by Gerri Hill
Dallas Homicide Detectives Tori Hunter and Samantha Kennedy investigate the murder of a Catholic priest who is found naked and strangled to death. A sex scandal threatens to erupt and cover-ups are soon revealed as their only suspect is found shot dead—mere hours after the murder.
Soon details of the murder begin to surface and the secret life of a well-loved priest is exposed. Lies and deceptions unfold as the detectives work to solve the case—even as their superiors demand it be closed.
Partners: Finalist, Best Lesbian MysteryGCLS Goldie Awards
Partners: Finalist, Best Lesbian MysteryJust About Write
April 2008: What Hill does well is to keep the solution to the murders a puzzle until the end of the book, and there is a quirky twist to the end of the book that is rather nice.
“Hunter, get in here.”
Tori Hunter looked up from her computer, nodding at Lieutenant Malone as she slid her chair back and walked into his office.
“Where’s Kennedy?” he asked, motioning for her to sit.
Tori glanced at her watch. “She had a lunch date.”
“Oh, yeah?” He cleared his throat. “Is everything okay with you two?”
Tori blushed slightly. It was still unsettling to know that her lieutenant, of all people, knew about her love life. It was one thing for Sikes to tease them, quite another to have her lieutenant asking about her relationship. “Sam was meeting her friend Amy, that’s all.”
“Okay. Well, you’ll need to call her in. Got a situation out at Saint Mary’s, downtown,” he said, reading from a scribbled note in his hand. “We need to be sensitive about this one, Hunter.”
“Like I don’t know how to be sensitive,” Tori said dryly as she crossed her arms. “And if you want sensitive, maybe you should send Sikes. We’ve got a solid lead on our case, Lieutenant. I think we found a witness who can put Stewart at the scene. I hate to take time away from it.”
“Sorry, but now you’ve got another case. I want you two on this one.” He fingered the note again. “Father Michael was found dead this morning in the rectory. The responding unit is there, and the crime lab’s already on the scene.”
“A priest?” Tori asked, leaning forward. “Homicide?”
“Appears so. He was found naked.” He looked at her. “Like I said, sensitive, Hunter. Let’s try to keep the gory details from the press.”
“Naked? Shouldn’t this fall to the new Special Victims Unit?”
“Special Victims investigates sexual crimes, Hunter,” he said, his voice tense. “This is a homicide. Nothing more.”
“I understand.” Tori took the piece of paper from Malone. “You’re Catholic, Stan? I never knew.”
He nodded. “I knew Father Michael. He was a good man.”
Tori grabbed her jacket off the back of her chair. The January day was cold and rainy, making her long for summer. It had only been a couple of months since they’d gone to the boat regularly, but still, it had been an ideal summer and Tori missed it. She and Sam had spent nearly every weekend on the lake, getting to know each other without a murder investigation hanging over them. They had grown so close, Tori wondered how she had managed before Sam came into her life. But she knew, didn’t she? She hadn’t really been living, she had merely been existing.
She called Sam while she drove the short distance to Saint Mary’s. She and Amy were still at the deli.
“Why don’t you have Amy drop you off at the church?”
“Okay. We’re finished anyway. I’ll meet you there.”
Tori had just disconnected when she was nearly sideswiped by a TV news van. She leaned on her horn, barely resisting the urge to flip them off. “Idiots.”
She reached the church parking lot the same time the van did, and she held up her badge as she walked toward them. “Where the hell do you think you’re going? This is a crime scene. No TV.”
“Detective Hunter, we must stop meeting like this. People will start to talk.”
Tori turned, silently groaning as the red-headed reporter slid from the van, long legs appearing well before the rest of her. Melissa Carter was fresh out of college, trying her best to win the evening anchor job. She had also been trying to win a date with Tori. Sam’s teasing had been relentless.
“Miss Carter, please keep your crew back. We’ve been over this before. Crime scene, remember? It’s not that hard.”
“We wouldn’t think of interfering with your investigation, Detective. Just trying to catch a break. Of course, I’d love an exclusive interview with you later,” she purred.
Tori lifted an eyebrow. “Call my lieutenant.” She walked toward the two uniformed officers standing at the steps to the church. “Make sure they stay put.”
Tori looked at the massive doors to the church, then back to the officers. “Where’s the rectory, anyway?”
The younger of the two said, “It’s the building behind the church. The M.E.’s van is there.”
“Okay. What’s the media look like back there?”
“Crowded. But we’ve got tape up.” He motioned to the TV crew. “They’ve been run off from the back already.”
“Lovely. I hate her,” she murmured as she followed the sidewalk around the church. Behind it was a courtyard with several manicured gardens, assorted religious statues the centerpiece of each. It was bursting with activity as people—mostly priests and a few nuns—gathered, waiting for news.
“Detective Hunter, about time. Where’s your partner?” one of the uniformed officers asked.
“She’s on her way. Who’s inside?”
“Crime lab and the M.E.”
“Make sure the TV crews stay away. Must be a slow news day.”
Tori walked inside, finding Rita Spencer bent over the body. She and the medical examiner were on better terms now. Working a serial killer case could do that.
“Spencer, anything?” Tori asked, staring at the body. He was younger than she’d assumed.
Rita looked up, nodding. “Hunter. You got this one?”
“Looks like it.” Tori looked around, watching as the crime lab techs lifted prints from a fallen lamp. “What we got?”
“Strangulation. Most likely with a thin belt or a rope. See the bruising pattern?” she said, pointing to the ligature mark around the neck.
“Why do you think he’s naked?”
Their eyes met.
“There is some rectal bleeding.”
Tori frowned. “Raped?”
“There doesn’t appear to be trauma. No visible fluids. Could be consensual. We may not know.”
“Consensual? Jesus, he’s a priest. Let’s hope he was raped. I don’t want to be the one to report he was having consensual sex.” Then Tori paused, thinking. “Wait a minute. What about that autoerotic…strangulation thing? Is that the right term?”
“Asphyxiophilia. It’s possible. Difficult to prove without a sexual partner, or someone who may have known he practiced it.” Rita looked up. “Which was why I was expecting Special Victims, not Homicide.”
Tori sighed. “Time of death?”
“Liver temp indicates he’s been dead six or seven hours.”
Tori looked at her watch. “It’s nearly one. Do you know who found him?”
“I think the housekeeper. The responding officers took her to the kitchen.”
Tori nodded. “You’ll do the post, or will Jackson?”
“He’ll probably want this one, Hunter.”
Tori nodded again. “I understand.” She walked through the house into the office where the crime lab techs were still lifting prints. “How’s it look?”
“Multiple prints. In every room. I assume most belong to the priests of the diocese here.” He shrugged. “And the housekeeper. I guess we could print them, then eliminate the ones that match.”
“Eliminate them? Why would we want to eliminate them? We’re looking for a killer.”
“Hunter, they’re priests.”
“They’re human. Anyone that’s got a print in here, I want them accounted for. I don’t care if it’s the goddamn bishop.” She moved next into the bedroom, eyebrows raised questioningly as the Luma Light played across the bed.
“Clean. No sign of fluids.”
“Has anyone questioned the housekeeper?”
“No. She’s in the kitchen.”
Tori walked down the hall to the back of the house, her gaze landing on the quietly crying woman. She paused, then cleared her throat. The woman looked up, her eyes red and puffy.
“I’m Detective Hunter. I understand you found him?”
“Awful, so awful. Who would do this?”
“Well, we’re going to find out. But I need to ask you some questions. Are you up to it?”
The woman rubbed a well-used rosary, the beads rolling between her nervous fingers. She crossed herself once, then gathered the rosary in the palm of one hand. “Yes, I’m all right. I’ll help in any way. Of course I will.”
Tori pulled out a chair and sat across from her, wishing Sam were here. She was better at this, more compassionate. Tori didn’t usually bother with pleasantries. “What’s your name?”
“Alice. I’m Alice Hagen.”
Tori nodded. “Alice, what time did you find him?”
“It was nearly noon. I was running late today. I’m usually here by ten, but my husband wasn’t feeling well and I was tending to him. He’s got emphysema.” She looked away quickly. “He was a smoker.”
“How often do you come here? Daily?”
“No, no. Monday, Wednesday, Friday.”
“Does anyone else—”
“Hunter? Found something,” Mac, the lead technician, motioned toward the hallway.
“I’m sorry, but excuse me, Mrs. Hagen. I’ll be right back.”
Tori followed him back into the living room, then outside. She looked up once into the gray sky, then brushed at the moisture that had gathered on her hair.
“Found these in the shrubs,” he said, pointing to what looked like men’s pajamas. “And a belt.” He motioned for her to follow. “Got shoe prints. Going to take a cast of them. There’re only two. This one is smeared, like he was running.”
“Great. Maybe we can get a print off the belt,” she said, watching as the belt was carefully placed in an evidence bag. “Or fluids on the clothes.” She nodded at the officer who found them. “Good job. Make sure Spencer gets the belt. See if it matches her ligature mark.”
Sam hurried through the fine drizzle, excusing herself as she moved among the crowd that had gathered. She spotted Tori at the edge of the house and slowed, an involuntary smile touching her lips before she could stop it. Tori was so…so powerful, so totally in control, and Sam was as drawn to her today as she’d been last year when she’d first transferred to Homicide. Slowly shaking her head, she marveled at all the changes in her life since then. The biggest change, having fallen in love with a woman. For the first time, she was totally happy with her life, both professionally and personally. And she was continually amazed that she and Tori could leave the job at the end of the day and have a completely different life at home, one that involved getting to know each other away from work, away from the stress of a murder investigation. And as she’d suspected, Tori had a wicked sense of humor. It was a part of her personality that she’d kept hidden as she’d retreated from life. But little by little, she’d opened up, and now she was practically best buddies with John Sikes, something Sam never thought could be possible.
As she stared, she saw Tori’s back straighten and her head tilt to the side. Then, like always, she turned, Tori’s eyes capturing her own in an instant. With only a slight twitch of her lips and one raised eyebrow, she turned back to Mac.
How does she do that?
Sam hurried on, the light mist turning into a downright drizzle. Inside the rectory, she sidestepped Rita Spencer who was preparing to bring the body out.
“Rita,” she said by way of greeting.
Rita nodded. “The housekeeper is still in the kitchen. I don’t think Hunter had a chance to question her.”
Sam turned, watching the activity in the bedroom before moving down the hallway and into the kitchen. She paused, offering a slight smile as the older woman turned tear-stained cheeks her way.
“I’m Detective Kennedy. I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name.”
“Alice Hagen. Isn’t it just so awful, Detective?”
“Yes, ma’am, it is.” Sam pulled out one of the chairs by the kitchen table and sat down. “Are you the one who found him, Alice?”
“I came in here, through the kitchen, like always. But it was too quiet. I knew something was wrong.”
“Tell me what you saw.”
“Well, I called to him but got no answer. At first, I thought that maybe he’d gone on to the church, but he always worked in his office, going over his sermon until I brought him his lunch.”
“You came every day?”
“No, like I was telling that other policewoman, I come three days a week. The other two days, he fends for himself.” Then she smiled. “Or one of the ladies from the church will drop off a meal.” She leaned forward. “He was so well-liked. No one wanted him to do without,” she said quietly.
Sam nodded. “So, you called out to him. Then what?”
“Well, I went to his office first. But before I could open the door, I saw…oh dear God, I saw him lying there, naked.”
“Where was he when you found him, Alice?”
“In the den, he was just … lying there,” she finished in a whisper.
Sam nodded again, reaching out to touch the older woman’s arm. “Tell me what’s out of order. The den area looks disturbed, as if there was a struggle.”
“Oh, yes. I always kept it so neat. It’s a mess. Just awful.”
“Yes, I understand. Did you touch anything? Did you touch him?”
“Oh, no. I didn’t touch anything. Well, the phone, you know. When I called,” she said.
Sam jotted down some notes, then glanced up when she heard footsteps approach.
Tori looked at her briefly, then turned her attention to Alice Hagen. “Mrs. Hagen, excuse me, but…I have a few more questions if you’re up for it.”
“Of course, Officer.”
“And forgive me for the bluntness of this, but were you aware of Father Michael having any…well, any sexual partners?”
The gasp sounded nearly like a groan. “Sexual? He was a priest! Of course he didn’t have any … partners.” She brought the tissue to her eyes again as she cried. “What kind of police are you?”
Tori ran a hand through her hair which was glistening with raindrops. “Of course. I’m sorry.” Then she looked again at Sam. “All done?”
Sam stood up. “Yes. Thank you, Mrs. Hagen. You’ve been a big help.” She handed the older woman her card. “If you think of anything else, anything at all, please call me.” She followed Tori out into the hallway, stopping her with a light touch on the arm. “Sexual partners?” she murmured.
“Either that or he was raped. We’ll know more after the post.”
“Raped?” Sam looked down the hall back to where Mrs. Hagen still sat. “Okay. Do we want to look for witnesses? There were a lot of people in the courtyard. Other priests, nuns. Maybe someone saw something out of the ordinary.”
“Father Michael obviously lived alone. Where does everyone else stay?”
“I’m not sure. But the diocese headquarters is located here, and the seminary. And there’s a small convent just two blocks away. Word has spread, I’m sure.” Sam pointed down the hall as a priest stood talking to one of the uniformed officers. “This looks like an official visit.”
Tori followed her gaze, and Sam noticed the older priest look their way. He was an overweight man, his face round and puffy. He took off his black hat as he made his way over to them. Bushy, graying hair protruded like two patches above his ears; the rest of his head was as slick as a cue ball.
“Excuse me. I’m Monsignor Bernard. Bishop Lewis sent me,” he said, his hand extended to both her and Tori. “The officers over there said that you were going to be investigating this tragedy. Is that correct?”
Before Sam could speak, Tori stepped forward.
“I’m Detective Hunter, and this is Detective Kennedy. What can we do for you?”
“As I said, Bishop Lewis sent me to oversee this situation. For the time being.”
Tori raised an eyebrow. “Oversee?”
“With the press, mainly. We are aware of how the situation looks, Detective. And by no means can the Dallas Diocese handle another scandal.”
“Monsignor, if you have information about Father Michael’s private life, you need to tell us now.”
“If you’re insinuating that Father Michael behaved inappropriately, Detective, you are very wrong. Father Michael has an impeccable record and there has never been even a hint of improper behavior.”
“Then what scandal are you trying to avoid?” Sam asked.
“When the press reports that a priest was found naked and that there was evidence of sexual activity, do you think the words raped or assaulted will be included in the text? No. They will assume sexual misconduct. And we simply can’t have that.”
“Monsignor, how do you know what evidence was found? There have been no official statements.”
He smiled but shook his head. “I won’t bore you with the chain of information, Detectives. What we want, in your official statement to the press, is for you to report that he was sexually assaulted and not leave it up to the reporters to use their own words.”
Tori said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do that. I don’t know if he was sexually assaulted or not. I won’t know until the medical examiner issues his report.” Her cell rang and she unclipped it from her belt. “Excuse me,” she murmured as she moved back into the kitchen.
“Hunter, I just got a call from CIU.”
Tori rolled her eyes. CIU—Criminal Investigative Unit—thought they were the damn FBI. “And?”
“We’re not to talk to the press on this one. They’re going to handle it. I think they’re sending someone over now.”
Tori sighed. “Great, Lieutenant. Are they going to handle the goddammed investigation, too?”
“Look, I told you this was sensitive. Apparently, the bishop contacted the mayor and the mayor himself called the chief. The church is concerned about—”
“They’re concerned about a sex scandal. They don’t appear too concerned about their dead priest, only how it’s going to look in the papers.”
“Well, as much as you hate dealing with the press, I thought you’d love this.” Malone paused. “Now did you find anything at the scene?”
“They found pajamas and a belt under some shrubs. The belt could likely be the murder weapon. Multiple prints in the house. We got nothing at this point, really.”
“Well, we need to find something.”
“No shit,” Tori murmured after she’d disconnected. Sam and the monsignor were still talking in the hallway, his bulk nearly dwarfing Sam. Tori said to him, “Well, your prayers have been answered, it seems. They’re sending someone over to handle the press.”
“Thank you, Detective.”
“I assure you, I had nothing to do with it. Now, if you’ll excuse us,” she said, brushing past him and motioning for Sam to follow.
“Who’s coming over?” Sam asked when they stepped outside.
“CIU? Are they taking over the case?”
“I wish.” Tori stopped and looked to the sky, wondering how long before the downpour hit. “Let’s find out if anyone saw anything this morning.”
“I don’t know. Grab a nun.”
Sam smiled. “Grab a nun?”
Their eyes met and Tori allowed herself a brief smile. “Maybe I should take the nuns. You have more of a history with priests.”
“My brother doesn’t count. But maybe you’re right. I think you’re less likely to piss off the nuns.”
“Funny, Detective,” Tori said as she moved away, finding a group of four nuns watching them.