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23.12.2018

The scent of coffee woke her. Tess turned from her side to her back and lay dozing with the homey, comforting smell. How many years had it been since she'd woken to the scent of coffee already brewing? When she'd lived in her grandfather's house with its high ceilings and tiled foyer, she would come down the arching staircase in the mornings to find her grandfather already behind a huge plate of eggs or hotcakes, the newpaper open, and the coffee already poured.

Miss Bette, the housekeeper, would have set the table with the everyday dishes, the ones with the little violets around the edges. Flowers would have depended on the season, but they would always be there, jonquils or roses or mums in the blue porcelain vase that had been her great-grandmother's.

There would have been the quiet whoosh of Trooper's tail, her grandfather's old golden retriever, as he sat beneath the table hoping for a windfall.

Those had been the mornings of her youth-steady, secure, and familiar-of her young womanhood, just as her grandfather had been the strong central figure in her life.

Then she had grown up, moved into her own apartment, into her own practice. She brewed her own coffee.

With a sigh, she turned lazily, hoping for another dream. Then she remembered, and sat up straight in bed. It was empty, but for her. Pushing her hair out of her eyes, she touched the sheet beside her.

He'd stayed with her and kept the bargain. They had rolled and tossed and loved each other into the night until exhausted sleep had been the only alternative. No questions, no words, and the only answer had been what they had both needed. Each other and oblivion. He'd needed that too. She'd understood that he'd needed a few hours without tension, without puzzles, without responsibilities.

Now it was morning, and each had a job to face.

Tess rose, then slipped into the kimono that had been discarded onto the floor. She wanted a shower, a long, hot one, but she wanted the coffee more.

She found Ben in the little el of her dining room, with a map of the city, a tangle of notes, and her own yellow tablet spread over the table. "Good morning."

"Hi." He said it absently, then glanced up and focused. Though he smiled, she saw that his eyes were shadowed and intense as they studied her face. "Hi," he repeated. "I was hoping you'd sleep longer."

"It's after seven."

"It's Sunday," he reminded her, then rose as if to separate her from what he was doing at the table. "Hungry?"

"Are you cooking?"

"Are you squeamish?"

"Not particularly."

"Then you can probably stomach one of my omelettes. Game?"

"Yeah, I'm game." She went with him into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee. From the look of the pot, he'd already had several. "Have you been up long?"

"Little while. How often do you shop for food?",

She glanced behind him, into the now open refrigerator. "When my back's to the wall."

"Consider it there." He pulled out a carton of eggs that was less than half full and a miserly chunk of cheddar. "We can still manage the omelettes. Just."

"I've got an omelette pan. Second shelf in the cabinet to your right."

He sent her a mild, pitying glance. "All you need's a hot skillet and a light hand."

"I stand corrected."

She sipped coffee while he cooked. Impressive, she thought, and certainly better than she could do with gourmet utensils and a detailed recipe in front of her. Interested, she leaned over his shoulder and earned a silent stare. Tess split an English muffin, popped it in the toaster, and left the rest up to him.

"It's good," she decided when they sat at the table and she'd swallowed the first bite. "I'm pretty pathetic in the kitchen, which is why I don't keep a lot of food around that obliges me to deal with it."

He shoveled into his own with the easy enthusiasm of a man who considered food one of life's top physical pleasures. "Living alone's supposed to make you self-sufficient."

"But it doesn't perform miracles." He cooked, kept a tidy apartment, was obviously proficient at his job, and apparently had little trouble with women. Tess topped off her coffee and wondered why she was more tense now than when she'd gone to bed with him.

Because she wasn't as handy with men as he was with women. And because, she thought, she wasn't in the habit of sharing a casual breakfast after a frantic night of sex. Her first affair had been in college. A disaster. Now she was nearly thirty and had kept her relationships with men carefully in the safe zone. The occasional side trip had been pleasant but unimportant. Until now.

"Apparently you're self-sufficient."

"You like to eat, you learn how to cook." He moved his shoulders. "I like to eat."

"You've never married?"

"What? No." He swallowed hard, then reached for his half of the muffin. "It tends to get in the way of-"

"Philandering?"

"Among other things." He grinned at her. "You butter a great muffin."

"Yes, that's true. I'd say another reason you've never… let's say, settled is that your work comes first." She glanced at the papers he'd pushed to the end of the table. "Police work would be demanding, time-consuming, and dangerous."

"The first two anyway. Homicide's sort of the executive end. Desk work, puzzle work."

"Executive," she murmured, remembering very clearly the ease with which he had once strapped on his gun.

"Most of the guys wear suits." He'd nearly polished off his omelette and was already wondering if he could talk Tess out of some of hers. "Generally, you come in after the deed's been done and then put pieces together. You talk to people, make phone calls, push paper."

"Is that how you got that scar?" Tess scooted the rest of her omelette around her plate. "Pushing paper?"

"I told you before, that's old news."

Her mind was too analytical to let it go at that. "But you have been shot, and probably shot at more than once."

"Sometimes you go into the field and people aren't too happy to see you."

"All in a day's work?"

When he realized she wasn't going to let it drop, he set down his fork. "Tess, it isn't like the flicks."

"No, but it isn't like selling shoes either."

"Okay. I'm not saying you never run into a situation where things might get hot, but basically this kind of police work is on paper. Reports, interviews, head work. There are weeks, months, even years of incredible drudge work, even boredom as opposed to moments of actual physical jeopardy. A rookie in a uniform is likely to deal with more heat in a year than I am."

"I see. Then you aren't likely to encounter a situation, in, the normal scheme of things, where you use your gun."

He didn't answer for a moment, not liking where the conversation was going. "What are you getting at?"

"I'm trying to understand you. We've spent two nights together. I like to know who I'm sleeping with."

He'd been avoiding that. Sex was easier if it wore blinders. "Benjamin James Matthew Paris, thirty-five in August, single, six feet one-half inch, a hundred seventy-two pounds."

She rested her elbows on the table, setting her chin on her linked hands as she studied him. "You don't like to talk about your work."

"What's there to talk about? It's a job."

"No, not with you. A job is where you clock in every morning, Monday through Friday. You don't carry your gun like a briefcase."

"Most briefcases aren't loaded."

"You have had to use it."

Ben drained his coffee. His system was already primed. "I doubt many cops get around to collecting their pensions without drawing their weapons at least once."

"Yes, I understand that. On the other hand, as a doctor I'd deal more with the results afterward. The grief of the family, the shock and trauma of the victim."

"I've never shot a victim."

There was an edge to his voice that interested her. Perhaps he liked to pretend to her, even to himself, that the violent aspects of his job were occasional, an expected side effect. He'd consider anyone he shot in the line of duty, as he'd put it, the bad guy. And yet she was sure there was a part of him that thought of the human, the flesh and blood. That part of him would lose sleep over it.

"When you shoot someone in self-defense," she said slowly, "is it like in a war, where you see the enemy as a symbol more than a man?"

"You don't think about it."

"I don't see how that's possible."

"Take my word for it."

"But when you're in a situation that calls for that kind of extreme defensive action, you aim to wound."

"No." On the flat answer, he rose and picked up his plate. "Listen, you draw your weapon, you're not the Lone Ranger. There's no grazing your silver bullet over the bad guy's gun hand. Your life, your partner's life, some civilian's life is on the line. It's black and white."

He took the plates away. She didn't ask if he'd killed. He'd already told her.

She glanced at the papers he'd been working on. Black and white. He wouldn't see the shades of gray she saw there. The man they sought was a killer. The state of his mind, his emotions, perhaps even his soul, didn't matter to Ben. Maybe they couldn't.

"These papers," she began when he came back. "Is there something I can help with?"

"Just drudge work."

"I'm an expert drudge."

"Maybe. We can talk about it later. Right now I've got to get moving if I'm going to make nine o'clock Mass."

"Mass?"

He grinned at her expression. "I haven't gone back to the fold. We think our man might show up at one of two churches this morning. We've been covering the masses at both of them since six-thirty. I got a break and drew the nine, ten, and eleven-thirty services."

"I'll go with you. No, don't," she said even as he opened his mouth. "I really could help. I know the signs, the symptoms."

There was no point in telling her he'd wanted her to come. Let her think she'd talked him into it. "Don't blame me if your knees give out."

She touched a hand to his cheek, but didn't kiss him. "Give me ten minutes."

The church smelled of candle wax and perfume. The pews, worn smooth by the sliding and shifting of hundreds of cloth-covered haunches, were less than half full for the nine o'clock service. It was quiet, with the occasional cough or sniffle echoing hollowly. A pleasant, religious light came through the stained-glass windows on the east wall. The altar stood at the head of the church, draped with its cloth and flanked by candles. White for purity. Above it hung the Son of God, dying on the Cross.

Ben sat with Tess in the back pew and scanned the congregation. A few older women were scattered among the families toward the front. A young couple sat in the pew across from them, choosing the rear, Ben thought, because of the sleeping infant the woman carried. An elderly man who had come in with the help of a cane sat alone, two private feet away from a family of six. Two young girls in their Sunday best sat and whispered together, and a boy of about three knelt backward on the pew and ran a plastic car quietly over the wood. Ben knew he was making the sounds of the engine and screeching tires in his head.

There were three men sitting alone who fit the general description. One was already kneeling, his thin, dark coat still buttoned, though the church was warm. Another sat, passing idly through the hymnal. The third was in the front of the church, and sat unmoving. Ben knew Roderick had the front, and the rookie, Pilomento, was situated in the middle.

A movement beside Tess had Ben stiffening. Logan slid in beside her, patted her hand, and smiled at Ben. "Thought I'd join you." His voice was a bit wheezy. He coughed quietly into his hand to clear it.

"Nice to see you, Monsignor," Tess murmured.

"Thank you, my dear. I've been a little under the weather lately and wasn't sure I'd make it. I was hoping you'd be along. You'd have a sharp eye." His gaze traveled around the half-empty church. Mostly the old and young, he thought. Those in the middle of their lives rarely thought God needed an hour of their time. After digging a Sucret out of his pocket, he looked at Ben again. "I hope you don't mind my volunteering. If you happen to get lucky, I might be of help. After all, I have what we might call house advantage."

For the first time since Ben had met him, Logan wore the white clerical collar. Seeing it, Ben only nodded.

The priest entered, the congregation rose. The service began.

Entrance Rite. The Celebrant in green vestments, stole, alb, the amice worn harmlessly under the flowing robes, the gangly altar boy in black and white, ready to serve.

Lord have mercy.

A baby five pews up began to cry lustily. The congregation murmured the responses in unison.

Christ have mercy.

The old man with the cane was working his way through the rosary. The young girls giggled and tried desperately to stop. The little boy with the plastic car was shushed by his mother.

A man with a white silk amice next to his skin felt the drumming in his head ease with the familiar flow of Celebrant and congregation. His palms were sweaty, but he kept them clasped in front of him.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

It was the Latin he heard, the Latin of his childhood, of his priesthood. It soothed, and the world stayed steady.

The Liturgy. The congregation sat with shuffles, murmurs, and creaks. Ben watched, not really hearing the priest's words. He'd heard them all so many times before. One of his earliest memories was of sitting on a hard pew, his hands between his knees, the starched collar of his best shirt rubbing against his neck. He'd been five, or perhaps six. Josh had been an altar boy.

The man in the thin black coat was slumped back in his seat as if exhausted. Someone cheerfully blew his nose.

"For the wages of sin is death," the priest intoned, "but God's gift is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord."

The amice was cool against his skin, against his heart, as he murmured the response. "Thanks be to God."

They rose for the Gospel. Matthew 7:15-21. "Be on your guard against false prophets."

Isn't that what the Voice had told him? His head began to ring with the power of it as he sat very still. Excitement, fresh and clean, sang through his tired body. Yes, be on your guard. They wouldn't understand, they wouldn't let you finish. She pretended to understand. Dr. Court. But she only wanted to have him put in a place where he couldn't finish.

He knew the kind of place-white walls, all those white-walls and white nurses with their bored and wary looks. A place like his mother had been those last terrible years.

"Take care of Laura. She breeds sin in her heart and listens to the devil." His mother's skin had been pasty, her cheeks flaccid. But her eyes had been so dark and bright. Bright with madness and knowledge. "You're twins. If her soul's damned, so is yours. Take care of Laura."

But Laura had already been dead.

He heard the last of the gospel. It spoke to him. "Lord, Lord, who will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does my heavenly Father's will?"

He bowed his head, accepting. "Praise to you, O Christ."

They sat for the sermon.

Ben felt Tess's hand slip over his. He linked fingers, aware that she knew he was uncomfortable. He'd resigned himself to sitting through Mass again, but it was a different story when a priest sat a foot away. It reminded him, clearly, of the few times he'd gone to church as a boy and discovered, to his embarrassment, Sister Mary Angelina sitting in the pew ahead of his family. Nuns weren't as tolerant as mothers when little boys played with their fingers and hummed to themselves during Mass.

"You were daydreaming during Mass again, Benjamin." He remembered the trick Sister Mary Angelina had had of slipping her white hands into the black sleeves of her habit so that she looked like one of those egg-shaped, bottom-heavy toys you couldn't knock down. "You should try to be more like your brother, Joshua." Ben?

"Hmmm?"

"The man there." Tess's voice was light as a feather near his ear. "The one in the black coat."

"Yeah, I saw him before."

"He's crying."

The congregation stood for the Creed. The man in the black coat continued to sit, weeping silently over his rosary. Before the prayer was finished, he rose unsteadily then hurried out of the church.

"Stay here," Ben ordered, and slipped out to follow. When she made a move to go with him, Logan pressed her hand.

"Relax, Tess. He knows his job."

He didn't come back through the Offertory prayers or the wash-ing of hands. Tess sat with her hands clasped in her lap and her spine trembling. Ben knew his job, she agreed silently, but he didn't know hers. If they'd found the man, she should be out with him. He'd need to talk. She stayed where she was, acknowledging fully for the first time that she was afraid.

Ben returned, his expression grim as he leaned over the back of the pew and touched Logan's shoulder. "Could you come out here a minute?"

Logan went without question. Tess found herself taking a deep breath before she followed them into the vestibule.

"The guy's sitting out there on the steps. His wife died last week. Leukemia. I'd say it's been a pretty rough time. I'm going to check him out anyway, but-"

"Yes, I understand." Logan glanced toward the closed doors of the church. "I'll take care of him. Let me know if anything changes." He smiled at Tess and patted her hand. "It was lovely seeing you again."

"Good-bye, Monsignor."

They watched him walk outside into the crisp bite of the November morning. In silence, they went back into the church. On the altar was the Consecration. Fascinated, Tess sat to watch the ritual of the bread and wine.

For this is My body.

Heads bowed, accepting the symbol and the gift. She found it beautiful. The priest, his vestments making him large and wide at the altar, held the round white wafer up. Then the gleaming silver chalice was consecrated and lifted as offering.

As sacrifice, Tess thought. He had spoken at length of sacrifice. The ceremony she found beautiful, even a little pompous, would only mean sacrifice to him. His God was the Old Testament God, righteous, harsh, and thirsty for the blood of submission. The God of the Flood, of Sodom and Gomorrah. He wouldn't see the lovely ceremony as a bond between the congregation and a God of mercy, and kindness, but as a sacrifice to the demanding.

She reached for Ben's hand. "I think he'd feel… full here."

"What?"

She shook her head, not sure how to explain.

From the altar came the solemn words, "… as you were pleased to accept the offering of holy Abel and the sacrifice of our father Abraham, and that of your high priest Melchisedec, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim."

"A spotless victim," Tess repeated. "White for purity." She looked at Ben with a dull horror. "Not saving. Not saving so much as sacrificing. And when he's here, he twists all this so that it reinforces what he's doing. He wouldn't fall apart here, not here. He feeds off this in the most unhealthy way."

She watched the priest consume the wafer, then after the sign of the cross, drink the wine. Symbols, she thought. But how far had one man taken them beyond symbols to flesh and blood?

The priest held up the host and spoke in a clear voice. "Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. Speak but the word and my soul will be healed."

Members of the congregation began to shift out of pews and shuffle down the aisle to receive communion.

"Do you think he'd take communion?" Ben murmured, watching the slow-moving line.

"I don't know." She suddenly felt cold, cold and unsure. "I think he'd need to. It's renewing, isn't it?"

The body of Christ.

"Yeah, that's the idea."

The man who'd been paging through the hymnal rose to go to the altar. The other man Ben had watched kept his seat, with his head bent either in prayer or a light doze.

There was another who felt the need and the longing rise up urgently inside him. His hands nearly trembled with it. He wanted the offering, the flesh of his Lord to fill him and wash away all stain of sin.

He sat as the church filled with voices.

"You're born in sin," his mother had told him. "You're born sinful and unworthy. It's a punishment, a righteous one. All of your life you'll fall into sin. If you die in sin, your soul is damned."

"Restitution," Father Moore had warned him. "You must make restitution for sin before it can be forgiven and absolved. Restitution. God demands restitution."

Yes, yes, he understood. He'd begun restitution. He'd brought four souls to the Lord. Four lost, seeking souls to pay for the one Laura had lost. The Voice demanded two more for full payment.

"I don't want to die." Laura, in delirium, had gripped his hands. "I don't want to go to hell. Do something. Oh, please, God, do something."

He wanted to clasp his hands over his ears, to fall on his knees at the altar and take the host into himself. But he wasn't worthy. Until his mission was finished, he wouldn't be worthy.

"The Lord be with you," the priest said clearly.

"Et cum spiri tutuo," he murmured.

Tess let the freshening breeze outside play on her face and revive her after over three hours of services. The frustration was back as she watched the stragglers from late Mass stroll to their cars; frustration and a vague, nagging feeling that he'd been close all along.

She linked her arm with Ben's. "What now?"

"I'm going into the station, make a few calls. Here's Roderick."

Roderick came down the steps, nodded to Tess, then sneezed three times into his handkerchief. "Sorry."

"You look terrible," Ben commented, and lit a cigarette.

"Thanks. Pilomento's checking out a license plate. Said a guy across from him mumbled to himself through the last service." He tucked the handkerchief away and shivered a bit in the wind. "I didn't know you'd be here, Dr. Court."

"I thought I might be able to help." She looked at his reddened eyes, sympathizing when he was wracked with a fit of coughing. "That sounds bad. Have you seen a doctor?"

"No time."

"Half the department's down with flu," Ben put in. "Ed's threatened to wear a face mask." Thinking of his partner, he looked back at the church. "Maybe they had better luck."

"Maybe," Roderick agreed, wheezing. "You going in?"

"Yeah, I've got some calls to make. Do me a favor. Go home and take something for that. Your desk's upwind from mine."

"I've got a report."

"Screw the report," Ben said, then shifted as he remembered he stood a couple of yards from the church. "Keep your germs home for a couple of days, Lou."

"Yeah, maybe. Give me a call if Ed came up with anything."

"Sure. Take it easy."

"And see a doctor," Tess added.

He managed a weak smile and headed off.

"Sounds to me like it's heading into his lungs," she murmured, but when she turned back to Ben, she saw his mind was already on other things. "Look, I know you're anxious to make calls. I'll take a cab home."

"What?"

"I said I'll take a cab home."

"Why? Tired of me?"

"No." To prove it, she brushed her lips over his. "I know you've got work you want to do."

"So come with me." He wasn't ready to let her go yet, or give up whatever private, uncomplicated time might be left of the weekend. "After I tie things up, we can go back to your place and…" He bent down and nipped her earlobe.

"Ben, we can't make love all the time."

With his arm around her, he walked to the car. "Sure we can. I'll show you."

"No, really. There are biological reasons. Trust me, I'm a doctor."

He stopped by the car door. "What biological reasons?" I'm starving.

"Oh." He opened the door for her then went around to the driver's side. "Okay, so we'll make a quick stop at the market on the way. You can fix lunch." I can?

"I fixed breakfast."

"Oh, so you did." She settled back, finding the idea of a cozy

Sunday afternoon appealing. "All right, I'll fix lunch. I hope you like cheese sandwiches."

He leaned close, so that his breath feathered over her lips. "Then I'll show you what people are supposed to do on Sunday afternoons."

Tess let her eyes flutter half closed. "And what's that?"

"Drink beer and watch football." He kissed her hard, and started the car as she laughed.

He watched them huddled together in the car. He'd seen her in church. His church. It was a sign, of course, that she should come to pray in his church. At first it had upset him a little, then he'd realized she'd been guided there.

She would be the last one. The last, before himself.

He watched the car pull out, caught a glimpse of her hair through the side window. A bird landed in the branch of the denuded tree beside him and looked down with bright black eyes, his mother's eyes. He went home to rest.