A priest is in the midst of a personal crisis of faith when a killer lures him into the twisted world of moral corruption, cover-ups and revenge.
Previously: Stanley Eisner teeters on the brink of death following a massive coronary. It is believed he has knowledge of a motive for the murder of his good friend. Debra Padget. The murder may be linked to a pedophile case involving the former pastor of St. Matilde's Catholic Church.
Sheriff Oleson navigated his patrol car along the tree-lined streets of Granite Mountain. Naked of their leaves, the trees' graphic imperfections were as evident as his struggle to catch up with a killer on the run and plenty of time to destroy evidence.
Tracing the edges of the badge on his chest, Derek catalogued the slim progress in the investigation thus far. Determination and frustration seesawed for dominance as he admitted his hopes were pinned on an old man haggling with death.
He'd gotten word from his officer at the hospital that Stanley Eisner was barely hanging on.
"I think you should get down here right away, Sheriff. I'm not sure what is happening, but there's a group of nurses hovering over Stanley's bed. I overhead one of them say the surgeon's been paged."
"On my way. Todd. Be extra vigilant. This is a good opportunity for a disguised killer to take advantage of the crisis. Don't hesitate to pull aside suspicious personnel."
"Copy that, Sheriff."
Derek pictured Stanley with tubes and pain killers rendering him helpless and a virtual sitting duck. An earlier encounter with a nosy stranger loitering outside Stan's room came to mind. Before the sheriff could ascertain the reason for his presence, the man disappeared like a wisp of fog.
A sketch had been drawn up based on Derek's recall of the man's appearance. Most notable was a dragon tattoo that wound around the man's neck and up into his hairline.
"Damned near impossible to conceal," Derek comforted himself.
A Mercedes SUV veered wildly ahead of him. The driver had a cell phone to her ear while gesturing with her other hand, leaving the car to steer itself.
The detective engaged siren and flashers to get her attention. He could see her grab the steering wheel, turn sharply and come to a stop thanks to the curb. Rather than waste precious time on a traffic stop, he settled for sending her a hard stare as he cruised past, certain she'd be back on the phone as soon as he disappeared from sight.
Three minutes later he pulled into the hospital's short term parking and exited. His hands and feet tingled with nervous energy as he neared his goal. A few feet from the elevator bank, a white-haired gentleman with lines etched deeply into the corner of his eyes, waylaid him.
"Sheriff, I'm Jim Duffy, a friend of Stanley Eisner's. I've just come from CICU. They won't let me see Stanley 'cause I'm not immediate family. I know something really bad is happening with him right now, and I'm afraid he's going to die before you can talk with him."
"Then you know it's imperative I get to his side as soon as possible, Mr. Duffy."
"Yes, Sir. But, first, you need to know something about Stan."
Derek took a firm hold of the man's elbow and led him to a quiet corner. "Please make this brief, Mr. Duffy."
"Stan received a threatening letter two weeks before Debra Padget's death. He never told a soul but me. I urged him to go to the police. But he said that whatever happened was in God's hands. That he should'a done the right thing years before and maybe it was his sins catchin' up with him." Jim pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his eyes.
"Do you know if he kept the letter?"
"No, Sir, I do not." Derek's brief hope plummeted. "But all his important documents are kept in a safe in his home."
"How do you know about the safe?"
"Stan showed it to me when he put me in charge of his estate. It's all in his will."
"Do you know the safe's combination?" Derek told himself to breathe.
"Yes, Sir, I do."
"Great." Derek clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Wait here and I'll send my officer down. If Stanley doesn't survive, we'll have to get a search warrant and that could take some time."
"I understand." A sheen of tears set his eyes glowing. "Stanley is one of the good ones, Sheriff. That letter, and Debra's death, led to this heart attack. Whoever wrote it might as well have put a gun to his head."
Derek nodded solemnly. "The letter could be a direct link to the killer. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"
"I'll leave it to your people to find and process it, Sheriff."
"Yes, Sir, Army Staff Sergeant. Served in Korea."
"I hope Stanley lives to hear the tale of how you helped the police solve a murder, Sergeant Duffy."
Jim looked at the floor and mumbled, "I'm praying for him to survive."
"Prayer is good," Derek whispered as he brushed past the older man.
The elevator was full, but soon the occupants moved to their safety zones as if they feared he would ticket them for elevator loitering.
He walked through the CICU doors into a scene of controlled chaos with Stanley Eisner as its hub. Officer Todd Poole rushed to greet his commander.
"Mr. Eisner's had a massive stroke, Sheriff. It's looking pretty grim."
"Surgeon here yet?"
"Got here just as Mr. Eisner went into cardiac arrest. He's in the room right now."
Derek recognized the blonde charge nurse as she exited Stanley's room, and read the outcome in her flushed face and slumped shoulders.
"He's gone, Sheriff. He never regained consciousness."
She pointed to a green-garbed, slender man with a surgical mask bulging about his throat. "That's Mr. Eisner's surgeon. Give him a couple of minutes, will you? He takes it very hard whenever he loses a patient."
From his vantage point near the door, Derek watched the surgeon with growing curiosity. Doctor Drake stared at Stanley's face as if willing him back from the dead. Then he gently raised his patient's hand from the bed and straightened each curled finger. Crossing to the other side of the bed, he repeated the action. Finally he laid both of Stanley's hands across his chest. It was then he acknowledged Derek's presence.
"There's a small room down the hall to your left where we dictate our chart notes. If it's unoccupied we can talk in there, Sheriff."
He moved briskly with the sheriff on his heels. The small space had two seats in addition to the conference table and was currently unoccupied. Doctor Drake dropped wearily into one of the chairs, but Derek remained standing.
"I'm sorry you were unable to speak with Stan... Mr. Eisner," Doctor Drake began. "The amount of damage to his heart was so extensive I worried about the possibility of complications. A small percentage of heart surgery patients succumb to post-op strokes. Stanley was one of the unfortunate few." He glanced at the wall clock and back at Derek.
"Thank you for taking a few minutes to talk with me," Derek quickly interjected. "Your services, I'm sure, are required elsewhere, Doctor, so I'll keep my questions brief."
"Appreciate that. Now, what can I tell you?"
"I believe Mr. Eisner possessed knowledge that placed his life in jeopardy. There's evidence he was the target of a man who has already committed one murder."
"You're wondering if there was any indication of foul play?" The physician cocked his head like a bird listening for a worm. "I can tell you that Stan's heart failure was the primary cause of death. Given that his heart imploded, however, I would refrain from calling that a natural event."
Both men grabbed their pockets on hearing the telltale buzz of a cell phone. They smiled in recognition of their brotherhood then separated like boxers in a ring. Seconds later, the surgeon came tearing out of the office and through the automatic doors.
Jim Duffy stood outside the doorway, his face filled with fear. Derek hated the part of his job that called for breaking the hearts of innocent people. But, there was a larger purpose to be served and a woman's death to be vindicated. He put on his game face and strode forward, ready to grasp a glimmer of hope.
~~continued with part two~~