The clock on the wall showed three o'clock and the bell rang to indicate that the school day was finished. The kids in the classroom jumped from their desks, hastily grabbing up their books and papers to shove into their book bags, and rushed in a congested mob through the doorway leading to the hall and their lockers. Father Murray smiled and waved as several of the girls in his class smiled prettily at him before rushing off to talk to their letterman jacket clad boyfriends.
After the classroom emptied he started sorting through the papers on his desk and placing them into the proper folder. Bending down he pulled out a large black Nike duffel bag and slid the thick folder into a large pocket on the side. As he did he felt a soft touch on his shoulder. Turning his head he looked up and saw the smiling face of the one person he was hoping to avoid.
"Hello, Latonya," he said as he forced a smile. He could already feel his heart speeding up as he stared up into her deep brown eyes and could feel an electric pulse shoot down his back from where her hand rested upon his shoulder.
"So, what happened to you at lunch?" She asked as her fingers gently slid down the length of his arm, only pulling away as he moved to stand.
"I had a meeting with Father Connelly and couldn't make it." he replied as he hastily slung the duffel bag over his shoulder and tried to edge past her.
Stepping into his way she placed her left hand flat against his chest and looked up at him. Her head cocked slightly to the side as her lips thinned slightly and her eyes narrowed. "If you think you’re getting away that easy you've got another thing coming mister."
"Latonya I have to get to practice," he said and tried again to move around her and get to the relative safety of the hall.
"Football practice doesn't start for another hour, so don't give me that bull," she said as she sidestepped to cut him off. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
His eyes snapped up to meet hers and he had to clench his jaw to keep from cursing. He took a deep breath and turned around and walked to the other side of the room where there was a row of windows that looked over the football field. Letting the duffel bag slide off his shoulder to hit the floor with a solid thump, he leaned his forehead against the window and closed his eyes.
As he tried to collect his thoughts he felt Latonya walk up behind him and place her hands upon his shoulders. She gently rubbed them as she stood quietly waiting for him to tell her what was wrong.
"Does she have any idea what her touch does to me?" he thought to himself as he fought to keep his body relaxed despite the desire he felt threatening to explode out of him.
"Talk to me Nate," she said softly as she leaned her head against his back and wrapped her arms around his body, hugging him close. "I'm your friend you can tell me what's bothering you."
Her touch felt so good to him, he felt his heart as it pounded in his chest and was acutely aware of her body pressed against his. His right hand rose up and gently touched her fingers that were clasped just below his chest. For a moment he allowed himself to admire how his light skin contrasted with the deep brown of hers. Turning in her arms he looked down into her eyes. She smiled softly as he reached out and, ever so gently, brushed the hair from her face. That smile stole his breath as he looked at her. Her full lips that fit her face so perfectly and seemed like they were made to kiss.
Leaning down he drew closer to her and could feel her breathing quicken in response. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes as she welcomed the coming kiss. He could smell the sweet jasmine scent of her perfume as he hesitated. Their lips not quite touching as desire threatened to overwhelm him.
"No, I'm sorry." he gasped and pulled away abruptly. She shook herself visibly as he practically shoved her away and turned away from her. His fists were clenched tightly as he sucked air in gulps in a desperate attempt to gather himself.
"Oh, god, I'm sorry." he heard her say.
Turning quickly he could see her hands on her face and tears welling up as she chewed her lip.
"I shouldn't have been so forward Nate, I know better.... I...." she stammered as she fought back tears. Nathan felt his heart sink as he looked at her and he stepped up to her and enveloped her in his arms.
"Don't be sorry, I should have been man enough to talk to you before this."
Hearing her giggle against his chest between sobs, he looked down at her with a puzzled expression.
"What?" he said.
She shrugged and gave him a lopsided smile; "It's just that it's about time you figured that out."
"Hey, you could have said something you know." he blurted out. This was immediately followed by a groan as he saw her face tighten up and he wished he could take the words back.
"What the hell do you think I’ve been trying to get you to talk about ever since I’ve come back here? But, no, every time I bring up how I feel or try to get you to admit how you feel you give me that whole 'we're just great friends' b.s.."
She stepped forward glaring up into his eyes as she poked a finger into his chest, "If you'd been man enough to deal with your feelings instead of shutting people out all the damn time I wouldn't be feeling like I’m going to hell right now."
His mouth dropped open as he stared at her, "Feel like you’re going to hell? Why would you feel like that?" he asked.
For a moment she just looked at him then groaned and rolled her eyes. "Do I have to spell it out for you? I mean, damn boy, I know you've had more than your share of women before entering the seminary so don't tell me you don't can't see what's right before your eyes."
Father Murray just looked at her with his jaw hanging open and eyes wide as he tried to process what she was saying. She looked up at him and with a sigh stepped back out of the hug. Shaking her head she looked to the ceiling.
"Forgive me lord but this boy is one dense ass mother fucker," she said as she lowered her gaze to meet his. "Why is it so hard to conceive that I might like the fact you look at me with desire in your eyes?"
"I... uh... well, it's just that I always felt like you were like my.... well, sister" he managed to stammer out as he tried to look anywhere but at her.
"Uh huh, sister? You’re going to have to do better than that Nate." She said as she crossed her arms underneath her ample breasts, giving them an intentional lift. "You haven't looked at me like your 'sister' since I developed these."
His jaw snapped shut as he ripped his eyes from the sight of her firm, swollen breasts. The sight of them straining against the white satin blouse she was wearing, making it nearly impossible for him to think straight. His eyes kept darting back to look at her lithe athletic from. The dark blue skirt she wore showed of the curve of her perfectly formed rear. As he watched she grinned in a way that one could only call Evil and 'dropped' the pen she was holding and bent over to give him a full on view.
"Good God woman, what are you doing?" he gasped as he whipped around, squeezing his eyes shut. "I'm a priest."
"Do you think I don't know that?" she snapped. "Every damn day I see that white collar and have to force myself to try to think of you as just a friend."
She was silent for a moment and he allowed himself to open his eyes and stare out the window. His mind racing as feelings of guilt warred with that other and deeper emotion. The emotion that made his gut tighten in the icy grip of fear.
He could feel her walk up beside him. She stood quietly for a moment then took his left hand between both of hers.
"Nate, look at me. Please?" she said in a quiet voice.
Slowly turning, he faced her and opened his mouth to speak only to stop when she shook her head.
"No, let me get this out." She said with a heavy sigh.
Her hands tightened their grip on his hand as her eyes searched his face. Apparently seeing what she needed in his face she gave a small nod and said, "I love you Nathan."
Those simple words sent his head spinning, the world seemed to freeze and shrink around them until there was nothing in the world. His mind warred with itself over whether to take her into his arms or give into the utter terror that those words created and run as far and as fast as he could.
As if she could sense his thoughts she took the decision away from him by stepping close and wrapping her arms around him. She hugged him tightly and rested her cheek against his chest.
"Honestly, I can’t remember when I didn’t love you." She said softly.
"What do you mean?" he replied, with his brow furrowed in confusion.
She looked up at him with a sad smile for a moment before leaning her head against his chest again and gazing out the window.
"From the first time we met you’ve always been there for me. I've always felt safe when you were around. Every time I needed help or just someone to listen to me, you were there." she said softly.
They stood quietly for a moment as his mind flashed through the multitude of memories that he had of her. Some of those memories taking on new meaning.
She let him go and stepped back. A small smile curved her lips as she raised her hands and looked at them.
"Remember that Barbie doll I took the black marker to?" she asked.
"Yeah, I think I said it looked goofy and you got mad at me."
"Of course I got mad at you. That doll was supposed to be me, and I don't like being called goofy looking." she said in mock anger as she slapped at his arm.
The laughed for a moment and then her face turned serious again.
"I used to take that doll and pretend she had a long flowing white dress and was about to get married to the man of her dreams. Then I'd pull out the Ken doll and have this huge wedding."
Nathan couldn't help but grin as he watched her eyes grow distant and her smile grow as she remembered the moment.
"So, who was the other doll supposed to be?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes to the sky and said with a giggle, "See what I mean Lord? Dense, the boy is dense."
"Dense? Why do you say I’m..........?" he started to say before realization dawned on him. Then his mouth rounded as he became aware of just who that doll was supposed to represent. "Ok, maybe a little dense."
He looked into her eyes and he felt the warmth of his affection for her swell up in his chest. His smile grew wide as she grinned back up at him.
His hand started to reach out to touch her when he heard a giggle from the direction of the door.
They both snapped their heads up and their eyes grew wide as they saw about ten students mashed together staring through the doorway at them. The girls giggling and the boys giving Father Murray the thumbs up sign to show their approval.
To make matters even worse, behind the students stood a stern looking Father Connelly.
"Busted," mumbled Latonya.
"I'm dead," groaned Father Murray.
Sophia tilted her head to the left as she looked carefully at the remains of a semi circular couch that had been burned sometime during the previous night. There were two sections, about two and half to three feet wide, where it appeared that a searing hot flame had burned clear through to the cement floor. The bits of charred bone that they had found amongst the ash indicated that two of the victims had been cremated by the flames.
She hadn’t noticed the couch earlier because it was placed in a small chamber off the back of the room where she had discovered the other bodies. This brought the body count up to five and she wouldn’t be surprised if there turned out to be more. What she couldn’t figure out is why the suspect had cremated these two but not the others.
“Why go to the trouble?” she asked herself quietly as she rubbed her chin in deep thought.
“Go to what trouble?” said Tom as he walked up behind her. Sophia turned and shook her head as she noticed how pale he was.
“Are you ok?” She asked as he walked up to stand beside her.
“Aside from losing my lunch, breakfast, and yesterday’s dinner, I’m doing great,” he said with a wry twist of his mouth as he wiped sweat from his brow. “I don’t know how you can handle this stench.”
“I have more important things to worry about then a bad smell,” she said bluntly as she pointed to the burned couch. “What do you make of that?”
As Tom looked at the couch his hand dropped away from covering his nose and mouth and his eyes narrowed as he moved closer to inspect the ashes. Reaching down with a gloved hand he gently prodded a blackened jaw bone and then slowly stood and turned back to Sophia.
“Two more victims, huh?” he said matter of factly as he motioned for the police photographer to come over and take some shots. “That must have been one intense and quick burning fire to be able to incinerate a body like that and yet leave the rest of the area relatively untouched.”
“That’s pretty much what I was thinking,” she replied as they turned to walk back into the main room.
She watched as the forensics team meticulously went over the scene. Taking pictures of every possible piece of evidence before placing them in labeled containers so they could go over it in more detail back at the lab. So far they still weren’t able to piece together much. As far as anyone could tell there was absolutely no sign that the assailant had used any kind of fire arm. In fact the wounds on the victims were more like wounds that would be suffered if they had been attacked by a large bear.
“How could someone, or even a group of people, come down here without a gun and be able to do all this to guys that had fully automatic machine guns?” she mumbled as she took in the scene.
“I have no idea. At last count we had found nearly a hundred spent rounds and four shells from the shot gun,” replied Tom.
“Actually, its five shells,” came a deep voice from behind them. “It looks like the guy with the shotgun was the first to get nailed.”
Sophia turned to see the Captain standing near the main entrance next to a man with the dark skin of a person from the Middle East. Captain Richard Montgomery was dressed in his usual slacks and button down white shirt. He was a strongly built man and above average in height, standing close to six feet in height. He made no attempt to hide the large bald patch that had steadily grown on his head over the last decade and he was nearly completely grey. The lines that surrounded his grey eyes spoke of the wear and tear he had gone through over his several decades of service on the force.
The only sign that the smell that pervaded everything in the room was getting to him at all was the tightness of his thin lips and the occasional twitch of his large nose. She was rather impressed with his stoicism since it was well known that the Chief had a very acute sense of smell, he had to be dying on the inside.
“Why do you think he was the first victim?” she asked as she walked up to the Chief and his companion.
To her surprise it wasn’t the Chief that responded. Instead the other man stepped forward and offered her his hand.
“I would like to answer that if you don’t mind Detective Tennison,” he said in perfect English with only a hint of a Middle Eastern accent. When she looked over at him she was struck by his eyes. She expected them to be dark brown but instead she was met with eyes that were unlike any she had ever seen before. It was like she was looking into molten gold. He wasn’t a big man being of average height and build but she could feel the electric tension around the man and it raised the hair on the back of her neck.
“My name is Shafi Salahuddin,” he said with a bright smile as she shook her hand. “I am on loan to your government to assist with certain matters that require the utmost discretion.”
“Discretion?” she asked as she pulled back her hand and threw a questioning glance at the Chief. “Do you think this has something to do with a terrorist plot? Are you working with Homeland Security?”
“No Sophia he’s not working with Homeland Security,” said the Chief as he rubbed the back of his neck and grimaced. “But, he will be your partner for the duration of your investigation on this case.”
For a moment Sophia thought she had miss heard the Chief. He couldn’t possibly mean that he was replacing Tom with this guy. There was no way in hell she was going to trust some foreign guy, no matter how well qualified, over the guy that had been at her back for the better part of five years. Realizing this wasn’t the case she turned to look this Shafi Salahu…. Whatever the fuck his name was dead in the eye.
“Look if you want to assist in the investigation that’s fine. God knows I will probably need the help. But, if you think you’re going to replace Tom as my partner you have lost your ever lovin’ mind,” she said in a very quiet voice with her widest and brightest grin. The grin that invariably caused men to take a nervous step backward.
Shafi just stood there and returned her smile with what appeared to her to be honest amusement. He opened his mouth to speak when the Chief laid his hand on his shoulder to stop him.
“Let me talk to them alone for a moment,” he said softly.
Shafi nodded and headed to talk to a member of the forensics team as the Chief opened the steel door and motioned them through it.
Sophia bit her lip and followed Tom through the door and waited to hear the sound it being closed before she turned and pointed an angry finger at the Chief.
“Just where the fuck do you get off trying to foist that foreigner off on me, Richard?” she screeched. “You know damn well it took me forever to get used to Tom and now you’re going to replace him without so much as a warning? I trust Tom and we are going to work this case as a team.”
She turned to Tom and pulled him forward, “Right, Tom?”
Tom bit his lip and rubbed the side of his face as he turned to Sophia and she felt her heart sink.
“I’m sorry Sophia. I meant to tell you but…” he started before she cut him off.
“Just shut up before you get in deeper. It’s because Cindy was put on bed rest, isn’t it?”
He just nodded and looked at his feet. Sophia felt bad because she should have seen it coming. Tom’s wife was going through a very rough pregnancy and had recently been put on bed rest because she was diagnosed with toxemia. It was going to be his first child and she knew he was very worried.
“It’s ok. I understand,” she said softly as she hugged him. “You can’t focus on a case like this when you’re worried about your baby.”
“Thanks Sophia,” he said as he gave her a squeeze.
“Yeah whatever, you better get out of here before I remember that I’m pissed at you for abandoning me,” she said with a sad grin.
“Alright, but I want you to let me know how things are progressing. O.k.?”
“Don’t worry I will. Now go on, go see your wife.”
She stepped back and watched as he said goodbye to the Chief and headed up the stairs. Every step he took made her feel just a little bit more exposed and alone. She hadn’t realized just how much she had come to rely on his calm steady approach until just now. As much as he drove her crazy early on she had come to realize he was the perfect balance for her and she was going to miss him.
After a few moments she turned and looked over at the Chief. “We are going to talk about this later,” she promised.
Taking a deep breath she turned and headed back to the crime scene. It was time to get to know her new partner.