Note: This story takes place about seven years after "On The Side Of Angels." For you Touched By An Angel fans, the angels do not appear in this story, but they do get a mention. However, they will most definitely be in the next one!
Rita glanced at her watch as she pulled her car into a parking space outside the Palm Beach Police Department. Chris should be taking a break for lunch anytime, she decided. With Katie, Jason, and Beth at Frannie's, she had plenty of time to spend an extended lunch hour with her husband. She was having a hard time leaving baby Beth, their precious surprise baby Elizabeth Rose Lorenzo, but having been through this twice before, she knew she had to push herself. Frannie was wonderful with all three children, and Rita knew she really didn't need to worry. But it was hard, with Beth still so small.
As Rita locked her car, she noticed a bright red sports car pulling into another parking space nearby and was surprised when the driver opened the door. She had expected a teenager to be driving the car, or maybe a young cop trying to make some kind of statement; instead, a petite, well-dressed woman exited the car and glanced around uncertainly. Always eager to help, Rita approached the woman. "Is there something I can do for you?" she asked. "Can I help you find something?"
The woman jumped, startled by Rita's appearance, then relaxed when she got a good look at who was speaking to her. "Oh, I'm sorry, you startled me," she said in a heavy Southern accent.
Rita looked at her closely. This woman was probably a few years younger than Rita, dark-haired, fair-skinned, eyes as blue as Rita's were green. She didn't look familiar, and from the accent, Rita guessed she wasn't a local. "I didn't mean to frighten you," Rita assured her. "But if you're lost, I'll be glad to help. I work here, and so does my husband. Can I direct you somewhere?"
The woman hesitated, clearly on guard, then evidently decided Rita was safe. "I need to see Captain Christopher Lorenzo in Homicide," she said.
Rita chuckled slightly at the coincidence. "He's my husband. I'm Rita Lorenzo. Come on, I'll show you to his office."
The woman followed Rita's lead and allowed her to show the way into the building and through the halls. "Thank you. You're a police officer, too?"
"Actually, a police psychologist as of a year ago. But I worked here in Homicide for a long time."
The woman visibly relaxed. "Oh, good, you should hear what I have to tell him, too. Maybe you can help."
It had been clear to Rita from the beginning that this woman was distressed, so she knew it was best to wait until they were with Chris behind the closed door of his office to press her for any information. "I'll be glad to do whatever I can for you," she replied noncommitally.
"Good. I need all the help I can get."
Once they found Chris, and Rita explained what little she knew about their visitor, the woman took the seat Chris offered and began her story. "My name is Carmen Trent-Bolton," she began, "and I'm a Methodist minister." Noting Chris' surprised expression, she actually smiled. "Lorenzo? Italian? Catholic?" she guessed. When he nodded sheepishly, she continued, "No wonder you're surprised, but the Methodist church has many female ministers. Don't be too shocked."
"I didn't mean any disrespect, ma'am, uh, I mean Reverend..." He wasn't quite sure how to address this woman.
Relaxed for the first time since Rita had seen her, Carmen actually laughed out loud. "Just call me Carmen," she insisted, putting an end to the confusion. "No offense taken. I run into that all the time." Her smile faded as she continued her story. "You might be aware that the Methodist church reassigns its ministers every few years or so. Three weeks ago, I left Palm Beach Memorial United Methodist, a church I'd served for six years, and started a new position at Oceanside United Methodist. I'd grown to love my former church and its members very much, and the change was hard on all of us, but moving is part of being a Methodist minister, and so far things are going well at my new assignment. Palm Beach Memorial honored my family and me with a reception on our last Sunday there, and a lot of the members, most of them, it seems, took the time to write notes to us expressing their appreciation and dropped them into a basket during the reception." She blinked back tears as she continued. "Most of them were so sweet, so beautiful, except this one." She opened her purse and withdrew an envelope and handed it to Chris.
Knowing he was about to see the source of this woman's distress, Chris hesitated slightly before opening the envelope. Rita stood at his side, anxious to see what the problem was. Chris slowly opened the folded sheet and gasped when he read the words, printed in big block letters:
THERE IS DANGER IN CONFIDENCE, PREACHER LADY. WHAT YOU KNOW CAN KILL YOU!
Open-mouthed, Rita stared at Carmen. Now she knew the reason for the woman's agitation. No doubt she'd been looking over her shoulder ever since she'd found this note! And she'd said something about a family. Did she have children? What kind of sick lunatic would threaten a minister? Catching herself before saying anything, Rita realized she couldn't alarm Carmen further. Slipping into her professional demeanor, she asked calmly, "When did you first see this?"
"This morning. It's taken some time to go through all the notes, and I haven't finished yet. I'd heard of you and your reputation," she explained to Chris. "That's why I came to talk to you."
"I'm guessing this is connected with something a church member, or probably a former church member now, told you in confidence," Chris prompted, hoping Carmen would explain further, but also well aware of the clergy confidentiality that would keep her from revealing too much. He also knew that disclosing anything told to her in confidence could put her in further danger.
Carmen nodded uncertainly. "Well, not necessarily a member, but somebody I counseled at some time. But I'm sure you know, as a member of the clergy, I'm not at liberty to discuss anything told to me in confidence."
Chris nodded. "I understand. But if we're going to catch this person before he or she does anything worse than write you a frightening note, we have to have some information." He stopped, clearly seeing Carmen's predicament. Because someone had evidently confided something to her, she was in danger simply for what she knew; if she took steps to protect herself and her family and this person found out, she would be in even greater danger, not to mention jeopardizing her job.
Rita watched Chris' expression and arrived at the same conclusion. Touching Carmen's arm sympathetically, she said, "We understand your situation and we want to help. You mentioned your family. Do you have children?"
Fighting tears again, Carmen nodded. "My husband and I have a two-year-old son. I never imagined that being in the ministry could put him in danger."
Rita reached for the frame holding pictures of their children on Chris' desk and turned it so Carmen could see. "We understand, more than you know. These are our children. Katie just turned seven last month, Jason is three, and Beth, the baby, is six months old. Naturally they're our top priority, no matter what happens at work. What you're facing now is something we've faced many times. We are well aware that in our line of work, our children's safety could be threatened. We've taken what steps we could to make sure they're safe, but we are always concerned. It's only normal."
Seeing that she had a kindred spirit in Rita, Carmen relaxed again. "Then you know how impossible this is for me. I have to protect my child, but I also can't violate that confidence. Ministry is more than just a job; it's my life's work."
How many times had both Chris and Rita said essentially the same thing about being cops? Though Rita's profession was now a bit different, she was still in the same line of work, and she could relate to what Carmen was saying. Both the ministry and law enforcement involved helping people, and that was one thing that had drawn her into her work. She was reasonably sure the same was true of Carmen with her choice to enter the ministry.
"I know you can't jeapordize your family's safety or your ministry, so we're going to have to proceed carefully. Is there anything in particular that stands out in your mind that would give you any idea who did this? Did anyone confide in you about anything that could send him or her to jail? Anybody you saw who made you uneasy?" Rita knew she was fishing, but she had to start somewhere. If Carmen had served at Palm Beach Memorial for six years, she had no doubt counseled hundreds of people. Finding the person who had written the threatening note could be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Carmen sighed. "Nothing I can think of right now. In my former position as associate pastor, I counseled mostly women and young people. But I did see more than just a few men over the time I was there, too."
"Were you ever nervous being alone in your office with anybody? A man in particular?" Rita was looking for a lead, anything that would give them a place to start.
"Is there a reason you came to me?" Chris asked. "You said you'd heard about me and knew of my reputation, but why would you come to a homicide cop for something like this? Do you have a reason to believe the writer of this note might have killed somebody?"
Carmen shook her head slightly. "Not really. It was a shot in the dark, I knew when I decided to come, but it's possible. I have had people confide in me in generalities, saying they'd done something they weren't proud of, things like that. No, I never have had anybody confess to a murder, if that's what you're thinking. I'd remember that. But the 'what you know can kill you' line is what scared me the most, and that's why I thought a homicide cop should be told."
Chris nodded. "This is more curiosity than anything, but how would you counsel somebody who admitted to something like that, who confessed to a crime? I understand you're bound by clergy confidentiality, but surely you'd be more than just a little afraid for your own safety, alone in an office with somebody telling you they'd committed a crime?"
"I honestly don't know what I'd do, since I've never been faced with anything like that. My kind of counseling doesn't usually deal with things like that. I'm not like a Catholic priest who hears confessions, though I could certainly do that kind of thing if anybody needed or requested it. Mostly I've dealt with people who had relationship problems, or maybe young people trying to find their way in life. Sure, I've seen plenty of people who were in crisis at the time, but it wasn't usually anything terribly dramatic. I've tried to encourage anybody who admitted to wrongdoing, to hurting somebody else, to own up to it and take responsibility for their actions, but that was almost always in the context of a relationship. I don't think I've ever had anybody sit in my office and outright admit to anything that could put them in jail. Anybody with a problem that was more than I was trained to handle, I always referred to somebody better qualified, a professional counselor or a psychiatrist, for example. I've heard some horror stories of human life, you can be sure, but nothing I can think of that would bring on this." She glanced at the note that Chris still held in his hand. "As far as I know, I don't have any information that could be a threat to anybody."
"Who knows about this note?" Rita asked. "Have you shown it to anybody else?"
"Just my husband. He hadn't left for work yet when I was reading a few of these at the dining table this morning. It scared him, too. We talked about it for a long time, unsure of what to do. We even wondered if it might have been somebody's sick idea of a prank. But that's unlikely, so we decided I needed to alert the police."
"You said you were an associate pastor at Palm Beach Memorial. You worked with another minister?" Chris asked.
"Yes. He's still the senior pastor there."
"Do you think he might be able to shed any light on this?"
"I don't know. I still feel like I'm in shock after finding the note. I haven't had time to think about it. I just knew I had to show that note to the police, to you, and be sure my family was protected."
Rita looked carefully at the note again, trying not to shudder. It was all in capital letters and nothing about the writing stood out. "You said this was dropped in a basket at the reception. Was anybody taking pictures or videos? Could the writer of this note have been caught on camera?"
"Several people had cameras. We spent a lot of time posing for pictures with other staff members and parishioners. But I don't remember a video camera."
"Can you get copies of all the pictures for us?" Chris asked. "Whoever put that note in the basket had to have been in that room at some time. This is a long shot, but if that person was caught on camera, whether we know it or not, it will go a long way toward helping us out."
Carmen hesitated. "I'm not sure who all took pictures, but I can probably find out and get copies for you. I'll do anything to find this person and put this matter to rest so I can get back to my work."
Rita hesitated to ask her next question. "Carmen, I know those notes from the members of your former church are very personal, but would you share them with us? Finish reading them yourself first, by all means, but we'd like to see them. I don't want to invade your privacy, but there's always a chance one of those other notes will have a connection to this one."
Carmen hesitated. "I see what you mean." She fought tears again as she continued, "Those beautiful notes of appreciation were something I'd hoped to be able to treasure for many years to come. Now...." She stopped, unable to go on.
"You feel this person has ruined it?" Rita finished. When Carmen nodded, not trusting herself to speak, Rita assured her, "Chris and I will do whatever it takes to make sure whoever wrote this note doesn't ruin the good memories for you."
After giving Chris and Rita general information about herself and her family, Carmen left, agreeing to contact them again soon, once she had finished reading the rest of the notes. She also told them she would tell the other minister she had worked with at Palm Beach Memorial. If the writer of that note was a member, he could be in danger, too.
Once Carmen had left, Chris sat back in his chair, trying to take in all that had just happened. "Wow, Sam, she shoots holes in all the sterotypes, doesn't she?"
"You don't know the half of it! She was driving a red sports car!"
"You're kidding! Wow! Who'd have thought we'd meet a female minister who has a name that sounds half Hispanic, half British, an accent that sounds like Scarlett O'Hara's, and drives a red sports car!"
"Chris, you don't think she wasn't telling the truth, do you? I know it's hard to put all those pieces together, but I was pretty sure she was sincere."
"I thought so, too, Sam, but you have to admit the pieces don't fit. Well, we can check out everything she told us about herself, and then proceed from there."
Chris and Rita left for a late lunch after finding that everything Carmen had told them was exactly the way she said it was. She had grown up in south central Kentucky, graduated from Western Kentucky University, received her theology degree from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and had been an ordained United Methodist minister for six years. She had married Jerry Bolton five years earlier, and their son Billy was two years old. Jerry was an architect and a south Florida native, which explained why they had settled in the area. Her story had checked out completely; now they had to figure out who had written her that frightening note and why.
Two days later, Carmen and Rita sat in Rita's office, carefully going through the notes from Carmen's former parishioners. By now Rita could see how special Carmen was to the members of the church she had served for six years, and how hard it had been for them to let her go. Rita had seen numerous references to Carmen as a gift and a blessing to the congregation, and every note so far had ended with good wishes and prayers for her continued ministry but sadness, too, over her leaving. It had been clear from the beginning that it had been just as hard for Carmen and Jerry to leave, and Rita had to wonder why the Methodist church had a system that required their ministers to move. She said as much to Carmen as they both got a bit teary-eyed over an especially touching note.
Sniffling, Carmen forced a laugh. "I've often wondered, too, why the system works the way it does, why it puts its church members and its ministers through such gut-wrenching agony on a regular basis. But I think there are several reasons. Sure, it's hard for us to let each other go when the time comes. There's a lot of fear, a lot of uncertainty involved in leaving what's familiar and starting over somewhere new. That's only human. In fact, my sermon on my last Sunday was about letting go of fear. But I think serving in different places gives us a chance to grow as ministers, and it also avoids anybody developing a 'cult following,' for lack of a better way to say it. And of course, inevitably, there are the minister-congration combinations that for one reason or another don't work out, and it's a graceful way out for the ministers in those situations. It's heart-breaking for us when we have to leave, and just as hard for our church members, but that's part of being in the ministry, at least in the Methodist church."
"It sounds a lot like being in the military," Rita commented. "I grew up in a series of foster homes, and it even sounds a bit like that. It's hard to put down roots anywhere because you never know when you'll have to leave."
Carmen didn't respond right away, apparently taking in what Rita had just revealed about her own background. Finally she nodded. "Being in the ministry has that element of uncertainty," she admitted. "But the Methodist Church usually allows its ministers to stay at one assignment at least four years. That's time enough to put down roots, but it also makes it hard when the time comes to move. Fortunately, because of Jerry's job, I was able to stay in Palm Beach. Lots of my colleagues have been transferred all across the state."
An hour later, they had finished reading all the notes, and even with Rita's close attention to details such as handwriting, they were reasonably sure they hadn't found any clues to who had written the threatening note. Carmen smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry I've taken up so much of your time with this."
"Don't apologize!" Rita rushed to reassure her. "You did the right thing in coming to us! With a few pieces of information, I could probably put together a profile on this mysterious person, but as it is now, I don't really have anywhere to start."
Shaking her head, Carmen responded. "I know. I'm going to feel really foolish if this was nothing more than a prank and I've just been crying wolf."
"I doubt that it's a prank. Even if you don't realize it, you know something that makes somebody feel threatened."
After Carmen left, Rita went in search of Chris. "No luck," she told him. "I didn't see anything in those other notes that looked like that threat she got. No similar handwriting, no paper, nothing."
"Hmm." Chris shook his head. "Well, this is going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but I guess we can start going through all the unsolved homicides from the last six years and see if any of the victims were members of Palm Beach Memorial United Methodist Church. Or if any potential suspects were. It's a shot in the dark, but unless Carmen remembers something that would give us a clue, it's all we've got."
Rita nodded. "I know. She's supposed to come back this afternoon with Pastor Adams from Palm Beach Memorial, and he should be able to get us pictures that were taken at the reception. Maybe something will jump out at us, but so far we're just fishing."
"She hasn't had any more threats, has she?" Chris asked, frowning.
"No, but she's scared. She's constantly looking over her shoulder."
Later that afternoon, Chris, Rita, and Carmen were again gathered in Chris' office. Pastor David Adams from Palm Beach Memorial UMC had just left after dropping off all the photographs he had been able to find from Carmen's reception. Unfortunately, no video had been made, but as far as Pastor Adams had been able to find out, four church members had taken photographs and he had been able to get copies of them all. Rita leafed through the stack of pictures, taking notes as Carmen gave her names and general information on each person.
"Ken and Karen Ramsey," Carmen pointed out in one of the photographs, her expression calm. "They've been here about a year, and are about to send their only child off to college in the fall. That's their daughter Christy behind them. Ida McCall," she said, pointing to the elderly woman in the next shot, "she's been a member there all her life." Rita diligently wrote down everything Carmen said and also looked carefully at each person in the pictures herself, trying to pick up on an expression, a gesture, anything that looked out of place. But so far everything looked exactly the way it was supposed to; faithful church members saying a painful goodbye to a dear friend and minister. But as Carmen looked at the next photograph, she hesitated slightly, and Rita watched her lips tighten into a thin line. The change in her expression had been so slight, so subtle, that most people wouldn't have noticed it, but Rita did.
"Craig and Sara Abernathy," Carmen said, indicating the couple in the picture. She related the same kind of general information she had given about most of the others such as how long they had been church members, where they were from, and how regularly they attended. Rita took down everything, but also made a mark beside the Abernathys' names and glanced at Chris. He nodded slightly, indicating that he had picked up on the same thing Rita had - something about the Abernathys bothered Carmen. Rita looked the couple over carefully. They were probably in their mid thirties. Craig Abernathy, a tall, dark-haired man with a beard, was in typical church attire, a suit and tie, but Rita had to stop herself from gasping out loud as she looked at Sara Abernathy. The woman wore a short, leather skirt that fit far too tightly around her hips, and a thin, low-cut blouse that didn't leave much to the imagination. She dressed like that for church? Her artificially blond hair was caught up in a clip on top of her head, and her huge smile seemed insincere. She looks like a trashy slut, Rita thought, but of course, in Carmen's presence, she kept her thoughs to herself. In the picture, Sara was in deep conversation with Carmen, but Craig was staring adoringly at his wife. His smile looked like that of a schoolboy in the midst of a huge crush. Rita longed to ask Carmen for details about this couple, but she knew she couldn't. Whatever she and Chris learned about them, they would have to find out on their own.
When they had finished looking through all the photographs, Chris sat back in his chair. "Carmen, are you sure there's nothing you can tell us that would help us figure out who sent you that note and why?" He worded his question carefully, well aware of the clerygy confidentiality that wouldn't allow Carmen to reveal anything personal about any of her former parishioners.
"Not at all," Carmen answered emphatically, shaking her head. "I wish I could. I hate being so jumpy all the time, always looking over my shoulder."
"Have you ever felt like you were being watched or followed?"
"I honestly couldn't say one way or the other. My imagination has been working overtime since I found that note, so I'm not sure what's real and what isn't."
Chris nodded, understanding her predicament. "Well, we're still at square one. Somebody thinks you know something incriminating about him or her. Okay, let's run through the possibilities. Since you came to me, a captain in homicide, and the note mentions killing, let's say there's a murder connected to this somehow. What are the main reasons people kill?"
Rita jumped in with an answer to his rhetorical question. "Money, power, jealousy...."
"Good start." Chris grinned at his wife. "Carmen, think back over the six years that you were at Palm Beach Memorial. No doubt you conducted a lot of funerals over that time. Were there any mysterious deaths among your church members?"
Carmen considered his question for a moment. "Most of our deaths were older people who died of natural causes. And even the few younger ones I remember were mostly natural, too, like cancer and heart disease. We didn't have any murder victims, if that's what you're asking. I'd remember." She paused again, frowning slightly. "Well, there was Jimmy Ellsworth."
Rita's eyes widened. "Drunken Jimmy was a member of your church?"
Carmen chuckled at Rita's surprise. "Yes, believe it or not, he was. It was common knowledge that he drank a lot, smoked like a smokestack, gambled, was a womanizer, you name it, and his whole life revolved around that bar of his, but his mama taught him to show up for church every Sunday morning, and he did. In spite of all his faults, he was really a likeable person. I guess if we had any mysterious deaths, he would have to be the only one, but it still sounds like an accident to me."
"Like you, I can't reveal anything confidential, but I can say his case is still open," Chris told her. "It's been six months since his death and we haven't found anything concrete, but for some reason it just doesn't feel right to call it an accident and close the case."
James Allen Ellsworth, known as "Drunken Jimmy," had been quite a local character up until his death six months earlier. He owned a bar on the beach, appropriately named Drunken Jimmy's Seaside Shack, that he had inherited when his father had died several years back. It was common knowledge that Jimmy did little more than hang out with his regular clientele and drink and that his mother was the only reason the bar managed to stay up and running. Years before, in a time when it was believed that women had no business sense, Jimmy's father had set it up in his will for Jimmy to inherit and take over the running of the bar upon his father's death. But Jimmy, interested only in partying, gambling, women, and fishing, quickly proved himself nowhere near responsible enough to handle any kind of business, and the bar soon started on a downward spiral. Fortunately, though, for Jimmy and his mother and their livelihood, his mother proved herself to be a very capable business woman who didn't take any foolishness off of Jimmy or any of his drinking buddies, most of whom frequented the bar nightly. She ran the place with an iron hand, somehow managing to keep customers in line, while her son slowly turned himself into something of a local attraction. Jimmy would hang out in the bar during business hours, drinking, laughing, and making the customers feel welcome. At six feet five inches tall and close to 250 pounds, with a loud voice to match, he was hard to miss, even in a big crowd. And, as Carmen had said, he really had a likeable personality, in spite of the fact that he was drunk more often than not. The word easily got around Palm Beach that Drunken Jimmy's was the place to go for a good time and to meet a real local character. On any given night, Jimmy's raspy voice could be heard bellowing his most famous line across the bar - "I'll drink to that." He seemed to have a real gift for entertaining people, in spite of his vices. Six months earlier, just a few days after Christmas, the 38-year-old Jimmy had gotten up early one morning to go fishing, and later that day, his body and boat had washed ashore. Despite his penchant for alcohol, he had always had sense enough not to go out in his boat alone when he had been drinking, and his mother had sworn he was sober when he left that morning. The cause of death was ruled a drowning, but the one piece of information that Chris wasn't sharing with Carmen at the moment, the main reason he was unwilling to call Jimmy's death an accident, was that Jimmy's skull had been crushed. True, Jimmy could easily have fallen against something on his boat and hit his head, or could have been hit in the head by a large piece of debris, but the injury hadn't quite fit with either of those scenarios. Chris hadn't had any leads worth investigating so far, but now that there was at least an indirect connection between Jimmy and Carmen, maybe he had something after all. Could Carmen know something about Jimmy's death and not realize it?
"Naturally we were all saddened by his death," Carmen told him, "but nobody was really surprised. With a lifestyle like that, it was almost expected. But what was surprising is that he had gone out fishing early in the morning like that thousands of times and had always come back sober enough to be safe on the boat. As far as I know, he didn't usually start drinking until the early afternoon."
"Did you hear anything strange or unusual about Jimmy's death?" Chris asked her. "Did anything make you wonder if there might have been more to it than just an accident?"
Carmen shook her head. "No, I never even heard any whispers or rumors, nobody speculating about anything. And I can tell you for sure that nobody ever came to talk to me in confidence about Jimmy's death. Though, as I said, we were all saddened, nobody except his mother seemed overwhelmed with grief."
After Carmen left, Chris and Rita discussed their options. "I still feel like we're fishing, but at least we have a little bit to work with," Rita said.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. Jimmy's definitely worth checking out, and though Carmen tried hard to hide it, we both know something about the Abernathys bothers her, so I fully intend to discreetly check them out, too."
"Did you see how that woman was dressed?" Rita finally let her shock show. "I know churches aren't as conservative as they used to be, but she looked like she belonged on stage in a strip joint, not in church!"
"Yes, I saw," Chris said, as Rita playfully punched him, teasing him a bit about noticing a woman like that, "and I also saw how her husband was looking at her. That man's whipped!"
"Definitely. His expression had 'blind in love' written all over it."
Chris smiled at her. "I know the feeling," he said, hugging her. "And you don't even have to dress like that." He snickered as she playfully shoved him.
Turning serious again, Rita asked him, "What's the plan, Sam? Where are you going to start?"
"Well, since Jimmy Ellsworth's case is still open, I'll make sure somebody talks to people from the church. That's an angle we never thought to explore. We thoroughly covered the bar and the neighborhood, but, considering Jimmy's lifestyle, none of us thought to ask around at church."
"Chris....," Rita hesitated, not wanting to meddle in his work. After all, her position was police psychologist; he was the homicide captain.
"Rita, what is it?"
"Since Carmen's job and safety are at stake, I'm not so sure it's a good idea to let anyone else in on this latest development."
Chris nodded. "I'll take care of it myself. Sammy...?"
Rita grinned at him. "Are you saying you want my help, Partner?"
"You got it, Partner."
Rita hugged him tightly. "'Partner.' That sounds so good!"
Chris pulled back slightly so he could look at her. "It's been a long time, hasn't it, Sam?"
"Too long. Chris, I love what I do, but I miss working side by side with you every day."
"I know you do, and I miss having you there. But if the trade-off was having you with me at home all the time, having our three children, it's no contest. We do get to work together a lot, and I think now is the perfect time for me to have a psychologist on the job. Whoever wrote that note to Carmen sounds really sick, so I need all the help I can get."
"You have my help, Sam, always!"
Chris parked outside the dilapidated wooden building that was Drunken Jimmy's Seaside Shack. It was shortly after 4:00, too early for happy hour, so he thought it might be the perfect time to talk with Jimmy's mother. This early in the day, the bar shouldn't be too crowded, though he had to wonder how crowded it was at all anymore since Jimmy's death. No doubt about it, Jimmy had been the main attraction, and now that he was gone, it wouldn't be surprising to see business fall off. Chris had gathered all the files the detectives had on this case, giving what he had hoped was a reasonable explanation for taking it over himself, and set out for the beachside bar, hoping to catch Jimmy's mother when she wasn't too busy.
Inside the dimly lit room, Chris counted exactly five people, two at a table, two more sitting at the bar, and one woman bustling around behind the bar at a breathtaking pace. Virginia Ellsworth seemed to have enough energy for all four of her customers and herself, with plenty left over. She glanced up when she saw Chris in the doorway, never slowing her pace as she mixed drinks, wiped up spills, and re-stocked cabinets. "Have a seat anywhere you like and I'll be with you in a minute," she called to him.
Chris slowly approached the bar, taking a seat at the opposite end from the other two patrons. When Virginia approached him, he discreetly showed her his badge before she could say anything. "Actually, Mrs. Ellsworth, I'd hoped to have a word with you if you have a moment. I'm Captain Lorenzo, Palm Beach Police, and I'd like...."
"Have you found out who killed my son?" the woman interrupted, sobbing.
"Not yet," Chris answered calmly, "but I'm working on it. That's why I'm here."
"Then you finally believe me? Those other cops wouldn't listen when I said he didn't fall off the boat and drown!"
"I'm not sure yet what happened, but I do agree that it wasn't necessarily the accident it looked like at first. That's why I'm here to talk to you."
"I already told those other cops everything I know. He was completely sober when he left home that morning, and he never drank too much when he was out on the boat by himself."
"Are you sure he was by himself that morning?" Chris asked, wanting to get one question that had been bothering him out of the way.
Virginia seemed taken aback. "Well, I assume he was. Nobody came to the house before he left, and he didn't say anything about meeting anybody. Why? Do you think his killer went fishing with him?"
Chris shook his head. "I don't know enough to say, ma'am. I'm just trying to rule out everything I can. I understand Jimmy attended church regularly at Palm Beach Memorial United Methodist?" he prompted next.
"Oh, yes," Virginia rushed on breathlessly. "I taught my boy to go to church every Sunday, and in spite of all the other things he did, he showed up every single Sunday morning!"
"Did he have any special friends from the church? Was he really close to anybody?"
Virginia pondered his question for a moment. "Oh, he had a few buddies he played cards with every now and then. I guess it's okay to say this since the Methodists don't have anything against drinking. Some of them came in here pretty regularly. Still do. I was afraid the bar would go under after Jimmy died, but all the regulars seem to want to keep his memory alive, so they keep coming."
"Could you give me any names?"
"You don't think one of his church friends killed him, do you?" Virginia asked, horrified.
"Ma'am, I'm not about to speculate. I just think that the more people I can talk to who knew your son well, the better my chances are of finding out what really happened when he died."
Virginia relaxed enough to give Chris a few names before a big group of customers walked through the door. "I have to get to work," she said.
"I understand, ma'am, but can you tell me one more thing? Was Jimmy seeing any women at the time of his death? Was he dating anybody? Any girlfriends?"
Virginia hesitated. "I never saw him with a woman in here around that time, and most of his girlfriends hung out in here a lot. He broke up with his last girlfriend over a year ago. But I wondered if he was seeing somebody then because he'd be gone for hours and I wouldn't know where he was. He could almost always be found here or at home or out on the boat. But there were times he was gone and his boat was at the marina, so he had something going on that I didn't know about. It could have been a woman." She glanced at the people who had just taken seats at a large table.
Chris handed her his card. "I understand you have to see to your customers, ma'am, but please call me if you think of anything or find out anything I should know."
Rita sat at her desk, looking over the information she'd gathered on Craig and Sara Abernathy and shaking her head in disbelief. She hoped Chris would be back soon with helpful information from Virginia Ellsworth. She was anxious to show him what she had found.
As if he had read her thoughts, Chris appeared in the doorway. "Any luck, Sam?"
"Oh, I found all sorts of interesting things, bordering on the unbelievable. You?"
"Mrs. Ellsworth didn't know a great deal, but she's certain her son was murdered. She did give me a few names of Jimmy's friends from church, but it doesn't sound like he was that close to any of them. But it's somewhere to start." He came around to stand behind Rita's desk and look over her shoulder. "What have you got here?"
"Computer printouts on Craig and Sara Abernathy. Sit down, Sam; you're not going to believe this." Chris pulled up a chair to sit beside her. "They've only been married about seven months, third marriage for both. Craig's a Palm Beach native, and Sara's from Texas. She's only been here a year."
"She moved here to be with him?"
"Yes, after she met him on line!"
"That's right. They met on line in February of last year, and by June she had moved all the way to Palm Beach from Texas. "
"Awfully fast, wasn't it?"
Rita nodded. "I'll say. This is the third marriage for both, and none of their other marriages lasted longer than two years. Craig is from a local wealthy family but is doing very well on his own as a civil engineer. Sara works as an office assistant, her sixth job since she came to Palm Beach."
"Not exactly the most stable work history. Did she get fired? Quit? What's the scoop?"
"I'm not sure about all of them yet. She left the first one after only two weeks because another one opened up and it paid better. She stayed there two months, but then there's a big gap between that one and the next one, several weeks, so it doesn't look like she left that one because something better came along. You know how employers are. They're so afraid of getting sued, they won't say much about former employees."
"Ha!" Chris laughed. "I'd hate to try to call anyone for a job reference these days. You never know what it is they're not saying! So, anything else about the Abernathys?"
"By all accounts, they're a nice couple, passionately and madly in love. Craig's a calm, reserved person, quiet by nature, has a great reputation at work and church, and Sara's very sweet."
"Hmm, nothing unusual except the way they met and the whirlwind courtship. And maybe Sara's work history, but that could be chalked up to being new in town and not really settled yet. You say he's from a rich family here? What about her? Her family's still in Texas, I take it?"
Rita nodded. "Yes, two parents, two sisters and a brother are all still out there. Both parents are factory workers, both sisters married with children, brother in the Navy. They're definitely not as well off as Craig's family, but they seem fairly normal. No scandals or criminal activity that I could find, in other words."
"You say they met on the Internet?" Chris asked, grimacing. "I hear about that kind of thing all the time, but it seems pretty rare that people actually end up marrying after meeting on line. Those Internet romances seem to start fast and furious, then burn out just as fast, probably because people build these fantasy worlds around the people they meet on line. They can't see who it is they're talking to, so that leaves a lot of room for imagination. Then when they meet in person, reality sets in and it rarely lives up to the fantasy."
"Right on all accounts, Sam," Rita agreed. "The Internet seems to be a great place to find information and make friends who have similar interests, but I'm very, very wary of on line romances. After all, unless they live in the same area, two people who meet on line can't have a normal dating relationship. And as well as the fantasy world factor you mentioned, it's very easy to lie and create a totally false persona. There's too much room for misconceptions and misinterpretations, deliberate or not. But so far, Craig and Sara Abernathy's marriage seems to be one of the rare ones to succeed."
"Were you able to find out any details about how they met on line? Did they meet in a chat room? Through a common interest like sports or TV shows or movies? Through personal ads?"
Rita shook her head. "The whole thing happened awfully fast. I mean, could you imagine marrying someone you'd only known four months, even in person? It seems extremely rushed to me. Based on that, I'd guess it wasn't a common interest that brought them together. From what I've learned, those kinds of on line relationships usually develop very slowly and cautiously. The fast and furious ones usually come out of a diligent search for on line romance, like dating chat rooms or personal ads. Have you ever read those personal ads on line?"
Chris shook his head. "Not that I remember."
"I went through some of them this afternoon when I learned how the Abernathys met, just exploring. It's pretty sad, Sam. Each and every ad I read seemed to be at one extreme or the other, and this goes for men and women, straight and gay. At one end of the scale, they sound really whiny and pitiful, desperate for a girlfriend or boyfriend and thinking a personal ad on line is their last hope, real losers, in other words. If they could see how pathetic they really sound, I wonder if they'd bother placing an ad. Surely that's not the way people want to come across to a potential date! The other extreme, of course, is the disgusting, arrogant, sleazy type, minds in the gutter, and after one thing and one thing only. Their ads go on and on about how wonderful they are and how happy they'll make the people who respond to them. Huge egos, no doubt."
Chris made a face. "Sounds really sick. And don't you know the people who answer those ads probably fall into one of those same categories?"
Rita nodded. "Of course, there is the occasional exception, but the majority of them are at one extreme or the other."
Grinning, Chris said emphatically, "When our kids get to be dating age, they're going to be banned from the Internet!"
Rita laughed. "Right, Sam! But what's dating age? 25? 30?"
Laughing, Chris looked at his watch. "Speaking of our kids, I suppose we'd better call it a day and get home so we can see them!"
Chris, Rita, and the children were just finishing dinner that night when the phone rang. "Katie, put your dishes in the sink," Rita told her seven-year-old as she reached for the phone. "Hello."
"Mrs. Lorenzo?" a woman's breathless voice, barely above a whisper, came through the phone. Rita noticed a lot of background noise.
"Yes," she replied. "Can you speak up? I can barely hear you."
"Sorry," the voice was clearer this time. "This is Virginia Ellsworth, and I'm at work. I know the noise is bad. Can I speak to your husband?"
Rita handed the phone to Chris. "Virginia Ellsworth," she said, "but good luck hearing her. She's in the bar."
"Mrs. Ellsworth, what can I do for you?" Chris asked when he came on the line.
"Captain Lorenzo, I forgot all about this today, but I just remembered something. Jimmy liked to play around on the computer some, more in the last few months than before."
"What exactly do you mean by 'play around on the computer'? You mean he got on line, on the Internet?"
"Yeah, I think so. He didn't do it a lot. Most all the time he was either in the bar, out fishing, or at home. He did a few things with some of his buddies once in awhile, and of course he went to church every Sunday, but in the last few months or so, it seemed like he was on the computer more than usual. When you asked about him seeing a woman this afternoon, I figured it was possible he met somebody on line, but I don't know."
"Thanks for the information, Mrs. Ellsworth. Would you mind if I took a look at your son's computer?"
"Not at all!" Virginia rushed to assure him. "As far as I'm concerned, you can take it! I have my own that I use for business, and I don't care to get on line and meet people!"
"Thank you ma'am, I just might take you up on that. Will tomorrow be a good time to come by?" Before hanging up, Chris set up a time to pick up Jimmy's computer. Then he made a call to a computer expert the PBPD had used before and arranged to have the man meet with him later in the day after he had Jimmy's computer in his possession.
The next afternoon, Chris and Rita sat in his office, examining Jimmy's computer. The expert they had called in had just left, after assuring them he had figured out all of Jimmy's passwords but telling them to call him if they had any problems.
Chris and Rita thanked him and saw him out before sitting down to see what all Jimmy had done on his computer. "Looks like he's bookmarked every porn site on line," Chris said, halfway chuckling. "That's about what I would have expected out of a guy like that. And of course all kinds of sites about booze."
Rita laughed. "So far nothing's surprising. How about his email?"
Chris looked for Jimmy's email address book. He recognized several of the names of Jimmy's friends Virginia had mentioned yesterday, most of whom Chris had already talked with that morning and none of whom had been able to shed any light on Jimmy's death. There were a few people with the last name Ellsworth, relatives, most likely, and then one name jumped out at him: Sara Abernathy! "Sam, I think we might have a connection!"
Rita looked over his shoulder. "You think he could have been involved with her?"
"Anything's possible, I guess. They probably knew each other from church, so for all we know, it could have been very innocent."
"Sam, you don't believe that anymore than I do!" Rita said firmly. "From the looks of that woman, she's on the make, and it's common knowledge that Jimmy was a womanizer. Chances are he wouldn't have cared if a woman paying him attention was married or not."
Chris clicked the mouse and scrolled, looking for any email Jimmy might have saved. "Rita, I learned long ago never to doubt your people instincts. You don't even know Sara Abernathy, but I'd bet my last dollar you're right."
"I don't know her," Rita admitted. "But just from reading her body language in that picture Carmen showed us, to me she looks like the kind of person who comes across all sweet and nice to other women, while behind their backs, she's coming onto their husbands. I still can't believe the way she was dressed for church!"
"I was shocked, too.....Wow, Sam, look at this!"
"What?" Rita leaned closer to the monitor and gasped when she read what Chris had found. He was reading what was evidently an on line conversation between Sara Abernathy, who very appropriately used the on line handle "TrashQueen," and Jimmy Ellsworth, who went by "JimmyBoy."
JimmyBoy: Hey darlin you looked sexy this morning! : )
TrashQueen: : ) All for you, JimmyBoy, all for you!
JimmyBoy: I thought even TrashQueens looked like angels in church but you're no angel, baby, not at all! LOL!
The flirting continued, playfully at first, then very quickly taking on a suggestive, then downright x-rated, slant. It was clear from the conversation that Jimmy and Sara had been involved intimately on line, at least, and unless it was all a game, in person, too.
That was only the beginning, it turned out. Jimmy had more personal communication with Sara, some conversations, some emails, and each one Chris and Rita read was a bit more graphic than the one before it. "Do you suppose it was all on line, Sam?" Chris asked. "They didn't quite have cybersex, but they came awfully close!"
Rita shook her head. "I doubt it. This is way too intimate. I'd bet they had a real-life, flesh-and-blood, hot and heavy affair!"
Chris nodded. "That's my guess, too. We need to get her in here, pronto!"
"Right." Rita looked at her watch. "It's getting late, so we might catch her as she leaves work. I doubt she'll talk in front of her husband."
Half an hour later, they had Sara seated in an interrogation room. She had come across full of sweetness and charm when they had first approached her, then whined a bit when they brought her in. As soon as Rita mentioned notifying Craig, she quieted down noticeably and just pouted in silence. "Yes, I had an affair with Jimmy Ellsworth," she answered matter-of-factly in response to Chris' direct question. Beyond that, she didn't volunteer any information, so Chris kept probing.
"How long did it last?" he asked.
Sara shrugged. "A few months, I guess."
Rita mostly watched and let Chris ask the questions, and she was shocked at what she saw. Sara Abernathy showed little emotion at all, no shame, no remorse, but at the other end of the scale, at least she didn't appear to be bragging. Rita listened to a few more of Sara's uncooperative answers before her patience ran out. "My God, Sara, have you no shame? You have a husband who's madly in love with you, and you cheat on him and act like it's no big deal, like cheating's just a normal part of life!"
Sara shrugged again. "For me it is. That's just the way I am. It doesn't mean I don't love Craig. I do, and he's great in bed, but so was Jimmy. It's just sex; it has nothing to do with love...." She trailed off, evidently having said more than she'd intended.
Rita felt sick. She couldn't imagine any woman treating a loving husband so callously. Though Rita didn't know Craig Abernathy, she was certain he would be crushed beyond belief if he could hear what his wife had just said.
Chris watched Rita and easily read her thoughts. He agreed with her, but they had both learned long ago that as cops, they couldn't educate the public in morality and proper treatment of others outside the law. He thought it would be a good idea to confiscate Sara's computer, but was pretty sure the woman wouldn't give it up willingly. Finding a way to divert Rita from her troubled thoughts, he stepped close to her, touched her arm, and whispered, "Can you get a warrant for her house, specifically her computer? I'll keep her here meanwhile. You'd better believe she's not going to let us have it, and I don't want her to have time to erase anything!"
Understanding his meaning, Rita nodded. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
With Rita gone, Chris continued questioning Sara about her whereabouts on the morning of Jimmy's death and other details that might pinpoint her as a potential killer. Sara kept insisting her relationship with Jimmy had been purely about sex; beyond that, it was nothing personal.
Chris grimaced at the irony of that statement. Rita was right; this woman had no shame.
"Can I go now?" Sara whined. "My husband's going to be home soon."
"Not yet," Chris stalled. He wasn't about to let this woman get to her house ahead of him and Rita with that warrant! He fully intended to take Sara home and leave with her computer. He continued questioning her, making sure he covered everything. No, she had never been in Drunken Jimmy's Seaside Shack, Sara told him. No, she and Jimmy hadn't had any kind of argument or fight or lovers' quarrel; they weren't that close. As for where she had been the morning of Jimmy's death, since it had been six months, she couldn't say for sure, but more than likely home in bed with her husband. She was just as uncooperative as she had been when they had first brought her in, clearly not about to volunteer anything, so Chris kept plodding away, asking her everything he could think of in minute detail.
Rita eventually returned and gave Chris a slight nod to indicate she had the warrant. "Can I go now?" Sara whined again.
Half an hour later, they had deposited Sara Abernathy at her home and were back at the shop with the computer the warrant had given them permission to take. Chris and Rita noticed how late it was and knew they had to call it a day, in spite of how anxious they were to see what hidden secrets Sara's computer held. Chris made another call to the expert who had helped them with Jimmy's, then made sure the computer was locked away securely for the night before going home.
That night, Rita curled up against Chris, hoping for a few precious hours of sleep before Beth inevitably wakened her during the night. This case was wearing her out, but she wasn't about to back out on Chris and Carmen. Could the situation with Jimmy Ellsworth and Sara Abernathy have any connection to that note Carmen got? Or were they off on the wrong track altogether? Today she had gotten caught up in everything they had learned about Sara Abernathy, too caught up. She felt sick when she thought of that heartless, evil woman, cheating on her loving husband. Unconsciously, Rita hugged Chris tighter.
Chris knew Rita had been upset by what had happened today. Returning her hug, he whispered, "It's still bothering you, isn't it, Sam?"
Rita nodded and pulled back slightly to look at him. "I know we've seen thousands of people like her over the years, but for some reason, she seems to be in a class all by herself. She cheated on her loving husband without a second thought, and with somebody she cares nothing about! We have yet to talk with Craig Abernathy, but it's clear from the way he was looking at her in Carmen's picture that he's head over heels in love with her. It's really sick!"
Chris hugged her tightly again. "I know." Pulling back slightly, he smiled. "Sure makes us thankful for each other, huh?"
Rita smiled back. "Right, Sam!" A few minutes later, she was sound asleep.
It wasn't Beth's cries that woke them in the middle of the night; it was the phone. Chris grabbed it quickly, hoping it wouldn't wake Rita, who still seemed to be sleeping soundly. "Hello."
"Chris!" came the deep Southern accent in a frightened whisper.
"Somebody's in my house!"
Chris sat up straight, knowing his movement would wake Rita, but also knowing she would want to hear this. He was about to tell Carmen to hang up and call 911, but quickly realized what she was doing. She didn't want a police report on file with her name in it. "Where are you?"
"On the cordless phone in the garage," Carmen whispered. "Jerry's got Billy and is trying to keep him quiet. Hurry!"
"I'll be right there. Stay where you are!" Chris hung up the phone and jumped out of bed in one motion. He reached for his jeans and shirt that were hanging over a chair.
"What's going on?" Rita asked sleepily. She was used to Chris being called in the middle of the night, but it was clear that this wasn't a routine call.
"Somebody's in Carmen and Jerry's house."
Rita sat up straight. Immediately understanding Carmen's decision to call them in an effort to keep this from becoming public, Rita's first concern was for her husband's safety. "Chris, you can't go over there without backup!"
"I don't intend to, but I'm going to try to be discreet." Fully dressed, he leaned over and hugged Rita tightly. "I'll be careful, Sam, I promise. I love you." He gave her a quick kiss, grabbed his cell phone, gun, and badge, and left.
It was a short drive to Carmen and Jerry's home, and on the way, Chris used his cell phone to call four other police officers who lived in the neighborhood for help. Satisfied that he had enough backup, he quickly covered the remaining distance. The house was completely dark, appearing to be shut up for the night. Chris approached cautiously, the safety of Carmen, Jerry, and Billy uppermost in his mind. Seconds later, all four of his helpers arrived, and he quietly filled them in on the situation before they made a move on the house.
Accompanied by one of the officers, Chris crept around to the side of the garage, relieved to find a walk-through door. He knocked softly. "Carmen? Jerry? It's Chris. Come on out if you can."
The door was jerked open and a frightened Carmen stared up at him. "Chris! Thank God!" Chris got his first look at Jerry Bolton, a tall man with sandy blond hair, who was holding a sleeping Billy. Carmen and Jerry were in bathrobes and slippers, Billy in blue pajamas.
"Are you all right?" Chris asked.
"Yes, but somebody's still in there!" Carmen's voice trembled.
"Come on out," Chris instructed, stepping aside. He led them to one of the patrol cars and instructed an officer to stay with them. "You'll be safe here," he assured them. "I'll check out the house."
He needn't have bothered making that promise. As he turned to speak to his fellow officers to give them instructions, the house erupted in a ball of fire. Fortunately, they were all far enough back to be completely safe.
Carmen gasped, frozen in shock. Chris couldn't believe what he was seeing, either. If he hadn't gotten them out of the house when he did, if he and any of the men had gone back inside.... he wouldn't let himself think about it.
A mind-boggling hour and a half later, after all the necessary reports had been made and hysterical neighbors had been calmed and sent home, Chris knew he had to find a place for Carmen, Jerry, and Billy to stay. Once the shock had worn off and reality had set in, Carmen had assured him that they could go to a hotel or stay with friends, but Chris wasn't at all sure they'd be safe anywhere in Palm Beach. He would talk with them about possibly getting out of town for awhile in the morning, but right now, they all needed sleep. "You're coming home with me," he told them firmly, refusing to listen to their protests.
Rita greeted Chris with a tight hug, relieved that he was all right. He had called her from his cell phone and filled her in on what had happened, assuring her that everyone was unharmed, but she wouldn't completely relax until she could see for herself. "I'm okay, Sam," he reassured her, returning her hug. He opened the back door of his car and leaned over to take a still sleeping Billy from Carmen. "Come on in and get some sleep," he said as Jerry and Carmen exited the car.
Once Billy was sleeping soundly in Beth's playpen in the guest room and Chris and Rita had checked on all three of their children to make sure they were still asleep, the four adults tried to make sense of what had happened. "If you hadn't gotten us out of there when you did...," a shaky Carmen said to Chris.
Rita put a comforting arm around her shoulders. "You're all right," she assured her. "Why don't you go get some sleep? We'll help you sort things out in the morning." Chris and Jerry lingered a few minutes after the women left the room.
"Do you think this is related to that note she got?" Jerry asked Chris. Normally a quiet, reserved man, he was fiercely protective of his wife and child, Chris had noticed right away.
Chris sighed, shaking his head. "I'm not sure. It could have been some kind of freak accident, but I doubt it. We will find out what caused the house to blow up, and then we'll have a better idea. For now, you can stay here, and we'll help you get clothes and anything else you need, but you might want to think about getting out of town for awhile."
Jerry nodded in agreement. "I have to keep my family safe, but I can guarantee Carmen's not going to want to go anywhere. She doesn't believe in running away, and since she's so new to her job, she won't want to take time off so soon. Who would have thought the ministry would be a dangerous profession?"
Chris and Rita spent the next morning helping Carmen and Jerry get clothes and other necessary items, as well as dodging the local media. The outpouring of concern and offers of help from Carmen's former and current church members as well as Jerry's co-workers was overwhelming, so for the moment, at least, they decided not to leave town. Chris was determined to publicly pass off the explosion of the house as a freak accident, overseeing the investigation first-hand as much as he could, but he was certain they would find it was no accident in the long run. By lunchtime, they had done all they could for the time being, and Chris was anxious to get to work and check out Sara Abernathy's computer. Carmen and Jerry both decided to salvage what they could of their work day, but were reluctant to leave Billy at the church daycare he normally attended. Rita immediately understood their fears and, after contacting Frannie, she assured them Billy would be safe at the Lipschitz home along with Katie, Jason, and Beth. With everything as settled as it could be for the moment, Chris, Rita, Carmen, and Jerry each headed to work.
In her office, Rita went over the various pieces of the puzzle that was growing more complicated by the hour. They had the frightening note Carmen had received, Jimmy Ellsworth's death, his involvement with Sara Abernathy, and most recently, the explosion of Carmen and Jerry's house. Was it all connected somehow? She hadn't believed from the beginning that it was a coincidence that Jimmy Ellsworth and Sara Abernathy were members of the church Carmen had pastored. Somehow, there had to be a connection, and without realizing it, Carmen probably knew what it was, and that was what was putting her in danger. "Danger in confidence," the note had said. Carmen knew something that was far more significant than she realized.
"Hey, Sam, I'm ready to get started with the computer," Chris' voice came over the intercom on Rita's phone.
"Be right there." Rita put aside everything she had been working on; it would have to wait until after they went through Sara's computer.
Rita stared in disbelief at all the names in Sara's email address book. There were the usual family members, but beyond that, all the others were men, most with very suggestive-sounding email addresses and nicknames. It took close to two hours, but Chris and Rita were able to determine that Sara Abernathy had been involved intimately with about fifteen men, and most of the relationships appeared to have spilled over from the fantasy world of cyberspace into real life. Rita shook her head. "She has no limits!"
Chris nodded. "Craig Abernathy makes good money, as well as being from a wealthy family. You see a pattern here?"
"Oh, yeah, same old story. She marries for money and security, then does anything and everything on the side."
"You'd think if she was sleeping around this much, her husband would have caught on by now."
"I think he's one more victim."
Chris frowned. "What do you mean?"
"She's doing the same thing to him that she's doing to all these other men. What's the easiest way for a woman to manipulate a man?"
"Oh, I see. Sex."
"Right. What do you want to bet Craig's suspicious at the very least, but he's looking the other way? She's keeping him happy at home, so he's not about to rock the boat and accuse her of anything."
Chris shook his head. "Sad. That's not a marriage; that's slavery."
They continued their meticulous examination of everything on the computer. "Look at this, Sam," Rita said, pointing to an unusual recording device attached to the computer's microphone. Experimenting further, they found that the device could alter voices. By the time they had finished, Rita had recordings of her own voice made to sound like a small child, a much older woman, and a man, all sounding very authentic.
"Interesting," Chris said, playing back each recording. "Can't you just imagine how she uses this?"
He didn't have to wonder much longer. Going through the emails and on line conversations Sara had saved, they found that she had created several different on line personas, including that of a college student, a young girl just out of high school, a wealthy older woman, and one that portrayed her pretty much as her real self, with one major difference; she pretended to be single. This last personality was the one that used the TrashQueen name she had used in the conversations with Jimmy Ellsworth. The others she used were LilPrincess, QueenSara, and PrincessSA. Most of her relationships with the men on line had seemed to start out innocently enough, with casual conversation, harmless flirting, and eventually working up to downright x-rated behavior on screen and off. Rita felt sick to her stomach as she read the intimate details of Sara Abernathy's dalliances with these men, thinking how crushed Craig would be if he could see the truth about the woman he had married. She hadn't yet met him in person, but her people skills and training as a psychologist had kicked in full force, and she was reasonably sure she had sized him up accurately.
Returning to the issues of Jimmy's death and the threats to Carmen, Rita wondered if Sara Abernathy was a killer as well as a cheater. Somehow they had to contact Sara's on line acquaintances, but she knew it wouldn't be easy.
Chris watched Rita, reading her thoughts. "I'll do whatever I have to to get the necessary clearance to track down all these men. This is a murder investigation. If she killed Jimmy Ellsworth and tried to kill Carmen and her family, all these guys could be in danger, too."
"I'm guessing that somewhere along the line, Sara must have confided to Carmen about being unfaithful to Craig," Rita guessed. "That would explain why Carmen seemed bothered when she showed us the picture of the Abernathys that first day."
Chris nodded. "That would also explain the note. The more people who know about Sara's infidelity, the greater the danger to her marriage to Craig Abernathy and his money. Carmen knows, so she's a threat, regardless of the clergy confidentiality angle."
"Wonder why Sara would confide in Carmen and then threaten her? How sick! Maybe she opened her mouth, then started regretting it."
Chris looked at his watch, wishing they could take more time, but it was getting late and they needed to meet Carmen and Jerry and pick up the children. "We can pick this back up tomorrow, Sam."
Chris, Rita, Carmen, and Jerry arrived at Harry and Frannie's house to find Katie reading a story to Jason and Billy, and Frannie rocking Beth. Fortunately, Billy seemed to have adjusted to all the new people without any problems. "They're all little angels!" Frannie assured the adults. "We've had a wonderful day! Katie's such a big help!" Katie beamed at Frannie's compliment and continued reading to the boys.
At home that night, Rita tried once again to convince Carmen and Jerry to get out of town for awhile. "You're welcome to stay here as long as you like," she assured them, "but I'm not sure you'll be safe in Palm Beach until we get to the bottom of this."
Carmen sighed. "I've thought about it all day. I hate to take off so soon, after just a few weeks at Oceanside, but with what happened to the house, I think people would understand."
"Any word yet on exactly what caused the house to blow up?" Jerry asked Chris.
"They're still investigating," Chris answered, "and I've got somebody guarding the site 24 hours a day. We're not going to make it easy for the wrong person to get in there and destroy evidence."
Jerry turned to Carmen. "What do you say we wait to see what the investigators find, then take off for Kentucky for a few days?"
Carmen pondered for a moment, then nodded. "I don't want to run away, but if somebody tried to kill us last night, it's too dangerous to stay." Suddenly, she looked alarmed. "Are we putting you in any danger by staying here?" she asked Chris and Rita.
Rita shook her head. "I doubt it. We have a good security system, so I doubt that anybody could break into the house too easily while we're here. Just be careful when you're out."
"I've downplayed the fact that somebody was in the house when you called me, and if anything out of the ordinary shows up in the investigation, I'll do what I can to see that it doesn't get out," Chris promised them. "But you know how the media can be, and how people talk."
His words would haunt him the very next day. When he walked into his office the next morning, a copy of the Daily Beach, a paper he'd hoped never to see again except for one infamous copy that remained in a frame at home, was in the middle of his desk. He smiled briefly as he remembered Cap's so-called wedding gift to him and Rita, then grimaced as he got a closer look at that same paper's latest copy. He cringed at the headline that screamed out at him.
DID SOMEBODY TRY TO KILL THE PREACHER?
A snapshot of Carmen, Jerry, and Billy accompanied the headline. Chris skimmed the article quickly and found it to be typical tabloid fare. In short, it suggested that the explosion of Carmen and Jerry's house had been sabotage, a deliberate attempt on their lives, and raised all sorts of questions as to why. No doubt some nosy reporter had read the police reports and jumped to conclusions. He slapped the paper down on his desk and reached for the phone, intending to call Jerry immediately and insist that he get Carmen and Billy and leave Palm Beach right away. With crap like that in print, life was about to get a lot more difficult for them, regardless of the support they were getting from church members. However, the phone rang before he could reach it.
Meanwhile, Rita had found a copy of the same paper, and her heart ached for Carmen. As much as she admired Carmen's determination not to run away, she honestly wished they would get out of Palm Beach for awhile. Remembering what that tabloid had done to her and Chris all those years ago, she smiled, knowing it had been no more than a minor annoyance compared to the trouble it would bring to Carmen and Jerry. It was going to be a lot harder for her to do her job as a minister with so much speculation surrounding her. The tabloid article had even gone so far as to suggest that Carmen's life had been threatened because she had divulged something told to her in confidence. Though Rita knew for a fact that that was not true, she also knew that even the slightest suggestion of a breach of confidentiality was going to make people afraid to trust Carmen. She wished she and Chris could get to the bottom of this and find out who was threatening Carmen and why.
"Hey, Sam." Chris appeared in her doorway, holding his copy of the Daily Beach.
"Hey. I see you got one, too." Rita grimaced.
"Yeah, and that's not all I got. I just heard from the fire investigators. Carmen and Jerry's house blew up because the gas oven was on, full force, no less, with several candles burning inside the house!"
"Somebody really did try to kill them!" Rita had known deep down that that was what had happened, but it was still hard to believe, even confronted with concrete evidence.
Chris nodded. "We have to get them out of here. I know Carmen's worried about her job, and probably even more so after this," he said, indicating the tabloid, "but I really think the church will support her and will want her to keep her family safe. I was about to call Jerry and tell him that when I saw this paper, but the fire investigator called before I had a chance."
"It's so sick, Chris! Who would try to kill a minister? And Callie Callahan and her trashy reporters are just making it worse, cashing in on somebody else's tragedy!"
"She hasn't changed at all in seven and a half years, evidently. I wish Carmen would sue her over this, but I'm sure that's going to be the least of her worries. Can you help me convince them to get out?"
Rita nodded. "The sooner, the better."
They found Carmen in her office at Oceanside United Methodist Church, barely able to get any work done with her phone ringing every few seconds. "Chris, Rita, hi! Hang on a second," she said, reaching for the phone as it rang.
"Wait a minute," Chris interrupted, holding his hand up in an effort to stop her from picking up the phone. "Do you have voice mail or somebody who can answer that for you while we talk? This is important."
Carmen easily read his serious expression and was instantly alarmed. The phone stopped ringing as her voice mail automatically picked up. "Sure. What's wrong?"
"First of all, have you seen this?" Rita handed her the Daily Beach.
Carmen skimmed the article and shrugged. "I don't ever pay attention to things like this." She rolled her eyes.
Rita wasn't going to add that though she might not, other people did and were likely to believe it, even if it was completely false. With the news Chris had gotten from the fire investigator, they had a much more pressing issue.
"Good. Neither do we," Chris told her, "but you should pay attention to what the fire investigators found. Your house blew up because the gas oven was on full force, and there were several candles burning inside."
Carmen frowned. "I don't understand. We didn't even use the oven that night, and because of Billy, we never light candles...." She trailed off, then her eyes widened as the realization hit her. "Somebody tried to kill us!"
Chris nodded. "Exactly. Listen, Carmen, I know you don't want to leave town, but you really need to. It's not safe for you to stay. You go with Rita back to our house and pack what you need, and I'll go talk with Jerry. Can you go see your family in Kentucky for a few days?"
Mechanically, Carmen nodded, still trying to take everything in. "I'm sure we can."
At home, Rita lent Carmen two suitcases to pack the few new things they had. "You'll call us when you get to Kentucky to let us know you made it safely?" she asked.
"Yes, of course. Chris is going to help Jerry make flight reservations? If we try to drive, it will take us too long." She was starting to babble, Rita noticed. It would do her good to get away from Palm Beach for awhile, away from something no one should have to face.
"I'm sure he will," Rita assured her. "We'll go by Harry and Fran's and get Billy, then we'll take you to the airport and put you on the plane!"
"Rita, I've never been so afraid in my life! In my line of work, I've seen some of the saddest cases of human suffering you could ever imagine, but never anything like this!"
Rita reached out to hug her. "I know. But I really think you'll be safe in Kentucky, and it will be good for you to spend some time with your family. The job change has no doubt been stressful for you, and everything else that's happened has taken its toll, too. Go up there and relax, and we'll stay in touch every day and keep you updated on what's happening."
"How do you stay so calm? In your work, you've seen lots of sadness and suffering, too, and from what you told me about your own background, I'm guessing you saw a lot as a child, too. But you're one of the most well-adjusted people I've ever seen."
Rita smiled, slightly embarrassed. "I don't always feel like I'm calm and well-adjusted. Being married to Chris helps, of course, and...." A memory of the incident that had changed their lives seven and a half years ago caused her to stop. Carmen was a minister, but what would she think of the angels that had saved their lives?
"What?" Carmen asked. "I'd really like to know how you do it."
Rita drew a deep breath. "You might think I've lost my mind, but then, you're a minister, so maybe not. Would you believe me if I told you that Chris and I were saved by angels seven and a half years ago?"
Wide-eyed, Carmen stared at her. "Angels? I'm not doubting you; it's just that nobody's ever told me about being visited by angels before. But yes, of course, I believe you."
Rita told her all about Tess, Monica, and Andrew, the angels that had made the difference between life and death for her, Chris, and Katie all those years ago. "If they hadn't intervened, we all might have died. Holly, Chris' new partner, is the one who lost her life, and it breaks our hearts to this day, but being able to get to know Holly's mother and having her in our lives has helped. And I think it helps her to know that Holly gave her life so we could live. She took the bullets meant for us."
Carmen wiped her eyes as Rita finished her story. "Rita, that is so beautiful! So, you're saying that's why you're so calm? You know there are angels looking out for you?"
Rita nodded. "I haven't looked at life the same way since."
Carmen laughed. "I'm a minister, and here you are giving me advice about divine intervention and angels watching over us! I of all people should know that I'm never alone, that my family and I are under God's constant care!"
Rita was relieved to see Carmen relaxing and laughing a little. "You're just as human as the rest of us, and when your family's safety is threatened and an attempt is made on your life, you're going to react like a human! And when that very human reaction tells you to seek safety, I'd say it's a good thing!"
Chris found Jerry in his office, trying to sort through the excess work that had accumulated the morning before. "Hi, Chris, what can I do for you?"
"It's not what you can do for me, Jerry, it's what you need to do for yourself and Carmen and Billy." He showed Jerry the Daily Beach and filled him in on the fire investigator's findings. "I'll help you make flight reservations and get all of you to the airport. Rita's at home with Carmen right now helping her pack."
Jerry nodded slowly. "As much as this latest news frightens me, I'm glad we're getting out of here. I've been too worried to get much work done."
Once Chris got home with Jerry and saw that Carmen and Rita had everything packed, they left for Harry and Frannie's house. Frannie was carefully showing Katie how to give Beth a bottle, while Jason and Billy were camped in front of the TV watching Barney.
"You aren't sick of that purple dinosaur yet?" Chris asked Frannie.
"Oh, no," Frannie chattered. "They watched Teletubbies earlier, and Sesame Street, too. I think they like Oscar the Grouch."
"That figures," Rita said, "especially when Jason hasn't had enough sleep!"
"Billy, too," Carmen added.
All the adults laughed, easing the tension they were feeling. Chris and Rita explained to Katie and Jason that they would be back for them later while Carmen and Jerry gathered up Billy's things. No one would say so, but they would all breathe easier once Carmen, Jerry, and Billy were on the plane and safely out of Palm Beach.
Rita tucked Katie in bed that night and tried to explain to her why Carmen, Jerry, and Billy had left town. "After their house burned down, they thought it would be best to go away for awhile."
"But, why? I liked having them here with us. It was fun! Billy does what I tell him to; Jason won't!"
Rita laughed. "I bet it wouldn't take Billy long to learn to say no, the same way Jason does. I'm sure they will come visit again when they get back home."
"They're afraid, aren't they?" the ever-perceptive seven-year-old asked. "Somebody burned the house down on purpose, and that's why they left, isn't it?"
Rita sighed. She and Chris were always mindful of their childrens' safety, but she didn't want to teach Katie to run away or to be afraid, so she chose her words carefully. "We don't know who burned the house down, and yes, your dad and I thought it was best for them to leave for awhile, until we can find out. I don't think they'll be gone very long."
That seemed to satisfy Katie, who fell asleep within a few minutes. Later, Carmen called with the news that they had arrived safely at her parents' house in Kentucky and would stay until it was safe to come back to Palm Beach.
The next day at work, Rita sat in her office, trying to work up a profile of Jimmy Ellsworth's killer, and having very little luck so far. Theoretically, it could still be considered a possible accident, and since Jimmy hadn't seemed to have any real enemies, nothing added up. She kept going back to Sara Abernathy. Could that heartless, evil, manipulative woman have killed him?
Chris appeared in her doorway. "Hey, Sam, I finally got clearance to track down those guys on line. I practically had to get permission from Heaven and it's taken me all morning, but it's done."
Rita pushed aside her work and stood. "Let's get started, then."
In Chris' office, they scanned through the computer printouts they had on a few of Sara Abernathy's on line conquests. Out of the ten they'd researched so far, four had died recently and one had mysteriously disappeared. Like Jimmy Ellsworth's case, most of the deaths could be passed off as coincidences or accidents. One had died of a heart attack, one in a car accident, and two had drowned. Rita shook her head. "This can't be a coincidence, Sam. We have five deaths including Jimmy Ellsworth, and one strange disappearance, out of a total of eleven people! Do you have open homicide cases on any of these?"
"Just Carl Denton's drowning. It looked very mysterious, and like Jimmy, his skull was crushed. But Gary Carr's drowning was ruled an accident because he was drunk at the time, and Brian Clayton's car crash is still under investigation. As for Gordon Kendall's heart attack, I think that was ruled a natural cause from the beginning."
"As much as I hate to add to their families' grief, we have to find out what they knew."
Chris nodded solemnly. "I hate to put them through this as much as you do, but we have to."
A tall, dark-haired woman in her mid-forties, Stephanie Clayton sat across her living room from Chris and Rita, evidently surprised to have two homicide cops paying her a visit less than two months after her husband's tragic death in a car crash. "Are you saying you think Brian's death wasn't an accident?" she asked.
"We're not sure, Mrs. Clayton." Chris didn't want to add to this woman's grief, but he was about to ask questions he knew would be painful. "Do you know if your husband spent much time on the Internet?"
Caught off guard for the moment, Stephanie looked shocked, then sad. She nodded. "Yes. At first it was mostly for business, then it became more of a hobby, corresponding with golfing buddies and things like that." She looked like she was about to say more, then stopped abruptly. "Do you think he got in trouble on line and that's why he was killed?"
"I'm not sure," Chris repeated. "Is there anything you can tell me about his activities on line that would make you think he got in some kind of trouble?"
Looking sadder, Stephanie hesitated for a moment before answering. "He got involved with a woman," she stated flatly. "I didn't know about it for the longest time, but I started getting suspicious when he seemed to not only spend more and more time on line, but also more time away from home than normal. I'm not proud of what I did, but I finally put two and two together and snooped into some of his computer files. He evidently met her in a golfing chat room, along with most of the men he corresponded with on line, and it seemed to start fairly innocently. But then it got to be not so innocent - lots of long, private conversations and things like that. Brian and I had a good marriage, and I can say with all certainty that he never, never cheated on me in over twenty years of marriage until this woman came along! I doubt that I could prove it, but I'm sure their on line affair spilled over into real life, and that's why he spent so much time away from home! I confronted him when I figured things out and begged him to stop, to go with me for counseling, anything! Our marriage wasn't worth throwing away for some trash queen he picked up on line! We have two teenaged children who will be going away to college soon, and I wanted us to be able to face those empty nest years together!" Stephanie stopped and tried to compose herself.
Rita's heart ached for this woman. She hated what they were doing to her, but the information they were getting would probably prove to be invaluable. "What did he say when you confronted him?"
Stephanie's tears finally spilled over. "He got angry and stormed out of the house, and that's when the accident happened."
Chris hated to ask his next question, but if Stephanie could answer it, he would know they were on the right track. "Do you know anything about this woman your husband met on line? Her name, where she lived, anything?"
"All I know is her name was Sara, and it seemed like she lived somewhere in this area, if they were meeting in person."
Rita felt drained after their meeting with Stephanie Clayton. "If all the others go the way that one did, I'm going to feel like the scum of the earth once this is over," she told Chris.
He nodded. "Yeah, I hate putting them through all this, too, but remember, Sara Abernathy is the one who's in the running for scum of the earth, not you! She destroyed the Claytons' marriage and evidently didn't care, and if we're on the right track, she just might be responsible for Brian's death, for Jimmy's, and possibly some of these others."
"I know, and it will be worth it in the long run if we can stop her. But meanwhile, I sure hate putting innocent people through all this agony."
Stephanie Clayton's story seemed to be a preview of what was to come. While the background stories were all different, the families of Carl Denton, Gary Carr, and Gordon Kendall all told Chris and Rita basically the same thing - that the men had all become involved with a woman on line, and that relationship had most likely spilled over into their in-person lives. Since Gary Carr had been a problem drinker, his wife hadn't seen anything unusual or mysterious about his death; she'd long been afraid he would eventually drown in the swimming pool because he was drunk. But Carl Denton's whole family - his wife and college-age son - all believed there was more to his death than a simple accident. Because Gordon Kendall had a history of heart problems, neither his family nor the medical personnel who had answered the 911 call, nor the doctor who had done the autopsy saw anything unusual about his death. But the fact that he had been involved with Sara Abernathy on line and later, in person, and was now dead made his death extremely suspicious to Chris and Rita.
Chris looked at his watch and decided they still had time before quitting for the day to check up on the man who had disappeared. Shaking his head in frustration, he commented to Rita, "You know, Sam, everything we have so far is circumstantial. Sure, Sara Abernathy is the common denominator in all these cases, but we can't place her at the scene in any of these deaths so far, and we can't prove anything. If she's luring these guys into relationships on line, then killing them, she's getting away with murder and making it awfully hard to prove!"
Rita understood his distress. Sara Abernathy had bugged her from the beginning, and the threat to Carmen had convinced her to work with Chris on this case, but she knew they could be fighting a losing battle. So far, they had been able to tie Sara Abernathy to five men who had died under mysterious circumstances, but they had no way to prove that she had been involved in their deaths.
A Hispanic woman in her late twenties, maybe early thirties, Martina Ruiz answered Chris and Rita's knock at her door with a baby in her arms and a toddler clinging to her leg. Seeing the police badge clipped to Chris' belt, her expression became panicked. "Have you found Mario?" she asked desperately.
Chris shook his head. "No, ma'am, not yet, but we'd like to come in and talk with you for a few minutes." Martina stepped aside and allowed them to enter the small apartment. This wasn't one of the best areas of town, and Chris had been surprised that Mario Ruiz had been able to afford the computer that had allowed him to link up with Sara Abernathy.
"Please find him!" Martina begged. "I can't manage the kids without him!"
"We're doing all we can," Rita assured her. "Maybe you can help us out with a few details."
Uncertainly, Martina frowned. "Of course, but I don't know what else I can do. I told those other cops everything I know!"
"Does your husband own a computer?" Chris asked.
Martina nodded. "He saved for six months and said he bought it because he was thinking about going back to school. He said if he got a degree, he could get a better job and things would be easier for us, and having a computer would help him in school. He even said something about taking a correspondence course on line, but as far as I know, he never did. I think all he did was play around on it."
"You mean playing games?" Rita asked. "Or did he get on line?"
"Both. He'd get on there and talk with his buddies all the time, then get off and play games half the night."
Rita phrased her next question carefully, not wanting to add to this young woman's distress. "Do you know if your husband became especially close to anyone he met on line?"
Martina hadn't missed Rita's meaning. "Are you asking if he was cheating on me, having cybersex and things like that?" she asked, horrified. "No! Mario would never do that! He loves me, he loves our children, and he'd never do that! What are you going to do next, tell me he left us for some woman he met on line?"
"No, not at all!" Rita rushed to reassure Martina. "But it's possible for people to wind up in trouble from things that start out very innocently on line. You don't think he felt threatened by anyone he met on the Internet, or that anything unusual happened?"
"No. He just played around on there, and I really thought he was eventually going to use that computer for school."
"What do you think, Sam?" Chris asked once they were in the car headed for home.
"She was awfully defensive. I'm sure the idea has crossed her mind, but she doesn't want to admit it to herself. Big time denial. She can't imagine life without him; like she told us, she can't handle those two little kids alone."
"That's the impression I got, too. I have an idea that when Mario Ruiz turns up, if he ever does, it's going to be really bad for Martina and the kids. We know he was involved with Sara Abernathy, and if history repeats itself, he's not likely to turn up alive."
The next morning, when Chris and Rita walked into the PBPD, they got the news that the body of Mario Ruiz had washed ashore during the night. Rita's heart ached for Martina and those two small children, but she wasn't surprised to hear that Mario was dead. "I'll get the autopsy report, but I'd be willing to bet it's going to be similar to Jimmy Ellsworth's case," Chris told her.
His prediction proved correct later in the day. The cause of death was drowning, but Mario's skull had been crushed, much like Jimmy's had been. "This can't be a coincidence, Sam," Rita said, poring over the report. "Both men were involved with Sara Abernathy on line, and both died mysteriously and in a very similar manner. Sure, they both could pass for accidents, but there's no way."
Chris frowned as he looked at the report. "I know. The pieces are falling into place, but I honestly don't know how we can prove anything. If we start questioning Sara Abernathy again, her rich husband's likely to surround her with hotshot lawyers and not let us anywhere near her."
"How many more men do we need to talk to? I keep hoping somebody can tell us she threatened them, anything that will pinpoint her as a killer."
Chris looked at his list. "I want to talk with all fifteen she was involved with on line, but I'm not sure she met all of them in person. Let's see, so far we have six deaths, meaning we have nine more to go."
Two hours later, they had talked with three men who had corresponded only on line with Sara Abernathy, never having met her in person, and had learned that three more had recently died - one more drowning, another had fallen and died from a resulting head injury, and a third had been electrocuted while working on his car. "There's no way these could all be coincidences, Sam," Rita insisted. "What do we have now? Three more?"
"Yeah, Joseph Sanchez, Keith Starks, and Mark Andriotti."
"Keith Starks lives up in Alabama, I see," Rita told him, poring over her notes. "He works in construction, so maybe he was down here on a job when he met Sara. I definitely think their affair was in real life as well as on line, from the looks of their mail, so he'd have had to be in the area for them to meet."
"Yeah, maybe we can take care of him with a phone call."
Five minutes later, Chris was on the phone to a small town in southern Alabama. A woman with a husky Southern twang and a bad smoker's cough answered the phone.
"He ain't here, he's at work," the woman told Chris, after he asked to speak to Keith Starks. She coughed twice before continuing. "He don't get home till after dark."
"May I have his work number, please?" Chris pressed. He wasn't about to let this woman brush him off. Most likely, this was Starks' wife, so he knew he'd probably get better information out of the man if he could reach him at work where his wife wasn't listening in.
A few coughs later, the woman rattled off a phone number. Chris thanked her, hung up, and dialed again. This time, the phone rang five times before a man answered.
"A & F Construction."
The background noise was so loud, Chris could barely understand the man's words. But he wasn't about to give up, especially if he was finally going to catch up with one of Sara Abernathy's on line conquests alive. "May I speak to Keith Starks, please?"
"We got a Keith here, man?" the voice on the other end shouted into the background.
Chris could hear other voices above all the background racket, but couldn't make out words. Finally, he heard, "Yeah, I think that's Bubba. His name's Keith."
"Hang on a minute, man, I'll get him," the voice said to Chris.
Shaking his head, Chris grinned at Rita. "Typical construction site."
After a long wait, another voice finally came on the line. "Dis's Bubba."
"Mr. Starks, this is Captain Lorenzo with the Palm Beach Police. I need to ask you some questions about Sara Abernathy."
Bubba Starks hesitated. "Can't tell you nothin' much, man. I don't hardly know 'er."
During a frustrating conversation in which Chris wasn't even sure he and Starks were speaking the same language, he finally learned that the man would be back in Palm Beach the following week on another job. After getting information on where Starks would be staying, Chris decided to try to catch up with him in person then, and satisfied that the man was still alive, at least, he ended the call.
Rita laughed as she watched her husband shake his head. "Come on, Sam, you need to learn construction speak."
"Ha! No way! If you think Carmen has a strong Southern accent, you should have heard Bubba Starks and his wife and those guys he works with!"
Still smiling, Rita asked. "Who else?" indicating the list of Sara's conquests.
"Just Joseph Sanchez and Mark Andriotti."
Joseph Sanchez, known to his friends and family as Joey, was an 18-year-old recent high school graduate, bound for the University of Florida on a football scholarship. His family lived in a modest neighborhood, and when Chris and Rita arrived at his home, they found a blond teenage girl frantically ringing the bell and pounding on the front door.
"Joey! Open up! It's me! Can't we talk?" Hearing Chris and Rita approach, the girl turned around, surprised.
Once they had identified themselves, Rita told her, "We're looking for Joey Sanchez."
"So am I."
"And you are...?" Rita prompted.
"Tracy Wallace. Joey's girlfriend." She hesitated slightly. "Well, I was... oh, it's a long story. So, you're cops? Is Joey in trouble?"
The girl looked so panicked that Rita instantly felt sorry for her. "No, we just need to ask him some questions. He must not be home."
"He said he'd be here!" Tracy insisted. "I wanted us to talk things out so we can both go to college without all this...." She hesitated again, looking from Rita to Chris, trying to decide how much she should reveal.
"Tracy, you can talk to us. Is there a problem?"
Tracy began to sob. Sitting on the front steps of Joey Sanchez's home, she poured out her story. She and Joey were high school sweethearts; he was a football star, she a colorguard with their high school's marching band. They had been dating since the end of their freshman year. Both were going to the University of Florida, Joey on a football scholarship, and they had big plans for their future - college, marriage, children - or at least they had up until a couple of weeks ago, right after their high school graduation. Joey had been playing around on the Internet, Tracy said, and he'd met another girl. Within a week's time, he'd broken things off with Tracy for this girl he'd met on line. "I was heartbroken!" Tracy said, through her tears. "I still am. He ruined our whole future for some trashy slut he picked up on line! He doesn't even know her!" Pausing to get herself under control, Tracy continued. "A few days later, he started feeling really bad about it. I think he met her in person and things didn't go well, or something like that. He called me and tried to apologize, but I told him I wasn't going to be his second choice. Then I started feeling bad, and we decided to get together here this afternoon to talk. His mom and dad are both at work, so we'd have some privacy and time to talk things out. He's supposed to be here," she repeated.
Rita wasn't the least bit surprised at Tracy's story. Sara Abernathy had left a trail of heartbreak behind her, and Rita only hoped that Tracy and Joey could talk things out and put their relationship back together. It wasn't unusual for high school romances not to survive the college years, but hopefully Tracy and Joey could at least keep things from ending like this.
"I know where they keep a key," Tracy said suddenly, jumping up. "We could go inside and wait."
"No, we'll come back another time...," Rita started to say, but Tracy had already run around the corner of the house, so she and Chris followed.
Neither of them would ever forget the blood-curdling scream they heard from Tracy in the next few seconds, nor the sight of Joey Sanchez's body hanging from a tree in the back yard.
Several hours later, paperwork completed and Tracy comforted the best Rita could, as well as Joey's parents notified, Chris and Rita sank into chairs in his office, exhausted. "It was made to look like a suicide, but this can't be a coincidence," Rita said firmly.
"You're right, and I'm hoping the autopsy will give us something concrete. What I don't get is, if Sara Abernathy killed him, how could she hang him from that tree by herself? She's not that big a person. Does she have an accomplice, maybe?"
Rita knew Chris was mostly thinking out loud and she had no answers for him. She felt in her gut that Sara Abernathy was the bottom line in all these mysterious deaths, but so far she could find no logical way to explain how Sara could have carried out the murders.
Chris looked at his watch and pushed back from his desk. "It's almost time to get the kids. We can talk to Mark Andriotti tomorrow."
"Yeah, I wish we could do it now, but I'm too tired. Let's just hope he's still alive tomorrow."
Chris knocked on the apartment door, hoping this time they weren't too late. He could hear a dog barking inside and footsteps approaching and hoped that meant someone was home. He breathed a sigh of relief when the door opened. "Mark Andriotti?" he inquired.
The handsome young man facing them appeared to be in his early to mid 20's, dark hair with a slight auburn cast, and bright, expressive blue eyes. He grasped a straining golden retriever puppy by the collar. "Yes."
Chris showed his badge. "I'm Captain Lorenzo, Palm Beach Homicide. May I come in and talk with you?" He saw Mark's questioning glance at Rita and explained, "My wife, Rita Lorenzo. She's a police psychologist."
The young man looked even more puzzled, but he scooped the dog up into his arms and stepped aside, allowing them to enter. "What can I do for you?" he asked nervously once they were inside.
"I'm here to talk to you about Sara Abernathy," Chris said calmly, knowing Rita was taking in Mark's every mannerism and expression.
Mark's reaction was very telling. He hung his head and his expression turned sad. The dog effortlessly squirmed out of his arms and scampered over to Chris and Rita.
"What can you tell us about her?" Chris prompted, unable to resist leaning down and scratching the puppy's head. The dog settled on the floor next to him.
Mark sighed deeply. "She cost me the best thing I ever had." He stared at the floor again, looking ashamed as well as sad.
"You cheated on your girlfriend with her?" Rita guessed.
Mark's head shot up to meet Rita's eyes. "No, not my girlfriend." He sighed again. "Oh, it's a long story...." He trailed off, staring sadly at the opposite wall.
"We have plenty of time," Chris told him firmly, motioning for Rita to sit down and then taking a seat himself, indicating they didn't intend to leave soon. Seeing that he wasn't going to get out of this, Mark followed suit and sat across from them. The puppy bounded back to him and jumped up in his lap.
"I still don't know what happened," Mark began, shaking his head. "Sara Abernathy cost me my best friend. And to say she wasn't worth it is the understatement of the year!" Noticing Chris and Rita watching him intently, he forced himself to continue, "Alison Samuels is, well, was, my best friend. We weren't romantically involved, just really, really good friends, and we had been for more than two years. It was funny how much we found we had in common, and one thing was that we both had a long history of being dumped by other friends whenever those so-called 'friends' found a potential romantic relationship. We had talked often about how badly that hurt, and early on we promised each other never to do that. It's the one promise I made to Alison that I repeatedly broke, and it was the one she most needed me to keep. Sara Abernathy was the last straw." Mark buried his face in his hands. The dog took this opportunity to lick his hands in an attempt to reach his face. "Jasper, stop it," he said, gently pushing the dog's head away.
"I never thought of myself as being desperate for a girlfriend," Mark went on after composing himself. "But that's the way I've acted. It's way too long to go into now, but because of some other stupid mistakes I made in the past, I promised Alison a number of times that I wouldn't go looking for love on line. She and I both love to play around on the Internet some, and let's just say I had some bad experiences and made mistakes and hurt her before. Two years ago, after coming out of the first bad one, I promised her then and there 'no more secrets, no more lies,' but again, I broke it. Anyway, I kept assuring her that I wasn't looking for a girlfriend on the Internet. She warned me about all the dangers and pitfalls, some I'd already experienced first hand. I fully intended to keep that promise, but then....." He trailed off, not quite sure how to explain what had happened.
Clearing his throat, he kept on. "I don't know why I did it, but I placed a personal ad on line. At the time I was just out of college and was looking for that elusive first job, and I didn't expect anything to come of the ad. Or at least that's what I told myself."
"What did you tell Alison, after promising her you wouldn't go looking for love on line and then turning that promise into a lie?" Rita asked. With the solid friendship she and Chris had built before they had fallen in love, she had little patience for people who weren't honest with their friends. But they were here for information about Sara Abernathy; she had to put her personal feelings aside for now.
"I didn't," Mark said flatly, staring at the floor, ashamed, once again. "Actually at first I forgot all about placing the ad, because a job opened up and I got into it and just didn't get on line as much in general. But then, about two to three months ago, I got email from Sara Abernathy, who'd found me through my ad. She was a college student, 21 years old, about to turn 22, and living at home with her parents. She said she'd been stood up by guys at school and decided to try out the personals on line. I kept telling myself not to expect anything to come of it, so I didn't, but then I got email from her school address."
Rita thought back quickly. Two to three months, Mark had said. That would coincide with Sara Abernathy's short-lived employment at that college.
"When I saw the college email address, I started to think maybe there was something to it. We emailed for about a week," Mark continued, "and then we set it up for her to call. I was nervous, but everything went well. Normally I hate talking on the phone, but we ended up talking for three hours! We had so much in common! Like me, she's Catholic, Italian on her mom's side of the family, and we have a lot of the same interests."
Chris saw the dreamy look in the younger man's eyes and knew he still wasn't over this woman, no matter what she had ruined for him. Well, he was about to get a dose of reality. "Mark," he interrupted, "Sara Abernathy is not a 22-year-old college student, she's a 36-year-old married woman."
Mark stared across the room at him in shock. "No! She can't be! I called her and I talked to her mom and her dad and I got email from her at school! She even sent me a picture of herself in her sorority sweater!"
Rita recalled the voice-altering device they had found when they had confiscated Sara's computer. How many more men had she fooled like this, Rita wondered. Watching Mark's reaction, she knew he had been genuinely shocked to learn the truth about Sara. "She knew how to fool people well, you included," Rita said simply.
Mark stared at her, slowly taking it in. "Oh, no," he said, burying his face in his hands again as the truth sank in. "Even after everything fell apart and I knew I'd messed up with Alison, I still thought Sara was just a great girl and another time, another place, we might have...."
"So, what happened with Alison?" Chris prompted, wanting to keep him on course as much as possible. When they finished here, he knew he and Rita needed to track down Alison Samuels and get her side of the story, and he was willing to bet it would be even worse than what they were getting from Mark. But first, he had to see if Mark had any inkling that Sara might be a killer.
"She went away on vacation for a week," Mark went on, "and she called me a couple of days later just to say hi. By then I'd been into the job for awhile, and I got under a lot of stress at work and I guess I just wasn't as communicative as I'd been. Alison always worked so hard to really nurture our friendship. She'd call me just to say hi, stop by to see how I was doing, little things like that, and I guess I did the same for her, but somewhere along the line, I stopped. I didn't mean to, but I guess I let the stress at work demand all my attention, and I neglected her. She got worried, afraid something was wrong, so she called me from vacation just to see how I was. I must have sounded down, because she asked me if anything was wrong, and I assured her it wasn't. In fact, I told her things were great. She was probably halfway joking when she said this, but her next words were, 'I was hoping you'd tell me you'd met a nice young woman and you had a date set up.' She caught me completely off guard, but she shouldn't have. She and I talked like that all the time, and she fully expected me to tell her if anything like that happened. We had always talked openly about dating and things like that, so it shouldn't have surprised me. Caught off guard, I told her I had, but there was no date set up yet, but I was hopeful it would happen. Naturally she was shocked and more than just a little hurt. Immediately she sensed that I was hiding something, and I made it obvious when I got really defensive when Alison asked me a perfectly normal question. She asked me the usual questions about this woman I'd met, her name, where she lived, and of course, how we met. It was a logical question, but I acted like she was prying into my personal business, when it was the kind of thing I'd have voluntarily shared with her not so long ago. I first refused to tell her, then I outright lied. I told her I'd met her through work, but that the Internet was also involved, and basically I just fed her a bunch of crap. I knew it wasn't adding up, I knew she'd know I was lying, but I was in too deep. It had all happened so fast." He paused, shaking his head at the memory, and now trying to digest the new information Chris and Rita had given him.
Chris watched the miserable young man sitting across from him and thanked his lucky stars that he had never done anything like that to Rita, even in the early years of their friendship. He had learned his lesson during that first IA investigation and he had told her so; when it came down to choosing between friendship and sex, there was no contest; friendship came first. He had a feeling Mark Andriotti had learned that lesson too late.
Mark's voice rasped slightly as he continued, looking sadder and sadder by the minute. "I cut Alison off, telling her I had to get up early the next morning and couldn't talk anymore. It was cruel, and I'd lied to her, but I just didn't know what else to do. I wasn't prepared to deal with the truth or her reaction to it. And by that time, I'd already convinced myself that Sara Abernathy was the one for me. She was too important to give up, and Alison was just going to have to understand." Seeing Chris and Rita's skeptical expressions, he tried to explain, "I know it all happened way, way too fast. I mean, we'd only emailed a few times and talked for only a week before I was head over heels." His voice dropped slightly. "I didn't stop to think that I'd once again done the very thing I'd promised never to do; I'd abandoned Alison for a potential girlfriend. I didn't literally leave her, but when I lied to her, I abandoned her. The way it came across to her was that this girl was worth lying about. I didn't respect our friendship enough to be truthful with her. And of course the whole truth came out when we talked the next night."
"What happened then?" Rita asked.
Mark shook his head. "To Alison's credit, she badly wanted to make things right between us. We had a horrible few days, more long distance calls while she was on a vacation that was now ruined, and basically she told me she would never be able to trust me again unless I cut things off with Sara. She wanted me to just block Sara from emailing me, never call her again, and just hang up if Sara called me and not contact her to even say goodbye, and God, I wish now I'd done just that!" He paused again, shaking his head and looking dazed.
"I knew she was hurting and angry, but I told Alison that wasn't fair. I told her I couldn't hurt Sara like that, with no explanation, and of course that hurt Alison even worse. I didn't mean to, but the way she saw it, there I was concerned about hurting Sara, when I'd thought nothing of hurting Alison very badly. She said she wanted me to be just as cruel and heartless with Sara as I'd been with her when I'd lied to her. Alison's not like that, and she knows just as well that I'm not cruel or heartless, but I'd hurt her badly, and like I told you before, it was something of a repeat performance."
"So, did you cut things off with Sara?"
Mark nodded. "I called her the next night, and it was agonizing. But for once, I stood firm and didn't let her sway me. Alison and I had another gut-wrenching few days, but I thought we'd put things back together fairly well. I knew it was going to take a long time to completely regain her trust, but I thought we were doing well. But I guess I again got caught up in the stresses at work, and I just didn't respond to her like I did at one time. I think she was feeling guilty over some things she said to me through that whole mess with Sara, so she went out of her way to be good to me, not that she wasn't already. She stopped by even more often, called me a lot, and it never even entered my mind that for the most part, I'd completely stopped doing the same things for her. I'm sure to her our friendship was very one-sided." Mark looked even more ashamed as he paused, preparing himself for the next, and worst, part.
"More than a month after the whole incident, out of the blue, Sara showed up here at my apartment. I hadn't remembered giving her my home address, so I was a little surprised, but the desire was still there, still just as strong, and as embarrassed as I am to admit it, within minutes, we wound up in bed." He shook his head. "I honestly don't know what happened. All promises to Alison, everything I'd said, just flew right out the window in Sara's presence. She was just too strong, and I wasn't strong enough to stand up to her. She was beautiful, sexy, desirable, I wanted her, she wanted me, and that was all there was to it. The sex was great, and I was sure that was only the beginning. And now you tell me she's married?" He shook his head, still fighting disbelief.
"She is most certainly married," Chris assured him in no uncertain terms. "So, I take it Alison found out?"
Mark nodded. "In the worst way possible. She stopped by here and caught us in bed together. Oh, God, it was awful! She screamed all kinds of accusations at me, saying I'd lied to her again, that I'd never cut things off with Sara, all kinds of things. None of it was true, but I had no way to defend myself, no way to make her believe me. She stormed out of here after saying I wasn't capable of being truthful with her or keeping promises, and that night, once I'd truly gotten Sara out of here and cut things off with her once and for all, I tried to call Alison and she'd blocked my calls. I got on line and tried to email her, and she'd blocked me from emailing her. But still, what I'd really lost didn't begin to sink in until the next few days. I'd find myself expecting her to drop by or call, then would realize she wasn't going to, and I'd get so sad. And then I'd get mad at myself." He shook his head for what seemed like the hundredth time. "I lost my best friend over a whirlwind infatuation that went out of control way too fast, a cheap roll in the hay, and with a married woman! God, I'm so ashamed! If I'd known she was married, I'd never have answered her first email!"
"Mark, don't worry about that. Sara Abernathy is a very manipulative, deceptive person, who deliberately set out to mislead you," Chris told him. "You're one of many, many men she did the same thing to, but let me give you a friendly piece of advice. All the men she became involved with on line have wound up dead under very mysterious circumstances, except for you and one other. So watch your back and be careful!"
Mark gasped. "You mean she's a murderer?"
"We don't know," Rita said noncommitally, "but considering her history, it would pay you to be careful."
Chris and Rita left an excited Jasper barking at them and a very sad and confused Mark Andriotti staring after them. "You think he's telling the truth, Sam?" Chris asked Rita.
"One hundred percent certain. He was definitely shocked when you told him Sara was married and a lot older than he'd been led to believe, and he's very remorseful over what happened with Alison. I can see how much he misses her. I can't wait to hear her take on the whole thing." She looked down at the Irish Claddagh ring Chris had given her all those years ago. "Sam, I'm glad you learned a long time ago what Mark Andriotti just now learned the hard way."
"So am I. I couldn't imagine ever messing things up with you like that.
Alison Samuels' blue eyes filled with tears when Chris and Rita told her they were there to ask about Mark Andriotti and Sara Abernathy. "Abernathy? So that's that disgusting little bitch's name?" she asked bitterly. "I hate her!" she stormed. "I hate her for reaching into my life and destroying my friendship with Mark! I hate her for digging up all the old insecurities I thought I'd been able to work through! I hate her for being someone Mark felt was worth lying to me about!" Hot, angry tears streamed down her face.
Rita's heart ached for the young woman, just one more of Sara Abernathy's many victims. "Alison, can you tell us what happened?"
Alison repeated much the same story Mark had told them, with one major difference. "He told me, he promised me, that he would cut things off with her immediately, but he never stopped seeing her! He kept right on lying to me, and I had to catch them in bed together to find out! I kept wondering why he'd been so distant and so unresponsive, but I sure got a clear picture that day I stopped by!" She grew quiet as she continued. "When I step back and think about it, maybe I should thank that trashy little garbage slut for showing me the real Mark. He's a desperate man, desperate for a girlfriend, and no matter how many times he promises me he'll never abandon me, as soon as the first hint of a potential girlfriend comes along, his true priorities come out. He conveniently forgets everything he ever promised me, he lies to me without even realizing what he's doing, and he becomes somebody I don't even know, a total stranger. He literally can't help himself. He might mean well, but it's that desperation that drives him, and I can't compete with that. But I still hate her with a passion I can't put into words for destroying what had been the best friendship I'd ever had!" Looking at Chris and Rita through tear-filled eyes, Alison asked, "Do you think I'm crazy for believing a man and a woman can truly be close friends, without being romantically involved?"
"You're not crazy at all. It's not only possible, but it's happened before. We're living proof," Rita answered without hesitation. Looking at Chris, she continued, "We were best friends for almost five years before we fell in love, or realized it, at least. You and Mark actually remind us a lot of ourselves in those early years. Thankfully we never experienced anything like what's happened with you, but we went through a lot together, and if either of us had married somebody else, without a doubt I'm sure the friendship would have been as strong as ever."
"Mark and I aren't like that," Alison insisted. "We loved each other, but we weren't in love." Tears filled her eyes again. "But that's all in the past now. A person doesn't lie to someone he loves, even if that someone is 'only' a friend."
"Alison, can I give you a friendly piece of advice?" Rita asked. "The hate and bitterness are going to destroy you long before it destroys Mark or Sara. You're not doing yourself any favors keeping on the way you are now. I know you're still hurting, you're angry, and with good reason. But you need to try to let that go. And if I were you, I'd give Mark another chance. I believe he's sincerely sorry for what happened."
"He might be sorry, but the same thing's just going to happen again sooner or later. He can't help himself, and I can't go through this again!"
"Alison, you're not through it yet if you're still this bitter and angry! You're just going to destroy yourself! Don't give Sara Abernathy that power over you! And let me tell you, every man who's been involved with her on line, every man except Mark and one other, that is, has ended up dead, so if anything, Mark needs friends right now more than ever."
Alison instantly looked alarmed. "Is he all right?"
"For now, yes. We just finished talking with him, and we gave him the same warning."
"I don't understand." Alison looked puzzled. "How could a trashy little college student be a murderer?"
"For one thing, she might be trashy, but she is most certainly no college student," Chris told her. "She's very good at convincing men on line that she's whoever she's pretending to be at the moment, but she's a 36-year-old married woman, and on her third marriage, I might add."
Alison gasped. "Oh, God, Mark wouldn't get involved with a married woman!"
"Exactly," Rita said. "Think about at least listening to him again, will you?"
They left Alison Samuels as bewildered as Mark had been earlier. "I hope she can get beyond that bitterness, whether she talks to Mark again or not," Rita commented to Chris. Like I told her, it's going to destroy her. She looks like she's already obsessing too much."
One week later, Chris sat in his office, trying to wait patiently for Bubba Starks to show up. He'd talked with the man by phone again once he'd arrived back in Palm Beach and made arrangements to meet with him this morning. Chris hoped Bubba would make more sense in person than he had on the phone either time, or would at least be able to give him more information on Sara Abernathy. But so far Bubba was 20 minutes late, and Chris was about to call the construction site to see what was keeping him.
The intercom on his desk phone buzzed. "Captain Lorenzo, homicide on line one for you." Chris picked up the phone and got news that didn't exactly surprise him. Keith "Bubba" Starks had been found dead in the trailer on his construction job site.
At the murder scene, Chris and Rita talked with the detectives who had done the initial investigation. "Looks like he was killed by a blow to the head," Detective Zach Thompson told them. "We found the murder weapon in the trailer, a large brick that probably came from the job site. No prints."
"Any witnesses?" Chris asked.
Zach shook his head. "No, but one of the other guys saw a blond woman hanging around here earlier, said she was asking for Bubba."
Rita looked wide-eyed at Chris. Had Sara Abernathy actually come to the construction site and killed Bubba Starks?
Back at the shop, while waiting for the M.E's autopsy report, they went over all the information the detectives had gathered. Two of Bubba's co-workers had positively identified Sara Abernathy from a photograph as being the woman they'd seen at the job site. In fact, one of them had left Bubba alone in the trailer with Sara, and that was the last time he'd been seen alive. Just then the report from the M.E. was brought in; Bubba Starks had indeed been killed by a blow to the head with the brick found at the site, and the time of death was around the same time Sara Abernathy had been there.
Rita sighed. "I hesitate to get too confident, Sam, but it looks like we finally got her. Is this enough, though?"
Chris shook his head uncertainly. "It's a bit flimsy, but it's all we have, and taken as an isolated case, given the same circumstances, we'd bring her in. But if we do it now, her rich husband's probably going to have her out before we can get all the paperwork processed."
"Can you get the bail set too high for him to get her out?"
"I can try. Considering her connection to all the other deaths, I have to try. And this might be our only chance."
A few hours later, Chris and Rita found Sara at her office, about to go home for the day. "You again?" she whined when she saw Chris and Rita. "Now what?"
Calmly, Chris stepped forward. "Sara Abernathy, you're under arrest for the murder of Keith Starks." Sara gasped as Chris continued reading her rights, but said nothing until he handcuffed her.
"You have no right to do this!" she screamed. "I didn't do anything!" She continued screaming and whining as they ushered her into the police car.
Less than an hour after Sara had been jailed, Craig Abernathy appeared and tried to get his wife released, but to no avail. He wasn't able to put up enough cash for her bail, and when he learned that, he resorted to begging and pleading, saying she was innocent and that he couldn't live without her. Rita watched the tall, bearded man trying desperately to make his case and knew that she had been right from the beginning; he was just one more of Sara's victims. During their short time together, she had already ruined him; he just didn't know it yet.
With Sara in jail for the time being, Chris and Rita tried to put her at the scene of Carmen and Jerry's house explosion, as well as at least some of the other murders. They went back over all the details of each case, questioned witnesses, but came up empty-handed all the way around. They knew they couldn't hold Sara forever and that the evidence they had against her in the Starks murder wasn't strong enough for a conviction.
Rita shook her head. "I just don't get it, Sam. I mean, everything points to her, but something just doesn't fit."
Chris smiled at her. "No doubt you'll put it all together."
Rita smiled back at him, reveling in his complete confidence in her abilities. "I'll try, Sam, but I keep thinking we're missing something, something really obvious."
They decided to take a break for lunch, and when they returned, they were greeted with the news that Mark Andriotti was in the hospital in critical condition, the result of a mysterious blow to the head. Racing to the hospital, Rita suddenly put it all together. "Chris, Sara's still in jail and has been for several days...."
Driving the car, Chris stole a quick glance at his wife. "Yeah, so where do we go now? You look like you're onto something."
Rita suddenly sat up straight. "Of course! I can't believe I didn't make the connection sooner!"
Chris frowned. "What is it, Sammy?"
"Craig Abernathy, not Sara!"
"You think he's the killer?"
"It has to be him! Think about it, Sam, in just about all the killings, it had to be somebody bigger and stronger than the victims. Sara's pretty small, and Craig's a big man, probably well over 200 pounds. And with his engineering background, he'd probably have known how to arrange a lot of the so-called accidents so it would be hard to prove they were done on purpose!"
"Way back in the beginning, you said you figured he probably knew what she was up to, or at least had an idea. By killing all her conquests, he's keeping his dream marriage alive."
"You got it! And no doubt he knew Sara confided in Carmen, so he had to get rid of Carmen, too. It wouldn't do to leave anybody alive who knew Sara was less than faithful!"
"Let's just hope Mark Andriotti can identify his attacker. If he can, we've got him!"
Rita sobered. "You know, like I said earlier, Craig is just one more of Sara's victims. He'll be indicted for murder, while she goes scot-free. As far as I'm concerned, she didn't kill any of these guys, but she's just as guilty as he is."
Chris sighed. "You're right. It's just not fair, is it?"
At the hospital, they found a tearful Alison Samuels nervously waiting for word on Mark's condition. "I should have listened to you," she sobbed. "I wouldn't talk to him, and now I could lose him before I get a chance!"
"No news yet?" Rita asked her.
Alison shook her head. "Not yet. I've called his family, but they're up north and it will take them awhile to get here. I never should have deserted him!"
Rita tried to comfort her. "You didn't desert him. You're here now, aren't you? He needs you, and you're here for him."
"If I'd stayed with him, maybe he wouldn't even be in here now! I should have listened to you!" she repeated.
Knowing that Mark was their only chance to identify the killer, Chris and Rita waited with Alison for word on Mark's condition. Since his family wasn't in town yet, the doctor finally allowed Alison to see Mark. "He's conscious," the doctor told her, "but very weak."
Alison looked uncertainly at Chris and Rita, knowing they needed to talk to Mark as soon as possible. "You go ahead," Rita told her. "Let us know if he's up to talking to us for a few minutes when you get out."
Nervously, Alison shook her head. "No, you come with me."
Rita nodded, understanding. It would be the first time Alison and Mark would see or talk to each other since the last incident with Sara. No doubt she was hoping that having other people with her would break the ice a bit.
In Mark's room, Alison approached the bed uncertainly. Fighting back tears of horror at seeing his head bandaged and his skin so pale, she reached down and gently took his hand in hers. Chris and Rita watched silently as Mark's eyes flickered open and brightened as they focused on Alison. "Sammy!" he whispered in a raspy voice.
Chris and Rita looked at each other in shock when they heard the nickname Mark called Alison. Finally, Chris made the connection. "Her last name is Samuels," he whispered to Rita.
Rita nodded, but was still surprised to find somebody else using the nickname she and Chris used for each other.
Tears streamed down Alison's face. "I'm here," she assured Mark, squeezing his hand. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you when you needed me!"
"You're here now and that's what counts. I was afraid I'd never see you again." Mark then noticed Chris and Rita waiting in the background. "Captain? Dr. Lorenzo? What are you doing here?"
Chris stepped forward. "Mark, we need you to tell us whatever you can about what happened to you."
Mark blinked, trying to remember. "I went out to walk Jasper...," he began, then looked at Alison in alarm. "Jasper! Where is he?"
"Your next door neighbor has him," Alison rushed to assure him. "He's tearing up the guy's apartment, but other than that, he's fine."
Mark shook his head slightly. "That dog's getting too big and rambunctious. I probably can't keep him much longer, at least not in that small apartment." Turning back to Chris and Rita, Mark tried again to recall what had happened. "I was walking Jasper, when all of a sudden he started growling. I thought that was weird, since that dog seems to like everybody. You know that," he told them, grinning. "I turned around to see what got him upset, and this huge guy was coming at me with a baseball bat! I'd never seen the guy before! I think I yelled at him or something, I'm not sure. When I realized he wasn't going to stop, I turned around to run but he was on me before I could move. I remember being hit over the head, and that's all."
Chris noticed that Mark's voice was growing weaker and knew he had to wrap things up quickly. "Can you describe the guy?"
"Yeah, big and heavy and really tall. He had dark hair, about the same color as yours, and a beard. I don't remember much more, but I think I'd recognize him if I saw him again."
Chris nodded, having heard what he'd hoped to hear. "Thanks, Mark, we'll let you get your rest now, but when you're feeling better, we'll need to talk to you again." He and Rita left Mark and Alison alone, knowing they had a lot to discuss.
"That description fits Craig Abernathy to a T," Rita said emphatically once they were out of the room.
"Right. Now we just need to get Mark to identify him, and we've got him. I wonder how hard it will be to put Craig at the scene of the other murders."
"What are you going to do about Sara?"
Chris shook his head. "I'd like to keep her till we can get Craig, but that's going to be hard to do. I can't arrest Craig unless Mark or somebody else can positively identify him."
"You think the security cameras might have gotten Craig when he came down to try to get Sara out the other day?"
Chris snapped his fingers. "Sammy, you are a genius! I don't know, but it's worth a try! If we can get Mark to pick him out in a photograph, that'll work!"
Back at the PBPD, Chris and Rita reviewed the security camera's video tape from the day Sara had been arrested. The picture's quality left a lot to be desired, but after scanning through the grainy, black-and-white film for close to an hour, Rita recognized Craig the second he appeared on camera. Before the afternoon was over, they were on their way back to the hospital with still shots taken from the video.
"That's the guy!" a rested Mark told them when he looked at the photos. "I'm sure of it! Who is he and why would he attack me?"
Glancing uncomfortably at Alison, who was sitting at Mark's bedside, Rita answered, "He's Sara Abernathy's husband."
Mark looked in agony at Alison, who just squeezed his hand. Seeing the unspoken communication between them, Rita knew that Mark had his best friend back.
"You've just solved a string of murders for us," Chris told him. "Get your rest, and we'll be back in touch. Right now we're on our way to catch one Craig Abernathy!"
Chris and Rita found Craig's office closed for the day, so they searched him out at home. When Craig answered the door, dressed in faded jeans and a ragged T-shirt, they realized he probably hadn't even been to work that day.
"Craig Abernathy?" Chris asked, showing his badge. "I'm Captain Lorenzo of the Palm Beach Police."
"When are you going to let my wife come home?" Craig whimpered. "I need her!"
Rita shook her head as she looked at the big bear of a man who had been reduced to this pathetic empty shell of a person by his manipulative wife. She and Chris were both certain that he was guilty of all the murders, but in his mental condition, she wondered if they would be able to convict him. In his shape, Craig was more likely to wind up in a mental institution than in prison.
"Craig Abernathy," Chris repeated, "you are under arrest for the attempted murder of Mark Andriotti."
Craig didn't seem to be the least bit surprised. Numbly, he stood as Chris read him his rights and handcuffed him.
"He doesn't have any fight left in him," Rita whispered to Chris.
Chris nodded. "Sad."
A few days later, once Mark was out of the hospital, he came in and picked Craig out of a lineup, positively identifying him as the man who had attacked him. Meanwhile, Chris and Rita had worked tirelessly to try to account for Craig's whereabouts at the times of the other murders and the explosion of Carmen and Jerry's house. Sara had been released from jail and had been hanging around making a pest of herself, complaining that her husband had been wrongly imprisoned.
"She doesn't care in the least about her husband," Chris commented to Rita. "She just wants to be sure nothing destroys her meal ticket."
Rita grimaced, knowing he was right. "I hate seeing her get away with so much. Craig might have killed all those other people, but for all practical purposes, she's killed him. He's still breathing, eating, sleeping, existing, but he stopped living the moment he was separated from her."
"That's why I've got him on a suicide watch. All we'd need is for him to kill himself and then have Sara inherit all his money. Do you suppose that was what she was trying to do all along?"
Rita shook her head. "She could have been, but I doubt it. She just wanted somebody with money to support her while she did her own thing on the side, and she found the perfect sugar daddy in Craig. He was blindly in love with her, and as long as she kept him happy, he refused to acknowledge what else she was doing. You know, Sara had better watch her back or get out of Palm Beach. After all the heartache she's caused so many people, one of the devastated wives or family members is likely to come after her!"
"Just what I'd need - one more murder connected with her!"
Rita looked at her watch, knowing they had to pick up Carmen, Jerry, and Billy at the airport shortly. "Let me run to my office and pick up a few things. I'll be right back," she told Chris. Inside her office, she straightened up a few loose papers, checked her calendar, and was about to lock her desk and leave when Alison appeared in the doorway. "Alison, hi!"
"I just wanted to come by and thank you for your good advice," Alison said, smiling shyly. "It's taking a lot of long, hard work, but Mark and I are putting our friendship back together. I missed him so much, and I'm just thankful that he's still alive!"
"I'm glad. Mark knows he messed up, but he needed you. In fact, I think you need each other."
"We do. He's my best friend. Maybe that whole thing wasn't worth getting so upset. I mean, I want him to find a woman who's right for him, but if he can't be truthful with me about her, I don't believe she's right for him." Alison smiled again, realizing she was rambling. "Well, I won't take up anymore of your time; I just wanted to come by and say thanks."
"You're welcome, Alison. You take care of yourself, and Mark, too. He seems to be doing well." Rita walked Alison out, but stopped short as she saw Sara Abernathy approaching her office, no doubt trying again to plead Craig's case. She watched as Alison and Sara came face to face in the hall outside her office, glad nobody else was around. She was certain this was going to be extremely ugly.
Looking like a storm was brewing inside her, Alison walked up to Sara and looked her straight in the eye. Her voice shook slightly, giving away her anger, but for the most part, she held her composure. "You destroyed the best thing I ever had," she began. "You reached into my life and ruined a beautiful friendship, and I will never forgive you for that!"
Indifferently, Sara shrugged. "I didn't do anything," she said sweetly. "It's not my fault that Mark preferred sex with me to friendship with you. He made his choice, and it wasn't you. Maybe if you hadn't forced him into a choice, he'd still be your friend."
Not bothering to tell Sara that she had patched things up with Mark, Alison hauled off and slapped Sara hard across the face.
Watching, Rita felt like cheering, but she kept her mouth shut as she watched Sara sputter.
"I'll sue you!" Sara screamed. Looking up at Rita, she yelled, "You saw that! I want to file assault charges!"
Calmly, Rita fought a smile. "I didn't see a thing."
On the way to the airport, Chris laughed as Rita told him about the confrontation between Alison and Sara. "Well, Sara deserved it to, say the least! Ha! I just wish I thought she'd get more of what she deserved!"
"Me, too. I wish I thought there was a chance Craig would divorce her. Chris?"
He glanced away from the road briefly. "Yeah, Sammy?"
"Do you think it would help if I tried to counsel him?"
"You want to convince him to divorce Sara?"
"No, well, you've seen the shape the poor guy's in. I'm not even sure he's fit to stand trial. I think with some counseling, he might come to that conclusion on his own. Sara destroyed him with all her manipulation, and if he can get his own life back, make his own decisions again, who knows what he might do."
"Be my guest, Sam. You'll be one of the deciding factors when it comes to taking him to trial anyway."
One week later, Chris, Rita, Katie, Jason, Carmen, Jerry, and Billy spent a morning at the beach together. Frannie was keeping Beth, giving everybody else some badly needed fun time. Looking cool and comfortable in a pale green one-piece bathing suit covered by a white t-shirt, Rita kept a close eye on Jason, who was playing in the sand at the water's edge with Billy, and Katie, who was trying out her new raft a bit farther out in the water. Carmen stood beside her in a navy suit and light blue shirt, closely watching Billy.
"I feel so sorry for Craig," Carmen said, shaking her head, "even if he did almost kill us when he blew up the house. Sara's destroyed him, or rather, he ruined his own life trying to wipe out everybody who knew she wasn't faithful."
Her statement confirmed what Rita had guessed earlier - Carmen had known about Sara's infidelity and that was why Craig had blown up the house. "It's very sad," Rita said, nodding. "But I've been working with Craig some, and I'm hoping he can salvage what's left of his life. It's far too soon to say, but I'm hopeful."
Chris and Jerry, both in swim trunks, stood a few feet behind them, also watching the children. "I hate to say this," Jerry began, "but after all that's happened, I'm a bit afraid for Carmen to continue her ministry work. Are incidents like what happened with the Abernathys normal?"
Chris shook his head. "It's pretty rare for somebody to go after a minister like that. The few cases I've heard of have involved somebody mentally unbalanced like Craig. I really think Carmen's safe."
"I'll never take that for granted anymore," Jerry responded. "I used to think the ministry was one of the safest professions in our society, but no more. But then, it's what Carmen was meant to do, I have no doubts. There's no way I could ever stop her, and I wouldn't want to, but I wish I could do more to protect her."
"Let me give you some friendly advice." Chris grinned slightly, knowing exactly what Jerry was feeling. "Protecting Rita has been my number one priority ever since she and I were partnered together on the force years ago. That was my job as her partner, then it was second nature as her friend. And once we were married with a child on the way, I wanted her in an office behind a desk where I thought she'd be safe. Rita understood why I was so worried about her and tolerated it well, but she was determined to keep working as much as she reasonably could. Like Carmen's ministry, police work was what she was meant to do, and there was no way I could stop her. Wanting to protect our wives is only natural, but we can only do so much." He then went on to tell Jerry what Rita had told Carmen earlier about the angels that had saved their lives when Rita was pregnant with Katie. "Ever since then, I've relaxed a lot. I know we have angels watching over us."
Jerry stared at him, wide-eyed. "Wow, what an experience! I've never doubted that Carmen, Billy, and I are under God's protection, but I suppose it's only human for me to want to protect her, especially after all we've just been through."
Shouts in the distance interrupted them. "Jasper, come back here!" A familiar-looking golden retriever came running toward them, followed closely by a breathless Mark Andriotti. Alison Samuels jogged further behind them, laughing at Mark's futile attempts to control his rambunctious, growing dog.
Jasper splashed into the edge of the water where Jason and Billy were playing. Carmen leaned over and scooped Billy up, afraid the dog would frighten him. Rita leaned over to do the same with Jason; however, Jason stood up to greet the dog, not intimidated in the least. Seeing a new friend in the making, Jasper splashed up to Jason, splattering Rita with salty ocean water in the process. Laughing, Rita jumped back and stood up straight as Jason exclaimed "Doggy!" Jasper then licked Jason's face.
Mark finally caught up with Jasper. "Sorry he got you wet," he said to Rita, trying unsuccessfully to pull Jasper away from Jason, who was now giggling as the dog's tongue continued washing his face.
"No problem, that's what being at the beach is all about," Rita assured him.
"Yeah, I happen to think my wife looks good in a wet t-shirt. Do that again, Jasper," Chris said, coming up behind Rita and putting his arm around her. Rita snickered and playfully elbowed him in the ribs.
Jason now had his arms around Jasper's neck and the dog was still licking him. Mark finally gave up trying to capture Jasper and just stood back and laughed. "Well, I'm glad he didn't frighten any of the kids."
Chris and Rita were relieved to see Mark and Alison having fun together and hoped Mark realized how very lucky he was to be the only survivor of Craig Abernathy's killing spree. They introduced Mark, Alison, Carmen, Jerry, and the kids and continued laughing at Jasper's antics with Jason.
"How are you?" Rita asked Alison.
Alison smiled at her. "Great! Mark's completely recovered from his head wound, and he seems to be back to normal, or at least as normal as he can be with a dog like that."
Mark shook his head. "That dog's a lot of fun, but I honestly can't keep him much longer. He's too big for my little apartment, and I can't afford to move right now. He needs to be in a place where he'd have kids to play with and room to run around." He looked uncertainly from Chris to Rita and back again. "Would you like to have him?"
Rita looked at Chris. Katie and Jason had been begging them for a pet lately, but this was something she was sure they'd have to talk about first. They had a large, fenced back yard that would be good for the dog, and it was clear that Jasper and Jason had already bonded, but it was hard to make a decision like that on the spot.
Chris looked at Rita, thinking the same things. As a child, he'd always wanted a dog, and remembered how Jasper had seemed to like him that day at Mark's apartment. Now he had a chance to give his own children what he'd never had, but could they do it on the spur of the moment like this?
Jason had overheard Mark's offer and settled the matter for them. "You mean I can have him?" he asked, looking wide-eyed at Mark.
In the long run, they decided to take Jasper on a trial basis, giving the children time to get used to him, with the agreement that Mark could take him back if it didn't work out. Meanwhile, Mark was welcome to come see the dog anytime.
"Thanks!" Jason beamed at Mark, still holding onto Jasper.
That night, with all three children finally asleep and a tired Jasper bedded down in a doghouse in the back yard, Rita curled up against Chris. "What a day, huh, Sam?"
He smiled as he hugged her. "Yeah, definitely. Who'd have thought we'd end up with a dog before the day was over?"
Rita laughed. "You made your son very happy when you said he could have Jasper."
Chris just chuckled and hugged her again. He knew what Rita wasn't saying; she knew that in allowing Jason to have the dog, he was fulfilling one of his own childhood dreams, too.
"It was great to see Carmen and Jerry doing so well," Rita commented. "Life seems to be back to normal for them, and Mark and Alison, too."
Chris nodded. "They all seem to realize how lucky they are. I talked with Jerry a bit and tried to help him relax. After all they've been through, I think he's afraid that for Carmen, there will always be 'danger in confidence,' as that note said. I told him about our angels."
"I told Carmen about them, too, right before they went to Kentucky. Their faith is strong, and they have each other and Billy. They'll be all right.
Chris hugged her again. "Yes, Sam, they sure will. After all, we are!"
Author's note: I started this story on June 21, 1999, the day after we at Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville had said a painful goodbye to our own Carmen Lile-Henley, the basis for the Carmen character in my story. We had a reception for her, similar to the one described in this story, and when I saw the basket of notes, I got the idea for this story. Though I've changed Carmen's last name and a few other identifying characteristics, I kept a lot of the little details about the real-life Carmen, including the physical description, the strong Southern accent and the red sports car! She makes a great story character! As Chris said in the story, she shoots holes in all the stereotypes!
Usual Disclaimer: Chris, Rita, Harry, Frannie, Callie Callahan, and the Daily Beach newspaper are the property of Stu Segall and Stephen J. Cannell. No infringement intended. All the other characters are mine, though I will admit some, including Carmen, are loosely based on real-life people, all of whom I want to thank for giving me inspiration for this story. Thanks to Christopher Lanza for the idea of the golden retriever named Jasper, and especially for all the encouragement during these long months I took to write this story! Thanks to Cathy Reinhardt for proofreading for me!
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