"An arm surrounded his neck and pressed against his windpipe. 'Start walking toward your car and don't turn around,' a male voice commanded.
'Take my wallet. I promise I won't turn ya' in,' Fritz begged.
'I'm not here for money.'
Fritz had no choice but to follow the order. Every time he stumbled, a solid fist pounded his spine. 'Quit fucking with me, old man!'
When they finally reached the door of his car, Fritz croaked, 'Wh... a... at ya' gonna dot'me?'
His attacker's laughter was a bitter, crazy sound that filled Fritz with terror.
'Why, Mr. Buell, I'm going to make you famous!'
Detective Burke sat alone in the seat of her police unit. She'd sought the privacy to sort through her thoughts before the Task Force met.
Why didn't Mother tell me her only sibling killed himself after being molested by a priest? Cultural taboos be damned... I'M FAMILY.
The situation felt like a fresh insult to her integrity. One that undermined her confidence and threatened her ability to do her sworn duty.
Should I go to Grandmother Agnes or Uncle Tony for the facts? Uciwayeki has endured so much in losing both of her children. I don't want to bring up old pain. But if I approach Uncle Tony, he may still be so angry he won't want to talk about it either. How can I approach this without offending someone?
Jana noted the arrival of Sheriff Oleson, but was reluctant to speak with him. She'd not jelled on how to relay her recently-gathered information without exciting suspicion.
She was surprised when he exited his car and stood next to his bumper. He appeared to be waiting for her to approach.
A fitful rain was absorbed by the heavy cloth of her uniform. With each step closer to him, her boots split apart the shallow pools of standing water, mirroring the strong divides burning within her soul.
"Get it sorted out, Jana?" he asked when she was close enough to speak.
"Excuse me, Sir?"
"I've noticed your habit of going to your car and sitting alone when you need time to think."
She looked at the ground, unsure of how to deal with the revelation that he'd been so closely watching her.
"Don't worry. I doubt anyone else has noticed," he assured her.
Brown eyes met blue, connecting and exploring forbidden sensations. Jana found it increasingly difficult to squash the urge to caress Derek's cheek and hang on his every word. 'Confusing trust with desire,' she'd tell herself.
The dangerous feelings were part of the reason she lived on the reservation with her uncle. It was outside Derek's social circle, and she'd have no chance of running into him outside of the job.
Get this back on track.
"I'm sorry to hear of Stanley Eitner's death, Sheriff." She aimed for a neutral response.
"By all accounts he was generous and well-liked," Derek replied.
He stopped just before the entrance, forcing her to slow in response. "Do you think it's wrong for me to be relieved it was Stanley's heart that killed him and not some heartless butcher?"
She was touched by the small glimpse of insecurity behind the armor of bravado he normally affected.
"No, Sir. I think it shows how much you care about the people who make up this case and not the other way around."
"How can you be so young and get that so perfectly, Jana? I've worked with a lot of law enforcement types. Few I've known, maybe three or four, ever got that."
Tapping his badge, he continued, "Your talent and good instincts set you apart, Detective. Keep it up, and you'll be wearing this badge someday."
Jana graced him with a rare, brilliant smile. It was he that looked away first.
Inside the station, Rick Morales did not approve of the scene he was observing. He couldn't make out the context of their conversation, but the affection in Jana's smile didn't need translating. His heart slid south.
She's never looked at me that way.
Someone grabbed Rick's arm, and he whipped his head around, ready to tell whoever it was to piss off.
"Stop spying, Morales," Ron Jolly ordered, "and get a move on. Sheriff's called a meeting in his office."
Bobbing his head in the direction of the two detectives entering, Rick sneered, "Maybe you should tell them that." Ron ignored the comment and kept moving, leaving Morales to catch up.
Minutes later, the entire Task Force - minus Skeets Epstein out interviewing Debra Padget's neighbors a second time - assembled in Sheriff Oleson's office.
"You took the call from the California son, Rick," Derek began. "What makes you think we're looking at another possible victim? The old guy may have decided to break his routine and go on up to the casino. The majority of their early morning patrons are over the age of seventy."
"I thought of that - even suggested it to the son. But he was adamant his father does not deviate from his routine. When he couldn't reach him on his cell phone or land line, he didn't waste any time calling us."
"Nothing worse than kids who move away and turn hypervigilant when their parents' needs can't be met from the other side of the country."
"I think there's more going on," Rick asserted. "Matthew Buell, the son, is CEO of an energy co-operative in Southern California. He's intelligent and informed. He knows about the Padget murder. Since his father was an employee of St. Matilde's during the same time frame as Mrs. Padget, he's forming some of his own conclusions."
"We went immediately to Fritz Buell's house," Jana added. "No one answered the door and the garage was empty. Rick and I checked the entrances and windows. No signs of anything unusual, and no reason to enter without a warrant."
"According to the son," Rick cut in, "Mr. Buell has been in the habit of visiting his wife's grave every morning after Mass. A call to Father Brian confirmed Mr. Buell did attend Mass. Puts him at the cemetery by approximately eight thirty."
"I think we're all expecting the worst and hoping for the best," Derek began. "Rick and Jana, I'd like you two to check out the cemetery site. Just in case, take a CSI guy with you."
"Has an APB been issued?"
Jana spoke first. "Yes, and I've also taken the liberty of alerting the Tribal Police."
"Why would you do that?!" Rick spoke for the entire room.
Nonplussed, Jana continued, "This killer is organized and cunning. He knows that dumping a body on reservation land will create a territorial dispute. What better way to stall an investigation and give him time to commit his next murder?"
"Though I wish you'd consulted me first," Derek responded, "I see the merit in your thinking, Jana."
"Now, let's find Fritz Buell, hopefully alive and in one piece."
Hank Gephart clamped his fingers around the handle of the metal bucket and put his back into the restroom door. Simultaneously, he bumped his elbow against the wall switch, extinguishing the room's light. His backwards progress stopped when the door stalled at midpoint.
What the heck?
The janitor dropped the bucket's handle and turned. He blinked in surprise. Darkness stretched the length of the hallway and beyond to the Fellowship Center. Hank always kept the lights on in any area of the church he worked.
With St. Matilde's locked and unoccupied except for himself, Hank's thoughts took a terrifying turn. While he was cleaning the bathroom, someone gained access to the church. What if they were nearby waiting for the chance to accost him?
Ever since the previous year's burglary, Hank dreaded being alone in the church. Specific objects - a crucifix blessed by Pope Paul VI and unsanctified communion wafers - had been stolen, yet solid gold chalices remained untouched. The police initially considered him a suspect. When Hank provided a solid alibi, the case quickly fizzled and died for lack of clues or witnesses.
After the incident, Hank seriously considered keeping a gun handy. His Catholic upbringing, however, instilled a reverence for God's house. So, he shelved that plan and came up with an adequate alternative.
Hank's lungs tightened with fear, forcing him to gulp for air. Desperately he searched his memory for the whereabouts of his pepper spray.
He searched the pockets of his supply satchel and grunted with satisfaction when his fingers met metal. Gripping the can in his fist, Hank stepped sideways, flattening himself against the wall.
Without his body weight to keep it ajar, the wooden door closed with a soft swish.
His limbs trembled with apprehension. Other than his own ragged breaths, he detected no other sounds. Hank pulled out a pocket-sized flashlight and, using minimal motion, scanned the immediate vicinity. A slim ray of light illuminated the doorways and half the hallway. No one jumped out of the shadows, and he began to relax a little.
Hank strained to recall everything he'd done in the last half hour. Was it possible he'd been on automatic pilot and forgot that he'd been the one to shut off the lights?
No, I'm positive I left those lights on.
"Had Father Brian come into the church for some reason?" he wondered. "Not seeing anyone about, Father might have assumed the lights had been left on by accident."
Get a grip, Hank. If it is Father Brian, he's likely in the sanctuary. You've got to check it out.
His knees wobbled as he pushed himself away from the wall. Placed strategically to impede the door's progress, was a bag of garbage. He'd not noticed it in his brief sweep of the hallway.
I know I did not leave a trash bag lying out here. This game is starting to piss me off.
Anger replaced fear. Hank switched off the flashlight and strode to the nearest wall switch. Under the bright overhead lights, he realized what he'd assumed was a garbage bag was, actually, a cardboard box. On top was a gold box with a fancy red bow.
What if it's a bomb?
His brain screamed stop, yet he dropped to his knees and crawled closer for a better look. He grasped the box with trembling fingers. The top easily lifted. A square of white batting covered something beneath. Hank lifted the cotton.
Oh, Dear God.
The box slipped from his fingers and rolled onto its side, disgorging its contents - a single human ear.