car, so she’ll probably stay out of sight. I know I would,” Meg said.

“Good point. Let’s roll down the windows and stop every few yards or so.” Betty suggested. “We’ll call out to her; she will recognize our voices, I’m sure.” Betty pressed one of the buttons within reach and immediately all the windows rolled down. They were hit by a blast of cold air and shivered.

“Let’s hope this doesn’t take long,” Twitch said. “The last thing I want is to become an icicle.”

Meg snorted. “I’m sure you’ll look great encased in ice. Besides, I’ve heard cold is good for one’s skin tone.”

“We’ll see if it works,” Twitch said with a laugh. “If they card me next time I buy a bottle of sherry, I will let you know.”

“Sigrid,” Betty called loud, not too loud. “It’s us, we’re here to pick you up.”

“That’s great, because I’m freezing.”

Betty almost yelled at the unexpected voice outside her window, but she quickly regained her composure. “Hop in, sweetie,” she said unlocking the door.

Sigrid slid in the back of the car next to Meg and moaned softly. “It’s nice and warm in here, no matter what you say , Twitch, cause I’ve heard that.” She grinned. “Try to stay warm spending hours hiding around here, waiting for a ride.” With a shiver , she grabbed the seat belt and buckled up.”Where’d you get the car, Betty?”

“The insurance company sent me a rental.”

“They heard what happened with the other car, and decided to give her something that will not get lost in the snow,” Twitch joked.

Sigrid leaned back in the comfortable seat and closed her eyes, feeling relaxed for first time in hours. Even though she had been dressed in full winter gear, staying out of sight had required her to stay still, and it had not taken long for her to get cold. “Is Eva all right?” Her voice sounded tired and her eyes were still closed.

“She’s fine, honey,” Meg said giving her a friendly pat. “She’ll join us as soon as she gets the chance.”

“She asked me to tell you to get some rest and stay out of sight,” Betty said, glancing at her in the rearview mirror.

“Did she tell all of you what’s going on? With me, I mean?”

“She didn’t have to. We’ve heard plenty at the police station, even before Eva got there,” Twitch said. “Some moron has issued an arrest warrant for you. They must be out of their minds.”

Sigrid shook her head. “No, it’s worse than that, they are desperate.”

***

After having been grilled for hours, Eva felt her patience wane. She was tired, hungry and worried about Sigrid. She did understand why she was treated with skepticism; after all, Sigrid, who had been in her company for days, had suddenly gone missing after an arrest warrant was issued for her. She had told the same story over and over again and was getting tired of it. The last time she had talked to anybody had been more than fifteen minutes ago and with a quick glance at the door she pulled out her blackberry to check for messages. It was the first time since she had come back from the trail she was actually able to pull out her phone. The amount of messages waiting for her was astounding. Most of them came from Charles, but there were also quite a few from her Captain. She would read those later. Right now, the less she knew, the better it was.

Expertly, Eva scrolled down the list of contacts in her phone until she reached a particular one. After she selected it, she quickly typed in a few words, hit the send button and turned off her phone. She slid it back into her pocket, leaned against the uncomfortable backrest of the chair she was sitting in, and waited.

***

It was long past midnight when Eva finally parked her car in front of Betty’s house. All the lights were off except for the one at the entrance. Eva was grateful for that, because the last thing she needed was stumbling around in the dark. She took a few minutes to just sit in the car and look around, her senses alert. She had not been exaggerating when she had told Sigrid there were only a few people she trusted. Even though she didn’t think anybody but herself and the Three Musketeers knew where Sigrid was, she did not want to take any chances. That’s why, after she had briefly visited Chuck at the hospital, she had taken I-89 South to Concord, only to leave the interstate after about ten miles, to take the back roads going back North. She made sure nobody was following her. The idea that her Captain somehow was involved had made her instantly paranoid. With Chuck in the hospital, she had lost her trusted partner and simply knew that things would become very difficult very soon.

Eva’s hand went to her holster when she noticed the front door was slowly opening. Only when she recognized Betty, she relaxed and opened the door to get out of the car. While walking toward the house, she intently looked around and listened for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. But all was quiet.

“I’m so glad you finally made it,” Betty whispered. “It’s been a long day, please, come in.”

As soon as Eva stepped into the house, the door behind her was closed and locked. With a smile Betty turned to her and gave her a quick hug.

“Are you hungry?”

Eva managed a weak smile and shook her head. “Not really, I had something to eat in the hospital. Besides, chewing is a little painful right now.” She touched her swollen cheek that showed some impressive bruising. The cut had been cleaned up and bandaged, but the skin around it was dark purple. “Is Sigrid okay?”

Betty smiled and nodded. She took Eva by the armed and guided her toward the hallway. “She’s finally asleep, the poor child,” Betty whispered. “She was exhausted and very worried about you. But after she had a nice hot shower, something to eat and a drink I slipped her, she finally settled down.” Betty stopped in front of the door and opened it without making a noise. “This is my guest room and you’ll find anything you need. The bathroom is stocked with plenty of toiletries, there are clean towels and I found you a pair of sweats and T-shirts that should fit you. They belong to my grandson and he is about as tall as you are.” Betty cast a look at the queen sized bed and smiled. “She’s fast asleep, so get in there, get comfortable and snuggle up with her. I want the two of you to get some rest, so don’t feel you have to get up early. Get up when you’re ready.”

“I don’t know how to thank you, Betty.”

“You don’t have to,” Betty said. “Sigrid is my friend, and you are now , too. Besides, this is all an adventure and I have a feeling it’s not over yet. Good night, Eva.” She gave Eva’s arm a friendly squeeze, before leaving.

Eva stepped into the room and quietly closed the door behind her. The sight of Sigrid asleep in the bed was the most beautiful thing she had seen all day and her body craved to lie down next to her, snuggle up and sleep. But the day had been long and she felt grimy, so she decided to take a quick shower first. She tiptoed to the adjoining bathroom, grateful that Betty had left on the little night light. Eva shed her clothes and hopped into the shower. The warm water felt divine and she could already feel her body relax. Even though it was tempting, she didn’t linger. All she really wanted was to sleep. While she was drying herself with a large soft towel her ears picked up a noise coming from the bedroom.

“Eva? Is that you?” Sigrid sounded very drowsy and Eva smiled.

“Yes, it’s me. I’ll be right out.”

Apparently Sigrid had a different idea, because when Eva had barely finished toweling dry her legs, she appeared in front of her. Startled, she almost dropped the towel. “Hi,” she said, smiling at the effort it took Sigrid to keep her eyes open.

“Hi,” Sigrid said, while stepping closer and wrapping her arms around Eva.

Eva returned the hug and buried her face in Sigrid’s hair. She breathed in the scent of the shampoo she just used herself. It smelled of flowers and reminded Eva of the summer. She tightened her grip on the woman in her arms and let out a sigh of contentment. It felt so good, but she knew it would even be better lying down. “Why don’t you crawl back into bed? I’ll join you in a minute.”

Sigrid stirred and pressed a kiss against the skin just above Eva’s breast. “You’re naked,” she said raising her head and looking up. “Totally naked and absolutely gorgeous and I am too tired to do something about it.”

Eva smiled, pulled Sigrid closer and dropped a kiss on top of her head. “You’ll get your chance, don’t worry. Now, go back to bed, I want to snuggle and sleep.”

“Snuggle and sleep,” Sigrid repeated. “Right now that sounds heavenly.”

“You should know,” Eva said with a smile while pulling a T-shirt over her head.

“I heard that,” Sigrid, who was on the way back to the bed, said. She crawled back under the covers, regarding Eva with sleepy eyes. “I think Betty drugged me,” she said slurring her words.

Eva slid in the bed beside her and gathered her in her arms, pulling her close. “She told me she slipped you a drink.”

“I figured something was up when I told her the hot chocolate tasted very sweet. I wonder what she put in it,” Sigrid mumbled.

“We’ll ask her in the morning.” Eva took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Her body immediately relaxed into Sigrid’s embrace. A hand cautiously touched her cheek, stroking the skin with light fingertips.

“How sore is it?”

“Not too bad. Just laying down in a warm bed, with you, makes everything so much better. These past two days have worn me out.”

“Where are the children? Are they okay?”

“They’re in the hospital and are well taken care of. They are safe.”

“Good.” Sigrid raised her head and softly kissed Eva’s lips. “I managed to track down Morgan’s sister. She’ll be on her way here first thing in the morning.”

Eva smiled. “That’s great news. You sure move fast, Agent.”

Sigrid wiggled and pressed herself a little closer. “Not really. If I was a fast mover, I would’ve had my way with you while you were naked in the bathroom.”

“You’re way too tired for that,” Eva said with a chuckle. “And I have to admit I am too.”

“Bummer.” Sigrid’s voice was barely audible and Eva smiled knowing that she’d be asleep in a few seconds. She was right; Sigrid’s breathing evened out and became deeper.

The weight of Sigrid’s body against her own made Eva feel even more relaxed; like she was boneless. Enjoying the feel she let herself drift off and was asleep in minutes.

Part 17

Casey Planters raked her fingers through her hair in frustration, not aware it caused her it to stick up at odd angles. Right now there were only a few things she really cared about; her integrity as a reporter and the reliability of the story she was going to tell were the most important ones. She glanced at the door of the room where Charles Benoit was currently talking to his doctor. His wife was at his side, ready to take him home. Ever since he had arrived at the hospital, she hadn’t had the chance to talk to him. She had so many questions, and the most important one was if he knew about Eva Clemente and Sigrid Myers’ whereabouts. It would be very helpful if she could talk to the Inspector, but Eva was nowhere to be found and had not answered her phone.

The door of Charles’room opened and the doctor stepped out, followed by a nurse. They were both smiling which Casey found reassuring. For a brief period of time, just after Charles was shot, she had been afraid for his life. Sigrid’s unexpected appearance and her assessment of the situation had somewhat reassured her. But Casey was a reporter without any medical training and the sight of the copious amount of blood on Charles’ jacket, had made her queasy.

“Come in, Casey,” Charles’ voice rang out from behind the door.

She quickly stepped inside and smiled when she saw him sitting on the edge of the bed, fully dressed and ready to put his shoes on.

“Are they letting you go?”

“Thank goodness, they are. I need to take it easy for a while, but according to the Doctor I’ll be as good as new by the time fishing season comes around.”

“I’m happy to hear that, I was worried about you.” Casey turned to Charles’s wife and extended her hand. “Hi, I’m Casey Planters and I’m writing an article on the case your husband has been working on.”

“Which apparently is one of his most intense ones.” Casey’s hand disappeared in a firm grip. “I am Diane, Charles’ wife. It’s nice to meet you, Casey. Even though this case could have caused Chuck here not to make it until his retirement.”

“I realize that,” Casey said. “It’s very frightening, but hopefully this will all be behind us soon.” She turned to Charles and sent him a questioning look. He nodded and turned his attention to his wife.

“Honey, if you get the car, I’ll ask one of the nurses to wheel me out of this place. I can’t wait to have some decent food.”

Diane Benoit stood from her chair and walked to the door, where she turned around and winked. “I know the two of you want to discuss this case, so I’ll get the car and make sure to walk very slowly.”

Casey smiled. “Thank you.”As soon as the door closed, she turned to Chuck, who immediately held up one hand in order to stop her from asking any questions.

“I don’t know, I honestly don’t.”

Casey leaned against the windowsill and slowly shook her head. “You don’t even know what I was about to ask.”

“I bet you want to know where Eva is.”

“And Sigrid.”

“I don’t know. I really don’t, Casey. I saw Eva last night when she snuck in here after she was done at the Podunk police station. She didn’t tell me where she was going and I didn’t ask.”

“I thought this was your case as well.” Casey did not sound very pleased.

“It was, until I got shot. There’s no way I can help her now, not since they put me on medical leave. Besides, you know as well as I do since there’s a leak in the department, she will not contact me.”

Casey frowned. “Why not? You are her partner, or doesn’t she trust you anymore?”

Charles shook his head. “No, that’s not it. I know she trusts me, hell, I think I’m probably the only one she trusts in the department right now. Eva knows I can’t help her right now, she’s on her own. Even contacting each other on the phone will be too risky, because we don’t know if we are being watched.”

“Jesus, Chuck, this case is getting more complicated by the minute.”

“At least it proves that you’re right, someone in DC is involved in this and has someone in my department in his pocket and I think we both know who that is. That’s why I don’t want Eva to contact me. When she left here last night she was still in one piece, and I’d like to keep it that way. She’s not just my partner; she’s a good friend as well.”

“What about Sigrid Myers?”

“What about her?”

Casey sighed and again raked her fingers through her hair. “Come on, Chuck, you know what I mean. Don’t make this any harder for me than it already is.” She cast a look at the door and lowered her voice. “Is she with Eva?”

“I can only tell you my theory, Casey, because I honestly don’t know for sure. Again, Eva did not tell me and I didn’t ask. The less I know, the better it is.”

“But there’s an arrest warrant out for Sigrid. If Eva gets caught in her presence, she’ll be in trouble.”

“She already is in trouble,” Charles mumbled. “And I’m not sure if she is with Sigrid; I would assume she is, but like I said I’m not sure. And I don’t want to know.”

“The kid, the one who was arrested yesterday, the one who shot you, where does he tie in?”

“I do have a theory about that also,” Chuck said, grinning when he saw Casey roll her eyes. “Seriously, it seems like all of this is connected, Casey. But I think if anyone can make sense out of this, it’s you. That’s what you do, right, investigative reporting? The files you showed me I shared with Eva, so she has them. And knowing her, she’ll get to the bottom of it.”

“And that is exactly why I want to talk to her,” Casey said in a hushed whisper. “We can help each other.”

“I know and I appreciate that, but she needs to stay out of sight. She’ll contact you when the time is right. Trust me. In the meantime, keep digging, you’re onto something big, but whatever you do, be careful.” Charles’ face had lost any trace of humor. “Whoever is behind all of this is willing to kill for it.”

***

Sigrid was in that wonderful place between sleeping and waking; she was vaguely aware of her surroundings, but still too sleepy to interact with it. She was warm and comfortable and was lying on her side, with her cheek resting on something soft. The surface slightly moved and Sigrid opened her eyes. Immediately, a smile tugged on the corner of her mouth; she was draped across Eva, using her as a body pillow. Sigrid let out a happy sigh and closed her eyes, slowly taking inventory of her body. Her right arm was hugging Eva around the waist, while her right leg was tangled with Eva’s. Her cheek rested on a very soft breast and she could feel Eva’s arms snugly wrapped around her. It was a great way to wake up and Sigrid hoped Eva would stay asleep for a few more hours, so she could enjoy their closeness. It felt so right to wake up like this. It was like they had been sleeping like this for a long time already, attuned to each other even in sleep.

“Whatever you do, don’t move,” Eva’s voice whispered in her ear.

“I had no intention of doing that,” Sigrid said. She gave Eva’s waist a gentle squeeze and snuggled closer. “By the way, I thought you were still asleep.”

“Nope, just really enjoying this moment,” Eva smiled.

“Good. Is there any chance of you going back to sleep?”

“Maybe, although I wouldn’t be able to enjoy this so much if I’m asleep.”

“True.” Sigrid moved just an inch so she could press a kiss against a conveniently close shoulder. “Can we stay like this and hold on to this moment for a while longer?”

“I wish we could, I really do, but we need to disappear before anyone finds us here.”

Sigrid pushed herself up a little. “I was afraid you’re going to say that, but you’re right, we have some puzzles to solve.” She was about to roll away from Eva’s warm body when the arms around her tightened.

“I know I said we need to disappear, but I didn’t mean right now.” Eva chuckled when Sigrid let out a soft groan and buried herself in her embrace.

For a brief moment they were quiet, just enjoying each other’s presence. But then Sigrid’s head shot up and she looked at Eva with a startled expression on her face. “Did I really see you naked last night, or was I dreaming? If it was a dream, it was a really good one.”

“If you can’t remember, I mustn’t have made much of an impression.” Eva laughed softly and playfully tugged on a strand of blond hair.

“Didn’t I just say that if it was a dream, it was a really good one?” Sigrid rolled over until she was lying on top of Eva. She kissed the tip of her nose and smiled. “So you were naked.”

“It’s hard to shower with clothes on,” Eva said. “So yes, I was naked.”

“I’m glad it wasn’t a dream, because now I can file it away among my memories; my favorite ones.”

“You are such a flatterer.” Eva laughed. She moved her hand to the back of Sigrid’s head and gently pulled her closer. “How about a kiss?” she whispered.

“I thought you’d never ask,” Sigrid said before her lips met Eva’s in a kiss that began gentle and slow, but soon increased in depth and intensity. There was no fighting for dominance; just a mutual exploration of passion, attraction and affection that left both women breathless and longing for more. Somehow, Eva’s hands ended up underneath Sigrid’s T-shirt. She reveled in the feel of the soft skin and for a moment the rest of the world faded out, until the loud and annoying buzzing of her cell phone pierced through her sensual haze.

“Don’t answer that,” Sigrid breathed against Eva’s lips.

The request was tempting and at the moment there was nothing Eva wanted more. After a brief moment of hesitation though, she reached out to grab the cell phone she had put on the nightstand. “I am really, really sorry,” she said, noticing how hoarse her voice was. She gently cleared her throat. “Sigrid, you have no idea how much I want this, but this is not the time nor the place. I want to keep you safe, keep us safe, and that means we’ll have to figure out who was involved in Michael Bell’s murder and the trafficking.” She pressed her lips against Sigrid’s forehead, noticing the heat of her flushed skin. “I’m sorry.”

Sigrid lifted her head and managed a weak smile. “No, you’re right, we have a job to do.” Her fingertips gently touched Eva’s swollen cheek. “Rain check?”

Eva smiled and pulled Sigrid closer. “Absolutely, as a matter of fact, I’ll give you my entire checkbook.”

Sigrid chuckled and gently nipped at the skin underneath her lips, immediately feeling Eva jerk. “Oh, a sensitive spot, I’ll need to remember that.” She slowly pulled away and rolled off Eva, giving her the chance to check her messages. “Did you get any important updates?”

Eva who was looking at the small screen in her hand glanced up and nodded. “You can say that,” she said with a smile. “Yesterday, I reached out to one of my contacts. I just received an answer.”

***

The wind was bitter cold and was cruelly cutting through layers of clothes. It came rolling down the plains like a giant, invisible finger, chilling everything it touched. There was no shelter except the large hangar that sat beside the abandoned airstrip. A small jet was slowly moving away from the hangar and stopped when it reached the airstrip. Two figures dressed in long warm coats hurried toward the small aircraft. As soon as they boarded, the door closed and the jet pointed its nose toward the North. Within a few minutes it was airborne and it did not take long for it to be completely out of sight. Inside the jet, the two figures had taken off their coats and relaxed in the comfortable chairs.

“I could get used to traveling like this,” the one closest to the window said.

The other one smiled. “Enjoy it while you can; next time it will be economy class again.” Long legs were stretched out. “But I’ve got to admit, it’s a great way to travel.Maine, here we come.”

***

Betty had insisted on sending Eva and Sigrid on their way only after they had a decent breakfast. So she had treated them to hash browns, pancakes and eggs, accompanied by freshly brewed coffee.

“I’m glad to see the two of you have good appetites,” she said while topping off Eva’s coffee.

“We didn’t get much to eat yesterday, so this is really appreciated,” Sigrid said. “Thank you so much, Betty.”

“It’s my pleasure, honey,” Betty gave Sigrid a friendly pat on the shoulder. “I only wish there was more I could do.”

Eva looked up from her plate. “Actually, there is something you can do,” she said. “If you have the chance, please visit the children today, I’m sure they are craving to see a familiar face.”

“I’m sure Morgan is going to ask where you are. What can I tell her?”

“The truth,” Sigrid said. “Tell her we’re chasing the bad guys.” She took a sip from her coffee and then made a face because it was hot. “And it would be great if you and the girls could be around when Morgan’s sister arrives.”

“We will. As a matter of fact, I spoke to the girls this morning and in a couple of hours we’ll head to the hospital. We’ll make sure Morgan and her sister will be taken good care of.” Betty paused and sank into a chair next to Eva. “I’m smart enough not to ask where you’re going, but I’d like you to let me know you’re okay every now and then. Of course, only when you’re able. I care about you, about both of you.”

Sigrid reached across the table and grabbed Betty’s hand. “I promise we will,” she said. “But don’t get too worried if you don’t hear from us for a couple of days, okay?”

Betty nodded and squeezed Sigrid’s hand. “I’ll try not to, but I can’t promise. Just keep each other safe and catch the bastards responsible for those kids’ suffering.”

“That’s the plan, Betty,” Eva reached for her phone that was buzzing again. She quickly pulled itout of her pocket and her eyes scanned the display. She looked up and sent Sigrid a smile. “It’s time to go.”

***

“I don’t have to tell you how preposterous it is that you don’t even know where she is. I thought you had a tail on her.”

“I did, the idiot lost her. Of course, Eva Clemente is not stupid; she must have known she was being followed.”

“If she was aware of that, she’s also aware of you. And it’s only a matter of time before she figures out my involvement. So, hot shot, what are you going to do about that?”

“I’m working on it. My guess is she’s going into hiding and she’s taking the pastor with her.”

“Do you think they are together?”

“I’m certain. Clemente is extremely conscientious and would never abandon her charge.”

“For God’s sake then, cast out a net and put an ABP out for both of them. We can’t have her jeopardize this organization. Are you aware of what’s in the balance? Both our futures depend on this, unless you’d like to spend the rest of yours behind bars.”

“What if the Feds get wind of this?”

“As far as I know, they don’t have a clue. And I would like to keep it that way, so get to work and find that bitch.”

“What about the kids?”

“They are lost to us. And yes, that’s coming out of your paycheck.”

***

“Where are we going?” Sigrid glanced at Eva who was steering the car through the back streets of the small town. “I know you have a plan and it would be nice if you could share it with me.”

“Remember that message I received this morning, early this morning?”

“How could I forget? It ruined a perfectly good moment.” Sigrid smiled when Eva chuckled.

“That it did,” Eva said. “It came from my brother, Felix. He is expecting us and will make sure no one, not even the rest of my family, will know where we are.”

Sigrid glanced aside with a frown and shot Eva a quizzical look. “I’m a little puzzled. If I was the one chasing you, the first place I’d look would be with your family. And I know you probably have a perfectly good reason for this, but I don’t understand.”

“I have good reason to believe my Captain is involved in all of this. I’ve worked with him for years and he knows me. He also knows about my family, so yes, logically the first place to look for me is with my family, but that is so obvious he’ll think I won’t be doing that. Still, he can’t afford to take the chance that he’s wrong and he’ll have someone keep an eye on my family, just in case I show up.” Eva paused and shot Sigrid a look. “Does that make sense?”

“In a strange way, yes. It also sounds like you’re playing chess; preparing for and reacting to anticipated moves. Why Felix, though? Granted, I’ve only briefly met your family but it didn’t seem to me like you and Felix were particularly close. Is it because he is a police officer, also?”

“Yes and no. As a police officer, he will have no choice but to arrest you when he sees you. And I’m not givingmyself any illusions; I’m pretty sure my name will be right up next to yours by now.”

“So, Bobby Fischer, where’s the logic in this?”

“I have a big family with lots of places to hide. Sometimes the best place to hide isin plain sight. Besides, there is truth in your observations; Felix and I have a strained relationship, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about each other. He’s my brother and I’d do anything for him. He feels the same way about me, which is exactly why he’s putting his career on the line and helping us.”

Sigrid reached out and put a hand on Eva’s knee, somehow needing the physical contact. The gesture was also meant as an encouragement for Eva, because by the way she was clenching the steering wheel, Sigrid could tell she was struggling with some unpleasant thoughts. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“That would only be fair. We almost talked about it before, remember the day we left my family?” From the corner of her eye, Eva saw Sigrid nod. “You were asking about Iris and me.”

“I remember that,” Sigrid said, using her fingertips to rub soothing circles on Eva’s knee. “If it’s too hard to talk about right now, we could talk later.”

Eva shook her head. “No, I want you to know before we get there.” She took a deep breath, grateful they were driving on a very quiet road. “I told you Felix’s wife was killed in a car accident. She was hit by a drunk driver.”

“Yes, I remember. Your niece was seriously injured,” Sigrid said in a soft voice.

“The drunk driver was my ex.” Eva swallowed hard. “I had broken up with her a few months before.She had a drinking problem she refused to address. The day of the accident I had stopped by her place to pick up some of my things. She tried to convince me to come back, said she had changed, but I could smell the alcohol on her breath and it was only early morning. After I left, she continued to drink heavily and when she ran out of liquor she decided to drive to the store. It was early evening then and Lisaand the kids were just returning from visiting her parents. My ex was speeding, lost control of the vehicle and plowed into my sister-in-law.” There was a brief silence. “Both Lisa and Kate, my ex, died instantly and Maura was critically injured. It was a miracle that Felix Junior didn’t have a scratch.”

Sigrid’s heart went out to Eva when she heard the pain in her voice. She could only imagine what the Clemente family had gone through that day and ever since. It was hard to find words that would convey how Eva’s story had touched her, so she didn’t try. She left her hand on Eva’s thigh, feeling the taut muscles underneath her palm. “Did you blame yourself?” Sigrid asked in a soft voice, already knowing what the answer would be.

“Wouldn’t you?”

“I’m not sure. Even though it’s illogical, it does seem like an understandable first reaction. You must realize now though that it had nothing to do with you. She already had a drinking problem when you left her, so it’s not like you were the cause of it.” Eva remained silent and Sigrid slowly nodded. “You still blame yourself, don’t you?”

“I know it doesn’t make any sense, because it’s like you said, I didn’t cause her drinking problem, but still, I can’t help wondering if things would’ve been different had I not stopped by that day to pick up my things.”

“Does Felix feel the same?”

“He had to be angry at someone and I know he was angry with me, even though he never really said that out loud.” Eva sighed. “He probably doesn’t feel that anymore, but it strained our relationship.”

“Did the two of you ever talk about it?”

Eva shook her head. “No, we haven’t. I tried to be there for him after the accident, but I was so numb with grief and guilt I probably wasn’t much of a help. I threw myself into my job and avoided going home. The only time they saw me was during holidays.”

“That must have been difficult for you.”

“Not just for me, for everybody. And then sometime last year, Iris all of a sudden stood on my doorstep and she read me the riot act.” There was a small smile on Eva’s face. “If you think you’ve seen everything, you haven’t seen a fuming Iris Clemente.”

“That bad, huh?” Sigrid thought back at the evening she spent with Eva’s family and tried to picture any of them being furious. “I admit it’s hard to imagine.”

“Iris and I have always been very close, maybe because we’re close in age or just because we’re so much alike. She was brutally honest with me and I think that was exactly what I needed. Ever since, I’ve tried to accept the fact that the accident was not my fault. Still, every time I see Felix or Maura there still is this nagging guilt in the back of my head.”

“Eventually, that too will disappear,” Sigrid said.

“I hope so, I really do.” Eva glanced aside. “I guess every now and then I need somebody to remind me to let that guilt go.”

“I’ll remind you as often as needed,” Sigrid promised. There was a brief silence and then she chuckled. “I just realized that sounds really presumptuous.”

Eva released her right hand from the steering wheel and covered Sigrid’s that was still resting on her thigh. “Actually, it doesn’t.” She squeezed Sigrid’s fingers. “Just let me know if I am moving too fast, but I really like the sound of you being around often.”

“You are moving fast, but so am I. Somehow it all feels right, though, so I’m not worried about it.” Sigrid lifted Eva’s hand, bringing it to her lips and pressing a soft kiss against the warm skin. “You make me feel things I haven’t felt in a very long time and I like that, so please don’t apply any brakes.”

A few hours later, they had approached the Rockland area without any problems. It didn’t seem like anybody was following them and traffic had been light, so they had been able to make good time. The few times Sigrid had offered to drive, but Eva had politely refused saying that she really knew the area well and if needed she’d be able to take the back roads.

“Shouldn’t we have taken that exit?” Sigrid pointed to the junction they just passed.

“We’re going a little more north. Felix owns a property near Lincolnville. It’s not rented out at this moment, so we’re able to use it. It’s a nice place with a great view of the Penobscot Bay.” Eva smiled.” I’m pretty sure you’ll like it.”

“Any view over any water I like,” Sigrid laughed. “You might have to remind me we’re not on vacation.”

“Don’t worry, I will.”

“Have you talked to your mother lately?”

The question was fairly unexpected and Eva raised her brows in surprise. “Not since we left. Why?”

“I know it’s silly, I was just wondering how Minnie is doing,” Sigrid said in a slightly shy voice.

“That’s not silly at all. You’re talking to the daughter of a veterinarian, remember? When I went to college I kept pestering my parents for updates on my dog,” Eva said. “I never knew I could miss that mutt so much.”

“It’s just that Minnie has been with me for years and it’s weird not to have her around. One of my favorite things to do at the end of the day is to curl up on the couch with a book, a cup of tea and a purring cat. To me, that’s somehow very therapeutic.”

“It sounds relaxing.” Eva smiled. “Maybe this evening you can curl up with a book, a cup of tea and me. I can’t promise I’d purr, though.”

Sigrid laughed and playfully swatted Eva across the stomach. “I’d hope not, although it would be interesting to hear you purr.” She took a breath and slowly shook her head. “That thought just brought on a lot of interesting images,” she confessed, making Eva laugh out loud. “But I think right now it’s best justto ignore them. So, Inspector, do you like fishing?”

To be continued in part 18

Feedback is welcome at lois@hotmail.com

Bless you

Part 17

by

Lois Kay

Casey Planters raked her fingers through her hair in frustration, not aware it caused her it to stick up at odd angles. Right now there were only a few things she really cared about; her integrity as a reporter and the reliability of the story she was going to tell were the most important ones. She glanced at the door of the room where Charles Benoit was currently talking to his doctor. His wife was at his side, ready to take him home. Ever since he had arrived at the hospital, she hadn’t had the chance to talk to him. She had so many questions, and the most important one was if he knew about Eva Clemente and Sigrid Myers’ whereabouts. It would be very helpful if she could talk to the Inspector, but Eva was nowhere to be found and had not answered her phone.

The door of Charles’room opened and the doctor stepped out, followed by a nurse. They were both smiling which Casey found reassuring. For a brief period of time, just after Charles was shot, she had been afraid for his life. Sigrid’s unexpected appearance and her assessment of the situation had somewhat reassured her. But Casey was a reporter without any medical training and the sight of the copious amount of blood on Charles’ jacket, had made her queasy.

“Come in, Casey,” Charles’ voice rang out from behind the door.

She quickly stepped inside and smiled when she saw him sitting on the edge of the bed, fully dressed and ready to put his shoes on.

“Are they letting you go?”

“Thank goodness, they are. I need to take it easy for a while, but according to the Doctor I’ll be as good as new by the time fishing season comes around.”

“I’m happy to hear that, I was worried about you.” Casey turned to Charles’s wife and extended her hand. “Hi, I’m Casey Planters and I’m writing an article on the case your husband has been working on.”

“Which apparently is one of his most intense ones.” Casey’s hand disappeared in a firm grip. “I am Diane, Charles’ wife. It’s nice to meet you, Casey. Even though this case could have caused Chuck here not to make it until his retirement.”

“I realize that,” Casey said. “It’s very frightening, but hopefully this will all be behind us soon.” She turned to Charles and sent him a questioning look. He nodded and turned his attention to his wife.

“Honey, if you get the car, I’ll ask one of the nurses to wheel me out of this place. I can’t wait to have some decent food.”

Diane Benoit stood from her chair and walked to the door, where she turned around and winked. “I know the two of you want to discuss this case, so I’ll get the car and make sure to walk very slowly.”

Casey smiled. “Thank you.”As soon as the door closed, she turned to Chuck, who immediately held up one hand in order to stop her from asking any questions.

“I don’t know, I honestly don’t.”

Casey leaned against the windowsill and slowly shook her head. “You don’t even know what I was about to ask.”

“I bet you want to know where Eva is.”

“And Sigrid.”

“I don’t know. I really don’t, Casey. I saw Eva last night when she snuck in here after she was done at the Podunk police station. She didn’t tell me where she was going and I didn’t ask.”

“I thought this was your case as well.” Casey did not sound very pleased.

“It was, until I got shot. There’s no way I can help her now, not since they put me on medical leave. Besides, you know as well as I do since there’s a leak in the department, she will not contact me.”

Casey frowned. “Why not? You are her partner, or doesn’t she trust you anymore?”

Charles shook his head. “No, that’s not it. I know she trusts me, hell, I think I’m probably the only one she trusts in the department right now. Eva knows I can’t help her right now, she’s on her own. Even contacting each other on the phone will be too risky, because we don’t know if we are being watched.”

“Jesus, Chuck, this case is getting more complicated by the minute.”

“At least it proves that you’re right, someone in DC is involved in this and has someone in my department in his pocket and I think we both know who that is. That’s why I don’t want Eva to contact me. When she left here last night she was still in one piece, and I’d like to keep it that way. She’s not just my partner; she’s a good friend as well.”

“What about Sigrid Myers?”

“What about her?”

Casey sighed and again raked her fingers through her hair. “Come on, Chuck, you know what I mean. Don’t make this any harder for me than it already is.” She cast a look at the door and lowered her voice. “Is she with Eva?”

“I can only tell you my theory, Casey, because I honestly don’t know for sure. Again, Eva did not tell me and I didn’t ask. The less I know, the better it is.”

“But there’s an arrest warrant out for Sigrid. If Eva gets caught in her presence, she’ll be in trouble.”

“She already is in trouble,” Charles mumbled. “And I’m not sure if she is with Sigrid; I would assume she is, but like I said I’m not sure. And I don’t want to know.”

“The kid, the one who was arrested yesterday, the one who shot you, where does he tie in?”

“I do have a theory about that also,” Chuck said, grinning when he saw Casey roll her eyes. “Seriously, it seems like all of this is connected, Casey. But I think if anyone can make sense out of this, it’s you. That’s what you do, right, investigative reporting? The files you showed me I shared with Eva, so she has them. And knowing her, she’ll get to the bottom of it.”

“And that is exactly why I want to talk to her,” Casey said in a hushed whisper. “We can help each other.”

“I know and I appreciate that, but she needs to stay out of sight. She’ll contact you when the time is right. Trust me. In the meantime, keep digging, you’re onto something big, but whatever you do, be careful.” Charles’ face had lost any trace of humor. “Whoever is behind all of this is willing to kill for it.”

***

Sigrid was in that wonderful place between sleeping and waking; she was vaguely aware of her surroundings, but still too sleepy to interact with it. She was warm and comfortable and was lying on her side, with her cheek resting on something soft. The surface slightly moved and Sigrid opened her eyes. Immediately, a smile tugged on the corner of her mouth; she was draped across Eva, using her as a body pillow. Sigrid let out a happy sigh and closed her eyes, slowly taking inventory of her body. Her right arm was hugging Eva around the waist, while her right leg was tangled with Eva’s. Her cheek rested on a very soft breast and she could feel Eva’s arms snugly wrapped around her. It was a great way to wake up and Sigrid hoped Eva would stay asleep for a few more hours, so she could enjoy their closeness. It felt so right to wake up like this. It was like they had been sleeping like this for a long time already, attuned to each other even in sleep.

“Whatever you do, don’t move,” Eva’s voice whispered in her ear.

“I had no intention of doing that,” Sigrid said. She gave Eva’s waist a gentle squeeze and snuggled closer. “By the way, I thought you were still asleep.”

“Nope, just really enjoying this moment,” Eva smiled.

“Good. Is there any chance of you going back to sleep?”

“Maybe, although I wouldn’t be able to enjoy this so much if I’m asleep.”

“True.” Sigrid moved just an inch so she could press a kiss against a conveniently close shoulder. “Can we stay like this and hold on to this moment for a while longer?”

“I wish we could, I really do, but we need to disappear before anyone finds us here.”

Sigrid pushed herself up a little. “I was afraid you’re going to say that, but you’re right, we have some puzzles to solve.” She was about to roll away from Eva’s warm body when the arms around her tightened.

“I know I said we need to disappear, but I didn’t mean right now.” Eva chuckled when Sigrid let out a soft groan and buried herself in her embrace.

For a brief moment they were quiet, just enjoying each other’s presence. But then Sigrid’s head shot up and she looked at Eva with a startled expression on her face. “Did I really see you naked last night, or was I dreaming? If it was a dream, it was a really good one.”

“If you can’t remember, I mustn’t have made much of an impression.” Eva laughed softly and playfully tugged on a strand of blond hair.

“Didn’t I just say that if it was a dream, it was a really good one?” Sigrid rolled over until she was lying on top of Eva. She kissed the tip of her nose and smiled. “So you were naked.”

“It’s hard to shower with clothes on,” Eva said. “So yes, I was naked.”

“I’m glad it wasn’t a dream, because now I can file it away among my memories; my favorite ones.”

“You are such a flatterer.” Eva laughed. She moved her hand to the back of Sigrid’s head and gently pulled her closer. “How about a kiss?” she whispered.

“I thought you’d never ask,” Sigrid said before her lips met Eva’s in a kiss that began gentle and slow, but soon increased in depth and intensity. There was no fighting for dominance; just a mutual exploration of passion, attraction and affection that left both women breathless and longing for more. Somehow, Eva’s hands ended up underneath Sigrid’s T-shirt. She reveled in the feel of the soft skin and for a moment the rest of the world faded out, until the loud and annoying buzzing of her cell phone pierced through her sensual haze.

“Don’t answer that,” Sigrid breathed against Eva’s lips.

The request was tempting and at the moment there was nothing Eva wanted more. After a brief moment of hesitation though, she reached out to grab the cell phone she had put on the nightstand. “I am really, really sorry,” she said, noticing how hoarse her voice was. She gently cleared her throat. “Sigrid, you have no idea how much I want this, but this is not the time nor the place. I want to keep you safe, keep us safe, and that means we’ll have to figure out who was involved in Michael Bell’s murder and the trafficking.” She pressed her lips against Sigrid’s forehead, noticing the heat of her flushed skin. “I’m sorry.”

Sigrid lifted her head and managed a weak smile. “No, you’re right, we have a job to do.” Her fingertips gently touched Eva’s swollen cheek. “Rain check?”

Eva smiled and pulled Sigrid closer. “Absolutely, as a matter of fact, I’ll give you my entire checkbook.”

Sigrid chuckled and gently nipped at the skin underneath her lips, immediately feeling Eva jerk. “Oh, a sensitive spot, I’ll need to remember that.” She slowly pulled away and rolled off Eva, giving her the chance to check her messages. “Did you get any important updates?”

Eva who was looking at the small screen in her hand glanced up and nodded. “You can say that,” she said with a smile. “Yesterday, I reached out to one of my contacts. I just received an answer.”

***

The wind was bitter cold and was cruelly cutting through layers of clothes. It came rolling down the plains like a giant, invisible finger, chilling everything it touched. There was no shelter except the large hangar that sat beside the abandoned airstrip. A small jet was slowly moving away from the hangar and stopped when it reached the airstrip. Two figures dressed in long warm coats hurried toward the small aircraft. As soon as they boarded, the door closed and the jet pointed its nose toward the North. Within a few minutes it was airborne and it did not take long for it to be completely out of sight. Inside the jet, the two figures had taken off their coats and relaxed in the comfortable chairs.

“I could get used to traveling like this,” the one closest to the window said.

The other one smiled. “Enjoy it while you can; next time it will be economy class again.” Long legs were stretched out. “But I’ve got to admit, it’s a great way to travel.Maine, here we come.”

***

Betty had insisted on sending Eva and Sigrid on their way only after they had a decent breakfast. So she had treated them to hash browns, pancakes and eggs, accompanied by freshly brewed coffee.

“I’m glad to see the two of you have good appetites,” she said while topping off Eva’s coffee.

“We didn’t get much to eat yesterday, so this is really appreciated,” Sigrid said. “Thank you so much, Betty.”

“It’s my pleasure, honey,” Betty gave Sigrid a friendly pat on the shoulder. “I only wish there was more I could do.”

Eva looked up from her plate. “Actually, there is something you can do,” she said. “If you have the chance, please visit the children today, I’m sure they are craving to see a familiar face.”

“I’m sure Morgan is going to ask where you are. What can I tell her?”

“The truth,” Sigrid said. “Tell her we’re chasing the bad guys.” She took a sip from her coffee and then made a face because it was hot. “And it would be great if you and the girls could be around when Morgan’s sister arrives.”

“We will. As a matter of fact, I spoke to the girls this morning and in a couple of hours we’ll head to the hospital. We’ll make sure Morgan and her sister will be taken good care of.” Betty paused and sank into a chair next to Eva. “I’m smart enough not to ask where you’re going, but I’d like you to let me know you’re okay every now and then. Of course, only when you’re able. I care about you, about both of you.”

Sigrid reached across the table and grabbed Betty’s hand. “I promise we will,” she said. “But don’t get too worried if you don’t hear from us for a couple of days, okay?”

Betty nodded and squeezed Sigrid’s hand. “I’ll try not to, but I can’t promise. Just keep each other safe and catch the bastards responsible for those kids’ suffering.”

“That’s the plan, Betty,” Eva reached for her phone that was buzzing again. She quickly pulled itout of her pocket and her eyes scanned the display. She looked up and sent Sigrid a smile. “It’s time to go.”

***

“I don’t have to tell you how preposterous it is that you don’t even know where she is. I thought you had a tail on her.”

“I did, the idiot lost her. Of course, Eva Clemente is not stupid; she must have known she was being followed.”

“If she was aware of that, she’s also aware of you. And it’s only a matter of time before she figures out my involvement. So, hot shot, what are you going to do about that?”

“I’m working on it. My guess is she’s going into hiding and she’s taking the pastor with her.”

“Do you think they are together?”

“I’m certain. Clemente is extremely conscientious and would never abandon her charge.”

“For God’s sake then, cast out a net and put an ABP out for both of them. We can’t have her jeopardize this organization. Are you aware of what’s in the balance? Both our futures depend on this, unless you’d like to spend the rest of yours behind bars.”

“What if the Feds get wind of this?”

“As far as I know, they don’t have a clue. And I would like to keep it that way, so get to work and find that bitch.”

“What about the kids?”

“They are lost to us. And yes, that’s coming out of your paycheck.”

***

“Where are we going?” Sigrid glanced at Eva who was steering the car through the back streets of the small town. “I know you have a plan and it would be nice if you could share it with me.”

“Remember that message I received this morning, early this morning?”

“How could I forget? It ruined a perfectly good moment.” Sigrid smiled when Eva chuckled.

“That it did,” Eva said. “It came from my brother, Felix. He is expecting us and will make sure no one, not even the rest of my family, will know where we are.”

Sigrid glanced aside with a frown and shot Eva a quizzical look. “I’m a little puzzled. If I was the one chasing you, the first place I’d look would be with your family. And I know you probably have a perfectly good reason for this, but I don’t understand.”

“I have good reason to believe my Captain is involved in all of this. I’ve worked with him for years and he knows me. He also knows about my family, so yes, logically the first place to look for me is with my family, but that is so obvious he’ll think I won’t be doing that. Still, he can’t afford to take the chance that he’s wrong and he’ll have someone keep an eye on my family, just in case I show up.” Eva paused and shot Sigrid a look. “Does that make sense?”

“In a strange way, yes. It also sounds like you’re playing chess; preparing for and reacting to anticipated moves. Why Felix, though? Granted, I’ve only briefly met your family but it didn’t seem to me like you and Felix were particularly close. Is it because he is a police officer, also?”

“Yes and no. As a police officer, he will have no choice but to arrest you when he sees you. And I’m not givingmyself any illusions; I’m pretty sure my name will be right up next to yours by now.”

“So, Bobby Fischer, where’s the logic in this?”

“I have a big family with lots of places to hide. Sometimes the best place to hide isin plain sight. Besides, there is truth in your observations; Felix and I have a strained relationship, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about each other. He’s my brother and I’d do anything for him. He feels the same way about me, which is exactly why he’s putting his career on the line and helping us.”

Sigrid reached out and put a hand on Eva’s knee, somehow needing the physical contact. The gesture was also meant as an encouragement for Eva, because by the way she was clenching the steering wheel, Sigrid could tell she was struggling with some unpleasant thoughts. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“That would only be fair. We almost talked about it before, remember the day we left my family?” From the corner of her eye, Eva saw Sigrid nod. “You were asking about Iris and me.”

“I remember that,” Sigrid said, using her fingertips to rub soothing circles on Eva’s knee. “If it’s too hard to talk about right now, we could talk later.”

Eva shook her head. “No, I want you to know before we get there.” She took a deep breath, grateful they were driving on a very quiet road. “I told you Felix’s wife was killed in a car accident. She was hit by a drunk driver.”

“Yes, I remember. Your niece was seriously injured,” Sigrid said in a soft voice.

“The drunk driver was my ex.” Eva swallowed hard. “I had broken up with her a few months before.She had a drinking problem she refused to address. The day of the accident I had stopped by her place to pick up some of my things. She tried to convince me to come back, said she had changed, but I could smell the alcohol on her breath and it was only early morning. After I left, she continued to drink heavily and when she ran out of liquor she decided to drive to the store. It was early evening then and Lisaand the kids were just returning from visiting her parents. My ex was speeding, lost control of the vehicle and plowed into my sister-in-law.” There was a brief silence. “Both Lisa and Kate, my ex, died instantly and Maura was critically injured. It was a miracle that Felix Junior didn’t have a scratch.”

Sigrid’s heart went out to Eva when she heard the pain in her voice. She could only imagine what the Clemente family had gone through that day and ever since. It was hard to find words that would convey how Eva’s story had touched her, so she didn’t try. She left her hand on Eva’s thigh, feeling the taut muscles underneath her palm. “Did you blame yourself?” Sigrid asked in a soft voice, already knowing what the answer would be.

“Wouldn’t you?”

“I’m not sure. Even though it’s illogical, it does seem like an understandable first reaction. You must realize now though that it had nothing to do with you. She already had a drinking problem when you left her, so it’s not like you were the cause of it.” Eva remained silent and Sigrid slowly nodded. “You still blame yourself, don’t you?”

“I know it doesn’t make any sense, because it’s like you said, I didn’t cause her drinking problem, but still, I can’t help wondering if things would’ve been different had I not stopped by that day to pick up my things.”

“Does Felix feel the same?”

“He had to be angry at someone and I know he was angry with me, even though he never really said that out loud.” Eva sighed. “He probably doesn’t feel that anymore, but it strained our relationship.”

“Did the two of you ever talk about it?”

Eva shook her head. “No, we haven’t. I tried to be there for him after the accident, but I was so numb with grief and guilt I probably wasn’t much of a help. I threw myself into my job and avoided going home. The only time they saw me was during holidays.”

“That must have been difficult for you.”

“Not just for me, for everybody. And then sometime last year, Iris all of a sudden stood on my doorstep and she read me the riot act.” There was a small smile on Eva’s face. “If you think you’ve seen everything, you haven’t seen a fuming Iris Clemente.”

“That bad, huh?” Sigrid thought back at the evening she spent with Eva’s family and tried to picture any of them being furious. “I admit it’s hard to imagine.”

“Iris and I have always been very close, maybe because we’re close in age or just because we’re so much alike. She was brutally honest with me and I think that was exactly what I needed. Ever since, I’ve tried to accept the fact that the accident was not my fault. Still, every time I see Felix or Maura there still is this nagging guilt in the back of my head.”

“Eventually, that too will disappear,” Sigrid said.

“I hope so, I really do.” Eva glanced aside. “I guess every now and then I need somebody to remind me to let that guilt go.”

“I’ll remind you as often as needed,” Sigrid promised. There was a brief silence and then she chuckled. “I just realized that sounds really presumptuous.”

Eva released her right hand from the steering wheel and covered Sigrid’s that was still resting on her thigh. “Actually, it doesn’t.” She squeezed Sigrid’s fingers. “Just let me know if I am moving too fast, but I really like the sound of you being around often.”

“You are moving fast, but so am I. Somehow it all feels right, though, so I’m not worried about it.” Sigrid lifted Eva’s hand, bringing it to her lips and pressing a soft kiss against the warm skin. “You make me feel things I haven’t felt in a very long time and I like that, so please don’t apply any brakes.”

A few hours later, they had approached the Rockland area without any problems. It didn’t seem like anybody was following them and traffic had been light, so they had been able to make good time. The few times Sigrid had offered to drive, but Eva had politely refused saying that she really knew the area well and if needed she’d be able to take the back roads.

“Shouldn’t we have taken that exit?” Sigrid pointed to the junction they just passed.

“We’re going a little more north. Felix owns a property near Lincolnville. It’s not rented out at this moment, so we’re able to use it. It’s a nice place with a great view of the Penobscot Bay.” Eva smiled.” I’m pretty sure you’ll like it.”

“Any view over any water I like,” Sigrid laughed. “You might have to remind me we’re not on vacation.”

“Don’t worry, I will.”

“Have you talked to your mother lately?”

The question was fairly unexpected and Eva raised her brows in surprise. “Not since we left. Why?”

“I know it’s silly, I was just wondering how Minnie is doing,” Sigrid said in a slightly shy voice.

“That’s not silly at all. You’re talking to the daughter of a veterinarian, remember? When I went to college I kept pestering my parents for updates on my dog,” Eva said. “I never knew I could miss that mutt so much.”

“It’s just that Minnie has been with me for years and it’s weird not to have her around. One of my favorite things to do at the end of the day is to curl up on the couch with a book, a cup of tea and a purring cat. To me, that’s somehow very therapeutic.”

“It sounds relaxing.” Eva smiled. “Maybe this evening you can curl up with a book, a cup of tea and me. I can’t promise I’d purr, though.”

Sigrid laughed and playfully swatted Eva across the stomach. “I’d hope not, although it would be interesting to hear you purr.” She took a breath and slowly shook her head. “That thought just brought on a lot of interesting images,” she confessed, making Eva laugh out loud. “But I think right now it’s best justto ignore them. So, Inspector, do you like fishing?”

Part 18

Sigrid was pleasantly surprised when they finally reached the house in Lincolnville. She didn’t know what she had expected, but certainly not the cozy looking log home that was set on at least two acres of land overseeing the Bay. Even though it was the end of February, she had no problem visualizing the house in the middle of spring and summer. The sun would beat down on the large deck and a breeze would blow inland; cool and slightly humid. Sigrid sighed. It was a nice visual and hopefully something she would experience within the next few months.

“Are you okay?” Eva’s voice interrupted her musings.

“I’m fine, thank you.” Sigrid smiled and pointed toward the log cabin. “Nice little hacienda,” she said in a teasing voice.

“I know. Felix and Lisa were able to buy it just after they got married. It was pretty run down. Leon helped them and what they did was amazing.” The expression on Eva’s face grew somber. “He and Lisa planned to, one day, move to this cabin and live here full-time. But after the accident things changed. For the last few years, Felix has avoided coming here.”

“I can understand that,” Sigrid said in a soft voice. “It must be incredibly difficult to be confronted with the dream they shared.”

Eva looked aside and sent Sigrid a smile. “That is very succinctly and eloquently put. You do have a way with words, you know.”

“Thank you; it comes with the job.”

Eva was just about to make a remark when her eyes narrowed. She slowed down the car, while her eyes never left the cabin.

“What is it?” Sigrid knew Eva well enough to be alarmed by the expression on her face.

“I thought I saw movement inside.”

Sigrid intently stared at the small building, but she did not see anything out of the ordinary. “There’s no car, at least not as far as I can see. Is there a parking area behind the cabin?”

“No, there isn’t.” Eva let the car slowly roll forward. She unbuckled her seat belt, silently gesturing Sigrid to do the same. “Draw your weapon, but keep it out of sight. I’ll park the car alongside the cabin, because there are no windows on that side. We’ll go around the back and see if there is a car. If not, we’ll go in at full alert.” For a moment her gaze caught Sigrid’s. “All right?”

Sigrid nodded and pulled her gun out of its holster. For a brief moment, she was grateful that she had been able to avoid any law enforcement. They would have taken her weapon away. She knew that the bullet that went through Donny’s shoulder eventually would lead back to her. Right now though she had a firm hold on it, which made her feel less vulnerable, no matter how much she loathed having to carry one.

As soon as Eva stopped the engine of the car, they both jumped out, and made their way to the back of the house. All they could see was a snow-covered deck and field. There were no tire tracks, nor footsteps in the snow. Eva quickly made her way to the door motioning Sigrid to take up a position at the other side. With a look of determination, Eva slowly reached out a hand and wrapped her fingers around the doorknob. She cautiously turned the knob and pulled. Sigrid held her breath. She could feel the adrenaline rushing through her body, and she sincerely hoped there would not be another shooting.

Without a sound the door swung inward. Immediately, Eva moved inside closely followed by Sigrid. Both women had their guns drawn and were covering both sides of the narrow hallway. Their entry was accompanied by a burst of cold air and, if anyone was in the cabin, he would be noticed soon. They did not have to wait long. The sound of mumbling reached their ears and they both tightened their grip on their guns. Eva cast to look at Sigrid, and with her free hand motioned her to cover her back within three seconds. Sigrid nodded, and moistened dry lips. Her eyes never left the fingers on Eva’s hand that were steadily counting down; three, two, one. Eva’s body hurled itself around the corner. Her arms were stretched out in front holding her gun.

“Police! Put your hands in the air, come on, let me see your hands. Now, turn around, slowly and keep your hands where I can see them.” Eva’s voice was loud and unwavering.

Sigrid stewed a few steps behind and to the side of Eva. She had a good view of what was going on. A tall person, dressed in a long winter coat, was standing in the kitchen with his hands up in the air. His back was turned to them. It was easy to detect the tension into stranger’s shoulders. However, he did as ordered and slowly turned around to face them. The moment the light coming in from the kitchen window touched the stranger’s face, Eva let out a loud groan and lowered her weapon. “Dammit, Darkwolf, I could’ve shot you.” She holstered her gun and shook her head in disbelief. “What the hell are you doing here anyway? Weren’t you supposed to arrive tonight?”

A grin lit up the face of Lauren Darkwolf. “It’s good to see you too, Clemente.” She chuckled. “And we were able to get here fast because, believe it or not, the big boss allowed us use of the jet.” She stepped forward and envelope Eva in a big hug. “What are you, important or something?”

Eva laughed and returned the hug. “I didn’t think so, maybe Miss secret Agent here is,” she said pointing at Sigrid. “Sigrid, this is my friend Lauren Darkwolf. She works for the OSBI and the FBI. Lauren, this is Sigrid Myers, pastor and FBI agent when needed.”

Sigrid rolled her eyes at the introduction. She too holstered her gun and stepped forward with her hand extended. “It’s nice to meet you Agent Darkwolf. And don’t listen to Eva, I’m not an FBI agent, not really anyway.”

A pair of twinkling dark eyes looked at Sigrid when Lauren shook her hand. “I’m not so sure about that, Agent,” she teased. “I did read your file. You went through all the necessary training. And then some. Your work with the NYPD has been impressive.”

“Thank you. I was glad to help. By the way, did I hear you say ‘us’?”

“You sure did. My partner, Maureen Lawrence , is here with me, but she ran into town to grab some groceries. We didn’t know what time the two of you would arrive here, and thought it would be nice to have dinner ready.”

“Will you be doing the cooking?” There was a hopeful look on Eva’s face, and Lauren laughed.

“Unless you want to be poisoned,” she said.

Eva turned to Sigrid and sent her a smile. “Lauren is a fantastic cook. We’re lucky.”

Sigrid laughed and playfully swatted Eva across the stomach. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this happy about food,” she teased.

“That’s because you haven’t experienced Lauren’s food yet,” Eva said with a grin.

“Well, you’re making me curious. There is something else that’s puzzling me.” Sigrid’s eyes were dark when her gaze met Eva’s. “Did you know about this? Why didn’t you tell me?” Even though she tried to sound casual, there was a hint of hurt in Sigrid’s voice.

“I was hoping that Lauren would be able to make it here today. She sent me a message telling me she was going to try, but I knew a lot of things could still get in the way.” Eva raked her fingers through her hair. “I didn’t want to get your hopes up. I had no idea they’d be here so quickly. Trust me, had I known, I would’ve told you.” Eva stepped closer and took Sigrid’s hand. “This has nothing to do with trust, I trust you completely, you know that.”

“I know, and I’m sorry.” Sigrid sighed and briefly leaned her cheek against Eva’s shoulder. She was aware of dark eyes that were quietly taking in the scene, but she didn’t care. “I guess I’m just tired, and completely stressed out. I’ve had more adrenaline rushes within the last seventy-two hours than I have had my entire life.”

Eva wrapped her arms around Sigrid and pulled her close. Over the blonde’s head, her gaze met Lauren’s and she received a reassuring nod and a smile. “Do you want to lie down for a while? I know you’re tired.”

“Tempting,” Sigrid said, while burrowing deeper into Eva’s embrace. “I don’t want to waste any time though. As long as this pesky arrest warrant hovers over me, I won’t be able to get a decent sleep anyway.” She lifted her head and gave Eva a quick kiss. She didn’t care that Lauren was watching. “A nice cup of coffee will probably do the trick.”

“Guess what? That’s exactly what I can offer right now,” Lauren said. She pointed at the coffee maker on the kitchen counter.

“Bring it on,” Sigrid said. She already liked the tall Agent.

“Rather coffee than a nap?” Eva teased.

“Absolutely.” The smile disappeared from Sigrid’s face. “Someone is after me and dammit, I want to know who and why.”

***

“Are you sure it’s the right flight number?” Twitch asked for the third time. She looked at Betty with an inquisitive stare. It was obvious she was nervous and Betty couldn’t blame her.

“Yes, I am sure,” Betty said with more patience than she felt. “Southwest flight 1895, from Seattle via Chicago. Relax, Twitch.”

“I’m trying, I’m trying,” Twitch mumbled, nervously sipping from her coffee.

“Maybe you’d be more successful at it if you’d dump that cup of caffeine,” Meg said drily.

Twitch folded her hands around her cup in a protective gesture. “Oh, no, I need this. I really do.”

“Are you sure?” Betty grinned at the scowl Twitch displayed.

“Listen, girls. We’re in the middle of something really dramatic. I mean, this is material for a Hallmark movie, so stop making fun of me.”

“I’m not making fun of you,” Meg said. “I can’t help remembering you complaining about how your physician told you to cut down on the caffeine, that’s all.”

“Well, my doctor is not here,” Twitch said and she grinned. “And I won’t tell if you won’t.”

“As long as you don’t drop dead on me all of a sudden. I’d hate to get down on this cold floor to do CPR.”

“Stop bickering, girls.” Betty laughed and shook her head. “You sound like an old married couple.”

Twitch and Meg looked at each other, and when they started chuckling, Betty rolled her eyes. “Do I really want to know?”

“Probably not,” Twitch said with a laugh. “It was a long time ago.”

Meg nodded and there was a twinkle in her eyes. “A very long time.”

“Besides, it was an experiment,” Twitch added after she took another sip of coffee.

“A good one, though,” Meg added and Twitch nodded.

“We were far ahead of our time.”

Betty looked from Twitch to Meg and back again. She was so stunned it was hard for her to formulate a decent sentence. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said after a long silence.

“Actually, we were, kidding, you that is.” Twitch laughed so hard she almost spilled her coffee. “Did you really think that Meg and I…?” She wiped the tears from her eyes and grabbed a tissue to blow her nose.

“Hey, I was very attractive when I was younger,” Meg said with feigned hurt. “I would have been a good catch.”

“You’re still very good-looking.” Twitch slowly looked Meg up and down and winked. “So, what are you doing tonight?”

“Would the two of you please stop it?” Betty sighed and gestured toward the gate. “I think Morgan’s sister has just arrived.”

Immediately, Meg and Twitch lost their playfulness.

“Where?” Meg had to stretch to look at the direction Betty indicated. “How do you know it’s her?”

“Because she and Morgan really look alike.”

They all turned and watched as two young women walked into the arrivals hall. It was easy to see that one of them was related to Morgan; she had the same color hair and facial structure. As they came closer, Betty stepped forward with an outstretched hand and a welcoming smile. “You must be Ellen,” she said. A pair of blue eyes, slightly darker than Morgan’s, widened in surprise. “You and your sister look-alike,” Betty said.

Immediately, the blue eyes filled with tears. “We do?” The voice was soft and wistful. “I haven’t seen her in so long I can barely imagine what she looks like today.”

“You will soon,” Betty said. She could almost feel the pain radiating off the young woman. With a smile she turned to her companion. “And you must be Meredith, am I right?”

The woman, who was tall, smiled and grabbed Betty’s extended hand in a firm grip. Her left arm was protectively wrapped around the woman next to her. “Yes, I’m Meredith. It’s nice to meet you. You’re Betty, right?”

“Yes, dear, I am.” Betty half turned and gestured toward her friends. “This is Meg and this is Grace, but she goes by Twitch.

Meredith introduced herself and Ellen, giving her partner a few moments to regain her composure.

Betty understood and while they made their way out of the airport she kept the conversation light and superficial. She decided that when Ellen was ready she would ask what she wanted to know. Betty did not have to wait long.

“Is Morgan still in the hospital?” Ellen asked.

“She is,” Betty said.

“Is she okay, physically I mean?”

“She has some cuts and bruises, but the doctor says she’ll be fine. They wanted to give her some fluids for dehydration and she has been talking to a psychiatrist and social worker.” For a brief moment Betty paused, carefully choosing her next words. ”She’s been through a lot, Ellen. She’s young and the physical damage will heal. By no means am I a psychiatrist, but it seems she’ll have a long way to go in dealing with the emotional and psychological damage.”

“We’ve talked about that already,” Meredith said. She pulled Ellen a little closer and dropped a kiss on her unruly hair. It was clear to see how much she cared about Morgan’s sister and that warmed Betty’s heart. “I work for the Seattle Police Department and have worked with trafficking victims. There are some excellent therapists I know personally; Morgan will be in good hands.”

“I’m happy to hear that,” Twitch said. She sent Ellen an encouraging smile. “Your sister is a very special girl. She’s strong. There’s this fire in her eyes that tells me she’s a fighter.”

“And she’s courageous,” Meg said. “She took care of those two little ones who were with her, while she couldn’t even understand a word of their language.”

Ellen managed a smile. “I do remember Morgan was always pretty smart, a little too smart sometimes for her own good. It did get her in trouble every now and then.” She sobbed and ran the back of her hand across her eyes. “With all that she’s been through, I hope she’ll remember enough details to catch the bastards that did this to her and all the other kids and put them away forever.”

“Amen to that,” Twitch and Meg said simultaneously.

***

“Okay, so this is the information I collected,” Sigrid said pointing at the neatly arrangers folders on her laptop screen.

“Is this the flash drive your friends rescued from your house?” Lauren took a sip of her coffee and regarded Sigrid with curious eyes.

“You’ve heard about that?” Sigrid turned to Eva who was sitting next to her at the table and shot her a quizzical look.

“I read the report. Eva told me about the rescued drive.” Lauren smiled. She leaned forward a little and seemed intrigued. “Although I wonder why your friends didn’t hand over that drive to the police?”

Sigrid laughed. “You don’t know my friends; they’re something else. They told me that since they found it by accident, taped underneath my dresser, they figured it was something important and they didn’t want to give it to anyone but me. Betty gave it back to me last night.”

“They’re smart,” Maureen Lawrence said from her perch on the couch’s armrest. She had returned with some groceries not long after Sigrid and Eva had arrived. Maureen had a quick smile, a firm handshake, and twinkling green eyes. Sigrid immediately liked the red-haired Agent.

“You have no idea.” Eva grinned. “I hope you’ll be able to meet them at some point.”

“That would be memorable,” Sigrid agreed. “Anyway, I have nine folders with information on this drive. Maybe we can split them between the four of us? I might have missed something that’s important.”

“That’s a good idea.” Lauren stood up from the table and walked toward the couch where she had left her laptop. Maureen handed it to her before grabbing her own.

Within minutes, the table was covered with four laptops that were softly humming when they were booted up.

“So, how are we going to do this?” Maureen cast Sigrid a curious look. “Hand the drive around and download a couple of files starting at the top?” She looked confused when Eva started laughing.

“How proficient are you at hacking, Maureen?” Eva said. “I bet our secret Agent here has them all encrypted and hidden behind layers of security.”

When three pairs of eyes landed on Sigrid, she felt herself grow uncomfortably warm. She shrugged and busied herself with studying her screen. “My brother is into computers, and he taught me a few tricks.” She mumbled. When she looked up she saw Maureen and Lauren look at her with a mixture of amusement and respect.

“Anytime you’d want to change careers, let me know,” Lauren smiled.

Sigrid sighed and rubbed her cheeks that still felt flushed. “Right now I don’t really know what I want. I just want to get all these puzzles solved and get back on with my life, without arrest warrants hanging over my head.”

“And we will.” Eva’s voice held a touch of determination. “Let’s do this.”

A few hours later Maureen broke the silence. “What do you make of this, honey?” she asked turning her laptop so Lauren could look at it. When she looked up, it was in a pair of twinkling eyes and a raised eyebrow. Immediately, her face flushed and she groaned.

“Thanks for clearing that up,” Sigrid said with a grin. “I was wondering about that.”

Eva and Lauren laughed at the shocked expression on Maureen’s face. Sigrid reached out over the table to give Maureen’s hand a friendly pat. “Don’t worry, you’re among fellow Sapphics,” she joked. ”We all know the secret handshake.”

“And have the toaster oven to prove it,” Eva said with a grin.

They all laughed and Maureen visibly relaxed. “That could have been a costly slip-up,” she said. “Our supervisors and some of our coworkers are aware of our relationship, but being in a relationship with a fellow Agent, a female one to boot, does not always go over easy.”

“It’s better than it used to be,” Lauren said. “We’ll get there, eventually.” She focused on the laptop screen and her eyes scanned the information in front of her. “What do you want me to look at?”

Maureen pointed to the screen. “Is this an invoice?”

Sigrid stood up and craned her neck to see what Maureen was pointing at. “Oh, I forgot I had scanned that in,” she said.

“Where did you get it?”

“I found it, actually,” Sigrid said. She sank back in her seat and leaned back. She had to search her memory to remember the significance of the piece of paper. ”A few months ago I was cleaning up the office and took some paper to the recycle box in the church’ hallway. The crate was almost full and the door was open. Some papers had been blown around the hallway, so I picked them up.” Sigrid gestured toward the laptop. “This was one of them. For some reason, it caught my eye, because the address was close to my parents’ cabin. I already knew there had to be a safe house somewhere in that area, so I decided to hold on to it, just in case. Besides, as you can see, it lists soundproofing floor, wall and ceiling material.”

“Was the basement where you found the children soundproofed?” Lauren’s eyes had lost the amused twinkle in had shown before.

“If it had been we wouldn’t have heard them, would we?” Sigrid looked at Eva who was frowning and obviously lost in thought.

“We did hear something in the basement, that’s how we found them.” Eva glanced at Sigrid. “Do you remember anything from that basement?”

“At first it was dark, but as soon as we switched on the light I only had eyes for those poor children.” Sigrid nibbled her bottom lip. “There was a stack of something in a corner, though.”

“Yes, I remember. Rolls, big rolls of something.”

“Could it have been sound proofing material?” Lauren asked.

Sigrid slowly nodded and gazed at Eva for confirmation. “I believe so. It sure did look like some sort of insulation material.” She sighed. “How are we going to find out if that’s what it was?”

“Leave that up to me,” Maureen said with a determined expression on her face. She pulled her iPhone out of its cradle on her belt and quickly tapped the screen a few times. “Hey, Cyber Babe, how’s the hacking business?” she asked with a wide grin. She turned away from the table and, while talking, walked into the living room.

“Hacking? Do I even want to know?” Eva said with a grimace.

Lauren laughed and shook her head. “Probably not. Although, this specific hacker is on the Government payroll. She’s the best of the best.”

“And she’s able to hack into the reports about the safe house,” Sigrid said with a nod.

“Exactly.” Lauren smiled. “Maureen and this hacker go way back. They met when Maureen arrested her for tapping into a live newsfeed to show footage of a local politician using some disturbing racial slurs.” Lauren chuckled and shook her head. “The cause was noble, but the means illegal. They were so impressed with her skills though, as soon as she finished her court appointed community service, she received a contract to work for the Government.”

“Hackers and the Government; a match made in heaven,” Eva said, making Lauren laugh. She looked at Sigrid who was opening another window on her laptop. She had seen it once before and chuckled. “We have our own hacker right here.”

“Not true. I have access,” Sigrid muttered. “And there’s nothing wrong with some creative searching in the name of justice.” She briefly looked up at Lauren. “The company name on the invoice, isn’t that Yankee Pilgrim?”

Lauren glanced at the screen in front of her and nodded.

“Good. Assuming playing it legal and paying taxes to keep away nosy federal agents landed them a tax ID, I will…yes…alright, do that as well…” Sigrid continued to mumble for a few moments. She was completely absorbed by the information on her screen. “Okay,” she drawled after a few minutes. “Look at that, will ya?” She turned her screen so both Lauren and Eva could see what she was talking about.

“Archibald Tate. It’s him again,” Eva said.

“It sure is. He owns this company, at least on paper.”

“Are there any bank accounts you could trace?” Lauren asked.

Sigrid entered a few numbers, muttered a curse and repeated the process. “Damn. It looks like they’ve got me locked out of that one already.”

Lauren stood up and walked around the table. “Let me try. I should have access.”

Sigrid made room and Lauren quickly entered her ID and password. “Ha, I’m in,” she said after a few tense seconds. She pushed the laptop back to Sigrid. “Here, I’ll let you drive.”

“Thanks,” Sigrid muttered, already focusing on the screen. “Alright, look at this,” she said after a while. “See this account? That’s Yankee Pilgrim. Now, look at the accounts that are fed from that one,” she tapped on the screen. “Every month, money is transferred from the YP account to these two accounts. This one is Tate’s.”

“How do you know?” Eva looked puzzled.

Sigrid shrugged and let out a chuckle. “I’ve seen it before. It ends in 666, which I thought was funny. That’s why I remember. I saw it when I went through his personal tax information, remember?”

Eva nodded. “If he’s involved in all of this, the 666 is pretty appropriate. Any idea whose account the other one is?”

“Not yet. I can track it to the Cayman Islands. From there it goes to Switzerland and then I hit a road block.” Sigrid sighed and rubbed her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. You did fantastic work , ” Lauren said. She looked up when Maureen sauntered back in with a huge grin on her face.

“I love that hacker,” she said. “She was able to get into the police reports and yes, the inventory of the cabin lists rolls of sound proofing material. They were found in the basement. And guess what? They were sent by the company on the invoice.”

“To a company that belongs to one Archibald Tate,” Lauren said. When she noticed Maureen’s surprised expression, she gestured in Sigrid’s direction. “Apparently, we have our own divine hacking system in place.”

Eva laughed and was able to catch Sigrid’s hand just in time. Had she been too late, it would have punched her in the shoulder. “Oh, you’re awesome, pastor,” she teased. She pulled her into an embrace, ignoring Sigrid’s muffled protest. “You are so awesome, did you know that?” Eva let out a happy sigh and boldly dropped a kiss on a pair of warm lips. “We’re getting closer, Sigrid. The net is tightening.” Her face lost its playful expression and turned serious. “We’re going to catch these bastards.”

Part 19

“Let’s recap what we have so far.” Lauren Darkwolf leaned back in her chair and rolled her head in order to loosen the muscles in her neck. She had been hovering over computer files for hours on end.

Sigrid looked up from her screen. The caffeine she had ingested earlier had left her system and her blue eyes were dull and red-rimmed. “From the beginning?” she asked.

“Please. One more time.” Lauren sent her a smile and an encouraging nod. “After that, we all should try to get some rest.”

Maureen Lawrence yawned. “I agree. Besides, recent studies show that the more hours you work, the less productive you are.”

”Now she tells us.” Eva Clemente rubbed her eyes and stood up for a moment so she could stretch. Her vertebrae audibly popped.

Lauren looked up at her and grinned. “Feel better?”

“For now,” Eva answered. “Sleep sounds really good, though.”

“Okay, from the beginning.” Sigrid rested her elbow on the table to support her head. “Michael Allen Bell was murdered in my church. He was wearing a dress and shot execution style. He lived in Manchester and his apartment was completely cleared out. The dress he wore had a tear in the back, which indicates he might have tried to put up a fight. There was a piece of paper in his wallet with my name on it, and the names of friends who passed away.”

“What is the significance of that?” Maureen asked.

“We’re not sure,” Eva replied. “We think it could have been a false lead, just to throw us off. Or maybe to frighten Sigrid, make her think she would be the next victim on the list. Even though we did find out the deaths of her friends were not suspicious, not even after a second look.”

Sigrid sighed and raked her fingers through her hair. “Regardless the reason, someone knew of my connections to Alistair, Connor, Devon, and Melinda. Besides, the picture of the crime scene that was put in my mailbox was a very obvious attempt to put me under suspicion.”

“Obvious and pretty amateuristic,” Eva said. “Your testimony had already clued us in someone was in the church when you noticed Michael Bell when you arrived that morning. The picture just confirmed your story.”

Lauren frowned. “Did the lab find anything particular about it?”

Eva shook her head. “Just generic photo paper and generic ink that is sold in all the big stores. No finger prints.”

“Wasn’t there a note with it?” Maureen asked.

“It quoted a scripture from the bible,” Sigrid said. “ ‘May sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more.’” She paused and let out a sigh. “It ended by calling me a murderer.”

“Charming,” Maureen said. “A religious nut who has been keeping an eye on you, who broke into your house and left you the remnants of a dead pigeon and sent the other parts to your family in Florida. Correct?”

Sigrid nodded and smiled at Eva who gently rubbed her back.

“Let me guess; no leads on the packages?” Lauren asked.

“No, again there were no prints and the packages were those flat rate ones that could have been purchased in any post-office, at any time. They were dropped off in different places; one in Manchester and one in Concord.”

“And sent to Florida?”

“They had my name on it, so both my Mom and Kirsten, my sister, sent the package to me without opening it. They emailed me about it on the day my house was broken into. Eva had the packages intercepted at the post-office.” Sigrid suppressed a shudder. “The crop of the pigeon was in one package and the head was in another.”

“How do you think all of this ties in with Tate and Brothers?” Maureen asked, looking from Eva to Sigrid and back again.

“I think that someone used Donald Brothers’ religious fanaticism against Sigrid in order to avoid attention themselves,” Eva said. “It clearly was the goal to frighten Sigrid and, eventually, hurt her. The kid was prepared to shoot me in cold blood and he almost did.” Unconsciously, Eva touched the deep purple bruise on her still swollen cheek. “Since more and more clues point to involvement of both Tate and Jeremy Brothers, I believe they are the ones who used Donald to get rid of Sigrid.”

Lauren slowly nodded. She took a sip of her tea and looked at Sigrid. “And why do they want to get rid of you?”

“I have no evidence, yet, but I firmly believe someone high up somewhere, who is involved in the trafficking, has access to my file, figured I was trying to get information for the FBI and decided I was a potential hindrance. Michael Bell’s murder was a warning. The fact that they shot him in my church was a message to let me know I would not be safe and that it was personal.”

“Why the dress?”

“The dress and the newspaper that was left behind were an attempt to create false leads. The police would be chasing after it and in the meantime Donny could execute divine justice, which ultimately would paint him as the perpetrator of Michael Bell’s and my death. Case closed.”

“That all sounds very plausible,” Lauren said. “The million dollar question is: who accessed your files and fed information to members of a human trafficking ring?”

“I think I can answer that question.” Eva rubbed her eyes and stifled a yawn. “My Captain, Douglas Whitfield, must work for Senator…a senator in D.C. He must have known about the murder and the trafficking. That is the reason he put Chuck and me on the case. It would be our last case; Chuck is retiring and I will start teaching at the Academy. If their plan would have played out as they expected, Donny would have killed Sigrid, taken the fall for the murder of Michael Bell and, as Sigrid put it, the case would be closed. Chuck would retire and I would leave, which means there would be nobody in the Unit who would have been closely involved in the case and could start asking more questions later.”

Eva’s words were followed by a brief silence in which both Maureen and Lauren looked at Eva with respect.

“That actually sounds creepily logical,” Sigrid said. She sighed and rested her head on Eva’s shoulder. “Good reasoning, Inspector.”

Eva cracked a smile. “Thank you. You don’t look upset.”

“I’m way too tired to be upset.” Sigrid rubbed her cheek against the fabric of Eva’s shirt. “I’ll be upset tomorrow, I promise.”

“One more question before we all head off to bed; how do you know a Senator is involved?” Lauren asked.

“Casey Planters,” Eva answered. “She has the story and the evidence to back it up.”

Maureen pushed her hair back from her forehead and leaned forward. “How do we get a hold of her?”

###

Casey Planters looked at her phone for the tenth time in just as many minutes and frowned when the display showed her there were no new messages. After her visit with Charles Benoit the evening before, she had to admit that, at the moment, there was nothing she could do but wait. And patience was not exactly one of her virtues. The information in her possession was like carrying around a volatile explosive; one little bump and it would blow up. That’s why she felt she needed to get together with Eva as soon as possible. If they could put the information they both had together, they would have a solid case. But Eva had disappeared and Casey figured she would be with Sigrid Meyers. So where would they be and how would Eva contact her?

With a frustrated groan, Casey stood up from her desk and walked to the window. The streets in front of her house were clear and dry. It was still cold, but the weather forecast did not predict any precipitation; it would be a good day to drive to wherever she’d be able to find Eva. And possibly Sigrid.

Sipping her coffee, Casey let her gaze wander across the street and the people on it. She lived close to the Massachusetts State House. The area was usually busy with tourists and people hurrying to and from work and today was no different. Sometimes it was relaxing and just plain fun to people-watch and make up stories about their lives.

Casey suppressed the urge to look at her phone again. If a message would arrive, her phone would obediently produce a soft chime. Since it hadn’t done so yet, she’d have to conclude there were no messages waiting. She turned away from the window and all of a sudden, in mid-motion, she stopped when something occurred to her. Because there was a high risk they were being watched and listened to, Sam would never call her. But there was always email.

Casey quickly tapped a button on her phone and pulled up her personal email account. Charles had sent a lot of her files to Eva and Casey was pretty sure her private email address had been in one of the documents. If Eva really was as smart as Charles gave her credit for, she might have used that particular address. Casey looked at the new messages displayed on the screen and with a sigh of disappointment she concluded there was nothing from Eva Clemente. Out of habit she also pulled up her junk mail folder. Sometimes legitimate messages ended up in there so she always checked.

“I inherited millions from an unknown relative in Great-Britain; delete,” she said, while her fingers tapped the screen. “I have no problem with erectile dysfunction; delete. Of course Dell wants to send me a new laptop; delete. The role of religion in current politics is interesting, but no, thanks.” Casey was about to delete the message, but all of a sudden her gut-feeling kicked into high gear. “I wonder if —.” She opened the message and laughed in delight. “The current role of religion in politics is something a lot of people worry about. It’s obvious that mingling the two can lead to disastrous events; for example, the abuse of innocents and misuse of power. As a group we are committed to put a stop to recent developments and we need your help. Your input on the matter would be greatly appreciated. Together we can put a stop to this. If you feel the same way we do, please, reach out to us and let’s work together. Big Brother might be watching, but with determination and vigilance we will succeed. We need to change to go from A to B in order to go from many to zero. Please don’t reply to this message directly, but join us the next time we’re in a location close to you.” Casey looked at the email address the message was sent from; profugiprojustitiaAmulti

“Latin, huh?” She smiled. “Fugitives for justice; very appropriate. No direct reply. I wonder if my reply should be sent to profugiprojustitiaB…what is zero again in Latin?” Casey rubbed her forehead for a moment. “Ciphra, that must be it.” She typed in the email address, left the subject line blank and simply typed: ‘Understood’. She hit ‘send’ and waited. After a few minutes she checked her phone again and was relieved to see there was no mail delivery notification to tell her the email address did not exist. It took another five minutes for her to find a new message waiting. “Get ready in 5.”

“Five minutes?” Casey, who had been up since before daybreak grabbed her laptop case. All the files she needed were in there. She was ready to go. She always had an overnight bag ready, just in case one of her investigations took her out of town and the only thing she needed was to put on a heavy coat, gloves and a scarf to protect her against the cold wind. “I’m ready,” she said aloud, letting her gaze scan her apartment. “Now what?”

She did not have to wait long. A knock on the door startled her and she quickly looked through the peephole. With a small frown she noticed a tall woman who was dressed in a long, insulated coat. A few strands of red hair peeked out from underneath the black hat she was wearing and curled around a nose that was dusted with freckles. The lower half of her face was hidden by a scarf that was wrapped around her head. Casey’s hand was over the doorknob. The arrival of the woman fit the five minute timeframe she had been given, so it was reasonable to expect Eva Clemente had sent her. Still, the email had also mentioned something about Big Brother watching and Casey did not recognize this woman.

The woman knocked again and stepped a little closer to the door.

“Casey, I know you’re apprehensive, but I’m one of the good guys. Eva sent me.”

After taking a deep breath, Casey opened the door. Before she knew it, she was enveloped by a pair of strong arms.

“Play along,” the woman’s voice sounded close to her ear. She raised her voice. “It’s so good to see you! How long has it been? Four years?”

“At least,” Casey answered. She tried very hard to make her voice sound convincing.

“You haven’t changed a bit. Girl, we have some catching up to do. Are you ready for lunch?” The woman had a faint Southern accent that Casey found very charming.

“Always.”

“Let’s go then.”

When Casey turned to lock the door behind her the woman stepped a little closer. “By the way, my name is Maureen,” she said. Her voice was low, but Casey had heard her clearly and she nodded. “You’re doing great. Keep following my lead.”

When they stepped onto the sidewalk, Maureen stuck her arm through Casey’s and pulled her with her. “I’m parked just around the corner, on Beacon Street. By the way, that’s a nice park y’all have here.” Maureen kept chatting about the park and the architecture of the buildings they were passing, taking her time to make sure she looked like she had never been in Boston before.

“Are we being followed?” Casey finally dared to ask when they rounded the corner onto Beacon Street.

Maureen smiled. “Possibly.” She pointed at a dark SUV that was parked across the street. “That’s my ride.”

They quickly crossed the street and Maureen unlocked the doors with the remote she was holding in her hand. “Hop in.”

As soon as they were seated and buckled up, Maureen started the engine and slowly merged into traffic. “Bear with me, please,” she said. “I’m not too familiar with this city.”

“Don’t worry, I can be your guide,” Casey answered. “So, Maureen, who exactly are you?”

Maureen grinned. “A friend of Eva Clemente.”

“Are you also in law enforcement?”

Maureen nodded. “You could put it like that.”

Casey sighed and wiggled a little to get more comfortable in her seat. She sighed. “I have a million questions.”

“I bet you do.” Maureen’s gaze traveled to her rearview mirror and back to the road in front of her again. “And I’ll be happy to answer whatever I can, but first we need to get rid of that pesky car that was parked across from your house and is now following us.”

“We are being followed?”

“Yes, ma’am, we are,” Maureen answered.

“So, what are we going to do?”

Maureen glanced aside and shot Casey a grin. “We’ll have lunch.”

###

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Casey looked over her shoulder when the door of the restaurant opened and she almost jumped when Maureen unexpectedly touched her hand.

“Try not to do that,” Maureen said. “We don’t want them to think we’re on to them. And yes, this is a good idea, trust me.” She took a healthy spoonful of the clam chowder in front of her and hummed in delight. “You can’t get this stuff back home,” she said. She leaned forward a little and sent Casey an encouraging smile. “I know it’s not easy, but try to relax and make them believe we’re old friends who are meeting each other for lunch.”

“I’ll try.” Casey speared a piece of broiled fish on her fork and tried to pretend it did not taste like cardboard. “How do you plan on getting us out of here when that car is sitting right outside the restaurant?”

“We’ll take the back door.”

Casey almost choked on a piece of fish and she coughed. “What?”

“The back door.” Maureen chuckled. “Eva recommended this place. She used to work here when she went to BU. The owner is a friend of hers and she cleared it with him for us to leave through the kitchen, and out of the back door, where another car will be waiting for us.” Maureen calmly took a sip of her water and looked completely at ease. “As soon as we’ve finished our lunch, the manager will take us on a quick tour only reserved for staff members and health inspectors.”

“Is there anything you guys haven’t thought of?”

Maureen laughed. “I guess we’ll find out if we run into a problem.” Her face turned serious. “There are some powerful people involved in this mess, Casey. There’s no telling when and how this case is going to play out. It could get messy pretty quick.”

Casey nodded. “I know. It scares me that a car was stationed outside my house. The worst thing is that I didn’t even notice.” She speared another piece of fish at her fork. “Where will you take me?” she asked before taking another bite.

“Up North. If you think it’s cold here, wait until you’ll get out of the car at the end of this trip.”

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

When Maureen shook her head, she smiled.

“Fair enough. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.”

‘”That you will.” Maureen glanced over when she noticed movement around the car that had followed them. “Look.”

Casey half-turned and almost felt giddy with relief when she noticed a police cruiser had stopped behind the car and an officer was getting out. He walked toward the driver side and tapped on the window.

“This would be a good time to make our exit,” Maureen said. She got up from her chair and walked toward the back of the restaurant, closely followed by Casey.

“I guess it finally makes sense that you told me to bring my overnight bag with me into the restaurant. I thought you were worried about thieves.”

Maureen grinned. “Right now, thieves are the least of my worries.” She opened a door that led to a narrow hallway. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

As soon as they stepped through the door, they were greeted by a smiling, dark-skinned man.

“Maureen and Casey, I presume?”

“And you must be Kenneth,” Maureen replied with a smile of her own.

“Correct. If you’d follow me, ladies, I’ll lead you to your alternative exit, while our friendly neighborhood law enforcement officer has a chat with some nosy people across the street.”

“You know about that?” Casey could not help asking.

Kenneth laughed and motioned the pair to follow him through a door that led to a huge kitchen. “When Eva asked me if I still supplied the occasional free beer to our local cops, I knew what she wanted me to do. So, I gave one of them a call and voila, a nice distraction was born.”

“Good thinking,” Maureen said. She stepped through the door he was holding for them. The kitchen was warm and humid, but to Maureen it felt great in comparison with the arctic wind outside. “If you ever want to change careers, give me call.”

“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.” Kenneth laughed and closed the door behind Casey before he guided them through the kitchen that was a hub of activity. “I like what I do though, so please, don’t hold your breath.”

Quickly, they made their way through the kitchen and out of the backdoor that led to an alley that was wide enough for a delivery van to drive through. As soon as they stepped outside, Kenneth and Maureen swapped car keys. With a grin the two shook hands and Maureen motioned the still slightly stunned Casey to follow her toward a silver-colored Nissan Rogue that was parked at the entrance of the alley.

“And whose car is this?” Casey asked while she got in the passenger seat and buckled up.

“This is Kenneth’s. He agreed to use the one we arrived in until we can return this one.” Maureen chuckled. “It’s all about throwing our friends who were following us off our scent.”

“You seem to enjoy this.”

Maureen glanced aside and sent Casey a small smile. “This part I find entertaining, yes, the whole cloak and dagger thing. But believe me, that’s the only amusement I find in the whole case. Seeing innocent people get hurt, especially children, is something that always enrages me. The reason I’m here is to help a friend and to bring to justice those who are behind the suffering of human trafficking. And I don’t care how high up on the political totem pole they are,” she added hotly. “They will go down.”

“That is the plan.” Casey nodded her head and patted the laptop case that was lying across her lap. “All we need to do is compare notes and build a solid case. I’m convinced I have enough evidence.”

“I can’t wait to hear all about that.” Maureen changed lanes and merged with I-93, going north. “Time is of the essence, though, because those in charge of the operation will do anything they can to stop us.”

“He will.” Casey stared out the window, lost in thought.

“I understand you personally know him.” Maureen glanced aside, noticing the expression on Casey’s face. “It’s not your fault, you know.”

Casey swallowed and moistened her lips. “I know that. I also know that, had I not stumbled on some of the files, this trafficking could have gone on for a long time, but still, I can’t believe I ever was involved with a man who can sleep at night, knowing he is exploiting innocent children and making money off their suffering.” She snorted in disgust. “I feel so dirty having been involved with him.”

“Maybe nailing him will make you feel a little better?”

Casey let out a humorless laugh. “Oh, yes, it definitely will!”

###

“They’ve been in there for an awful long time,” Meg Jones said. She looked at the wall clock above the door of the family waiting room. “Two hours at least.”

“They have a lot of things to talk about,” Betty replied. “Those poor kids. I’m pretty sure they’re in good hands with that psychotherapist. I met the woman briefly and she seemed very nice and capable.”

“She’d better,” Twitch grumbled. “Those kids have been through too much already, the last thing they need is shoddy help.”

Meg leaned forward in her chair, glancing passed Betty to where Twitch was sitting in a comfortable looking recliner. “And what are you going to do about it if that’s the case? Shoot them?”

Twitch narrowed her eyes when her gaze met Meg’s. “You keep making fun of my legal, licensed little gun, Meg. One day you’ll realize it’s very handy to have one around.”

“As long as you don’t keep your ammunition in the oven,” Betty said and Meg started laughing.

“What? No, of course not. Everyone knows heat will make the bullets explode. Nope, I keep my stuff in a safe place and only take it out when I think I might need it.”

“Does that mean you’re not packing today?” Meg wanted to know.

Twitch’ face showed a sly smile and she lowered her voice when she answered. “I didn’t say that .”

“Twitch, this is a hospital, you’re not allowed to —.” Betty’s face registered shock when she was interrupted by Twitch.

“I know that, silly old goose. What do you take me for; an ignorant demented old lady?”

“Just demented, really,” Meg chuckled.

Betty looked from Twitch to Meg and back again. “Okay, you’re not carrying a gun today. What are you carrying?”

Twitch grinned and lovingly patted the purse that was sitting on her lap. “Nothing too harmful. Just a can of pepper spray.”

Both Meg and Betty groaned in response. They were about to reply when Meredith Brooks, Ellen’s partner stepped into the waiting area. She was greeted by three simultaneous questions: “How are they?” “Are they doing okay?” “How’s Morgan?”

Meredith sank into a chair across from Betty and raked her hand through her hair. There were dark circles underneath her eyes and she looked like she had cried.

“How are you doing, honey?” Betty asked. “Is there anything we can get you?”

Meredith shook her head. “No, thank you. I just drank four cups of coffee.” She exhaled slowly and leaned back in the chair. “Morgan has a long road to recovery in front of her, but I tell you, that girl has spunk.” There was a small smile on her face as she said those words. “According to the therapist, she’ll have a good chance to get through this.”

Betty nodded. “One of the first things Morgan told me was how eager she is to go back to school.”

Meredith smiled. “That was one of the first things she asked the therapist as well. It’s a good sign.”

Twitch nodded. “What will happen next?”

“As soon as she’s discharged from here, we’ll take her home. A specialized social worker and therapist will help her to adapt to a life that is as normal as possible. Since she’s still a minor, Ellen will apply for guardianship, which shouldn’t be too hard to get.” Meredith smiled. “Those two have a lot to catch up on. Ellen had never given up looking for her little sister; she’s traveled all over the country following leads. When Sigrid Meyers called to tell her Morgan was found and safe, it was the most amazing feeling ever. Ellen cried for hours and she was so scared it was a mistake; that it wasn’t Morgan. But you ladies were right; it’s easy to see they’re sisters. One look at Morgan and Ellen knew it too.” Meredith’s smile widened and she quickly wiped at a stray tear that tried to escape her eye. “I don’t know how we can ever thank all of you for rescuing Morgan.”

“You don’t have to thank us,” Betty said. She smiled and pointed to herself, Meg and Twitch. “We’re just a bunch of trouble making senior citizens, who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. Sigrid Meyers and Eva Clemente are the ones you should thank, especially Sigrid.”

“Yes, our Pastor apparently had these sickening people in her cross-hairs for a while now,” Twitch said. “Had it not been for her map, we would not have found the place where Morgan and those two other precious souls were held.”

Meg nodded. “True. Sigrid is the real hero here.”

“I am very much looking forward to meeting them,” Meredith said.

“I am, too.” Twitch sighed. “Because that would mean this whole mess is over and Sigrid is back home again. I wonder where she is and how she’s doing. For all we know she could have left the country and be halfway down to Tahiti, or something.”

###

The smell of coffee was the first thing that registered when Sigrid woke up. She breathed in deeply before rolling onto her back and slowly opening her eyes. Daylight streamed into the room through an opening between the curtains and for a brief moment Sigrid just stared at the tiny dust particles that were floating in the air, looking like golden specs when hit by the sun.

Sigrid yawned and languidly stretched. She was tempted to roll over and go back to sleep, but the smell of coffee was too distracting, and tempting. She lifted her head to cast a look at the alarm clock on the night stand and only then realized she was the only occupant of the queen-sized bed. After an initial stab of disappoi ntment, Sigrid realized Eva must be the cause of the fresh coffee that was brewing somewhere in the house and with a smile she let herself fall back on to her pillow. Eva. Just rolling the name through her thoughts increased her heart rate. “You’ve got it bad, Meyers,” she told herself.

Comfortable warmth flooded through her body when she remembered the previous night. Both of them had been exhausted and in desperate need for some sleep. In unspoken consent, they had shared a bed. They had snuggled up underneath the comforter. Sigrid remembered how she had draped her body over Eva’s, with one arm wrapped around her waist and her head pillowed on her chest. Eva’s arms had been around her, creating a warm and safe cocoon. It had only taken a few minutes for Sigrid to completely relax her body and drift off to sleep. There had been the distant desire to use their closeness and explore Eva’s body, but the need for sleep had won out.

Just the memory of being wrapped in Eva’s arms relaxed Sigrid so much she started to drift off to sleep again. The sound of a door opening and footsteps approaching the bed made her open one eye.

“Good morning, Agent Meyers.” Eva’s smile lit up her eyes.

“Good morning to you as well, Inspector Clemente.” Sigrid’s voice was a little husky after the long hours of sleep. Her gaze traveled to the item Eva was holding in her hand and she let out an appreciative moan. “For me?”

Eva laughed and took a seat on the edge of the bed. “For you.” She handed Sigrid the mug of coffee and chuckled when she immediately brought it up to her face, breathing the fragrant steam in deeply.

Sigrid took a sip, careful not to burn her lips and tongue. She sighed happily and sent Eva a wink. “Perfect. I could get used to this, you know.”

“Someone bringing you coffee in the morning? Who wouldn’t?” Eva said. She reached out a hand and brushed away a strand of hair that was threatening to fall into Sigrid’s eyes. “Seeing you wake up like this is definitely worth it.” She leaned in and pressed a soft kiss on lips that tasted of coffee.

Sigrid smiled up at her and moved the coffee mug to the night stand. She put a hand on the back of Eva’s head and pulled her in for a more thorough exploration of lips and tongues. It was a display of unhurried passion in which both women reveled in the rapidly growing and deepening affection between them. The coffee sat forgotten when Sigrid’s hands started an exploration of warm skin that was hidden underneath a t-shirt and a fleece jacket. The moment her fingers stroked the smooth texture of Eva’s skin, she knew she wanted and needed more. Impatiently she pulled Eva closer, until the other woman was almost lying on top of her. Through the thin fabric of her sleep shirt, Sigrid could feel their shared body heat that, with their mutual exploration was rapidly rising. The reaction of Sigrid’s body to the feel of Eva’s had been acute and as the intensity between them grew, so did her cravings to be touched more intimately.

“Sigrid.” Eva’s voice was not more than a hoarse whisper.

“I know,” Sigrid replied. Her voice was almost inaudible. She swallowed hard. “We need to stop, before we lose all control.”

“I’m sorry. I really am.”

“I am too.” Sigrid’s lips kissed Eva’s neck, just underneath her ear. “You have no idea what your touch does to me.”

Eva moved her head to the side, giving Sigrid better access to the spot her attention was focused on. “I bet I do.” Her voice cracked when Sigrid bit down on the tender, sensitive skin and she let out a soft moan. “Sigrid.” Her voice was almost breathless.

“Are you sure the case we’re working on did not get resolved overnight?” Sigrid spoke in a low voice, her mouth close to Eva’s ear and she should feel the goosebumps erupt underneath her fingertips.

Eva moaned. “God, if only —.” She slowly moved away from Sigrid’s mouth and rolled on to her side. “I need to go stick my head in a snow bank.”

“Just your head?” Sigrid asked. Her voice was raspy and she sounded like she was out of breath. “I was thinking about a total submersion in the Penobscot Bay.” She exhaled slowly and looked at Eva whose eyes were devouring her. “Eva, honey, it’s not that I’m complaining, but please, don’t look at me like that,” Sigrid whispered, trailing her fingers across Eva’s cheek.

“Like what?”

Sigrid audibly swallowed. “Like you’re going to rip off my clothes to get acquainted with every inch of my body.”

The slow smile Eva sent her made Sigrid’s heart race.

“Every millimeter,” Eva said in a low and seductive voice. She reached out a hand and touched Sigrid’s nose, slowly trailing her finger down to her lips, chin, down her neck until she reached her breastbone. Her gaze never left Sigrid’s when she trailed lower, between her breasts, all the way down to her stomach. Then she paused and leaned in close; her lips were almost touching Sigrid’s. “Breathe,” she whispered.

When Sigrid let out a shuddering breath, Eva chuckled and gave her a quick kiss. “A little motivation to get this case resolved as soon as possible,” Eva teased.

“Like I need an incentive.” Sigrid smiled and pushed herself to a sitting position. She reached for her coffee and took a sip. “You are wicked, by the way, but in a very, very nice way.” Another sip of coffee helped moisten her mouth. “Thanks for the coffee. I’ll just sit here and drink it slowly, so my legs will be ready to hold my weight when I decide to get up.”

Eva laughed and playfully squeezed Sigrid’s thigh. “That bad?”

“Let’s just say that your little wordless ‘motivational speech’ temporarily redirected the flow of my blood. So, no, standing up right now is not an option.” Sigrid shook her head and laughed. “Right now my mind wants to explore where we left off, but somehow I don’t think that’s a good idea since it does some interesting things to my body.” Her gaze locked with Eva’s. “What happened to the plan of going slow and taking time to court me?” Sigrid was teasing and the twinkle in Eva’s eyes showed her she was aware of that.

“I did say that, didn’t I?” Eva feigned a guilty expression. “What was I thinking?”

They both laughed and Sigrid couldn’t resist stealing another kiss that quickly turned into a more intense exploration. When she finally pulled away, she could feel her skin glowing.

“So, Inspector Clemente, how about a diversion that doesn’t turn me into a puddle of desire?” she asked, slightly out of breath.

“I hope you don’t think I’m in a better shape than you are,” Eva said with a soft laugh. “But I’ll do my best to come up with a distraction, as soon as my brain cells are all lined up again like they’re supposed to.” She swung her legs out of bed and positioned herself on the edge. After taking a few deep breaths she looked at Sigrid and smiled. “Before I forget to tell you this; you look adorable when you sleep.”

“Thank you.” Sigrid smiled and blew Eva a kiss. “Distraction, please!”

“Maureen left for Boston in the wee hours of the morning. Right now she and Casey are on their way here and should arrive in a few hours.”

The words had the desired effect of pulling Sigrid out of her sensual haze. “So everything went according to plan?”

Eva nodded. “It sure did. And it’s a good thing we anticipated they would be followed, because they were. They had lunch at my friend’s restaurant, left via the back door and hopped in Kenneth’s car.”

“I’m glad that went well. Did they get a look at whoever was following them?”

Eva shook her head and laughed. “No, they didn’t, but one of Kenneth’s cop buddy’s did. He talked to them long enough for Maureen and Casey to make a clean getaway.”

“Did he get their ID?”

“No, there was no reason to ask for it, really. They were parked in a legitimate spot and Lauren decided we shouldn’t give them reason to think we’re on to them. Not yet, anyway, because it could make them jumpy. If everything goes well and according to plan, we can bring them all to justice; every little peon.”

Sigrid raised her coffee mug in a salute and took a sip. “I drink to that.”

###

Maureen Lawrence checked her rearview mirror and sped up, overtaking the truck in front of her that was barely driving the speed limit. Immediately after she had passed the raggedy looking, old vehicle, she steered the car back into the right lane and reduced speed. She was driving just a little faster than the car behind her. Again, her gaze traveled to the mirror and she muttered something unintelligible, disrupting Casey’s musings.

“Did you say something?”

“Do you see the car that is overtaking us right now? Maureen asked.

Casey looked to the left, noticing a sleek black car with tinted windows that made it impossible to see the driver inside. “Yes. What about it?”

“They’re following us.”

“Shit. Are you sure?”

Maureen nodded and quickly glanced at her passenger. Casey looked pale, tired and more than a little frightened. “I thought we’d left them in Boston.”

“Oh, we did.” Maureen’s deliberately kept her voice calm. “This is a different bunch.”

“But how…? Are you sure?” Casey asked again.

“Unfortunately, yes. They’ve been behind us for a while now, just hanging back. Usually, people who drive a nice BMW like that at least go a little faster than the recommended speed limit. He only sped up when I overtook the truck behind us, but he hadn’t counted on me slowing down again, so now he has to overtake us, because I left no room behind us.” Maureen divided her attention between the black BMW and the road in front of them.

“How did they know where to find us?” Casey couldn’t hide the slight tremor in her voice.

“Is your phone on?”

Casey reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone. “Yes, but what…Crap. Somehow they’ve been tracking my GPS signal.”

“Welcome to modern day technology.” Maureen glanced aside. “Turn it off and disable the GPS, just in case. They hacked your phone.”

Casey quickly turned off her phone and angrily stuffed it in a side pocket of her laptop case. “Damnit! I should have thought about that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Maureen said. “What’s done is done. I’m just glad we’re still far away from our destination.” She kept an eye on the BMW that was now a few cars in front of them. It had slowed down as well and Maureen knew she didn’t have much time to come up with a plan. “Is your laptop off? I mean, completely off?”

“Yes, it is and I don’t think they would be able to track it. Because of the sensitive information I work with on a daily basis, it has the best security available,” Casey said.

“Is the information we need on the hard drive?”

Casey shook her head. “Most of the files I have are on a flash drive or SD card. There are only a couple on the hard drive.”

“Can you transfer them to a flash drive, like, now?” Maureen asked.

“Yes, of course.” Casey unzipped the case that sitting at her feet and pulled out her laptop. “What is your plan? You do have a plan, don’t you?”

“I’m working on it.” Maureen answered. She handed Casey her phone. “Call Lauren, she is the first name on the list. And put the phone on speaker, please.”

Casey did as she was asked and almost immediately the call was answered. “Maureen?”

“We have a situation.”

“Damn. How many?”

“As far as I can tell it’s only the one car. I don’t know how many people are inside of it because the windows are tinted pretty dark.”

“Where are you?”

“Approaching Portsmouth.”

All of a sudden Eva’s voice sounded. “Maureen, leave 95 north and take 4 west, into New Hampshire. It will give us some time to come up with an alternative route. Casey, do you have your phone on?”

“Not anymore,” Casey said. “I’m sorry, I—.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Lauren interrupted. “It might work in our advantage when we want to flush those roaches out. Where are our friends right now?”

“In front of us.” Maureen quickly explained how she had made sure the car that was following them ended up in front of them and she smiled when she heard Lauren’s amused chuckle.

“Atta girl,” Lauren said. “You know they’ll probably take the next exit, leave 95 and then try to pop up behind you again.”

“If they do I’ll floor it, and see if I can put some distance between us. If not, I’ll take the exit,” Maureen said. “But, if they have any sense at all, they’ll take the exit and I’d be very surprised if they don’t.”

“That means you’ll floor it.” Lauren’s voice was calm. “I could call in reinforcements and—.”

“No.” Maureen shook her head. “If you do that, we’ll lose the upper hand. We don’t want them to know Casey has been in contact with Eva and Sigrid, not yet anyway.”

Lauren sighed. “You’re right, but…be careful, please.”

Maureen smiled at the barely hidden worry in Lauren’s voice. “I will, I promise.” Her smile widened. “I love you, too.”

“I know.” Lauren’s voice was soft and warm. “Call me back in fifteen minutes. We’ll have an alternative route for you then.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Maureen gestured at Casey to disconnect the call. She sent the pale woman an encouraging smile. “Ready for an adventure?”

Casey let out a nervous chuckle. “Do I have a choice?”

“Not really.” Maureen noticed a sign that announced the interstate they were on would split and her hands tightened around the steering wheel. If the black BMW would take the exit to resurface behind them again a few minutes later and Maureen and Casey would have sped off, their followers would realize they had been discovered and things could get ugly after that. The BMW slowed down and so did Maureen. Casey’s hand on her arm startled her.

“Maureen, in a couple of miles there will be an exit on the left side; the one that veers back into New Hampshire. What if they’re not familiar here? We might have a chance to throw them off completely. If they take the Portsmouth Circle exit, they don’t realize what’s ahead.”

After a brief, tense silence Maureen laughed and shot Casey an appreciative glance. “Are you suggesting I stick to 95 and pretend to go to Maine and take exit 4 into New Hampshire at the last possible minute while they’re in the lane to take exit 5?”

Casey grinned. “Exactly.”

“Excellent idea,” Maureen said. “This could get a little hairy though, so I need you to keep an eye on the road behind me. Let me know if there’s a car behind us on the left. I’m going to swing to the left lane just before we reach the divider in the road.”

‘Okay.” Casey shifted in her seat so she had a clear view of the area behind the car. “So far, so good,” she said. “There’s a red car about two hundred yards behind us. They just changed lanes.”

The black BMW was still in front of them, but had moved to the right lane that would lead to the fast approaching exit. Maureen kept following the lane she was in, the middle one of the three that would lead into Maine. The lane to her left was leading to another exit, the one she planned on taking at the last possible moment.

To her satisfaction, the BMW was still in the right lane and it did seem like they were going to stay there. In the distance, Maureen could see the lane divider approaching and she moistened suddenly dry lips. “Any cars?”

“Nothing that’s close,” Casey’s voice betrayed her nervousness. “We’re still good.”

“Okay, hold on.” Maureen took a deep breath and when there were less than a hundred yards between her car and the divider she gave the steering wheel a sharp tug to the left. The car immediately changed direction. They would have ended up in a spin had Maureen not moved the car to the right again. They zoomed by the metal divider that was now on their right side and both Maureen and Casey let out a breath of relief.

“That was gutsy,” Casey said with a nervous chuckle.

“More like stupid,” Maureen grinned. “But look, we got rid of them.”

The driver of the black BMW had increased speed and was racing ahead of them, most likely trying to find a way to catch up with them again.

“You know they most likely will find a way to get on 4 West, right?” Casey said.

Maureen nodded. “Probably. But by the time they actually get there, we’ll have disappeared. They can’t track your phone anymore, which is a serious blow to their tracking tools.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Maureen glanced aside and smiled. “So am I.”

They both laughed and Maureen motioned to her phone. “Could you please call Lauren again?”

###

Douglas Whitfield paced the length of his office. He was desperately trying to come up with a plan. Things had gone from bad to worse and put him under an enormous amount of pressure. With a sigh he scratched his chin. Underneath his fingertips he could feel the day old stubble. He knew he did not look like his usual self. His shirtsleeves were rolled up, his tie was hanging loose around his neck, he needed a shave, and he knew that, if he would look into a mirror, his image would be staring back at him with dark circles underneath his eyes. He had been all up night; too restless to even try to go to sleep. Instead, he had anxiously searched for a solution to his problem. But he had come up short. He was running out of time and could almost feel the noose tighten around his neck. If he didn’t come up with a plan, he was going to take the fall, which most definitely would mean the end of his career, and prison time.

He walked to his desk and fell down in a large chair. It was tempting to reach out to Charles Benoit and casually ask him if he had heard from Eva. What held him back was the feeling that Charles had figured out his role in the case; why else had Casey Planters disappeared this morning? Her phone had been shut off, so there was no way they could track her anymore. He knew she had met with Charles and was present when he got shot. Somehow, she must have figured out someone was keeping an eye on her. Douglas frowned. Or she had help. He looked at the picture on his computer screen. He still had not figured out who the woman was Casey had left with that morning. It was hard to get a good look at her face. First of all she had a scarf wrapped around her head and secondly they had not been able to get a full frontal look at her. If he didn’t know any better, he’d think she

must have known there was a car parked outside Casey’s house with someone taking pictures. That thought nagged him. Everything indicated that it was a friend of Casey’s; the hug, the casual lunch. He clenched his jaw when he remembered the phone call informing him they had lost Casey. All because of some overly friendly cop who had kept them chatting for almost ten minutes. Of course the idiots had not witnessed the women leave. Thank goodness he had been able to trace Casey’s phone. Douglas angrily slapped his desk. Whoever the woman with Casey was, she must have been working with Eva. He had checked with his contacts at the local FBI office and there was no agent assigned to the Meyers-case. Not yet, anyway. But that was only a matter of time. If Eva Clemente had left the state and was with Sigrid Meyers, eventually the FBI would get involved. He jumped up from his chair and walked to the window, staring at the parking lot in front of the building. He needed to get a hold of Clemente. Preferably as soon as possible.

“Damn that stupid, overly conscientious bitch.”

Part 20

Lauren Darkwolf absentmindedly ran her fingers through her hair. When Maureen had called that morning, she had just finished showering and never got around braiding her long hair like she usually did. Maureen liked it when it was loose like that, but to Lauren it wasn’t very practical. Her gaze traveled to the road, willing her partner and Casey Planters to appear. They were close, she knew that, but she would only stop worrying when Maureen was safely within arm’s reach. The fact that two different cars had been involved in following her and Casey made Lauren think there was power and organization behind the people monitoring their moves, which validated Eva’s claim a senator in D.C was involved. It was the main reason for Lauren’s concern. Powerful people had an enormous reach and were very tough adversaries. They would have to be careful in planning their next steps. A soft voice behind Lauren startled her out of her musings.

“Are you okay?”

Lauren turned and sent Sigrid a smile. “I will be when Maureen’s back here.”

Sigrid nodded. “I totally understand that. They should be here soon, though.”

“I know. I guess I’d better start some coffee, knowing Maureen , that’s the first thing she’ll ask for.”

“What is it with law enforcement people and coffee?” Sigrid’s tone was light and Lauren appreciated the attempt to distract her.

“It’s what keeps us awake at all the odd hours we have to work,” she answered. She walked toward the kitchen and started assembling the items she needed. “But it’s not just us. I have a friend who is a nurse and one who is a physician and trust me; they’re more addicted to the stuff than I’ll ever be.”

Sigrid laughed and leaned against the breakfast bar that divided the kitchen from the dining area. “You’re right. As an EMT I deal a lot with Emergency Room physicians and nurses and they always have fresh coffee available.”

“As they should,” Lauren sent Sigrid a wink. “I’d like them to be awake and alert when I need their services.”

“No kidding.” The smile on Sigrid’s face faded.

“Bad memory?” she guessed.

“I just remembered shooting Donny.” Sigrid sighed and Lauren saw her eyes cloud over. “I know I didn’t have much of a choice and thank goodness I hit his shoulder and not some more vital area.” She looked up at Lauren. “I feel bad about it.”

Lauren nodded. “I understand that. You did save Eva’s life, though.”

“I know, and I would do it again if I had to,” Sigrid said. “But it doesn’t feel very heroic to shoot someone, even in those circumstances.” She bit her bottom lip and cast down her gaze. “I hate guns.”

Lauren slowly nodded. “I do, too,” she said. “That might sound strange, coming from a person in my line of work, but I always try to keep in mind that the reason I carry a gun is to protect others and myself, and because it often brings me on equal footing with the bad guys I try to put away.” She paused for a moment. “It’s a necessary evil.”

“That it is. I’m very happy Eva will start teaching soon and won’t be in the field anymore.”

Lauren smiled. “And what will you do?”

“I don’t know yet.” Sigrid blew away a strand of hair that threatened to fall in her eyes. “I feel I need some time to think about what I want. But first I want this case solved, the arrest warrant gone, and at least a weekend of uninterrupted sleep.”

“Sounds good to me.” Eva’s voice sounded.

Sigrid half-turned and sent her a warm smile. “How was your shower?”

“Very nice, thank you,” Eva said. “Is that a pot of fresh coffee in the making, Darkwolf?”

Lauren turned to Sigrid and chuckled. “See?”

“See what?” Eva took a seat at the breakfast bar and her gaze traveled from Lauren to Sigrid and back again. “Are the two of you speaking in code?”

“We were just discussing what coffee addicts law enforcement officers and healthcare workers are,” Sigrid said with a grin. “You just proved us right.”

“Anything to make you happy.” Eva reached out and tucked a wayward blonde curl behind Sigrid’s ear. “How are you feeling?”

“Tired.”

“We’ve got to bring this case to a close so you can sleep a whole weekend,” Eva gently teased.

“Let’s get on that,” Lauren said. She pointed to the window. “Here’s Maureen with her charge.”

###

“What are we going to do now?” Twitch stared at her friends who were sitting across from her at their favorite table at Chez Me. They were having a late lunch and were discussing the events of the last couple of days.

“I don’t know,” Meg answered. “I don’t see what else we can do but wait. I pretty much feel our roles are over.”

“Amen to that.” Betty let out a sigh. “I’ve had enough adventure for the time being.”

“Does that mean if Sigrid needs us, you’ll refuse to help?” Twitch asked. She pointed her fork at Betty and glanced at her over the rim of her glasses that always seemed to end up at the tip of her nose.

“Of course not!” Betty’s indignant voice carried across the small restaurant making the waitress look up with an inquisitive gaze. Immediately, Betty lowered her voice. “Of course not. If Sigrid would need us I’d be ready and willing to help. It’s just that…well, I think there’s nothing we can do right now. I agree with Meg, we should just wait.”

“And we can be there for Morgan and Ellen, at least until they return to Portland ,” Meg added.

“She’s such a sweet girl,” Twitch said. “She asked me to give Sigrid and Eva a letter from her, in case she wouldn’t see them again.” She rooted through her purse. “Where are they? I swear, the bigger my purse, the more crap I…here they are.” Twitch pulled out two envelopes and put them on the table.

“What’s that?” Betty asked.

Twitched looked at her like she had lost her mind. “What do you mean? They’re letters, can’t you tell?”

“Yes, Twitch, I can see that, thank you.” Betty chuckled. “What is this ?” She pointed at a small plastic square that had fallen on the table when the envelopes were taken out of the purse.

Twitch frowned and picked up the small item. The look on her face was a mixture of curiosity and guilt.

“Twitch?” Meg asked, leaning forward. “You look like you are caught with your hand in the cookie jar.”

“I forgot about this thing, whatever it is,” she said. “It’s been in my purse all this time.”

“What is it?” Meg asked.

Betty reached across the table and picked up the small, transparent plastic box.

“It looks like a petrified stamp to me,” Twitch mumbled. “It must be Japanese or something, because it says ‘San Disk’ on it.”

Betty stared at the tiny blue item in the box. With a frown she looked up at Twitch. “If you don’t know what it is, where did you get it?”

“Do you know what it is?” Twitch asked.

“It’s a memory card,” Betty answered. “My grandson uses these in his digital camera. Where’d you get it, Twitch?”

Twitch pushed her glasses back on the bridge of her nose and cast down her gaze. “I found it in church.”

“Oh, well maybe it belongs to one of the kids,” Meg said. “You should give it to Sigrid.” She paused. “I wonder if Sigrid will be back as our—.” She was interrupted by Betty.

“When?”

“Um, well, that’s the…, well, after I found it I put it in my pocket, because I wanted to give it to Sigrid, but then all hell broke loose.”

“Holy crap.” Meg let out an explosive breath. Her eyes were wide when she looked at Twitch. “Grace Sophia Anderson, did you find that thing on the day of the murder?”

When Twitch slowly nodded, both she and Betty groaned.

“Before you say anything else, I completely forgot about it, alright,” Twitch said. She looked from Meg to Betty and back again. Her eyes seemed bigger than usual behind the thick glasses that, once again, had slid to the tip of her nose. “Do you think they’ll put me in jail for withholding evidence?”

Meg snorted. “They should.”

“We don’t know if it’s evidence,” Betty said. She closed her fingers around the small box. “We should find out, though.”

“How? It’s not like we can contact Sigrid, or the Inspector,” Twitch said.

“No, but we could try to get a hold of Charles Benoit,” Meg said.

###

Eva Clemente looked at the slender woman who was sitting on the couch with her laptop in front of her on the coffee table. Casey Planters looked tired. Dark circles underneath her eyes were testimony to the fact she had missed out on a lot of sleep recently. Mentally, Eva snorted; hadn’t they all? In spite of Casey’s obvious fatigue, there was a keen intellect in her eyes and her mouth was set in determination. To Eva, it was easy to see the characteristics that made Casey Planters such an excellent investigative reporter.

Eva’s gaze traveled to Sigrid and she suppressed a chuckle when she noticed the intensity with which she studied Casey. Her blue eyes held a pensive look and Eva was certain Sigrid’s mind was going full speed. She was sure Sigrid had many questions to ask, but she showed remarkable restraint.

As if Casey could feel Sigrid’s gaze, she looked up, but to her credit, she barely flinched under the scrutiny.

“I’m ready to take questions,” Casey said with a small smile.

Before anyone else could utter a word, Sigrid moved to the edge of her seat and unconsciously leaned forward. “I’d like to hear the entire story,” she said. “But right now, the most pressing question I have has to do with the restroom at Kennebunk. That was you, wasn’t it?”

Casey bit her bottom lip and slowly nodded. “Yes, that was me.” She took a deep breath and her gaze leveled at Sigrid. “It was pure coincidence I ran into you and Eva that day.”

“I’d never met you before, but you recognized me,” Sigrid said. Her voice was laced with curiosity. When Casey nodded she leaned back into her chair. “How?”

“I had seen your picture in a file.” Casey raked her fingers through her hair and for the first time she seemed a little flustered. “I’d like to start at the beginning, if that’s okay?”

Sigrid nodded. “Sure, I’m sorry if I—.”

“No, don’t be. It was a valid question.” Casey sent Sigrid a small smile. “About a year-and-a-half ago I was doing an article about lobbying and bribery on Capitol Hill. I spent a good two months going back and forth between Boston and Washington and during that time I interviewed a lot of people, from janitors to senators.” She paused a moment and took a sip of the coffee that Lauren had handed her. “I met a senator, Arthur Chandler, who was very helpful. He was able to give me a lot of good information and even supplied me with some names and examples that, ultimately, helped expose a huge corruption scandal within the Department of Agriculture.”

“I remember that,” Maureen said. “Potato-gate.”

Casey let out a soft chuckle and nodded. “That’s the one, yes. After the story broke, this senator and I kept in touch and eventually I became romantically involved with him. It was a pretty clandestine affair, since he’s married.” Casey shook her head and stared at the mug she was holding. “That’s probably the most unethical, low-life thing I’ve ever done,” she whispered. She took a deep breath before continuing. “From the very beginning, he assured me he was in the process of divorcing his wife, but since they’re both high-profile people, it was a slow, quiet process.” Casey let out a humorless laugh. “I believed him, which really doesn’t say much about my instincts and intellect at that moment. Every now and then I asked him about the progress of his divorce and he always had a plausible answer.”

“One day, a few months ago, I was staying at his apartment in Rockville when, all of a sudden his wife arrived. He whisked me away in his office and told me to stay there while he dealt with his wife. He told me she’d probably had some divorce papers to sign, which I found odd. Anyway, I sat in his office, trying to figure out what was going on. I already had a suspicious feeling about his divorce, but I didn’t have any substantial information. While he and his wife were talking, I noticed a vacation itinerary on his desk. I couldn’t suppress my curiosity and peeked at it.” Casey took a deep breath and shook her head. “It was trip for him, and his wife, to Bangkok , Thailand .”

Immediately, Eva stiffened. “ Bangkok ?”

Casey nodded. “Yes. Back then I thought he and his wife were going on a romantic getaway, but now I think differently. Anyway, his vacation plans showed me he and his wife were most likely not at all going through a divorce, which validated my gut-feeling. I was hurt and angry, so I threw the piece of paper back on his desk, but knocked over a stack of folders. I picked them up to put them back, when a few pages slid out.” Casey paused and looked at Sigrid. “One of the pages had a picture of you on it; the others contained names, addresses, and numbers. There were also a few copies of invoices and bank accounts. When I saw his name on a Swiss account, my investigative senses finally woke up and I became suspicious. I used my phone to scan in as much of the file as I could.” Casey patted her laptop. “It’s all in here. At first, I didn’t know what I was looking at, so I decided ,very carefully, to poke around a little and see what I could find out. One of the local newspapers published the story about the body found in the church and printed a picture of you,” Casey said, looking at Sigrid. “I recognized you and immediately felt something was going on, something bigger than I had expected. I talked it over with my editor and he told me to start some serious investigation. When I ran into you in the restroom at Kennebunk, I was blown away. At that time there was a story on my desk about the murder that was going to be printed in the next Sunday edition, but after seeing you and Eva, who was about to grab her gun when I stared at you, I knew there was a lot more to it than I anticipated, so I asked my editor to put the story on ice and told him I was going to Concord to talk to someone from the Major Crime Unit.”

“Chuck,” Eva said with a nod.

“Yes, Chuck. I brought the files I had. He and I compared notes he filled me in on some of the information he had. All of a sudden pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place and the story grew.”

“May we see those files?” Lauren asked. She had been listening intently and Eva was grateful she had asked her friend for help. It seemed like the case was going to get bigger and more complicated. Having Lauren Darkwolf at her side was an incredible reassurance.

Eva watched Casey boot up her laptop and used the opportunity to take a seat on the armrest of Sigrid’s chair. A pair of blue eyes looked up at her and she smiled. Sigrid’s answer was to silently rub her cheek against Eva’s arm, before focusing on Casey again. The gesture left Eva feeling warm inside.

“Here.” Casey turned her laptop around and Lauren left her seat to kneel down in front of the coffee table.

Lauren’s dark eyes scanned the screen and after a brief silence Eva noticed a small smile appear.

“Sigrid, remember how you hit a roadblock with the Swiss account?” Lauren gazed up at Sigrid and sent her a wink. “I think there are some numbers here that will help you to jump over that obstacle.” Her attention went back to the screen and she slowly nodded. “This is a great addition to what we already have. It does not exactly prove Chandler ‘s personal involvement yet, but it will get us a lot closer.” Lauren stood and looked at Eva. “We’ll need to do a little more digging, but if we can link his Swiss account directly to the payments from Brothers’, and find something that connects him to the trafficking we might have a case.”

“Did he go to Bangkok already?” Maureen wanted to know.

Casey nodded. “Last month.”

“Do you know if Chandler has anything to do with international business consulting?” The tone of Sigrid’s voice was pensive. “Like, an agency that provides nannies, housekeepers and such?”

Lauren sent Sigrid an appreciative look and smiled. “Smart woman! Are you thinking about the money trail Charles followed?”

Sigrid nodded and focused her attention at Casey. “Do you know anything about that?”

Casey had gone pale and with trembling fingers she put down the coffee mug she was holding. “Oh, my God. You’re right! Why didn’t I see that before?” She seemed genuinely upset. “Arthur is on the board of directors for ‘Borderless Aide’. It’s an international Agency that places nannies and housekeepers all over the world.”

###

Douglas Whitfield let his gaze wander across the room and nodded in satisfaction; everything was taken care of. The temperature in the small building was starting to get more pleasant, the doors were all locked as were the windows. They had done a good job with the renovation. The highway was very close, but inside the house it was impossible to hear the passing vehicles. The little house had not been used a lot yet, and he had been lucky that it was empty. Not that it would have mattered anyway. He wouldn’t have done anything differently. He strolled to the small kitchen, opened the refrigerator and pulled out one of the beers he had stored in it earlier. He was thirsty. So far, it had been a stressful day, but from now on it would become rapidly better. He chuckled when he popped the cap off the bottle. He had the upper hand, even though Eva Clemente did not realize that, but she would soon enough. He would make sure of that. The leverage he had acquired was going to get him what he wanted; out of the country. It wasn’t like he didn’t have any connections abroad. He could practically pick where to go. He took a swig of beer and smiled. Indonesia was supposed to be a beautiful country and its most attractive feature was the lack of an extradition treaty with the United States .

Douglas Whitfield emptied the bottle and let out a satisfied belch. He briefly debated whether he would have another one, but he decided against it. He had an important phone call to make.

###

“I have their website right here.” Sigrid pointed at the screen in front of her. “Of course they look like a legitimate company.” Her eyes scanned the screen. “Their services are pretty extensive, as is their network. They really are all over the world.”

“Part of the company is probably what they say it is,” Maureen said. She was looking over Sigrid’s shoulder. “I’m sure they provide honest, English speaking staff that has been cleared by immigration services. But it sounds like they provide a whole lot more than that.”

“We need more information, though,” Lauren said. She cast a look at Sigrid. “At this moment we can’t use Federal resources, because I’m convinced Chandler has made sure any inquiry will be flagged.” She paused and raised an eyebrow. “How are your hacking skills?”

“Rusty,” Sigrid said.

Eva stepped closer toward Sigrid and tapped her shoulder. When she looked up it was in a pair of quizzical eyes.

“Is there something you forgot to tell me?”

Sigrid chuckled and shook her head. “I told you about my brother.”

“Who is not a hacker,” Eva said, but she smiled.

“Um, no, he’s not. I…didn’t I mention I used to hang out with some federally employed hackers when I was working with the NYPD?”

“No.” Eva laughed and shook her head. “I’m starting to realize it’s a good thing you’re on the right side of the Law.”

“That’s what my Dad used to say,” Sigrid muttered. Her fingers flew over the keyboard and in rapid succession she brought up a variety of windows. “All I have is this laptop, so this might take a little while.”

“Whatever it takes,” Lauren replied with an amused grin, while Maureen chuckled. “Just let us know what you need.”

Sigrid nodded, already absorbed in her search for information.

Casey shook her head. “If I ever get to finish writing the article I started, people will believe I made up this stuff.”

Maureen was still looking over Sigrid’s shoulder and gently nudged her. “Do I dare ask where you got access to this hacking software?” She could not hide the amusement in her voice.

“Better not.” Sigrid looked up and grinned. “Besides, this is pretty outdated already and it’s very basic, which suits my skill level just fine.”

“Girl, to me it looks like wizardry.” Maureen laughed. “But don’t let me interrupt you.” She stood and stretched. “I need some nourishment. Does anyone else want something to eat as well?”

“Good idea.” Lauren stood as well. “I’ll give you hand. What are you hungry for?”

Maureen subtly raised an eyebrow and Lauren chuckled. She reached out and grabbed Maureen’s hand, pulling her along toward the kitchen. “Later,” she promised.

Eva watched her friends disappear into the kitchen and with a small smile she took a seat across from Sigrid, who was completely engrossed in her illegal activity. She motioned to Casey’s laptop. “May I have another look at those files?”

When Casey nodded she grabbed the computer and pulled up the files that had been found in the folder in Arthur Chandler’s office. The picture of Sigrid brought a small smile to her face. It was a good one. It was from her FBI file and listed her credentials and achievements. It angered Eva that a US senator was involved in human trafficking. The fact that he deliberately had targeted Sigrid as scape-goat made her blood boil. If there was something Eva loathed even more than criminal activities, it was the abuse of power by someone who had the trust of a lot of people. Arthur Chandler was in a privileged position that was supposed to be used for good, not to inflict pain and suffering. While going through the information again, Eva made some mental notes on things to follow up on. She stared at a list of names. Jeremy Brothers and Archibald Tate were just two of the twelve and she wondered if the others were just as involved as they were. If that were the case, the network was definitely national. Besides New Hampshire and Boston there were addresses in Maine, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Oregon, Montana, Nebraska and Michigan. In her mind’s eye, Eva drew lines from state to state and she slowly nodded when she realized that, when connected, the network circled the entire country. She wondered if the list she was looking at referred to home addresses of traffickers or safe houses. Eva was so deep in thought she almost jumped when her phone started buzzing. With a frown she glanced at the display and cursed.

Immediately, Sigrid gazed up with a worried look. “Who is it?”

“Whitfield.” Eva’s voice was barely more than a growl.

She pressed the talk button and brought the device to her ear. “Clemente.”

“Hello, Inspector. I’m so glad you are answering your regular phone. You must be in a safe place. How is this unscheduled leave of absence working out for you?”

“Go to hell, Whitfield,” Eva spat.

“Now, now, is that the correct way to address a superior?”

Eva cringed at the arrogant tone of voice and wondered what Douglas Whitfield had up his sleeve. He had to think it was good, otherwise he wouldn’t have called her.

“Soon to be ex-supervisor.” Eva was barely able to control the anger in her voice. “What do you want?”

“Oh, I thought that was obvious! I want that cute little pastor.” Whitfield’s voice was smug. “And you, of course, I want you too, but that’s a given.”

“Why don’t you save yourself a lot of trouble and turn yourself in at the closest police station,” Eva said.

“Where’s the fun in that?” Whitfield let out a laugh that made Eva cringe. He sounded like he was balancing on the edge on insanity. “No, I have a better plan.”

“Which is?”

“I thought you’d never ask.” Whitfield chuckled, but to Eva’s ears it sounded closer to a giggle. “How about you and I, and Pastor Meyers, meet somewhere this afternoon? Just to get this pesky little situation solved and get on with our lives.”

“Do you really think I’m that naïve?”

“No, not really, but one can try.” Whitfield sighed. “Alright, I will put my bargaining chip on the table. How’s that?”

“Depends on the chip.”

“Fair enough. How about trading you and the Pastor for something I have that you would like back?”

All of a sudden Eva’s felt like her body weighed twice as much as normal and she quickly sat in a chair, afraid she would fall down. It was if a cold hand had grabbed her insides. Her legs felt rubbery and she was light-headed. “What do you have?”

“Well, there’s a story to it,” Whitfield said. “I had been wondering where you’d gone off to, so I figured you’d go home, to your family. But that was too obvious, so I decided to discard that idea. Still. I couldn’t suppress my curiosity, so I drove through your home town. What a charming place you grew up in, Eva.”

Eva gritted her teeth and kept silent, even though it took all her willpower to do so.

“Anyway, I was cruising down Main Street and all of a sudden I saw you. ” Whitfield laughed. “I was so delighted. But then, when I came closer I was so disappointed, because, as far as I know, you don’t have two little children.” He paused for a moment. “Of course, my disappointment didn’t last long, because all of a sudden I got this great idea.” Another pause. “I figure you can guess what the idea was, can’t you?”

“If you dare to —.”

“Oh, honey, I’m way past that stage. I dared. And guess what? I have three delightful guests! I have to say the resemblance between you and Iris is uncanny. You could have been twins.” Whitfield chuckled. “Those kids are adorable. So, before you say anything else, I want you to think for a moment. I’ll call you back in ten minutes.”

“Don’t hang up on me. Whitfield!” Eva yelled, but the connection had been severed and with an anguished cry she slapped her hand on the table, ignoring the stinging it caused; the pain she felt inside was so much more intense.

Sigrid left what she was doing and moved to kneel in front of Eva, who had her head buried in her hands and was visibly shaking. Tentatively, she put a hand on Eva’s knee. “Eva, honey, what’s going on?” She tried to keep her voice steady, but could not hide the worry she felt.

Maureen and Lauren had left the kitchen and were standing next to Sigrid; Lauren’s hand on her shoulder.

“Eva.” Lauren’s voice was calm but urgent. “Talk to us.”

Slowly, Eva lifted her head. The look in her eyes was one of desperation and pain. “He’s got Iris and the twins,” she whispered. A lone tear slid down her cheek and she breathed in deeply, trying to regain her composure, which failed miserably.

“What exactly did he say?” Lauren pulled up a chair and sat down facing Eva. “Focus, Eva.”

Eva swallowed hard and entwined her fingers with Sigrid’s. In a hoarse voice she repeated what Douglas Whitfield had told her. The more she related of the conversation, the more audible the anger in her voice became.

“When he calls back, tell him he can have me, if he let Iris and the twins go. We can meet somewhere and make the swap.” Sigrid sounded calm and determined, but the look in her eyes showed anxiety and fear.

“No.” Eva’s fingers tightened around her hand.

“What choice do we have?” Sigrid briefly pressed her forehead against their clasped hands. “I can’t have him…hurt your sister and her children, Eva. Not if exchanging me for them will get them back safely.”

“Do you really think the bastard will let them go?” Eva’s voice was weary.

“Why don’t we wait until he calls back and listen to what he wants, exactly,” Lauren suggested. “We can take it from there.” She put her hand on Eva’s shoulder and gave it an encouraging squeeze. “He doesn’t know about Maureen and me being here, which is in our advantage.” With a grim expression on her face Lauren pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. “He will tell you not to contact the police, but we need more manpower.” She looked at Eva while she waited for her call to be answered. “He’ll probably try to set up a meeting. I need you to buy us as much time as you can. He doesn’t know where you are, so tell him you’re hours away.” Lauren’s voice softened when she saw the distress on Eva’s face. “I know he has your sister and the kids, and we want to get them out of his claws as fast as we can, but we need to think this through, Eva.” She turned away and walked to the window when her call was answered. “Joe, it’s me—.”

Sigrid sent Maureen a questioning look, which was answered with a small smile.

“I think Lauren is calling the Darkwolf posse.”

###

It was not completely dark in the small room. A small bulb that hung from the ceiling provided a weak light, barely enough to illuminate the entire room. A mattress in the corner was the only furniture. Even the floor was bare. There was one window, painted black on the inside, so it was impossible to tell whether it was day or night. It was set high into the wall and even though she might be able to reach the narrow sill, she would not be able to pull herself up in order to even try and break the glass. If there was glass. Iris could not tell if the window was boarded up, barred, or even bricked shut.

Iris Clemente-Holbrook sat on the raggedy mattress, a sleeping child tucked against both her sides. Her mind was still desperately trying to wrap itself around the situation she was in. This morning she had been running some errands when she had run into the man who had claimed he worked with Eva. When he had introduced himself, his name had sounded familiar. He had known so many details about her work; Iris had no reason to even consider he wasn’t genuine. Oscar had been a little fussy and Douglas Whitfield had offered to give her a hand with the groceries. His chatter had been friendly and he had even made her laugh with some funny stories about Eva. He had helped her to strap the twins in their car seats and had surprised her when he opened the passenger door and sat down. At first she hadn’t noticed the gun pointed at her, but when she did her blood had run cold. He had casually told her to do exactly as he told her to and calmly gave her instructions on where to drive. The drive had been long enough to lull Olivia and Oscar to sleep and she had driven as slow as she dared, hoping someone would notice her with a stranger in the car. After all, most people in town knew each other. Too soon they had arrived at the destination Douglas Whitfield had in mind and within minutes Iris and her children were locked inside the room they were currently in. Her bag with groceries was dumped in a corner and her phone was taken away. After that the door was slammed shut and she heard a lock slide into place.

Iris looked down at the two sleeping children at her side and suppressed the panic she could feel rising up in her chest. She knew that by now Jesse would be worried sick and the thought of her frantic spouse made her tremble inside. Would Douglas Whitfield have contacted her? What would he have told her? What did he want? Money? Iris doubted it. Jesse had a nice income, but with two children, a mortgage and study loans not much was left at the end of the month. Her kidnapping somehow was tied in with Eva. Iris figured it had something to do with the case Eva had been working on, the one that had her and Sigrid visit for a few days. She didn’t know any details just that Sigrid had been targeted by someone and Eva had protected her. Eva. Could it be that Douglas Whitfield needed something from her?

Iris’ gaze traveled through the room. There was nothing she could use to escape or use as a weapon. Besides, trying to attack her kidnapper wasn’t an option; not with her children in the room. They were too vulnerable. But she would do anything to protect them. Olivia mumbled something in her sleep and Iris pulled her a little closer, careful not to wake her. She leaned in and dropped a kiss on the tousled, dark hair. The pressure in her chest was building and she could feel her throat constrict. Swallowing was painful, but she did it anyway. Breaking down and crying was not going to help her. She needed to figure a way out of her predicament while keeping her children safe.

Iris leaned the back of her head against the wall behind her and closed her eyes. She was not able to keep a few tears from sliding down her cheeks.

###

“What number did you say again?” Betty slowly drove down a quiet neighborhood street in Pembroke, a small town north of the capitol, Concord . They had been able to find Charles Benoit’s address in the phone book and had called him to tell him they had new information on the case. Even though he was out on medical leave he immediately had asked them to come to his house and not to talk to anyone else.

“Twelve,” Meg said from the back seat. “It should come up on the right any time now.”

“Or so the Noodle map says,” Twitch added.

“Google, Twitch,” Betty replied absentmindedly. “It’s ‘Google’.”

Twitch shrugged. “Whatever. I wonder how reliable those webbed maps are anyway.”

Meg chuckled. “Webbed maps?”

“Yes, from the interweb.”

Meg rolled her eyes and shook her head. “You’ll never learn, will you?”

“Probably not.” Twitch chuckled. “I am too old for all that modern stuff.”

“That’s probably why you didn’t recognize what you found.” Meg’s words were mumbled, but Twitch had heard her anyway.

“That’s not very nice, Meg,” Betty said, before Twitch could reply. “Had it not been for my grandson, I wouldn’t have known either.” She slowed down even more, causing the driver of a car behind them to loudly protest by using its claxon. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Betty muttered. “Don’t tie your britches in a knot. Here it is, girls.” She steered her car into a driveway and killed the engine.

“There he is,” Twitch said.

Charles Benoit had already opened the door and was gesturing them to come inside. They slowly left the car and made their way up to the house. Betty noticed the strained expression on Charles’ face and she gave his uninjured arm a friendly pat.

“How are you doing, dear?” she asked.

Charles mustered up a smile. “Not too bad. I’d feel a hell of a lot better if all of this is behind us and Eva is safely home.”

“Amen,” Twitch said, accepting Charles’ outstretched hand when she climbed the two steps to his front door.

As soon as they were all inside and seated, Charles looked from Betty, to Meg, to Twitch and back again. “Tell me. I’m dying from curiosity here,” he said. “What exactly did you find out?”

“It’s not what we found out, but what we found,” Meg said. “Well, to be exact, what Twitch found.”

Charles sank down in his recliner and took a deep breath. His gaze travelled to Twitch who was rummaging through her purse.

“Don’t tell us you lost it,” Meg said.

“”Don’t be silly,” Twitch replied. “I saw it in here just before we left. I…ah, here it is.” She handed Charles the item and they saw his eyebrow rise.

“An SD card?” He looked up and frowned. “Where did you find it?”

“Church,” Twitch said. She cast a slightly nervous look at her companions before adding: “The day of the murder.”

“The day of—.” Charles stood up from his chair, shook his head and sat back down again. “How —?”

“I found it when I walked into the church.” Twitch’s words tumbled out fast. “I was going to give it to Sigrid, but then she found the body and I completely forgot about it.” Twitch paused to take a deep breath and pushed her glasses higher up the bridge of her nose. “I didn’t know what it was, that it could be important.”

Charles looked at the small plastic box that looked even smaller in the palm of his large hand. “Is it?” he asked.

Betty gave the distraught Twitch a pat on the back and turned her attention to Charles. “We think so,” she said. “I asked my grandson to show me what was on it.” She let out a shaky breath. “There are pictures on it,” she said. “Lots of pictures. I only saw the first few and decided I had seen enough.”

“What did you see?” Charles pressed, looking at the SD card.

“I saw a picture of Jeremy Brothers with Senator Chandler, a picture of the house we found the children in, a picture of someone watching Sigrid’s house.” Betty shivered. “When I saw that one I knew this…card had to be related to whatever happened to Sigrid.”

Charles looked up at Betty and slowly nodded. He got up from his recliner and walked to a desk that held a computer. He tapped the mouse and the screen came alive. He took the card out of its box and slid into the appropriate slot. When a window popped up he clicked and within seconds he was looking at a large collection of pictures. Quietly clicking through them, he muttered under his breath. “Son of a bitch.”

His exclamation made Twitch and Meg almost jump up from their seats.

“Is…were we right?” Betty asked. “Is it related to the case?”

“Absolutely.” Charles looked up from his computer and pointed to the screen. “This is gold,” he said. “These pictures can break this case wide open and put some pretty bad boys behind bars for a very long time.” He let out a delighted laugh. “Wait until Eva sees this.”

“Do you know where she is?” Meg looked at him expectantly.

“No.” He shook his head. “But I do have an idea.” He retrieved the little memory card and carefully put it back into its plastic case. “The problem is that I can’t drive, though.”

Meg, Twitch and Betty looked at each other and had a very brief, silent conversation.

“I can,” Betty said. “Just tell me where to go and we’ll take you.”

###

Driving from Lincolnville back to Eva’s hometown was a quiet affair. Lauren was driving, while Eva and Sigrid were in the backseat, flanked by Casey Planters, who was very quiet. They were sitting close together and it was clear they were silently giving each other as much support as possible.

When Douglas Whitfield had called her back Eva had been able to convince him she was out of state and that it would take her at least six to eight hours to make it to the small strip mall where Iris had been abducted. He had not counted on that, she could tell. It had made him nervous. The delay interfered with his plans and six to eight hours would be after midnight. That would make him vulnerable, because he would not be able to keep an eye on his surroundings after dark; not if it was just him. When he had ordered Eva to meet him just after sunrise at the park and ride just outside town, part of her had been relieved while the other part had let out a silent scream in frustration. Sunrise would mean Iris and the twins would be at his mercy for a very long time. Deep down inside Eva also knew that they would have an edge. Whitfield had made a mistake by telling her where to meet him so far in advance. It gave her insight in his state of mind. He was panicking and scared. If she could keep her cool, they might have a chance.

After Whitfield had ended the call, Eva immediately had called her brother, Felix. He would pick up Jesse and take her to his parents’ house where they would meet the rest of the family.

Eva leaned back her head and closed her eyes. Jesse. She had not called her sister-in-law until Felix had been by her side. Only then she had broken the news about Iris’ and the twins’ kidnapping. As expected, Jesse had broken down and Felix had to carry her to a chair. Eva knew they had safely made it to her parents’ house, because Felix had called her when they had just left Lincolnville. She could only imagine what Jesse was going through. Had something similar happened to Sigrid, she would be an emotional wreck. And she wasn’t married to Sigrid and didn’t have two kids with her.

Eva swallowed and could not prevent a tear from escaping. She could feel it slide down her cheek, but before she could wipe it away a gentle thumb had beaten her to it. She slowly opened her eyes and was met by an intense look. Sigrid’s blue eyes were dark with distress and something else. Eva lifted her head and made a failed attempt to smile. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said.

“So am I.” Sigrid leaned in and pressed her lips against the soft skin of Eva’s cheek. “I am so, so sorry,” she added.

The blue eyes filled with tears and Eva tightened her grip on Sigrid’s hands. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “Please, Sigrid, this has nothing to do with you. Don’t let him make you believe that.”

“Had it not been for me, Iris and the twins would have been home now, with Jesse, where they belong.” Sigrid sniffed and angrily wiped her eyes.

“It’s not your fault,” Eva repeated. “Whitfield is a sick son-of-a-bitch who is trying to fix his mistakes. But I know him, he’s not a murderer and he would not hurt innocent little children.”

“Is that what you’re telling yourself?” Sigrid asked in a low voice.

Eva nodded. “I have to if I want to keep my sanity. I have to believe he will not hurt them. If I don’t do that, I…I won’t be able to think.”

Sigrid buried her face against Eva’s shoulder. “You have to know I’d exchange myself for them in a heartbeat.”

Eva nodded. “I know.” She swallowed hard. “Thank you.”

After a long silence, Eva felt moisture seeping through the fabric of her shirt. Gently, she pushed Sigrid’s face up; alarmed to see the tears freely flow from underneath closed eyelids. “Sigrid,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry,” was the choked answer. “I…it’s just so much to deal with.”

“Come here.” Eva pulled her closer and nodded at Lauren who glanced at her through the rearview mirror. “You need to try and push those thoughts aside. I need you to focus.” Eva dropped a kiss on the top of Sigrid’s head before pulling away. She needed to look her in the eyes. “Sigrid, I need you to focus. Iris needs you to focus, so do the twins. We can fall apart later, after this is all over and Iris and the twins are home, with Jesse. Until then–.”

“We need to focus,” Sigrid interrupted with a watery smile. “I’ll try.” She sniffed and gave Eva a squeeze. “Okay, focus. We need to find out where they can be. What was the last time Jesse saw them?”

“Around eleven this morning. Iris took the twins to pick up some groceries and she went to the post-office. She was supposed to meet Jesse at eleven-thirty, at home, because they were planning to take Oscar and Olivia to lunch and the toy store.”

“What time did Whitfield call you?”

“Twelve-thirty,” Eva said.

“So, Iris was abducted between eleven and twelve-thirty. We know it couldn’t have been eleven sharp.”

“Felix had Jesse look at their on-line bank account. Iris paid for the groceries at eleven-twenty-five.” Eva exhaled slowly. “So she was abducted between eleven twenty-five and twelve-thirty.”

Sigrid sucked in her bottom lip and for a moment she was lost in thought. “He has to be within a thirty minute radius of town,” she said. “Can you think of any place he could have taken them? It should be fairly isolated.” Sigrid paused and her face fell. “Or not. If it’s crowded, he could have simply vanished in the crowd.”

Maureen half-turned and cast a look at Eva. “Did you hear any background noises that could be helpful?”

Eva shook her head. “No. It was very quiet.”

“No cars, no water, no birds?”

“No, nothing. Sorry.”

“We’ll pull up a map of the area,” Lauren said without taking her eyes off the road in front of them. “An estimated thirty minute drive should put him fairly close.” Her gaze traveled to the rearview mirror. “Eva, what do you think is the distance between where Iris was kidnapped and the Interstate?”

“Maybe seven miles, but there are a lot of stops in between, so it could have taken between five and ten minutes to get there.” Eva let out a shaky breath. “It would have taken longer if it wasn’t winter, because of tourists on the road.”

“We need a map,” Maureen said.

“I have one.” Casey unzipped the side pocket of her laptop case and pulled out a neatly folded map, which she handed to Sigrid.

Spreading the map out on her knees, Sigrid’s eyes scanned the roads and town, but before she had located what she was looking for, Eva’s finger tapped the paper.

“Here.”

“So, what are we looking for? Anything within a thirty minute radius from where Iris was kidnapped?” Casey looked up at Eva. “At an average speed of what? Thirty-five miles per hour?”

“Until he reached Route 1,” Sigrid said. “If it would have taken him ten minutes to reach that, he could be as much as forty to fifty miles either way.”

“I think it’s less,” Lauren said. “He needed time to get Iris and the kids inside and get them settled before he would have made the call.” Lauren’s gaze caught Eva’s in the mirror. “Besides, Route 1 is not the Interstate, so the speed limit is probably between forty-five and fifty. Do you have any idea what kind of car he’s driving?”

“A Hyundai Elantra,” Eva answered. “If he’s using that car, he’ll be off Route 1 somewhere. It’s unlikely he went off road in a car like that. In this time of year you need a four-wheel drive that’s higher off the ground. If he took Iris’ car he would have been in the same situation; she drives a Volkswagen Jetta; not high enough and not a four-wheel drive.”

Lauren smiled. “Good thinking. So we need to concentrate on buildings that are not far off Route 1 and that are, most likely, abandoned or vacant rentals.”

###

“Is this the exit we want?” Betty risked a glance at Charles Benoit who was sitting in the passenger seat.

“Yes, this is it. At the end, you’ll want to take a left.”

“It’s pretty here,” Twitch said. She was sitting behind Betty and had been very quiet for most of the drive.

“A typical Maine coastal town.” Meg pointed at one of the faded billboards at the side of the road. “Lobster land.”

“Have you gotten through to Eva yet?” Meg leaned forward and peered at the cell phone that Charles was clutching in his uninjured hand.

“Not yet.” He sighed and carefully shifted position, afraid to jar his painful shoulder. “I do hope her family has an idea of where she is. This memory card makes me feel I’m carrying around an explosive device.”

“You were smart to make a copy,” Twitch said. “I didn’t even know that was possible.”

“You didn’t even know what it was when you found it”. There was a teasing edge to Meg’s voice.

“I am learning though.” Twitch shot her friend a look and pushed her glasses back onto her nose. “I might have to get one of those computers now; they seem a lot of fun.”

Meg sighed. “God have mercy. What would you do with it?”

“I could noodle things I want to know more about.”

“Like what?”

Twitch grinned and patted Meg’s knee. “Recipes, I could talk to my grandchildren through the webbed camera.”

“Web cam,” Meg automatically corrected.

“I could read the news, gossip, read the Karma Sutra.”

Meg reached out a hand and covered Twitch’s mouth. “Forget I asked.”

“Take a right here.” Charles pointed to a street off the main road that ran parallel with the ocean. Snow was neatly pushed to the side of the road and by the looks of it was iced over. Betty followed Charles’ directions and within a few minutes he told her to pull up in front of a large house. A sign in the front read: ‘Fur and Feathers; Veterinary Clinic.’ The fairly long driveway up to the house was occupied by at least five cars.

“Is Eva’s car here?” Betty could not hide the anxiety in her voice.

“I’m not sure what she was driving,” Charles answered. “There’s only one way to find out.” He opened the door and unfolded his tall frame until he stood on the snow-free, narrow sidewalk in front of the clinic. Slightly bending over he looked at Betty. “I’ll go in first. I’d like you ladies to wait here until I come back.” His gaze traveled to Twitch who was visibly restraining herself from making a face. “Please?”

She sighed. “Oh, alright. But don’t be too long, because I’m dying of curiosity.”

###

Iris sat on the thin mattress, with her back against the bare wall and two toddlers draped over her legs. The twins were still asleep, which she was grateful for, but she knew they could wake up at any time, after which they would want something to eat. And there was nothing she could give them. Her groceries had been taken away from her and she could only hope that they had not been tossed away. The bag contained some fruit and snacks. It would be sufficient for Oliver and Olivia, at least for a little while.

Iris’ gaze traveled to the small window and again she wondered what was behind the blackened glass. As soon as they had entered the small house they had been whisked away in the small room, but Iris know it was situated at the front of the house. The wall she was leaning against had to be an outer wall. What if she would be able to knock the glass out? She didn’t have any tools, but if she would wrap her shirt around her fist she might be able to break the glass and not get any deep cuts. Not that something as trivial as cuts would stop her. Not if it meant she had a chance to escape.

She sighed. “I can’t just sit here and wait.”

A while ago she had overheard Whitfield talking on the phone and Iris just knew it had been Eva he had been yelling at. It had been clear to her that he wanted to trade her and the twins for Eva and Sigrid. The thought alone made Iris’ blood boil. She knew Eva well enough to know she’d make the trade without a hesitation, even though she’d do her best to leave Sigrid out of it. For a brief moment Iris smiled. She had seen the glances between her sister and her cute, blonde friend. There definitely was a strong attraction between the two. It would devastate Eva to have Iris and the twins hurt, but she would be equally shattered if something was to happen to Sigrid.

“We can’t let that happen.”

Very careful not to wake up her children, Iris moved them to the side and covered them with their jackets. It was time to explore the room they were in. The small bulb did not provide a lot of light and the corners of the room were fairly dark. It was time to explore them and see if she could find anything that would help her in her quest to escape, or at least make life miserable for Douglas Whitfield.

The first corner she walked to was close to the door and when she glanced aside she could see a tiny sliver of light that she thought must come from the room Whitfield was in. It meant the door did not close all the way and she filed that information away. It was something she might be able to use at some point. Iris peered at the walls and floor intently, every now and then carefully touching the surface. It was all smooth and cold to the touch. The next corner provided her with the same result and, disheartened, she went to the corner that was farthest away from the door. It was also the farthest away from the weak light bulb and Iris cautiously touched the wall, letting her hands slide down until they reached the floor. Again, she could not find anything. It was obvious the room had been thoroughly cleaned. Just as she stepped sideways to move to the last, unexplored corner, her foot came into contact with something that rolled away. Iris’ ears perked up. It sounded like metal. She knelt down and felt around on the floor. At first she could not feel anything but some dust and sand, until, all of a sudden her fingers touched smooth, cold metal. She lifted the item and half-turned toward the faint light in order to get a better look. It was a thin, hollow rod, about the circumference of a pencil and she had no idea what its function was, or what to do with it, but it was something. And right now, anything could give her hope. Now all she needed to do was be creative. Continuing her search she let her hands slide across the floor and the wall. Instinctively, she pulled back quickly when her fingers bumped into something that was sticking out of the wall. Cautiously, she returned her fingers to the spot and cautiously touched the area. There. It felt like metal and when she touched it, it moved.

Iris smiled. “Who knew I’d be so happy to run into a nail,” she whispered to herself.

It only took her a few seconds to wiggle the nail free from its spot on the wall and when Iris turned toward the light bulb to examine her find, she saw she was holding a nail that was about three inches long. It was a little rusty, but she was unable to bend it, which she thought was a good sign. Thinking she could make a weapon, she tried to drop the nail into the metal tube, but it didn’t fit, until she put it in with the pointy side first. With a smooth motion the nail slid down the small metal pipe, until the flat end of it became stuck in the opening. Iris smiled. She couldn’t believe her luck. All that was left to do was find something to stuff inside the small tube to keep the nail from sliding back. It briefly crossed her mind that she was making a weapon and just the thought to have to use it made her nauseous. But one look at the sleeping twins chased that feeling away. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to protect her children.

###

This time Eva didn’t feel the need to approach her parents’ house cautiously, like she had done before. She didn’t think anyone was watching the house. As soon as the car stopped, she opened the door and jumped out, ready to run down the driveway, into the house. By the look of the cars that were parked in front of the house she knew her entire family was present; she just hoped her siblings had left their children at home with a baby sitter.

“Come.” She grabbed Sigrid’s hand and quickly walked up to the house, knowing her friends would follow. This was not a time for polite introductions and pleasantries, those would come later.

As soon as Eva stepped into the living room her eyes sought and found Jesse. She let go of Sigrid’s hand and knelt down in front of Jesse who had her head buried in her hands.

“Jesse.”

Iris’ spouse raised her head and the expression in her eyes almost brought Eva to tears. “I am so, so sorry.” Her hand grabbed Jesse’s. “We’ll get them back. I promise.”

“It’s been more than six hours.” Jesse’s voice was soft. “Have they made any demands?”

Sigrid nodded and slowly rose to her full height. “A trade; me for them.”

“And me,” Sigrid added. There was a steely resolve in her voice.

Eva’s gaze settled on Felix and a wordless conversation took place. He nodded and took a seat next to Jesse, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her closer to him. Even though they were in his jurisdiction, he would follow Eva’s lead.

“A trade?” Leon stepped away from the table where he’d been staring at a map. “You and Sigrid for Iris and the twins? What kind of trade is that?” His voice was hoarse and Eva swallowed hard when she noticed the expression in his eyes; fear and desperation.

Leon turned to Felix. “Why aren’t you calling in all troops? What is going on here?”

Felix didn’t answer, but his gaze travelled to Eva and he gave her a nod.

“It’s complicated, Leon ,” Eva said. “If we involve the local police, they’ll have to arrest Sigrid and most likely me as well. We can’t let that happen. We have no time to wait for them to try and sort out the mess we’re in. By the time they realize we’re being set up, it’ll be days later.” Eva sighed. “Later I’ll explain everything and I’ll answer any question, I promise. Right now you’ll have to trust me.” She paused and looked at the faces of her family members. “You do trust me, don’t you?”

Felix was the first one who spoke. “One hundred percent, sis.”

“Of course we trust you, Eva,” Leah said. She was sitting in a recliner with her husband, David perched on the armrest. “It’s not a matter of trust, you should know that. If we can’t call in the police, then how are we going to solve this?”

Before Eva could answer, a voice behind her spoke.

“That is where we come in.” Lauren Darkwolf gave Eva’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze and stepped forward, into the middle of the room. “My name is Lauren and this is my partner Maureen,” she said. “We are friends of Eva and we work for the government.” She paused and smiled. “We’re in law enforcement as well. The case Eva and Sigrid are involved in has become a federal one, but it’s important we fly under the radar, so to speak.” Lauren turned to address Leah and sent her a smile. “I understand your concerns, but help is on the way.”

“There is?” Felix asked. There was hope in his voice.

“It’s unauthorized help, but I trust them with my life,” Lauren said.

“But how—.” The look Leon shot Eva was a puzzled one.

“Sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,” Maureen spoke. “I call them ‘Lauren’s posse’. They are her brothers and cousins and they always have her back.”

Lauren smiled. “And yours.”

Felix did not seem entirely convinced. With a frown he looked at Eva. “Have you met them?”

Eva nodded. “As a matter of fact, I have. A few years ago while I was in Oklahoma for a conference, Lauren invited me to her tribe’s pow wow.” She sent Felix a reassuring smile. “I trust them, Felix. We can expect them any time now. They’re part of the plan.”

“And what is the plan?” It was the first time Jesse spoke up and everyone turned her way.

Eva exchanged a look with Lauren, who gave her a quick nod.

“We know that my, soon to be ex-superior, Douglas Whitfield, has Iris and the twins. Judging by the time on the receipt of the grocery store and the time Whitfield called me, we know they can’t be too far from here. Iris checked out at eleven twenty-five and Whitfield called me at twelve-thirty. Based on that timeline, plus the fact that it’s very likely he took them out of town we think he’s holed up somewhere off route 1, either twenty to thirty miles north or south from here.”

“I think it’s less.” It was the first time Sigrid spoke and she sent both Eva and Lauren an apologetic look. “Let’s assume it took him five minutes to get Iris and the twins into the car and another ten to reach Route 1. That means there are forty-five minutes between him reaching Route 1 and calling Eva. However, he must have had a destination in place and when he got there, it’s likely he had to make sure Iris and the twins were inside, without any way to escape. Let’s assume that took him ten minutes, which would be pretty fast. That leaves about thirty-five minutes. The average speed on Route 1 is forty-five miles an hour, so I think he’s somewhere between fifteen and twenty miles from here.”

There was a long pause after Sigrid spoke, until Eva gave her a quick hug and dropped a kiss on her forehead. “You’re absolutely right.” She turned her attention back to her family. “Does anyone know about an abandoned building or vacant rentals within that radius?”

“Not abandoned,” David Fisher, Leah’s husband said. “There are a lot of seasonal properties, though. Right now they’re all empty.”

‘David! That’s it!” Eva exclaimed. She turned to Lauren and grabbed her arm. “I just remembered that Whitfield once told me he and his family spent the summers at the Megunticook campground. It’s right off Route 1.He knows that area well and the campground has cabins.”

“How far is it from here?”

“Less than ten miles.” Leon already stood and grabbed his jacket he had draped on the back of a chair. “Let’s go.”

“Slow down, honey,” Connie said. She grabbed her husband’s hand and pulled him back into his chair. “You can’t just run in there half-cocked.”

Eva shook her head. “No, Leon. I appreciate the idea, but Connie is right; I need you to stay here.”

Leon opened his mouth to respond but the voice of his father stopped him before he could utter a word.

“Listen to your sister, Leon.” Rick Clemente’s voice was softer than usual and his worry was clearly audible. “Leave it up to the ones who are trained to handle situations like this. The last thing we need is you to get hurt.”

After a brief silence, Leon nodded and sat back down next to his wife. He looked dejected and frustrated, but he abided by his father’s wishes.

“What are we going to do next?” Leah wanted to know.

Before anyone could answer that question, the sound of footsteps in the hallway made everyone turn to the door. Lauren cast a quick glance at her watch. “If those are the boys, they’ve made excellent time,” she said to Maureen who nodded.

When the door opened both Sigrid and Eva let out a sound of surprise.

“Chuck, what are you doing here?” Eva stepped closer to him and put a hand on his uninjured shoulder.

“Aren’t you supposed to be home, resting?” Sigrid wanted to know.

Chuck nodded and shot Eva a small grin. “I was, until I received a phone call from one of your friends,” he said looking at Sigrid.

“Uh oh. What did they get into this time?” Sigrid winced and brushed unruly hair from her forehead.

“Something pretty good, actually.” It was only then that Chuck really noticed the room full of people. “I’m sorry for barging in like this.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Eva turned to her family and patted Chuck on the back. “Everyone, this is my partner at the Major Crime Unit, Charles Benoit. Chuck, this is my family and at some point today I will properly introduce everyone. What do the girls have for us?”

“An SD card full of pictures that will incriminate half of our unit, including the Chief, plus some people higher up, all the way to D.C.”

“Are you serious?” Lauren stepped a little closer. “Where do those pictures come from?”

“As far as I understand, one of the ladies found it on the floor of the church on the day of the murder. She didn’t know what it was and wanted to ask you later, Sigrid, so she put it in her purse. That was just before the body was discovered. After that, she completely forgot about it.”

“Do you have it with you?” Sigrid asked.

“Not on me, but yes, I do have it with me. That, plus your three friends. They are waiting in the car. They want to hand over the memory card only to Eva or Sigrid. They refused to let me have it, although I was allowed to make a copy. Just in case.”

“I’ll go get them,” Sigrid said. She slid between Lauren and Eva, giving the latter a friendly pat on the back and disappeared out of the room.

“How incriminating are those pictures exactly?” Felix stood up from his seat next to Jesse and look in his dark eyes was intense.

“Chuck, this is my brother, Felix. He’s the local Deputy Chief of Police here in Rockland ,” Eva said, quickly introducing the two.

“And you haven’t arrested Sigrid yet?” Chuck smiled warmly. “Good man.” The expression on his face turned serious again. “I only had a look at a few of them, but it helps ties things together. One of the pictures I saw was of a person, dressed in camouflage, staring at Sigrid’s house. In the picture there are only a few inches of snow on the ground, so it must have been early winter, which makes me believe they had been keeping track of her whereabouts for quite a while.”

“And someone kept an eye on them , by the sound of it,” Maureen said.

“If the SD card was found in the church at the day of the murder, Michael Bell could have dropped it. It could have been one of the reasons they murdered him.” Lauren’s voice was pensive. “Or the murderer retrieved it from Michael and accidently dropped it on his way out of the church. Do you know exactly where it was?”

Chuck shook his head. “No, but you can ask Twitch, since she’s the one who found it. By the way, she feels incredibly guilty about forgetting she had it for such a long time.”

###

As soon as Betty saw Sigrid walk toward the car she let out a relieved sigh. “Oh, girls. She looks tired, but at least she seems to be in one piece.”

“She’s probably going to kill me.” Twitch sank a little deeper into her seat, trying to make herself as small as possible.

Meg nodded. “She should, although you do have a defense.”

Twitch looked up with a frown. “Which is?”

“You’re senile.” Meg grinned at the dark look that was shot her way.

“Well, I guess if it keeps her from hurting me, I’ll use it,” Twitch said.

“Sigrid wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Betty spoke from the driver’s seat. She glanced over her shoulder at Twitch. “Although, in your case I’m not sure.”

“Thanks. We’ve been friends since the French Revolution and now you’re throwing me under the bus.”

“Well, we did hear you upgraded your life insurance policy.” Meg grabbed the hand that pinched her thigh and let out a chuckle. It was nice to goof around a little, even though the situation they were in was still quite serious. The rear passenger door was opened and she looked up in Sigrid’s smiling eyes. “Hello, cute stuff. We’re here to bring you some dynamite.”

“That’s what I’ve heard. Let’s go inside, so we can have a look at it.”

“It’s pretty incriminating,” Twitch said. She unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the door. Immediately, Sigrid moved and reached out a hand to give her some support.

Twitch patted her hand. “Thanks, sweetie.” As soon as she had solid ground underneath her feet she stood up straight. “You look tired and sad. Hopefully you’ll be able to arrest all those creeps now and get some rest.”

Sigrid let out a sigh. “I wish it would be that easy,” she said. “But there are some complications at the moment.”

“Oh, dear, that doesn’t sound good. What happened?”

Sigrid took a deep breath and quickly wiped away some moisture that was collecting in the corner of her eye. “Eva’s sister and her two year old twins have been kidnaped by her supervisor.”

###

When Iris and Eva were growing up, one of their favorite television shows had been ‘MacGyver’ and it was the memory of that show that had Iris create something out of nothing. The rusty nail was secured in place by pieces of fabric that Iris had been able to pull off the mattress. She had stuffed the hollow tube with foam, which had been a frustrating task because the only thing she had to aid her to push the stuff down into the tube was the filling of a cheap ballpoint pen that kept bending. Determination helped her finish though. To secure the nail, she had stuck it through a piece of fabric and tied a knot at the bottom of the now filled metal tube. The knot was as tight as she could get it in order to prevent the nail from slipping. If she would be given the chance to use her weapon, it was most likely she would only be able to use it once, so it had to be solid and secure enough to take at least one stab at her kidnapper.

“And then what?” Iris whispered to herself. “You stab him with a nail, but he has a gun. What are you going to do then?”

Frustrated, Iris looked at the item in her hand. She wondered if she should just forget about her half-baked plan. All of a sudden the memory of Jesse, playing hide-and-seek with the twins in the living room made her heart do a double-take. She owed it to her partner and their children to at least try and do something about the perilous situation she was in.

“The solar plexus.” Eva’s voice echoed in the back of Iris’ mind. “If anyone tries to hurt you, try to hit them in the solar plexus, as hard as you can. Trust me, that will leave them gasping for breath.”

“And being stabbed with a nail hurts even more,” Iris whispered. She looked from her invented weapon to the door and then to her children, trying to calculate the angles and distance. She needed the twins to cooperate, but how can one ask that of a two year old? What if they would get in the way and get hurt? That would be something she would never be able to forgive herself for. Still, there had to besomething she could do.

Somewhere in the building she heard an angry voice. It was hard to make out the words, but the sentiment was crystal clear; their kidnapper was anything but happy.

**

Lauren Darkwolf looked at the group of people that was gathered in the Clemente’s large living room. It was easy to see the resemblance between the different family members and Lauren expected Iris to share her siblings’ dark coloring. Still, she made a mental note to ask for a picture of her and the twins, just to make sure she would recognize them.

Eva was standing next to her brother, Felix and was talking to him in a hushed voice. Every now and then he nodded. Their faces wore a grim expression and it was easy to see that underneath their calm exterior there was a simmering anger. Lauren was happy to see they managed to stay composed and did not rush headlong into a rescue attempt. After all, they had the entire night to come up with a plan.

Lauren’s gaze travelled to Maureen and Sigrid who were using their laptops to go over satellite images of the area. Every now and then they wrote something down, before returning to the screen. It was their task to map the area around the Megunticook campground in order to figure out who would take what position and where. The rescue operation they were planning had to go as smooth as possible and they had to be prepared for every scenario in order to bring Iris and the twins safely home again.

Maureen must have felt Lauren’s gaze, because her head lifted and for a brief moment their eyes met. They exchanged a smile, before Maureen turned her attention to Sigrid who was pointing out something on the screen. It left Lauren with a warm feeling in her chest. Their current case was ‘of the books’, so to speak and even though they officially were on vacation, their involvement could potentially get them into trouble. Still, Maureen had not hesitated one moment when Eva’s call for help had come in. Neither had their supervisor, who had approved their use of a federal jet. Of course, the fact that the aircraft had to go to the Northeast had been tremendously helpful.

Lauren’s phone buzzed and she pulled it out of her pocket to look at the screen. She smiled when she noticed the sender of the text message; her brother Jim and their cousins had arrived and were waiting for instructions. Lauren quickly answered the message, before putting her phone away. Her gaze swept the room and rested on Eva when she cleared her throat before speaking.

“May I, please, have everyone’s attention?”

All heads turned to Lauren and the room went very quiet.

“I’ve called in some help and those troops have arrived.” For a fleeting moment a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth when she saw Maureen’s grin. “They are my brothers, Charles and Joseph and my cousin Aaron, who flew them here. All three of them work directly, or indirectly for law enforcement and I trust them with my life.” Lauren paused for a moment. “I’ve send them ahead to scout the area where we think Whitfield is keeping Iris and the twins.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” The expression on Felix’ face was one of worry. “They’re not familiar with the area.”

“They don’t have to be,” Lauren said. “They are excellent trackers. They feel very much at home in the wilderness, any wilderness.” Lauren looked at a clock on the wall. “It’s a little past midnight now. They’ll get back to me within the next hour or so. After they do, we can finalize our plan.”

‘Thank you, Lauren.” Eva’s voice was soft and she sounded tired. Lauren figured they could all use a few hours of sleep, but she knew the suggestion would fall on deaf ears. Nobody would sleep until the family was complete again,

**

It was dark in the woods. The moonlight was not able to illuminate the pine needle littered ground underneath the towering evergreen trees. Booted feet carefully made their way through underbrush and around tree stumps and saplings. The only audible sound was that of a distant owl.

Branches were carefully bent, but never broken, when three dark figures made their way through the woods. Even though their surroundings were dark and unfamiliar, they knew exactly where to go. With a map firmly planted in their memory they made good time and it didn’t take long for them to arrive in an area where the trees grew more scarce, which was a clear indication the road they were heading for had come closer. Sticking to the darkness and cover of the tree line they continued following the curve of the road, heading for their goal that had become visible as soon as they had rounded a corner. Soft light illuminated a window and the three shadows halted. A silent conversation took place and three shadowy figures split up and continued their journey in different directions.

**

Iris shifted on the mattress, careful not to wake Olivia and Oliver, who had finally gone to sleep. The last few hours had been incredibly difficult, because both of them had been crying and, in Olivia’s case, screaming, because they wanted to go home. At first, Iris had turned their situation into a game, but it hadn’t taken long for the twins to become bored and whiny. They were cold, hungry and could feel Iris’ anguish and stress, which had only made matters worse.

Donald Whitfield had loudly banged on the door, demanding Iris keep her children quiet. His speech had been slurred and Iris was afraid he was drunk, which made her even more worried. If he ended up doing something utterly stupid, she and the children had nowhere to go. Concern for her children had asked her to please give them something to eat, because it would most likely help settle them down. There had not been an answer, but a few minutes later the door was opened and two bags were thrown inside the room. Before Iris had been able to react, the door had slammed shut again and she had heard the lock click back into place.

One bag had contained a loaf of bread, a spoon and a plastic jar of peanut butter, while the other one revealed a couple of water bottles. Iris had immediately checked to see if the seal was still intact, which it was. The last thing she needed was for their abductor to all sedate them with something.

Oliver and Olivia had wolfed down two sandwiches each, but Iris had not been able to eat. The anxiety made her stomach churn every time she thought about food. She had drunk a little bit of water and luckily that has stayed down. She had been able to convince the twins that they were playing a game and that they had to stay quiet; the one who could do that for the longest time would be the winner. Unfortunately, two year olds do not have much of an attention span and within the hour they were both asking her when they could go home. Iris had no answers and had come up with a few other games to play. Eventually, Oliver had fallen asleep again and Olivia followed suit. That had been a few hours ago. Iris wondered what time it was. There was no light coming through the window, so whether it was day or night remained a mystery.

Slowly, Iris stood up and stretched. After being in the dimly light room for hours her eyes had adjusted and she was able to see more than she had after she had just arrived. There was a small closet in the corner of the room. It was empty. When she had opened the door, she had been greeted by four shelves that were securely in place and discouraged she had turned away. She refused to give up and just accept her fate. There had to be something she would be able to do. Opening the door would be would be impossible, because she had seen the padlock at the other side of the door. If, by a miracle, she would be able to make a hole in the door without Whitfield noticing, she still would have to pick the lock, something she had never done before and was clueless about.

Again, Iris gaze traveled to where the small window was. If she’d stand on her toes and stretch, she would be able to feel if it was glass or something else. She walked until she was underneath the window and stretched. When she put her hand against the material, she could feel it was glass. The surface felt a little rough, which must have been the paint that had blacked the window out.

Iris gazed at the improvised weapon in her hand. Maybe she could scratch some of the paint away. Or better yet, if she could break the window and knock the remaining shards out they might have a chance to escape. Deep down inside she knew she was grasping at straws, but anything was better than sitting around and doing nothing. She owed it to herself and her children to at least try.

**

Sigrid cast a gaze at the clock in the right hand corner of her computer screen. It was almost two o’clock in the morning. Four more hours until they would rendezvous with Douglas Whitfield. The thought both terrified and comforted her. Iris and the children would be safe, but she would be in the hands of a madman. She hadn’t really worked it out in detail yet, but her plan was to make sure Eva would not be able to join her in the exchange. Whitfield clearly wanted her, probably as a bargaining chip, since the organization he appeared to be a part of was slowly starting to unravel.

Sigrid’s gaze traveled to Eva who was slumped on the couch, in between her brothers. Her eyes were closed and at first glance it was like she was sleeping, but a closer look showed her breathing pattern was anything but deep and regular. Her facial features were tense and Sigrid knew Eva’s brain was anything but resting.

“Why don’t you try and nap for a while?” Maureen’s voice was low, almost a whisper, in order to prevent anyone who actually was sleeping from waking up.

Sigrid shook her head. “I can’t. I am too worried. Too nervous. Too…everything, really.”

Maureen nodded and pushed a strand of hair away from her forehead. “I know the feeling, trust me. And I don’t like it one bit. I hate having to wait like this. Don’t think I like action-packed shoot-outs, chaos and mayhem, although at least I feel like I’m doing something then. This is nerve wracking.” She paused and took a look at the information on Sigrid’s laptop screen. “That’s some impressive sleuthing.”

“Thank you.” Sigrid rubbed her eyes. They felt gritty and dry. “It has taken me quite a long time to get all this information together, though. And even longer before I could see what tied it all together.”

“There’s no way you could have known a senator was involved in human trafficking.” Maureen’s voice was low, but full of conviction. “Don’t beat yourself up.”

Sigrid looked up and Maureen smiled.

“I’ve been there, done that. I’ve worked cases that seemed like endless gathering of information. And then when I thought I had it all together I couldn’t make sense of it. When I finally did, I wondered how much damage could have been avoided if only I had been a little faster, or a little more suspicious, or smarter.” She let out a soft laugh. “Trust me, it won’t do you any good.”

“I know you’re right,” Sigrid said. “Still, I can’t help wondering how many victims like Megan, Danh and Anjuli could have been saved if only—.”

Maureen lifted her hand and interrupted. “Don’t go there. Just think about it this way; how many children will you save by shutting down this trafficking ring. It looks like they have branches spreading out all over the country. Who knows how many Megans, Dahns and Anjulis we will find within the next few weeks.”

After a brief silence Sigrid gave Maureen a friendly pat on the hand. “Thank you,” said. “I think that’s exactly what I needed to hear.”

“Anytime.” Maureen smiled. She grabbed an empty cup that was sitting on the table in front of Sigrid and held it up. “I can tell you won’t be going to sleep any time soon. Would you like a refill on your coffee?”

**

The house was dark, except for the light coming through a window near the front door. They had observed from a distance and circled the building twice, looking for security cameras and booby-traps, but they had not found anything. Using sign language, a silent conversation took place and mere minutes later the three figures split and went in different directions. The only sound that could be heard was the hoot of an owl, somewhere above their heads, and the occasional soft rustling of branches that were stirred by the breeze.

**

With all her senses alert, Iris stretched out her arm and used the nail she was holding to try and scape some of the paint off the window. Because of the dim light it was hard to tell if her effort was successful, even though her fingertips could feel the tiny, curled flakes of paint that had come loose. She had decided to try and clear a tiny area, just enough to be able to see if it was day or night. It took a few minutes to clear a spot and Iris’ arm felt like it was on fire from working in an outstretched, tense position. At first she could not see any difference; the entire window was as dark as it had been before. But then, after peering at the spot she had been working on, she thought she noticed a different kind of darkness; a darkness that was less black than the window.

“It must be night then,” Iris whispered to herself. She wondered if her abductor was asleep. It had been hours since she had heard him stumbling around the house, talking to himself or maybe to someone on the phone. The last thing she needed was him barging into the room while she was trying to figure out how to get herself and the twins out of the room and out of the house.

Iris stretched as far as she could. She let her fingertips explore the narrow windowsill. It was a long shot, but still, if she was lucky she might discover a latch to open the window. To her surprise her fingers bumped against something hard. It felt like metal and while she let her fingers carefully map the object, a picture formed in her mind. It was a latch, one of those that had to be pushed sideways in order to unlock a window. Iris’ fingertips grabbed the latch and she pushed. Nothing happened. The latch did not move. She then pulled and again there was no movement at all.

“Damn. It must be painted shut.” Iris took a step back and rubbed her sore arm. “I hate it when people do that.”

**

“Did you send them ahead to just scout, or did you give them some additional tasks?”

Surprised, Lauren turned around. Eva was standing behind her and looked at her with a calm, but curious expression.

“Why would you think that?” Lauren countered.

“You sent them ahead to scout quite a while ago. I’ve been told about their reputation as trackers and I know they must have told you whether they’ve found Whitfield’s location or not.” Eva paused for a moment. “So, have they?”

Lauren’s gaze took in the people in the room. Only she and Eva were awake. Even Charles had dosed off in the big recliner Agnes had put them as soon as he had walked in. Meg, Betty and Twitch had been offered the guest rooms, which had been gladly accepted. It had been a long day and their exhaustion had been clear to see.

Lauren did not want to lie to her friend. “Yes, they have.”

Eva nodded. “That’s what I thought. What’s the plan?”

Lauren smiled. “You’re not annoyed with me for doing this behind your back?”

“I would have been if I felt you didn’t know what you’re doing. So, no, I’m not annoyed.” Eva sent Lauren a small smile. “Care to share?”

“I don’t think Whitfield is doing this by himself. He’s not the type for solo actions like this kidnapping.”

Eva was about to speak and Lauren quickly held up her hand.

“Before you say anything, I’ve got…eyes on Brothers and Tate and they are moving.”

“Are they heading this way?” The expression on Eva’s changed from curious to grim. “Do you really think they’re in it with Whitfield?”

Lauren nodded. “I do.”

“Who are ‘your eyes’?” Eva wanted to know, using her index and middle finger to make quotation marks.

“Have you met Ronald Thureaux?”

Eva frowned. “I’ve heard the name. Isn’t he a State Trooper in the Lakes’ Region?”

Lauren nodded. “That’s the one. He went to college with one of my brothers and they’ve stayed in touch. When I asked him if he could keep an eye on Brothers and Tate he was more than willing to help out.”

Despite the tension and worry, Eva chuckled. “I guess it’s nice to have connections.”

Lauren smiled. “It sure is.”

There was a brief silence. “So, your brothers have found Whitfield. What’s next? Will they follow him to the drop-off? What’s the plan?”

“We’re not waiting that long. I —.” Lauren was interrupted by her buzzing cellphone. She quickly pulled it out of its case and glanced at the screen. “Excellent.”

**

Iris had made herself as comfortable as she could on the thin, lumpy mattress. Her arm was sore and she was cold, hungry and tired. Her initial fear had turned into anger. It fueled her determination to, somehow, fight back. The window didn’t provide an option to escape, the door was padlocked and there was no other way out. Iris calculated how many steps it took to get to the door from where she sat. As soon as she would hear fumbling with the lock, she would get to her feet, take a firm hold of her makeshift weapon and try to incapacitate their kidnapper. It didn’t seem a great plan, but at the moment it was the only one she could come up with. Even though she had no sense of time, it seemed like time was crawling. It had been hours since she had heard any sound coming from the other side of the locked door. Her kidnapper must have fallen asleep.

Iris twirled the metal rod in her hand. Her eyes were glued to the nail that was sticking out of it, while in her mind the words ‘punch, stab, kick’ were forming a mantra. The idea of stabbing another human being with a rusty nail made her nauseous. No matter whom that person was. The only thing that would make her perform an act of violence like that was to protect her children. She would not stand by and do nothing while her twins were in danger. As soon as Whitfield would walk in the door, Iris would be waiting for him. Before he would be able to react, she would hit him in the solar plexus, jab the nail in his shoulder and, if possible, kick him in the groin.

All of a sudden the sound of someone stumbling startled Iris. She quickly jumped to her feet and glanced at Oliver and Olivia. They were still asleep, oblivious to their surroundings and briefly Iris wondered how she would get them past Whitfield, once she had incapacitated him.

Iris felt her heart rate pick up and she quickly wiped her sudden clammy palms on the top of the jeans she was wearing. The last thing she needed was the spiked metal rod to slip out of her hand the moment she really needed it. A rush of fear made her light-headed and she shook her head to get rid of the feeling. Now was not the time to faint. The realization that if she would lose consciousness Whitfield could grab her kids and leave caused a surge of anger. It was what she needed to stay focused and with a few steps Iris was standing next to the door. She figured that anyone opening the door would have trouble seeing who was inside and where they would be, because of the dim light. She would use that knowledge to her advantage by striking as soon as the door opened and Whitfield stepped inside. Iris had a firm grip on the metal rod in her hand and while her heart pounded in her chest, she waited.

**

“Excellent?” Eva looked at the look of satisfaction on Lauren’s face. “What happened?”

Lauren turned her phone and held it up so Eva could read the message on the display.

“Done. Waiting for package.”

“Does that mean what I think it means?” Eva said. “They have found the place where Whitfield is holding Iris and the twins?” She hardly dared to hope, but the smile on Lauren’s face was her answer and a feeling of profound relief chased away the heaviness that had settled in her chest the moment she had received the call from Douglas Whitfield telling her he had Iris and the twins. “It’s a little after three now, when are we going?”

“Within the next hour,” Lauren said. “There’s something you need to know, though.”

Eva could feel her body tense and a feeling of trepidation crawled back into her stomach. “What?”

**

“Come on, come on.” Iris body was so tense she could feel her knees tremble. She was facing the door, ready to strike the moment Whitfield would walk inside. In her head she had gone over the steps multiple times. It was Eva’s voice that kept repeating the instructions: punch, hard, use your fist and go for the area just above the stomach, when your attacker doubles over you elbow him in the temple. If he doesn’t double over after you hit him, kick him in the groin, as hard as you can. Then elbow him.”

“Punch the stomach, stab the arm with the gun, elbow his temple” Iris whispered. She glanced over to where the children were sleeping. Every now and then Olivia mumbled in her sleep, but she had not woken up yet.

A sound just outside the door made Iris almost jump. She could feel her mouth go dry and her heart rate doubled. “Punch, stab, elbow.” The mantra kept repeating itself inside her head while she took up position behind the door. She double-checked the distance between the door and where she stood, wanting to make absolutely sure the element of surprise would be in her favor.

With a loud click, the door was unlocked. Iris clenched her weapon in her hand and willed herself not to tremble, which only partly succeeded. She took a deep breath and cast a quick look in the direction of her sleeping twins. All of a sudden, she felt calmer and she knew she would be able to do what she had to to protect them. No matter what.

Slowly the door opened and Iris squinted her eyes against the light that fell through. For a split second she was blinded, but then she noticed the outline of a tall body and without warning she surged forward, her weapon firmly clenched in a fist and held out in front of her. There was no way she could miss. The body she was aiming for turned sideways the moment the tip of the nail touched fabric and the noise of fabric tearing filled the silence.

“What the —?” a man’s voice exclaimed.

A large hand grabbed Iris’ arm and she wrestled to get loose. The man was talking to her, but in her state of near-panic the words did not penetrate the fog of fear that surrounded her. From behind, a strong grip pinned her arms against her body. The calm voice near her ear finally registered as Iris gasped for breath.

“Calm down. Relax. You’re alright. Just take a deep breath. We’re here to help and get you and your children to safety. Your sister Eva and brother Felix know we’re here.”

It was the last sentence that made Iris aware of her surroundings again and her body relaxed.

“My name is Joseph Darkwolf and the tall dude over there, holding Mr. Whitfield by the scruff of his neck is my baby brother, Charles. We’re going to take you out of here.”

“How can I know you’re telling the truth?” Iris was not ready yet to believe what she was told.

“Good question. I will show you my badge, as long as you promise not to stick me with that thing you have.” There was a hint of humor in the deep voice.

When Iris shook her head, one hand let go of her to reach inside a pocket. A few moments later she was looking at his badge and immediately her body relaxed.

“Oh, God, I almost stabbed you,” she whispered.

Joseph Darkwolf grinned and gently patted Iris’ back. “Almost doesn’t count,” he said. “All I have is a ruined shirt. Now, let’s get your babies and get you out of here.”

***

Lauren’s gaze traveled to the room behind Eva. All the occupants were in some state of slumber. Nobody was paying attention to their conversation.

“Your sister and the twins are safe.”

The words were spoken very softly and Eva thought she had misheard. She tilted her head. “What?”

“They’re safe, Iris and the twins. My brother Joseph is taking them to a safe place right now.”

There was a brief silence in which Eva tried to comprehend what she had just heard. “But, how—?”

“We’ll hear the details later. The goal was to locate and retrieve, which has been accomplished. Now all we have to do is wait until the brain, or brains, behind this kidnapping will show up.”

“I’m still blown away by what you’ve just told me, but I’d like to be there when they arrive,” Eva said.

Lauren smiled. “You will. Now, go tell Jesse her family is safe and sound. She can’t leave to be with them yet, though.”

Eva nodded. “You think someone is monitoring the house?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me, so I don’t want to take a risk. I really want to catch as many of this trafficking ring as possible, especially if they’re highly ranked within the organization.” There was a grim expression on her face. “And I’d really like to get my hands on this senator.”

***

“I don’t have a good feeling about this, Archie. I mean, it all went to hell in a hand basket when we tried to get to them in the woods. They keep escaping us.”

“One of the reasons of the woods fiasco was your nephew,” Archibald Tate said to the man who was driving the truck they were in. “You seriously lost control of him.”

“How could I know he was such a religious freak? I swear I had no idea he’d go that far. All I asked him to do was follow that Meyers chick and scare the crap out of her. He went completely nuts.”

“That’s what I mean; you lost control of him and because of that, we lost those kids. The boss is furious about that, because now we’ve got to find a new place and change the route.”

Jeremy Brothers clenched his fists. “When I get a hold of them, I swear, they’ll pay.”

Archibald Tate, a short, overweight man whose skin was pasty looking, cast a look aside and chuckled. “The boss wants to talk to them first.”

“I know. But after that, I’d like to be the one to hurt them.”

“Only if you beat Whitfield to it. The man has serious issues with Clemente. But then, I’d be pissed as well if someone lower in rank would outsmart me.”

“You sound like you admire her.”

“In a way I do. I like an opponent who keeps me on my toes.”

Jeremy Brothers snorted. “You’re out of your mind. This opponent can land us in jail for the rest of our lives.”

“Only if she wins. Right now we’re one step ahead of her. She and Meyers will be walking into the trap Whitfield set and we’ll be there to watch.”

“Will the boss be there as well?”

“Hell, no. He’s not gonna dirty his hands. He’ll be waiting somewhere else and need us to bring the package to him, so he can deal with them first. I’m sure he wants us to make it look like an accident.”

***

After talking to Lauren Darkwolf, Eva Clemente headed over to where Sigrid was dozing in a chair that was so big, it almost swallowed her whole. In spite of the tense situation, Eva smiled when she saw Sigrid, curled up in the chair, her blonde hair a contrast against the dark fabric.

Eva knelt down in front of the chair and put a hand on Sigrid’s thigh. She gave it a gentle squeeze and chuckled when Sigrid muttered something in her sleep.

“Sigrid, wake up, sweetie.” The term of endearment passed her lips spontaneously.

A pair of sleepy, blue eyes opened and looked at Eva with a mixture of alarm and confusion.

“What —?” She immediately sat upright.

“I need to bring you up to speed,” Eva said. She deliberately kept her voice down. “There has been a positive development.”

“I can do positive.” Sigrid stifled a yawn and gazed up at Eva expectantly.

“Let’s go to the kitchen, so we can talk without waking anyone up.”

Sigrid quietly stood and followed Eva through the large room. All of a sudden she grabbed the back of Eva’s shirt and stopped. “Where’s Jesse?”

Eva took her hand and gave it a gentle tug. “She’s with Lauren and Maureen. I’ll fill you in when we’re in the kitchen.”

“I hope that comes with coffee.” Sigrid’s voice was low, but Eva had heard the remark and she smiled.

“A whole, fresh pot.”

As soon as the kitchen door closed behind them Sigrid turned to Eva. The sleep had left her eyes. She was wide awake and looking up at Eva, ready for her to start talking. “What happened?”

“Iris and the twins are safe.” Eva decided to start with the most important news first. The explanation would follow.

“Oh, my God! That is wonderful. What —?”

Eva smiled at the happiness on Sigrid’s face. “Let me give you the summary.”

After Eva had related the newest events, there was a brief silence.

“So, what’s the plan now? Are we still going ahead with the exchange?”

Eva nodded. “We are. There’s no way Whitfield would have been doing such a tricky thing all by himself. This is our chance to catch his associates.”

“Tate and Brothers,” Sigrid said.

“We don’t know that for sure.”

“Maybe not a hundred percent,” Sigrid said. “But after what I’ve heard, read and seen, I firmly believe those two are the ones who will be summoned to do the dirty work. Senator Chandler will do anything he can to keep his hands as clean as possible.”

“Lauren hopes they’ll give us enough evidence to nail the senator, even though we have the pictures. The information Casey has is pretty incriminating on its own,” Eva said. She took the coffeepot and filled two mugs with the steaming liquid. She added a dash of milk to one of them and handed it to Sigrid, who sent her a radiant smile.

“You already know how I take my coffee.”

Eva chuckled. “No sugar, milk, not cream.” She leaned in and gave Sigrid a quick kiss, careful not to spill the hot coffee.

“You are very trainable,” Sigrid teased.

“You have no idea.” Eva smiled.

Sigrid took a sip of her coffee and hummed in delight. “I’m very much looking forward to advancing your training to the next level.”

Eva laughed softly. “Are you flirting with me?”

“Very much so and if you have to ask, I’m not doing it right,” Sigrid quipped. She put her mug down on the kitchen counter, next to Eva’s and half-turned to be able to wrap her arms around Eva’s neck. “I know we’ll be leaving soon and things might get tricky, so, how about a proper kiss?”

Eva did not need much encouragement. She wrapped her arms around Sigrid’s slightly smaller frame, pulled her close and covered her lips with her own. Within moments they had lost themselves in the warmth and sensuality of their connection. Sigrid’s hands slowly slid down Eva’s back and found a way underneath her sweater, caressing the warm skin she found there. She let out a soft moan when Eva mimicked that action and pressed even closer. Still, somewhere in the back of their minds they remembered where they were and why they had to curb their rapidly intensifying kissing. With mutual, unspoken consent they slowly drew apart, until they were looking at each other almost nose-to-nose.

“Thank you,” Sigrid whispered against Eva’s lips.

“You’re most definitely more than welcome,” Eva said softly.

They both smiled and simultaneously reached for their coffee.

Sigrid let out a deep sigh. “I know this is not exactly the ideal place and time to make a confession, but I’d like you to know I have fallen hard and fast for you.”

Eva smiled, reached out a hand and tucked a strand of blond hair behind Sigrid’s ear. For a moment, her fingers lingered and caressed the soft skin of her cheek. “Same here. I think I was attracted to you the moment I saw you in your office. I remember thinking you were very cute, even though you were completely shaken up.”

“It’s not every day I find a dead body in my church,” Sigrid said. The memory made her shiver. “I still have bad dreams about that.”

Eva nodded. “I know. You talk in your sleep.”

“That’s great. I guess I won’t be able to keep any secrets from you then.”

“Would you want to?” Eva teased.

Sigrid chuckled and shook her head. “My Dad always says I’m an open book anyway. And now this open book is talking in her sleep as well. Great.”

Eva couldn’t help herself. She leaned forward and kissed Sigrid again. Her lips were warm, moist and tasted like coffee. “Would it help if I said you’re very adorable when you sleep, even when giving away all the FBI’s secrets?” she whispered.

Sigrid licked her lips and sighed. “Absolutely.”

They both laughed and stepped back a little.

“So, what plan did you and Lauren come up with while I was asleep?”

Eva took a sip of her coffee before answering. “The plan is to go to the cabin where Whitfield was holed up and join Lauren’s brothers. Aaron, her cousin will stay with Iris and the kids until this is all over. Whitfield is not talking, but the brothers found evidence he’s expecting company. We plan on being in the cabin when the company arrives. The most simple scenario is that they walk in and we arrest them. Clean and simple.”

“In theory,” Sigrid said.

“Correct. We both know simple is usually not how thing develop, so we’ll have to be prepared for the worst as well.”

“Which would be —?”

“That they find out we’re there and come in guns blazing. I don’t really expect that, because we do have the element of surprise, but still, one never knows,” Eva said.

“Do we have to hike to the cabin?”

Eva shook her head. “There’s a service road behind the cabin. Our cars will be out of sight.”

Sigrid nodded. “Good. I’ve had my share of wading through snow and being shot at. That reminds me, did they ever get back to you with the names of the goons who were chasing us when we found the kids?”

“They had no ID, their fingerprints are not in the system and they’re still refusing to talk. The local police believe they might be members of a militia.”

Sigrid made a face. “Oh, that’s great. That makes this case a lot more complicated, doesn’t it?”

Eva nodded. “Unfortunately, yes. Although I doubt they’re willingly involved in the human trafficking. They’re usually just anti-government and don’t deal with the likes of Tate, Brothers and Chandler .”

“They must have told them a good story about us then, if they were willing to shoot at us.” Involuntary, Sigrid shivered. “I’ll be so happy when this is all over.”

“That makes two of us,” Eva said. “Let’s hope we can put it all behind us at the end of this day.”

***

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Jeremy Brothers stared at the snow-covered road in front of them. A single set of tire tracks was the only sign someone had traveled the road at some point after the last snowstorm.

“Yes, it is. He’s waiting for us in one of the cabins at the end.”

“We hope,” Brothers muttered. “How do we know it’s not some kind of trap?”

“Because the text Whitfield sent us was loud and clear. He’s the only one in this park and he’s waiting for us with the woman and kids. As soon as we’re there, we’ll load them up and drive to the exchange spot.”

“And we’ll finally have to chance to shut up those broads forever.”

Tate grinned. “That’s right. Meyers has been annoying me for a few good years now. I don’t have any patience for queer folk.”

Brothers nodded. “It’s a waste for her to be a lesbian, she’s not unattractive.”

They both laughed as Tate steered his truck onto the small track that would lead them to the cabin where Douglas Whitfield was waiting for them. Their excitement grew when they noticed a single car in front of one of the cabins. The curtains were drawn, but they could see the light was on.

“He’s up already,” Brothers said, unbuckling his seatbelt when Tate parked the truck behind the car in the tiny driveway.

“He better got some coffee ready as well.” Brothers stepped out of the truck and hiked up his jeans that had slid down his wiry frame. “That was a long damn drive all the way from home.”

“Even better if he’s got a shot of liquor to go with it,” Tate said. He followed the taller Brothers up the shoveled path to the front door and waited for the door to be opened after he had knocked.

“Door’s open,” a muffled voice sounded from the back of the house.

“I can smell the coffee already,” Brothers said with a grin. He opened the door and stepped inside, closely followed by Tate. The room was fairly small, but it was nice and warm. It was sparsely furnished, like so many rental cabins, with a couch, a recliner and a small coffee table.

“It’s not the Ritz, that’s for sure,” Tate joked.

“No kidding.” Brothers looked around and softy snorted. “My idea of a cabin is some deer on the wall, a roaring fire, a big recliner and my wife cooking for me.”

They both laughed again. “Hey, Whitfield. Where the hell are you?”

Tate grinned and closed the door behind him. He froze when, all of a sudden, he looked into the barrel of a gun. He was so surprised his mouth fell open, but no sound came out.

“What the —?” Brothers whirled around and reached inside the pocket of his jacket.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” a deep male voice said. He almost sounded amused. “But then, if you do, I’ve got plenty of reasons to put a hole in you. Trust me, I’d love to do that to such a scumbag.”

“Damnit,” Brothers cursed. “Who the hell are you?”

“Police,” a lighter, female voice stated.

Both Tate and Brothers turned around and the surprise on their faces almost made Lauren laugh.

“Where’s Whitfield?”

“Right here.” Eva Clemente walked into the room with a handcuffed man in front of her. Sigrid was right behind her.

“Hello, boys,” she said.

The anger turned Tate’s face red. The look he sent Sigrid was full of hate. “You little…I should have —.”

“You’d better be careful with what you’re going to say,” Eva interrupted him. “Because as of now, all you say can and definitely will be used against you in a court of law. You do have the right to remain silent,” she added lightly.

Lauren stepped forward and grabbed Brothers’ arm, firmly putting it behind his back. “Jeremy Brothers , you are under arrest for the trafficking of humans, endangering the welfare of minors, the possession of child pornography and a whole slew of other offenses.” The handcuffs clicked shut. “And like my friend already said; you do have the right to remain silent.”

Before he knew what was happening, Archibald Tate was cuffed as well. Furious, he tried to kick at Joseph Darkwolf, who simply stepped aside. His dark eyes were filled with contempt when he looked at the much shorter man. “I will not hesitate to put shackles on you,” he warned.

Tate’s gaze settled on Sigrid. “You don’t know who you’re messing with,” he spat.

Sigrid, unafraid, stepped forward. “As a matter of fact, I do,” she said. “There’s a lot we already know and we actually have evidence to back it all up. It was such a pity you couldn’t find the SD card, wasn’t it?”

All color drained from Tate’s face and when Sigrid cast a look at Brothers she noticed he had turned pale as well. She reached in her pocket and pulled out the tiny plastic box that held the memory card. “One of you dropped it while leaving my church and I believe it’s only a matter of time before we know who killed Michael Bell.”

“I never killed anyone in my life,” Brothers quickly stated.

“Must be you then,” Sigrid said, addressing Archibald Tate.

“What do you know?” he yelled. “You’re nothing but a pitiful church person. The day they let you women preach was the end of established morals.”

“Just tell us how you feel,” Eva muttered.

“Oh, haven’t I told you?” Sigrid feigned innocence when she pulled out her leather ID. She flipped it open and made sure both Brothers and Tate could have a good look at it.

“FBI?” Brothers whispered, turning even whiter than he already was.

Eva grinned. “Among other things. Now, I’d love to stay and chat, but we have work to do. It would be very helpful if you’d tell us where you’re supposed to meet with Senator Chandler.”

“Who?” Tate croaked.

“Your boss,” Lauren said. “You know, the person who tells you what to do, when to do it and how to do it. I’m sure the prosecutor would be willing to believe you cooperated if we testified to that.”

“How can I be sure of that?” Brothers asked. He looked defeated.

“You can’t,” Lauren said. “You’ll have to wait and see. I have a problem dealing with lowlifes like you, so don’t take any chances ticking me off more than I already am.”

Brothers cast a look at his friend who shook his head. “What do you want to know?”

“Are you crazy?” Tate yelled at him. “Don’t you tell them anything, you hear? You know what happens with snitches.”

Lauren gestured to her brother. “Please, take him to another room, Joe. He’s interfering with a good conversation.”

Tate wanted to resist, but the taller and much stronger Joseph Darkwolf practically lifted the man up and took him into the room where Whitfield had held Iris. It was where Charles Darkwolf and Maureen were holding Douglas Whitfield, who was sitting on the floor, his hands behind his back and his head bent. The moment Tate laid eyes on him, he started to curse and he only stopped when Joseph’s grip on his biceps became unbearable.

“Welcome to the party,” Maureen grinned.

“So, where were we?” Lauren pushed Brothers down on the couch and looked down on him. “You were going to say —?

***

Sigrid looked in the mirror and readjusted the collar of the blue dress that reached just above her knees. Her freshly washed hair framed her face that bore only the lightest touch of make-up. “I’m not going to mess with it,” she told her reflection. “I’m pretty sure this will do. If anyone has a problem with this, well, they’ll just have to deal with it.”

“Deal with what? Are you talking to yourself?” Eva stepped inside and Sigrid immediately forgot what the question had been.”

“Wow, look at you.” She slowly walked around Eva, admiring every inch of her.

“You’re making me slightly uncomfortable,” Eva said. There was a hint of humor in her voice.

“That’s your own fault for looking like this,” Sigrid said.

Eva was wearing black jeans, a black turtleneck sweater and a black leather jacket. Her short, dark hair was deliberately mussed up with some gel, giving her a boyish yet still feminine look.

“You look stunning.” Sigrid sighed and stopped in front of Eva. She reached out and fingered the zipper of the leather jacket. “Next to you I look drab.”

Eva laughed and shook her head. “You could never look drab, even if you tried. You look beautiful in that dress.”

“Is it not too short?”

“Is that the Pastor asking?” Eva teased.

“No, it’s Sigrid, who hasn’t been on a date since…well, since forever. And before you say anything, I know this isn’t exactly a date, but we are going to a club, so…never mind, I’m rambling.” Sigrid shook her head and turned to walk back to the hotel’s mirror in the hallway, but she was stopped by Eva who had grabbed her hand.

“You are gorgeous,” Eva said. “The blue dress is sexy, without being provocative and color accentuates the blue of your eyes. You look utterly scrumptious. If anyone makes a pass at you, I might have to deck them.”

Sigrid laughed. “That would be something to behold.” Her face quickly turned serious again. “I’m a little nervous.”

“Because you don’t have room for a gun in that outfit?” Eva joked.

“Oh, heavens, no. Besides, don’t even mention guns. By the sound of it, this club is going to be crowded. Can you imagine someone pulling out a gun? That would be utter mayhem.” Sigrid paused. “And I’m counting on you, Lauren, Maureen and the boys to keep me safe.”

“And I promise we will.” Eva reached out and let her fingers slide through Sigrid’s blond hair. “We all will be there.”

“I’m still amazed Senator Chandler would meet his minions in a gay club like the ‘Drag ‘n Dress’.”

“Probably because he knows no-one would expect him there,” Eva said.

“He’s gonna flip out when he sees me, though,” Sigrid said. “According to Casey he knows what I look like.”

“But he doesn’t expect you at all. He’s waiting for Tate and Brothers. You have the element of surprise. Personally, I’m thrilled. This club has been bugging me ever since we found its name connected to Michael Bell. Now we know he must have been on to Chandler using it for his shady meetings.”

“It does make all the pieces fall into place.” Sigrid took a deep breath. “Alright, I’m ready.”

“Let’s go then.” Eva cast a look at her wristwatch. “Lauren and Maureen are probably there already.” She grabbed Sigrid’s hand and together they walked to the door, but before she opened it she turned and kissed Sigrid’s lips. “This is the last round. After tonight the only thing that will be left is paperwork. After that, I’ll take you to Florida , because we have a date with a white beach.”

“That sounds heavenly.” Sigrid smiled. “That thought does make me want to do this as soon as possible, so we can actually lounge on a beach. I know a perfect spot near where my parents live.”

“I’m looking forward to you showing me.” Eva gave the hand in hers a gentle squeeze.

“You just want to see me in a bikini.”

Eva laughed. “That, too.”

***

The music in the club was loud and the strobe lights were bright. The dance floor was packed with bodies moving to a thundering beat that was deafening and disorienting. Sigrid had needed a few minutes to get used to the atmosphere before she even could step closer to the bar which was the length of the wall. She could count at least six bartenders. Wait staff smoothly moved through the throngs of people to deliver drinks to about ten tables behind the dance floor. It was hard to see if all the tables were occupied, but judging by the amount of people inside the ‘Drag ‘n Dress’ Sigrid expected there was probably no place left to sit.

In the far corner a stage was being readied for the weekly drag show and Sigrid realized Chandler ‘s timing was good. With all eyes focused on the stage, no one would pay him any attention.

Sigrid’s eyes scanned the crowd, looking for familiar faces. She couldn’t find Charles, but she did see the tall Joseph. He was standing at the far corner of the bar. He was wearing a black sleeveless, tight shirt that nicely showed off his impressive biceps. A few young men surrounded him and it seemed he was dealing with the attention good naturedly.

Sigrid knew Eva would be close by at all times and she resisted the urge to look around in order to find her. The last thing she needed to do was draw attention to her. Chandler probably figured she would not be alone, but it wasn’t necessary for him to know whom she was with. Not until they had figured out if he had brought protection and if so, where they were.

Sigrid moved along the edge of the dance floor and almost tripped over her own feet when she noticed Lauren and Maureen. The latter was wearing tight, black leather pants and a loose white tunic, while Lauren wore black jeans, a white shirt, topped with a colorful, beaded vest. They made a stunning couple and Sigrid noticed how many people cast them looks that ranged from admiration to envy. Inwardly she chuckled when Lauren sent her a wink. It was good to know they were keeping an eye on her.

When she finally reached the far corner of the dance floor she finally noticed Charles. He was standing in the corner, looking dark and brooding. The plan was for Chandler and his people to think he was a bouncer, while the other people in the club thought he was part of Chandler ‘s entourage. He was wearing dark shades, so Sigrid could not see his eyes, but she did notice that the corner of his mouth slightly turned up.

Aaron was nowhere to be found. Lauren’s cousin had blended in so well, Sigrid could not see him and she hoped he was nearby as well. After she had first met him, when he brought home Iris and the twins, she had understood why Lauren had sent him to stay with Eva’s sister; he was a bear of a man. He was as tall as Joseph, but broader, which made it an accomplishment on his part to blend in as well as he did.

Sigrid finally noticed Senator Chandler. He was sitting at the corner table, all by himself, but close by stood two men who almost screamed ‘security’. Their crew cuts and dark suits gave them away immediately. Sigrid decided to ignore them, knowing they would not want to make a scene in such a crowded club. Not yet, anyway.

Senator Chandler was busy with his phone and did not notice Sigrid until she sat down at the table across from him. His eyes briefly left his phone.

“Excuse me, young lady. I’m waiting for some friends, so when they arrive I might have to ask you to leave.”

“They’re not coming,” Sigrid replied.

Chandler ‘s head shot up and Sigrid could tell when it dawned on him who she was. His eyes went wide and his body jerked slightly. He quickly regained his composure.

“Miss Meyers.”

“Senator Chandler,” Sigrid said. She leaned back in her chair, waiting for him to start the conversation. She didn’t have to wait too long. After all, Arthur Chandler was a politician.

“I’m surprised to see you here, Miss Meyers.”

“Not as surprised as I am to see you. After all, you voted against marriage equality stating that homosexuals are an abomination to God. That was you, right?”

“I’m sure that’s not the reason you are here,” he stated in cool voice.

“Not exactly,” Sigrid said. She put her arms on the table and leaned forward a little. “I have something I’m sure you’d like.”

“Such as —?”

“Documents that show a link between you and a business that makes a lot of money with the trafficking of women and children from Asia .”

A frown marred the Senator’s face. “I have no idea what you’re referring to.”

“I also have pictures, many pictures.” Sigrid pointed at his phone. “If you’re interested, I’m sure you’ll find a few in your email.” She paused while the Senator stared at his phone. When he looked up again he was visibly pale.

“This doesn’t prove anything,” he said.

“No, those couple of pictures don’t, I agree. However, I’ve got more, this was just a preview.” Sigrid took a deep breath. “Senator, I have enough evidence to put you behind bars for the rest of your life, where you belong.”

“Then why are you here. Why am I not arrested yet?” He sounded defiant.

“Because I am asking you to do the right thing; turn yourself in. Don’t make this harder on your wife than necessary.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“You ordered Michael Bell to be murdered in my church. This meeting point here, the ‘Drag ‘n Dress’ gave you the idea to put him in a dress, just to confuse the investigators. You had me followed by a religious zealot who went overboard and would have killed me had he been given the chance. He did burn down my house. You sent the militia after us. I’m not sure if that was to kill me, or just a scare tactic. Nevertheless, it’s serious business. What else?” Sigrid paused for a moment and from the corner of her eye she noticed Charles Darkwolf had come closer. He was now leaning against the wall a few feet away from one of Chandler ‘s security men. “We found a safe house, part of a trafficking ring that has ties to you. In said house we found three children. You don’t have to worry about them, they’re safe now.” Sigrid’s sarcasm made the Senator cringe. “We can prove that too. Oh, and Archibald Tate and Jeremy Brothers send you their best.”

Sigrid leaned back in her chair and watched Senator Chandler struggle to comprehend all she had told him. After she had mentioned Tate and Brothers, all color had drained from his face. He was breathing hard and for a split second Sigrid worried he might suffer a cardiac arrest. If he did, she would have to do CPR on him, which would be awkward.

The Senator looked away from Sigrid and gestured one of the security men to step closer. Sigrid’s heart hammered in her chest and she could feel the palms of her hands were sweaty. She resisted the urge to wipe them on her dress. She didn’t understand the few words the Senator whispered, but she did recognize the subtle movement the man made to try and free his sidearm. He was never able to do so. Before he knew it, Charles Darkwolf had his arm in an iron grip, while his cousin Aaron, who had suddenly appeared out of nothing, was holding both arms of the other member of security behind his back. When the Senator saw that, he jumped up from his chair, pushed the table into Sigrid, who had the presence of mind to stop the piece of furniture before it hit her and made a beeline for the dance floor, where he was swallowed up by the dancing mass of people.

Sigrid slowly stood, not sure if her trembling legs would be able to carry her, but to her contentment they did. She turned to look at the dance floor, but made no attempt to follow the Senator.

Lauren Darkwolf and Maureen Reynolds had kept a close eye on Sigrid. Although they couldn’t hear the conversation, they could tell by the Senator’s body language that the man became increasingly upset. When Charles and Aaron quietly restrained the Senator’s security detail, they had eased closer to the edge of the floor. Trying to throw the table at Sigrid was not something they had anticipated he’d do, but to their relief Sigrid did not seem hurt. The Senator had made a mad dash toward the dance floor, but was now trapped in the mass of bodies. Thanks to her height, Lauren was able to keep an eye on him while she and Maureen followed him as closely as possible. As soon as he cleared the floor he headed to the door, but was stopped in his tracks by Eva, who calmly put her body between him and the exit.

“Going anywhere, Senator?” she said.

“Get the hell out of the way,” Arthur Chandler spat.

He reached out a hand to push her aside and all of a sudden found himself on his back, on the floor, gasping for breath.

“You said?” Eva asked with a grim expression on her face.

Together with Lauren, she hauled the senator back to his feet. Before he could even utter a word, Maureen slapped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists.

“Arthur Chandler, you are under arrest for the trafficking of humans, money laundering and accessory to murder.” Maureen continued to Mirandize him, while firmly pushing him toward the door.

People had started to notice the commotion and more than a few faces were turned to see what was going on. Before anyone could start asking questions though, they had stepped outside. Eva showed the bouncer her badge and he nodded, silently stepping aside to let them pass.

The last one to step outside in the cold evening air was Sigrid. Because of her size it had taken her considerably longer to make her way through the crowd. Her eyes searched for Eva and when she noticed the black clad woman she let out a sigh of relief. The Senator was in cuffs and was loaded into a car and nobody had gotten hurt. A good ending of a stressful day. She walked up to Eva and without uttering a word she wrapped her arms around the taller woman and buried her face against a leather clad shoulder.

“Is it over?”

Eva’s arms snaked around her to pull her close.

“It’s over.

“So, now we can work on finding Anjuli and Dhan’s families and not worry about bad guys?” Sigrid lifted her face. “Do you think there’s still an arrest warrant out for me?”

Eva grinned. “Not anymore. Don’t worry; you lost your fugitive status after we dropped off Whitfield.”

“Good.” Sigrid pressed her face against Eva’s neck and felt her body relax. “Where do I go now? My house is completely gone. All I have left is my cat. Even this dress is borrowed.”

“You can stay with me tonight. How does that sound?”

“Like heaven.” Sigrid pressed a kiss against the soft skin that was too close to her lips to ignore. “Does that mean we get to sleep in the same bed?”

“If that’s what you want.”

“It is. I am so tired. I can’t wait to just snuggle up with you and relax, knowing this is all over and a big blow has been dealt to this trafficking ring.” Sigrid paused. “It’s sad it’s only a tiny part. So many more children are being abused.”

Eva stroke Sigrid’s hair. “I know. But Megan, Anjuli and Dahn have a chance at a better life now. They’re safe. And the FBI has the list of all the safe houses and the names of people involved. In the end, there might be hundreds of kids saved.” She kissed Sigrid’s forehead. “You did good.”

“ We did good.”

***

“Are you sure they won’t mind?”

“Of course not, Betty. They’ve left already and the place is back to usual.”

“What if they find out?”

‘Stop worrying, Meg. We are adults who can make up our own minds. We don’t have to justify our actions.”

“We might be adults, but others might think we’re senile,” Betty muttered, which made Meg let out a nervous laugh.

“Just make sure to turn down your hearing aid.”

“I don’t have a hearing aid,” both Meg and Betty said at the same time.

“You might need one after tonight.”

Twitch gestured Betty and Meg to follow her and with trepidation they did.

“Next time she has an idea like this, drop me off at the local nursing home,” Betty whispered. “I’m sure they have a bed for me.”

“Next time, I’ll be hitting her over the head with a cane,” Meg said.

Twitch had stopped at the door and had to crane her neck to look at the man standing in front of it.

“Young man, can you please let us in?”

The man looked startled. “Um…Ma’am, this is not what you might think it is. Bingo is the next street over.”

Twitch shook her head. “We’re not interested in bingo. Is there a problem? Is there an age limit to this club?”

“Um…no, ma’am.”

“Then I’d suggest you let us in. The show will start in five minutes and I want a good spot.”

Completely dumbfounded the man opened the door and gestured the three women to enter. A wave of sound greeted them and immediately Twitch’s head started to bob in rhythm with the music.

“Oh, my God, why did we let her talk us into this?” Betty had to yell in order for Meg to hear her, but she followed Twitch inside.

“She’s gonna fall and break another hip,” Meg shouted back, pointing at Twitch, who was already dancing with a grinning, handsome dark-skinned man. When she started twerking both Betty and Meg burst out laughing.

“Oh, what the hell, Meg, we might as well have fun while we’re here. Besides, I’ve never been to a gay club before!”

***

Two months later…

Sigrid Meyers stretched and enjoyed the feel of her skin sliding against Eva’s. In spite of the air conditioned room she had been sweaty, which, she knew, was due to her extended love-making session with the woman she was almost resting on top of. Her body felt so relaxed, she wondered if she would be able to stand up. It was a good thing she didn’t have to.

Through the foggy haze in her brain a memory slowly surfaced and she chuckled.

“What?” Eva Clemente’s voice was as lazy as Sigrid felt.

“Did I tell you about the invite Twitch received?”

“What invite?” Eva used her foot to stroke the skin of Sigrid’s calf.

“One of the drag queens she met while they were at the ‘Drag ‘n Dress’ has asked her to be in his show next week.”

Eva laughed, which caused Sigrid to almost slide of her chest.

“Are you serious?”

“As serious as a migraine,” Sigrid said.

“Is she going to be in drags?”

Sigrid grinned. “I hope so.”

Eva’s hand found her way into Sigrid’s hair and her fingers played with the disheveled strands. “What time do we arrive in Boston ? Three?”

“Yes.” Sigrid lifted her head to peek at her lover. “Do you want to go to the show?”

Eva bit her lip and chuckled. “I wouldn’t want to miss it for all the sand in the Sahara .”

“You know, I really hope I’ll be that adventurous when I reach their age,” Sigrid said. “They’re having so much fun.”

“If you want to be in drag, I won’t stop you,” Eva said. “As a matter of fact, you’d probably look very cute in a suit and tie.”

Sigrid softly snorted. “I wouldn’t go up that stage in a million years, cute or not.”

“But you used to preach.”

“And you think there’s no difference?” Sigrid laughed.

A lazy smile spread across Eva’s face and her hand slid down Sigrid’s naked back. “I prefer you without clothes anyway.”

“Which makes your priorities perfectly clear.” Sigrid kissed the warm skin underneath her cheek and let out a happy sigh. “As long as you don’t expect me to leave the room like this.”

“I don’t. I’d like to keep that part of you all for myself.” She slid her arms around Sigrid and tugged her closer. “Come here. My lips are getting lonely.”

Sigrid laughed and poked Eva’s ribs. “You are so pathetic. What kind of sappy line is that?”

“Okay, how about ‘I’ve caught my breath and I would really want to make love to you again.’?”

“Do you now?” Sigrid smiled and slid across Eva’s naked body until her mouth could reach her lips.

Eva nodded. “I do.” Her lips caught Sigrid’s, effectively silencing her. A very long moment later, Sigrid let out a soft moan, pressing closer to the body underneath hers.

“How do you do that?” she muttered.

“Do what?” Eva whispered.

“Turn me inside out with just one kiss?”

“That’s simple,” Eva said. Her lips slid to soft skin underneath Sigrid’s ear and she could feel the goose bumps erupt underneath her roaming hands.

“Is…it really?”

“Yes. To me you are the most beautiful, and sexy woman in the world. My goal is to make you feel that.”

Sigrid could feel Eva’s hand sliding up her sides, until they reached the smooth skin of her breast, where they lingered. They made Sigrid gasp for breath. “ Mission accomplished,” she managed to say, before Eva’s hands and lips chased away all rational thought. From that moment on gasps, moans and whispered words broke the silence in the room.

The end

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