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Last Breath
By Rachel Lee

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 Last Breath

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Last Breath
By Rachel Lee
ISBN: 0446609919
Genre: Romance

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Chapter Excerpt from: Last Breath , by Rachel Lee

CHAPTER 1

Victor Singh's eyes scanned over the instruments, then out at the horizon, as he pushed the yoke forward and to the right. This was the critical moment. Up until this moment, he had been on a routine flight path, following instructions from air traffic control, crossing Tampa Bay, avoiding the landing and takeoff patterns for three major airports while gazing down at dolphins leaping in the wake of a fishing boat below. Just another small, private plane out circling so a pilot could log hours to keep his license current. But at this moment, he broke the pattern and heeled his aircraft to the south. The wide runways of MacDill Air Force Base came into view through the windshield. He focused on a smooth descent to one hundred feet. Attack altitude. Thirty seconds after his hard right turn, he crossed the perimeter of the airbase, aiming at the long, three-story, cement-block building, and pulled the lever beside his chair.

He shut down the flight simulator software. Thirty seconds. That's all he would need to enter the halls of glory.

At ten-thirty in the morning on Holy Saturday, St. Simeon's church was full of people. It was a joyous time, Father Brendan thought as he watched the candidates and their families swirl around. This was the rehearsal for tonight's Easter Vigil Mass, and the baptism, first communion, and confirmation of the candidates. Most of the forty initiates were adults, joining the church for a variety of reasons. A dozen were older children who were joining with their families, the children who just the other day had been making origami cranes. One or two were adult Catholics who were receiving belated confirmations.

With them were family members who wanted to watch and small children who couldn't be left alone at home. It made for a pleasant melee, and Brendan couldn't help smiling, even if the director of religious education, Sally Tutweiler, a middle-aged matron with screaming red hair, was getting hoarse from trying to be heard over the commotion. Finally, Peggy Randall, the church pianist, banged out a loud, dissonant chord on the piano. Even the three-year-olds stilled. For a moment.

Sally, having figured out she wasn't going to succeed by raising her voice, darted up to the ambo-the podium on the right of the altar-and took advantage of the microphone. "All right, everybody. Let's get to it. Catechumens in the front row, candidates in the next three rows, families all together please. Sponsors, sit next to your candidates. Parents, please restrain your small children. We don't want anyone to get hurt."

Another hubbub ensued as people headed for their designated pews. A baby started crying angrily. A boy of nine shoved a girl of eight, eliciting more wails. A father grabbed the boy's arm and drew him away, scolding quietly. The boy looked mutinous. Ah, people, Brendan thought happily. For all their faults and foibles, they were wonderful.

At last there was relative silence in the church. As much silence as there could be when a hundred people gathered and among them were young children.

"We'll begin with a prayer," Sally announced to the gathering. "Father Brendan will lead us. Father?"

He'd been standing toward the back, and now he made his way toward the altar, glad on this day of all days to be a priest and a pastor. There was so much joy in the church at this time of year, with the new people being welcomed into the faith and the resurrection about to be celebrated. His eyes lifted to the crucifix, the corpus covered in a purple Lenten shroud, and he felt the fatigue of the Lent season begin to seep away as Easter prepared to take its place. Before he reached the altar, a little girl, maybe five or six, broke away from her mother and ran up onto the altar. Her mother called out in a horrified voice, but Brendan didn't mind. Gone were the days when only a priest or an altar boy could step into those sacred confines. He liked it when children wanted to explore the altar, and was more than happy to tell them all about everything up there.

But just before he reached the first step, the little girl called out, "Mommy? Mommy, why is the cross bleeding?" Brendan froze. Everyone in the church froze. He saw the shock and disbelief on Sally's face, could feel the swiftly indrawn breaths from behind him.

A miracle? Brendan felt his heart slam. He'd hoped his entire life for a miracle, but now that he faced the possibility of one, he suddenly realized that a miracle could be a terrible thing. No, it had to be desecration of some kind. Suddenly angered, he took the two steps in one stride and swept swiftly around the altar. The little girl looked up at him with huge eyes.

"Why is it bleeding?" she asked. He wanted to tell her it was a bad joke, that the dark stain on the floor was a bit of paint, but the coppery smell that suddenly assailed his nostrils told him otherwise. Copper and rot.

Oh my God!

Slowly, his neck almost refusing to bend, he looked up at the shrouded corpus and saw small stains where the nails in the hands were.

"Marci," said the mother, sounding frightened now, "come back here at once." The little girl, with wide, brown eyes, looked up at him for another second. Then, apparently reading something in his face that frightened her, she turned and ran back to her mother.

The silence in the church was now as profound as a tomb. For endless seconds, Brendan warred with disbelief and shock. He had to do something. Finally, gathering a stray cogent thought or two, he turned and looked at Sally. "Sally, move the rehearsal to the parish hall, please." She nodded, her face as white as paste.

"I'll be over in a few minutes, all right?" He faced the crowd and raised his voice to be heard. "We, uh, seem to have had an act of vandalism," he said with remarkable steadiness. "So I'm going to ask you to move to the parish hall for rehearsal while we get this, uh, cleaned up." He managed what he hoped was a smile and not a grimace. "I'll rejoin you in a few minutes, but Sally will lead the opening prayer. Don't worry, she's as qualified as I am."

Some uncertain laughs greeted his poor foray into humor. But no one moved. Curiosity, or dread, held them in their pews. "Sally?"

Thus prompted, she seemed to come out of her trance. "Yes, let's go, everyone. Sponsors, lead the way, please. Joe, you have a key, don't you?"

God bless Sally. Brisk now, though still pale, she started shooing people out the side doors. A lot of heads craned to look at the crucifix, but no one disobeyed Sally and her catechists. When the door closed on the last of them, Brendan forced himself to turn to the cross. Some part of his mind was praying almost frantically, but he was hardly aware of it. Anger filled him, anger and fear. No miracle, he told himself. He wouldn't be that fortunate. Or that cursed. Some idiot had gotten hold of some animal blood and....

He never completed the thought. He'd bent down to loosen the shroud around the feet of the corpus, and had lifted it just a little. Instead of wooden feet, carved so lovingly, the feet he found were swollen. Purple. Somebody had been crucified in his church.

The call to 911 went surprisingly well, considering that the dispatcher couldn't seem to grasp the meaning of "crucified." Not that Brendan could blame her. He called from the phone in the sacristy, and felt as if he were caught in some kind of nightmare, speaking words that surely couldn't be his own. The dispatcher seemed to react the same way.

Finally, he broke it down for her. "Somebody," he said slowly, fighting to keep his voice calm, "has nailed a body to the cross in my church." That got through to her. "Is he dead?" "I believe so." He couldn't bear to imagine anything else. Nailed. Shrouded. Hanging there for who knew how long ...Oh, God, what if that body was there during last night's service?

"Don't touch anything," the dispatcher warned him. "We'll have a car there in ten or fifteen minutes." It sounded like ten or fifteen years. Brendan went to lock the church so no one else could come in. Turning the keys one by one. Locking himself inside with a corpse. The horror of it was beginning to reach him fully, to feel like an icy grip around his heart.

He had to tell Father Dominic what had happened. He had to make sure the assistant priest would fill in for him at the rehearsal. He had a feeling the police were going to want to talk to him for quite a long time. And he didn't want to leave the body alone. Not like this. Someone needed to pray for the poor soul. Keeping his eyes averted from the altar, he went back to the sacristy and phoned the rectory next door.

"Father Dominic Montague." For the first time in the ten days since Dominic had come to the parish, Brendan was glad the assistant priest was twenty years older-even if his experience seemed largely limited to jockeying a desk at the Diocese of Tampa. Because of his years, he would probably keep a cooler head. "It's Brendan, Dominic. I need you to go over to the parish hall and take over for me at the rehearsal."

"The parish hall?" "I had to move everybody out of the church." Brendan drew a deep breath and looked up at the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe that had been donated by the Thursday Rosary Group. "There's, uh, been a serious desecration at the church." He couldn't bring himself to say murder. The word wouldn't come even though he didn't know what else it could be. "I'm ...waiting for the police." "What happened?"

"Trust me on this. You don't want to know. You'll find out soon enough. Will you take over for me?" "Of course I will. Anything special you want me to do?" "Sally will handle almost all of it; that's her job. Me, I just show up to say the opening and closing prayer and lend an interested presence, if you follow me." "I follow. Consider me on my way." "Thanks."

Brendan hung up the phone and realized he was sweating profusely. Not because the church was warm, because it wasn't. Thanks to the modern miracle of air-conditioning, the church, even when the Tampa heat did its worst, was usually as cool as a cave.

Or a tomb. He shuddered, letting the tension run through him, giving himself a moment actually to feel what was happening here in this sanctuary, in this holiest of places. To accept the fact that one of the worst evils of all had crossed the threshold and made a mockery of one of the holiest symbols of his faith.

Evil. Human evil to be sure, but evil all the same. It should never have trespassed here.

But it had. And he had a duty to perform. Returning to the sanctuary, he sat in the front pew and began to pray for the repose of the soul of the person who hung on the cross.

Strangers crawled all over the church and altar, strangers in uniforms, taking pictures, dusting everything for finger prints. The body still hung on the cross, and very little had been disturbed yet. Even the shroud remained in place, concealing the victim.

Once Brendan had given his brief statement of events, he had been forgotten. He was, in a way, surprised they hadn't told him to leave. Not that he would have gone. He was already on his fifth rosary for the victim. The repetition of the rosary, like a mantra, helped him meditate on God. Although right now he was finding it difficult to concentrate. A man in a suit paused beside him, saying nothing, as if respecting Brendan's silent prayer. When Brendan looked up, the man slid into the pew beside him, flashing a badge.

"I'm Detective Matthew Diel. Tampa homicide." "Brendan Quinlan," Brendan replied. "I know, Father."

Detective Diel, though only in his early to mid-thirties, had a careworn look. He had dark eyes, thick dark hair, and a nose that had been broken once. He also had an interesting scar slashing his cheek, almost a groove. Brendan wondered about it, but didn't ask.

"So," said Matthew Diel, flipping open a notebook, "you found the body?"

"I guess. Actually, a small child claimed the cross was bleeding. We were having our Easter Vigil rehearsal in here. I came up to investigate and found the body." Diel nodded as if he already knew this. "How many people were in here?"

"Conservatively, about a hundred. They should all still be at the parish hall, if you want to check on that." "Who has access to the church?" "You mean with a key?"

Diel's dark eyes, devoid of feeling, settled on him. "I'm assuming you keep the church locked when it's not in use." "Actually, we keep it open from six-thirty in the morning until eight at night on weekdays. Then we lock it up. On weekends it's usually opened around two on Saturday afternoon, except for special days like this. We probably unlocked the doors around ten this morning. And on Sunday morning we open at six-thirty, and close at four in the afternoon." Diel nodded once more, as if the exact schedule wasn't important, but he did scribble it down. Interesting man. Then Brendan realized he hadn't given the information the man really wanted. "This week was different." Diel's head lifted. "How so?"

"It's Holy Week." Seeing that Diel's face betrayed no comprehension, he continued. "We had the Mass of the Last Supper Thursday evening at seven-thirty. It was over a little after nine. We followed it with adoration." "Adoration?"

Brendan wondered how much he was going to need to explain to this man, then decided to go with the bare facts. Let the man ask what he wanted to know. "We place the consecrated host out where it can be seen by everyone. So they can pray in its presence. So we can keep a vigil with our Lord." He added, "It's in remembrance of Jesus's suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane. We keep a vigil the way the apostles did."

"Who was here?" "Father Dominic Montague and I, and any number of other people. They came and went as time allowed. Dominic and I stayed until midnight, when we locked the host away." "Did anyone stay after that?" "No. In fact, I locked the church up myself." Diel scribbled for a minute. "What about last night?" "We had the Stations of the Cross last night at seven-thirty. We locked up about ten."

"So the church is always locked overnight?" "Always." "Who has the keys?"

He rattled off the list: himself; Father Dominic; the facilities manager, Merv Haskell; the liturgist, Amelia Morgan; the parish secretary, Lucy Gallegos; Sally Tutweiler, the Director of Religious Education; and the sacristan, Mona Rivera. "I think that's it. You might check with Merv Haskell, though. He'd know if anyone else has a key. He's in charge of them."

"And if someone lost a key?" "If they reported it, he'd know." "What's Mr. Haskell's number?" "I'll have to check my Rolodex. Listen, would it help if I called Lucy to come in? Like most good secretaries, she knows everything." He gave a wry, humorless smile. "I'm just the pastor."

Something in Diel's gaze flickered, and a faint smile came to his lips. At last, a human response. "That would help," Diel said. Brendan started to rise. "I want to be here when you take the body down." Diel's eyes snapped to his face. "Why?"

"Because I want to ...take care of it. That person deserves some spiritual care, however late it may be." "You can't-" "Of course he can, Matt," said an edgy female voice from behind them.

Startled, Brendan turned to see Chloe Ryder standing in the aisle behind them. Stunning in white shorts and a dark blue polo shirt, Chloe looked like the original ice queen. He was a man, like any other man, and he noticed attractive women. But Chloe ...There was something about her that was so hands-off he often wondered what her story was. Not that she would tell him. He wondered if Sister Philomena even knew, and Sister Phil and Chloe were apparently best friends.

All he knew about Chloe Ryder was that she'd been a cop once, and now was a lawyer. He'd heard whispers that she had something awful in her past, but no one seemed willing to let him in on the gossip. Which, he reminded himself, was a good thing. He shouldn't even be curious. Her blue eyes were sometimes as cold as chips of ice, but right now they showed an amazing heat. Rage. This was such a completely new side of her to Brendan that he almost failed to greet her.

"Well, well, well," said Matt Diel, rising and facing her. "Chloe. It's been a while." "Not long enough," Chloe said flatly. Brendan looked from one to the other and wondered at the electricity he felt between them, not unlike the tingle in the air before a lightning strike. Antagonism? "You know we can't let him touch the body," the detective said.

"Sure you can." "And it's none of your business." Chloe stepped forward, her face mere inches from Matt's. "Oh, it's my business all right. It's my parish, my church. My priest wants to bless the victim. That's the victim's right."

"If he's Catholic." Chloe made an impatient sound. "He is. Why else would he be nailed to that cross?" "The murderer..." "Oh, the murderer may be Catholic, too. But so is the victim. You mark my words." "I can't have anybody messing with the DB. Forensics-" "Forensics is going to mess with the DB. And you know damn well that if they make a note of Father Brendan's viewing the body and blessing it, it isn't going to mess up a thing, Matt."

"Oh, hell." Diel sighed. "How did you hear about this?" Chloe almost smiled, just a little lift of one corner of her mouth. "I have a scanner."

"I should have known. Okay, okay, I'll talk to the criminologists." "Do more than talk." "Don't turn this into a religious issue." "It is a religious issue." To Brendan's surprise, Matt Diel actually grinned. "You're still tough as nails."

Her answering smile was chilling. "It's how I get by."


Excerpted from Last Breath , by Rachel Lee . Copyright (c) 2003 by Sue Civil-Brown. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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