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."
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?"
"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.
"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."
"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.
"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."
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