A WOMAN'S MOURNFUL CRIES carried through the air harmonizing with the chilly December winds. The large weeping crowd gathered around the grave in north Denver, surrounding Maria Miller as she wept uncontrollably for her five-year-old daughter, murdered, her body discovered in the basement of their home. Her murder was bizarre. Denver was stunned.
Maria's wails sharpened as the tiny casket was lowered to its final resting place. "My baby! Not my baby! Please God, not my baby!" she cried, collapsing into the arms of those who stood near her.
Christina's death had made national headlines. On this blue Monday, even the heavens seemed to weep. Nature surely mourned. Falling snowflakes rested on the petals and leaves of the flowers covering the coffin, frozen teardrops from heaven.
Warnings of a blizzard were on the airwaves. Wind howled through the elm and maple trees, hurling the dead leaves through the air on the unpredictable wings of time. An icy mist hung over the city.
Someone removed the photo of the green-eyed dark haired child from the abundance of flowers covering the coffin, and placed it in Maria's hands. Christina's smile spoke of promise, happiness, and love. Yet there was sadness too -- fear, almost wariness in Christina's eyes. Something was hidden behind little girl's smile. What did Christina know? Police were looking for Stephen, Christina's stepfather, in connection with the crime. He and Maria had divorced a year earlier because of his drinking and newly acquired drug problem. She had noticed his increasing indifference to both the child and her. Maria had tolerated his compulsive drinking and abuse, but under no circumstance would she allow Christina to be exposed to drugs. The day she discovered the used syringe and small bag of crack cocaine hidden behind the commode, she took Christina and walked out. She had served Stephen with divorce papers shortly after. Maria let him visit Christina only when she needed a sitter. Unknown to Maria, Stephen had gone through major changes that drove him to madness, behaviour that affected him both before and after the divorce.
The Thursday following Christina's burial, a butchered body was found in an abandoned building in northwest Denver. Identified as Stephen Miller, the naked body lay face down, arms and legs spread and bound, a white star drawn around his body in chalk. Strangely, he had a pentagram tattooed on his chest. The killer had sodomized him with a wooden implement. Bloody splinters provided the gruesome evidence. Cigarette burn blotches marred his body. His face had been beaten black and blue. Wounds around his wrists and ankles were self-inflicted in his futile attempt to break loose from the ropes that had bound him to the floor. The look of horror in his eyes spoke of his encounter with a brutal death. Maria, although dazed and sedated, smiled when she heard the news of Stephen. It did her heart good to know he had suffered such a death. Perhaps there was justice after all.
IN HER CUBICLE, DETECTIVE Lorrayne Lobato was sitting at her desk, contemplating Christina's death, when her phone rang. She'd been expecting the call. The voice on the other end confirmed what she expected. She took a deep sigh.
On the phone was middle-aged and overweight Edmund Copeland, assigned as the Major Crimes Unit Supervisor. He was sitting at his desk scanning through the Miller case files. He was puzzled to say the least. He had been certain Maria was responsible for Stephen's murder, and wouldn't blame her if she was.
He stood for a moment looking out his fourth-floor office window. The winter wind swept through the downtown skyline, howling mysteriously through the giant glass structures. The city seemed different. Something was out there. He could feel it. Denver was like a time bomb ticking slowly towards uncertainty, the unknown.
Deep in thought, he tapped a pencil nervously. There was a knock on his door. Lobato entered.
"We need to talk," he said, sitting back in his chair.
He resented having to depend on the one individual best suited to take on this case. They'd crossed each other before and the wounds to his ego had not yet healed. But he wanted this case solved before it had a chance to develop into something even worse. And, after all, he didn't want to put his own butt out in the cold.
Lobato walked to his desk. She had a suspicious look in her hazel eyes, her own purple heart from their last encounter.
"Take a look at these," Copeland said, tossing photos of Christina and Stephen across the desk.
She sighed, pushed her dark brown hair away from her forehead, and looked at the photos of the dead girl's body. Her eyes rimmed with tears, then shifted to the pictures of Stephen.
"Looks like a mother's revenge to me. Bastard! Even this was too good for the likes of him."
"That's what I thought," Copeland answered. "But the child's mother was hospitalized and under a twenty-four hour suicide watch when he was killed. There are plenty to back up that story."
"Then an angry relative perhaps." Lobato held her arms tightly across her chest. "We're checking that out. Seems everyone wanted that bastard dead. Whoever did this made sure he felt everything done to him. Those cigarette burns on his body happened minutes apart from each other. Tell me someone out there isn't an expert at this bullshit.
And what kind of tattoo is that for Christ's sake?"
"Here we go again," she said, walking to the window to look out at the State Capitol building in the hazy distance. "It looks like a pentagram."
"Wrong, Lobato. Here you go again! And find out if there's anything behind that tattoo."
"Why me? There were plenty of others around here more capable than I am."
"Looks like you just got another chance to prove yourself. Gather your facts. I think you're going to need them."
The second Lobato had heard his voice on the phone she'd suspected something like this was coming down. In fact, she knew it after hearing about Christina. Lobato doubted the rivalry between Copeland and herself would ever end. Christina's case would be just another opportunity for Copeland to show her up. The one advantage she had was being wise to Copeland's mindset.
"Here are your orders. I'm placing you on special assignment," Copeland said.
She opened the folder, rolling her eyes when she read her husband's name, Detective Ernest Parker, as her partner. She'd kept her last name after marriage.
Leaning over on his desk, he glared straight into her eyes.
"You two seem to be in sync most of the time. Those are orders from Powell. Follow them! Now get out of here and get something done." Mark Powell was the Major Crimes Unit Commander and no one questioned his orders.
He thought of his own children, of what he'd do if it had been one of them. He too would kill. The photos of Christina's battered body, and the thought of what she must have gone through, moved him to tears. For a second, it was his youngest daughter Samantha's body instead of Christina's. A chill swept through his heart, however hardened it could be at times.
Lobato turned on her five-foot-nine-inch frame and walked out. Once more, she'd put one over on Copeland. Had she not challenged his orders to make her husband, Ernest, her partner on this case, he'd have had Powell change them just to spite her. She and Ernest were a good team, both in marriage and work. Back in her cubicle, Lobato picked up the phone.
"Be right there," the voice came back.
He found her seated at her desk, a look in her eyes he'd seen before. He knew his wife.
"Guess what?" She handed him the orders.
The minute news of Christina's death swept through headquarters, he had known that Powell and Copeland would put her on the case. She was the best the police force had to offer, in his humble opinion.
"Does that surprise you?"
"I guess not. He's still trying. He knows this case is going to be hell! Damn, he works my nerves," she said, smiling at the way the sun's rays shone through Ernest's wavy, blond hair. Lobato got up and stepped to a window.
He walked over and placed his hand on her shoulder, gazed at her through his cool, blue eyes.
"You know that's not the real reason. He did it because you're the best. Even though he would never admit it, he knows you're the only one to work on this case. I know it too."
"You're the best," she said.
Ernest wondered what was in store for them this time around. There was nothing he enjoyed more than working side by side with her as her backup. When he thought of their three-year-old daughter, Alberta, he too felt Stephen had gotten what he deserved. They had named Alberta after Lobato's deceased younger brother, Albert.
Albert had been a victim of a serial killer's rampage through Denver's gay community several years back. When she investigated the actual scene of the crime, she was the one who found her brother brutally murdered. Her brother's murder had been one of the major cases Lobato had taken on and solved.
Where to begin was the first question. Lobato held a meeting with the other officers assigned to this case to discuss strategy. Late that afternoon they began their investigation. Her instincts told her questioning family and friends would be a waste of time. With the anger and pain Christina's family felt, she doubted they'd have taken the time, or had the patience, to kill Stephen the way he had been. Somebody had obviously enjoyed his slow death. But orders were orders, and, as usual, Copeland had to have the final word.
The place they hit first was Denver Health Hospital. She wanted to see Maria, who was progressing very slowly. At least she was starting to respond, the nurse said. Once Lobato introduced herself, the nurse led them immediately to Maria's room. She stopped at the doorway.
"I think I should do this alone," Lorrayne said.
"You're probably right. You know what to do if you need me," Ernest replied.
Maria had an IV in her arm and a blank look in her eyes. Was this death leaving its rage behind? She was numb to the world -- to reality. She was pale, the richness of her olive complexion gone. The darkness around her eyes made her face look hollow and tired. She was a shattered woman.
Lobato went to Maria's bedside and placed a hand over hers. No response. She knew then that Maria wouldn't be of help to anyone for a while, not even to herself. Lobato recalled the pain when she had flashes of her own murdered brother. She couldn't help but feel that Stephen's killer deserved a medal. Justice had prevailed, but she knew the system too well, and knew it would end differently, that Stephen's killer would be punished if found. Somehow, it didn't seem fair. Ridding the world of the likes of Stephen and his kind seemed like the right thing to do, no matter who did it.
She tried to converse with Maria but it was like talking to a wall. Nothing she said registered. She wasn't even sure what she would say if Maria did respond. What could anyone say to a mother who had just lost her only child the way Maria had? Perhaps it was best Maria hadn't responded.