Disclaimer: See Part 1
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.
“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.”
Feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
To be continued in part 9
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