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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December 31: DETOURS

      By eleven, they had watched two totally sloppy movies that had them giggling, though they had both watched the same movies at least a dozen times each. They ordered a deluxe pizza to go with their cheese box, and Bekka bought ginger ale to toast the new year. She had her notebook computer and sat on the couch to write, and they had turned the TV so Kat could work at her computer desk and watch whatever happened to be on. They were playing their favorite game of video remote, tossing the remote back and forth, taking turns pressing random buttons and watching whatever appeared long enough to decide if it was interesting, then tossing the remote back again. They awarded points for shows that kept their attention longer than five minutes, and took points away when the channel they landed on was running commercials. They kept a tally of how many times and on how many channels they saw the same commercial played.
Kat decided to make a batch of pineapple cream cheese spread for their crackers and was having trouble with the can opener. Bekka had just stepped into the kitchen to help her, when the apartment door opened and Amy staggered in, loaded down with suitcases.
      "Hey -- is anybody home?"
      Her call brought Bekka and Kat running. Kat held the bowl of cream cheese and the wire whisk, and Bekka had the can of pineapple, half opened, caught in the act of turning the crank.
      "Before you ask," Amy said, dropping dramatically down onto the couch, "Joe and I broke up. Again."
      "What was it this time?" Bekka put the can down on the table and continued opening it.
      "My idiot cousin was bugging us about getting married. It was so stupid!" She started unbuttoning her coat, and paused halfway through to yank off her stocking cap. "We got into this really big fight in front of everybody. Grandma and Grandpa and my parents and my brother and that idiot Pete and his moron wife and their three ugly kids. Yuck! If my kids were ever going to turn out that ugly, I'd get sterilized!" She giggled. "I told Joe just as much, right in front of them. I mean, it was Pete's fault we started fighting, right? It was bad enough Joe had to put up with the whole clan for three days, but to back him into a corner about 'making an honest woman out of me' -- and then he gets all defensive about how we're never together long enough to sleep together..." She groaned and sat up enough to peel out of her coat, then collapsed again into the cushions.
      "In general, men stink, huh?" Kat tried her best to smother the grin she flashed at Bekka.
      "That's why we're together -- so we don't kill them all!" Bekka added. She knew she failed miserably at hiding her own grin.
      It really wasn't funny, she knew, yet it was. The three of them had come home to the apartment for one stupid, unreasonable reason or another. Amy and Joe were constantly breaking up. They had something good under all the schisms, or they wouldn't keep getting back together. Bekka just wished they'd realize that and work together instead of demanding the other change.
      "Are you having a party?" Her frustrated scowl melted into the pitiful look that Bekka suspected was the real girl underneath her bluster and bossiness. "I need one really bad."
      "We were just getting the ginger ale and pineapple spread before the countdown in Times Square started," Kat said. She took the can of pineapple from Bekka and hurried back into the kitchen to drain and mix.
      "Good. I was afraid I'd miss it." Amy struggled out of the couch and dragged her suitcases into her bedroom.
      In fifteen minutes, they were settled in front of the TV set. Amy had changed into sweats and had her plume pen and notepad conveniently placed if inspiration struck. Bekka had the bottle of ginger ale lying in a roaster pan full of ice, and three royal blue plastic champagne flutes lined up in front of her.
      Kat sighed and smiled wearily as she leaned back against the couch. "I'm so glad you both came back. Bekka, how do you stand it when we're not here?"
      "When do you think I do all my writing?" Bekka wrinkled up her nose at them both and reached for a wedge of smoky cheese.
      "I can't stand being alone."
      "I propose a toast," Amy said, gesturing for Bekka to fill the glasses. "To us. To our friendship. The only sure thing in any of our lives. May we always stay together, here for each other, no matter what happens. No matter what men wander through our lives or the lousy parts the General inflicts on us. The three of us, together."
      "Together forever," Bekka echoed, as she passed glasses to Bekka and Amy.
      "Always. The three of us." Kat bowed as elegantly as she could from a sitting position.

      The three touched their glasses together and drank. From the TV came the sound of the countdown from Times Square. As the crowd got to 'five,' the girls put down their glasses and wrapped their arms around each other.

Monday, December 30, 2013

December 30: WHITE ROSES

      "We have a big problem, Angela, starting with the fact that Toni's parents are up front and they don't look too happy to be here." Curt gestured back to her office and let her precede him through the door. It took him less than three minutes to explain what Max had said and what he theorized.
      "You call Toni and I'll take care of the Napolitanos," Angela said.
      Curt would have saluted her if he hadn't been so busy pulling out his cell phone. He wasn't a coward, but he hadn't looked forward to facing Toni's parents. Angela had faced furious politicians who blamed their failure at the polls on the coverage or lack of coverage of their campaigns in the Picayune. She had calmed enraged attendees at City Council meetings. Curt looked up at the sign over the door that Angela had placed there, and thought about that first news story she had ever written for the Picayune, when she was in high school. He didn't give much credence to Eastern philosophies, but there was a sense of something coming full circle in all this trouble with the White Rose Killer and the Napolitanos coming back to Tabor.
      "I am dead," Toni groaned, when Curt got hold of her.
      "You didn't tell them, did you?" He honestly sympathized, but some demented part of his tired brain wanted to laugh at her.
      "They're probably here to pack me up and drag me back to Indiana with them. No, I did not tell them. Half our photo albums are locked away, because they don't want to look at pictures of Angel. What would ever make me think my parents could handle it if I told them not only had I returned to Tabor to work, but I was helping hunt down Angel's murderer?" Her breath hissed through the speaker on the phone. "Okay, I'm on my way in. Thanks for the warning. You are the best pal in the world."
      "Well, not totally my idea. Max ran interference," he offered with a chuckle. "And Angela's getting to work on fire control."
      "I knew I should have gotten her something big for Christmas."
      "Just get in here as fast as you can and face it, okay? And remember, you're a legal adult. They can't make you go with them."
      "That's what you think. I'm still ten years old, when it comes to my parents. On my way." Toni sighed and cut the connection before Curt could respond.
      That was probably the problem, he reflected, as he turned off his phone, jammed it in his back pocket and headed for the front of the office to lend his support to Angela. Time had stopped for the Napolitanos when Angel was killed.

      The last time Curt had talked to Toni's parents, it had been in the police station when he had repeated for the investigators exactly what happened the day he found Angel's body in the park. Now would be just as strained a situation. Curt vowed he would convince the Napolitanos that he could protect the one daughter they had left. There was symmetry in here, somewhere, but he was just too tired to figure it out completely.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

December 29: WHITE ROSES

     "Nice," Toni said, when they had settled in the living room.
     Curt stifled a snort of laughter. He shared one of the small sofas -- why did girls insist on calling two-seaters love seats, anyway? -- with Toni while Xander shared the other with Hannah. They set up their food on TV trays. Now all they needed was to turn the TV on and watch a football game, or maybe play some word game. Any casual observer would think they were two couples on a date.
     If he had eaten anything, Curt thought he might have just choked on it at that point. Dating? Him?
     But why not? Especially if it was Toni.
     "I remember walking by these houses on my way to school, thinking how cool it would be to live in one of them, above a store." Toni's smile grew strained. She glanced at Curt and nodded. He guessed immediately she wanted him to take over the conversation.
     "Oh, no you don't, Lois Lane. You're the one who pushed for this meeting. It's your show." Curt nodded for emphasis, then picked up his tuna deluxe and took a big bite.
     "Coward." She looked down at her clasped hands for a moment, then picked up her salad fork and fumbled it, nearly dropping it on the floor.
     "Curt said he had a theory about the White Rose, about a murder a long time ago," Xander said.
     "Yeah." Toni let out a long, gusting sigh. "If he's right... heck, I know he's right. The clues, everything that happened is so similar it gives me chills. Makes me want to string up the guy and use him for target practice, with very dull table knives." She offered a grimace, took another deep breath. "You probably think I'm not quite there."
     "Nah," Curt said. "They're used to me, taking off at a completely different angle from everything else. These leaps of intuition, it's an occupational hazard."
     Toni groaned and elbowed Curt. He pretended to be deeply wounded and had to bite his lip to hide his grin. He would take a dozen bruises from Toni if it would help keep her from sliding into that darkness hovering at the back of her eyes.
     "Could you tell me what you know, your impressions of the White Rose, first?" Toni said. "I've read the police reports that are public, and what Curt put in the paper, and his notes for things that he's agreed not to put in the paper yet. But I'd like to get it from you, too."
     Curt was impressed at how logically Hannah arranged the sequence of events, her memories of when she heard the latest bits of news, what she remembered other people saying or their reactions to the stalking and then deaths of the three known victims. Xander offered his ideas, but left most of the talking to her. In a sense, it really was Hannah's story more than anyone else's in the room. For now, anyway. Curt shivered, wondering what their reactions would be when they heard Toni's side of the story.
     "Okay." Toni toyed with her salad as she talked. "If Curt is right, my big sister was the first victim of the White Rose, almost twenty years ago." She paused a moment, took a deep breath, and then a sip from her glass of water. "Angel was ten when we moved to Tabor. I was seven."
     "Angel?" Hannah's voice sounded strained.

     Curt didn't blame her. He hadn't trusted his first nebulous theories about the White Rose until he actually saw some of the love notes sent to the victims. In several, the murderer referred to them as his angel. After that, the connection was blindingly obvious.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

December 28: DETOURS

     Shane called the Sandersons three times, leaving messages for Bekka. He finally reached them at home, the Saturday before he was to head back to school. He still hadn't made his mind up on the job offer, and that made him cranky, but he tried to be polite despite wanting to reach through the phone and throttle the Sandersons.
     "Didn't she call you? She said she would," Mrs. Sanderson said, after Shane identified himself and mentioned the messages he had left. "I can't understand what's wrong with the girl. Especially with a nice, clean-cut boy like you interested in her."
     "Not really interested. I'm just..." Shane sighed. Trix had gone out to Denver the day after he left for Florida -- and that was a point in favor of going back to school -- but if her nebulous business didn't work out, she might come back to Cleveland to stay. What was his reason for calling Bekka, when she hadn't returned his calls? Why should he chase Bekka, when he suspected Trix might be a responsibility God had sent his way?
     Unless Bekka hadn't received any of his messages? For all he knew, she had been there in the apartment the whole time, and her grandparents never told her about his visit. For all he knew, she thought he had forgotten about their plans to go to Epcot.
     Those unopened presents, sitting under the tree that day, kept sticking in his thoughts.
     "I just thought it would be nice to spend time with a familiar face. I'll have to look for her when I get back to school."
     "That would be very nice. She needs a nice, sensible young man like you. Are you a history major, or an education major?"
     "What?"
     "You have a good future ahead of you. What that girl needs is to get married, settle down, and concentrate on something worthwhile, like having some children."
     "Umm, thanks. I'll... umm, let Bekka know I called again, would you?" Shane hung up as soon as he could, and found his hands were shaking.
     Marriage? What was Bekka telling her grandparents about him? Maybe he wouldn't look for Bekka when he got back to school. Especially if she was talking about marriage. Whatever was wrong with her grandparents, maybe she had inherited it.

     Too bad. She was just as crazy as all the other girls who had interested him. As soon as he made sure Trix was taken care of, Shane seriously considered taking a vow of celibacy.

Friday, December 27, 2013

December 27: COMMON GROUNDS

     "Something strange is going on at the office," Colson said, almost before he crossed the threshold into Chief Cooper's office that morning.
     "He finally noticed?" Donovan muttered, just loudly enough for Xander to hear. The two men exchanged strained grins, then schooled their faces into calm concern.
     Dr. Holwood had joined them for this conference, as a representative of Butler-Williams University, and because he had been student advisor to White Rose target number four, aka Tracy Brickman.
     They certainly couldn't call the poor girl victim number four, because she hadn't been kidnapped or killed. Had she? Xander had a sudden urge to demand Donovan call the girl and make sure she was all right and had enjoyed a peaceful Christmas with her family.
     "What do you mean by strange?" Chief Cooper asked as the other lawyer settled down in the last of the five chairs spaced around his desk.
     "I didn't think Mr. Montgomery even knew I met Hannah for dinner last week, but he made a remark yesterday about my date with the enemy." Colson flashed a thin smile at Hannah, turning the sting of the words into something almost humorous. "Then, he started talking about what a hard worker she is. He actually said he admired her dedication to helping the innocent, even if her venue was badly chosen." He rolled his eyes and shrugged when he met Xander's gaze. "Then he said he hoped she wouldn't get hurt by the White Rose."
     "Like he believes she's not being stalked by a copycat?" Donovan said. "Or he merely wants you to think that's what he believes?"
     "Please don't go into that," Hannah said with a breathy attempt at a chuckle. "It's too early in the morning to turn our brains into knots.
     "Al, did Montgomery see the note you got from the alleged White Rose?" Xander asked.
     "Not that I know of, why?"
     Xander repeated what he could recall of his phone conversation with Montgomery, and the words that echoed what had been in Colson's alleged note from the White Rose Killer. The others batted around theories, speculating on Montgomery's normal speech patterns and the odds of him choosing those words out of thin air. He refused to let himself hope this early in the game, but Xander still felt a thrill of excitement. If they could prove Montgomery was behind the fake notes, the white rose, even the fire, they could put him out of business just like he tried to put Common Grounds out of business.
     I'm acting like him, Xander realized with a jolt. I'm starting to think like him, and justify my actions like he does. He could actually feel the blood leave his face in shock. When had he gained such a vindictive streak? If he gave in to it, he would be just as bad as Montgomery, justifying every nasty thing he said or did in the name of justice and truth. But would it be justice or truth if he tried to force the world into his mold?

That was what made Montgomery such an unpleasant soul. Did Xander really want to follow in his footsteps?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

December 26: DETOURS

      "Is Bekka here?" Shane kept the smile on his face, despite the shiver that raced up his spine when Mr. Sanderson gave him a confused look that quickly turned to a frown. Maybe the man didn't remember him from Sunday in the church parking lot? "I'm Shane Hopkins, a friend of Bekka's from school."
      "I remember you. What do you want to see her for?"
      "Ahhh, we had plans to hit Epcot today."
      "Funny, she didn't mention it." Again, that confused look.
      Shane wondered if that wasn't actually confused, but maybe... embarrassed? What could get the old guy embarrassed?
      "What's going on? What does he want?" a female voice snapped. That definitely wasn't Bekka. The door opened winder, and Mrs. Sanderson stood there, peering up at him, her mouth wrinkled up like she'd been sucking on rotten lemons. "Who are you? What are you bothering us for at this time of the morning?"
      "This is Rebekah's friend from school. Remember? They had plans to go to the park," her husband said.
      "Oh. That's right." She looked almost frightened.
      Shane glimpsed a wrapped present sitting under the little Christmas tree on a table in the hallway behind them. Simple green paper with a red ribbon, and a big tag hanging off it that read 'Rebekah.' There was another box right next to it, and he shifted sideways, ignoring the muttering between the two Sandersons as he read the label on the second present. Also for Rebekah.
      Bekka didn't open her Christmas presents yet?
      "When's Bekka coming back?" he asked, and realized a second after he spoke that they had both been muttering and stammering, saying anything except to admit she wasn't there.
      "She didn't say. Most thoughtless, self-centered--" Mrs. Sanderson flinched, standing up a little straighter, when her husband nudged her. Again, that look that Shane definitely interpreted as embarrassed.
      "Where did she go?"
      "Not really sure." Mr. Sanderson shook his head. "I'll tell her to call you when she gets back, all right?"
      "Yeah, right, sounds good." Shane suspected it was wasted effort, but he pulled a slim notepad out of his back pocket and scribbled his name and his aunt's phone number on it. "I'd really like to spend some time with her while she's down here." He handed the paper to Mr. Sanderson, having a sudden image of his wife tearing up the paper the moment the door closed behind him.
      Neither one of them said they would give Bekka the message, hemming and hawing and nodding to him. Shane thanked them and fought not to look over his shoulder as he headed for the elevator. What was going on there? Those had to be Bekka's Christmas presents, and just judging from his first impressions of her grandparents, probably the only presents she was going to get. So why hadn't she opened them?
      It occurred to him, when he reached his motorcycle and unhooked the helmet to put it on, that Bekka probably didn't want to see him. She had his number. She should have left a message for him, at the very least to tell him not to come by. Somehow, he had a hard time believing that she had completely forgotten about their plans to go to the amusement park.
      So what was going on?

      He was halfway back to his aunt's place before he realized that he had hoped to talk with Bekka about him staying here, instead of going back to BWU next semester. What kind of an idiot was he, caring about her opinion, when she obviously didn't want to see him and couldn't be bothered to call and tell him she changed her mind about going to the park?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

December 25: WHITE ROSES

     "What are you doing up there, dear?" Mrs. Napolitano called, her voice echoing off the steep stairs to the attic. Toni started to stand up and banged her head on the joists of the attic. She muffled a hiss of pain, rubbed her head and went back down to her knees in front of the fifty-gallon plastic storage bin. At least she had missed the nails sticking through the plywood.
     "Just checking if there's anything I forgot when I moved out, Mom!" Toni called. She groaned as she looked at all the yearbooks and scrapbooks and other pieces of memorabilia she had pulled out of the box while she ransacked it.
     She could almost cry. For a while there, Toni had been sure she was mistaken and her parents hadn't destroyed everything that reminded them of those two short years in Tabor Heights. Unfortunately, she couldn't even find the yearbook that Angel had refused to let anyone look at. She had hoped against hope that she would find a love note from the mysterious boyfriend, and maybe she could compare it with the yearbooks Curt had been able to scrounge from people in the classes before and after the grade he and Angel shared. With that bit of handwriting to compare, it might help them identify the White Rose.
But no such luck.
     "Face it, kid," she muttered as she started piling all the books and papers back into the bin. "Lucky breaks like this only happen in the movies."
     "I'm going to pack you something to eat on the way, is that all right?" her mother called up the attic stairs again.
     "Sounds good!" Toni looked around the attic once more.
     The narrow, chilly space wasn't as neatly arranged as her parents had kept it. Then again, it wasn't nearly as dust-covered as it had been. She swore she had ransacked every single box and crate. She hadn't had to lie too much to her parents, fortunately, because she had found a few things she wanted to take back to Tabor Heights for her cottage. Some dishes, a framed photo collage, an old table she was able to fit into her back seat once the legs were taken off. The bits she had found to help in the search for the White Rose Killer wouldn't be noticed among all the other things she had taken.
     She dreaded the six-hour drive back to Tabor, yet at the same time, she couldn't wait to get on the road. It wasn't that she wanted to get away from her parents, but that she couldn't wait to see Curt again.
     "Just to compare notes. Just to show him what I found," she told the dusty attic, and emphasized her words by snapping the lid shut on the plastic bin.
     Toni refused to be silly and pathetic and hope for some connection between her and Curt, once the White Rose had been caught and unmasked. She had promised to leave town once they finally had justice, for Angel, Annalee, the Butler-Williams student who wasn't coming back for second semester, and all the other girls the White Rose had terrorized. The satisfaction they felt would probably be the only emotion she and Curt would ever share. They would be friends, yes, but Toni had heard what other people thought of Curt Mehdlang by now, and she knew she was better off not hoping. He was a confirmed bachelor, too busy with his job as a reporter and helping with summer youth sports to have much of a personal life. Of the three Mehdlang brothers, he was the least likely to ever pursue a girl, much less ask her to marry him.

     "Don't be stupid," she scolded herself under her breath, as she stopped at the top of the steps and pulled the attic door shut. "If you even think the M-word, he'll know it and take off running."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve ......

December 24: THE SECOND TIME AROUND

     "Please, Lord, bless Lyn and Kat," Daniel whispered as the strains of Silent Night filtered through the sanctuary and the golden glow from dozens of tiny white candles grew to hundreds as the flames passed from one worshipper to another.
     He loved the candlelight service on Christmas Eve almost more than any other celebration of the church year. This year, however, Daniel felt a near-tears ache of wistful longing. How wonderful it would be if he could share the service with Lynette and their daughter. His regret had a jagged edge as he thought of all the missed years of filling stockings for Kat and telling her stories and tucking her into bed. Playing favorite uncle for Candy and Chad had been soothing, but never filled the empty ache.
     He glanced down the row at his cousins. Abby sat next to him, dark hair cut short and swept back in that severe style that just made her look more pixie-ish. Ten-year-old Candy sat next to her, sitting still for the first time since the service started, looking so dressed up in her burgundy velvet, lace-trimmed dress. Nine-year-old Chad next to Candy, tugging on his tie to loosen it for the thousandth time that evening. And Al at the end of the row, his linebacker body slumped in the pew. He looked weary and cold from a long day towing stranded cars out of ditches and coaxing recalcitrant engines to start in this cold weather.
     Al was a good man. He and Abby and their parents had helped Daniel through the pain of losing Lynette. Daniel wished Al's wife, Bethany, were still alive to fuss over his daughter when the day finally came to introduce her to his family. He wished Kat could meet her cousins tonight. There was so much they had all missed.
     Not that he missed the trauma of Kat taking driving lessons, or going on her first date. But he hadn't seen her prom dress or held her while she cried over her first broken heart.
     Please, he repeated silently. Please, Lord, I believe You've given us a second chance to be a family. You've given me my daughter, finally, after all these years not even knowing if she existed. I have to believe... A wry chuckle escaped him. Lord, we need a miracle. We don't have a chance with Mike Tyler around. And I don't really wish the man harm, Lord, but he needs to be dropped off the Terminal Tower a couple dozen times. You're going to have to do something about him. But if You don't, Lord, I'm going to trust You. It's all I can do. Even if it's killing me.
     At the front of the sanctuary, Pastor Glenn raised the four-inch-wide gold candle high, and the congregation raised their tiny candles. The arched ceiling blazed golden with light.
     "So let your light shine, the light of Jesus' birth and life and death and resurrection," the gray-haired, stocky minister called out, his voice joyful and ringing.
     The congregation responded with an 'amen' like a roar.
     In unison, with the practice of dozens of years of the ritual, the people lowered their candles and blew out the flames. As tiny spirals of candle smoke twisted up toward the ceiling, the golden lights of the sanctuary came back on. Joy to the World blasted from the organ as the congregation slowly dispersed. Daniel grinned, imagining the unseen organist jamming on the staid old instrument, dancing in her seat as much as a proper, dignified church organist could ever do.
     "See you at the house?" Joel Randolph said, leaning forward from the pew behind him to tap Daniel's shoulder.
     "Wouldn't miss it." Daniel grinned and turned to exchange smiles, nods and greetings with the Randolph family: Joel, his wife Emily, their daughter Max -- as dark in hair and eyes as Joel, and their sons, Joe and Jeremy -- as golden blond and gray-eyed as their mother. For the past ten years, he had spent Christmas Eve with the Randolphs and Christmas Day with his cousins. It wouldn't be Christmas anywhere else or any other way.

     Maybe next year, Lord, I'll bring Lyn and Kat... or we can invite the Randolphs to be with us?

Monday, December 23, 2013

December 23: COMMON GROUNDS

      Xander wasted ten minutes trying to reach Hannah after getting the call from the police. He closed his eyes, refusing to give in to the sensation of panic. Why wouldn't she pick up her cell phone? He took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and saw the blinking message light on his phone. Hope wiped away the panic as he pressed the code to play the messages. How long had that light been blinking, and he hadn't noticed it?
      "Xander? How come you aren't at work yet?" Hannah asked, with a breathy chuckle at the back of her voice.
      He flinched, wondering if that was frightened, nervous laughter or she was in the middle of something strenuous when she called. Why didn't he know more about what Hannah would do when she wasn't at work? He felt like he had been going through life with blinders and earmuffs on, only guessing at the lives the people around him led when they left the office or the courtroom.
      "I'm going to the gym with Rene. Might as well start working off all this holiday eating before it even starts, right? Then we're going shopping at Kingsbury Mall. Rene's father is meeting us for lunch. We should be fine, so don't start worrying. I'll check in with you before we do anything else. Have a nice day ¾ and thanks for making me take a day off work." The breathless tone changed to something warm. "I really needed it. You're the best, Boss Man."
      Xander slowly shook his head and didn't fight the grin creeping across his face. If he had thought to check his messages when he came in, he wouldn't have gone halfway to a heart attack now, would he?
      But that still didn't answer the question of why Hannah didn't answer her cell phone. She knew better than to leave it at home now, of all times.
      "Hi."
      For a moment, Xander thought the message was still running on the machine. Then he raised his eyes and saw Hannah standing in the door of his cubicle. She wore jeans and a black vest jacket with the snowflakes along the hem. Her cheeks were red with cold and she held out her cell phone.
      "Were you trying to get hold of me?"
      "Why didn't you answer?" He stayed seated, when what he wanted to do was leap out of his chair and either hug her or shake her for scaring him.
      "Because we were sitting in traffic, and I knew we'd be here in a few minutes anyway." She settled down in the chair facing his desk.
      "We?"
      "Rene and her dad and me. What's up?"
      "They caught our firebug."
      "But¾"
      "But what?" Xander tried to smile. Now that his worry for Hannah had evaporated, other problematic details grew more insistent in his thoughts.
      "You don't sound as happy as I'd expect you to."
      "Chucky Timkin." He sat back and waited for her to make the connection.
      It only took a few seconds for Hannah's eyes to widen and a small sound of disappointment to escape her. It had taken him nearly twice as long to place the name and remember the case file it belonged to.

      Chucky Timkin was already a client of Common Grounds. Pro bono, because the young man had no money and his only relative, an aunt, lived on Welfare and the weekly delivery from the Food Cupboard ministry at the Mission.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

December 22: COMMON GROUNDS

      "You really think he's going to come after me in the church parking lot?" Hannah said, uncertain whether to laugh or snarl.
      She stood at the end of the driveway between her apartment house and the next house with her Bible clutched against the front of her pine-green wool coat and her purse hanging from her shoulder. Xander's car waited in the street, blocking access to the driveway. He stayed there with his hand on the open passenger door and just looked at her.
      "Or on the way to church," he finally said. "Or in the bathroom. Remember Taylor's theory?"
      "You really think a woman like that would even come through the front door? Pastor Glenn is very vocal about what the Bible says about ¾" Hannah sighed, giving up, and walked the last three steps to Xander's car. "It's nearly Christmas."
      "That doesn't stop some lunatics. The fact that it's the holidays gives a lot of them justification for being especially nasty. If they're alone and miserable, why keep it to themselves?"
      "You know, the White Rose is going to think you're trying to defile me." She slid into the passenger seat.
      "I've given you and Rene plenty of rides to church on snowy days, it's habit. Speaking of Rene¾"
      "Her father got to town early. He picked her up for breakfast before church."
      "And you were just going to walk all by yourself?" Xander let out a sigh that was part groan.
      Somehow, that set Hannah laughing. She tried to muffle it, so it came out a snort, which made her laugh harder. Xander glared at her for a few seconds after he got into the car, until a smile inched partially across his face. He shook his head, slammed the car into gear, and drove the few blocks down Main to the Triangle, turned left, then left again on Church and took the first driveway entrance to their church's parking lot.
      "I was planning on walking with the Holwoods," Hannah finally said. "Who would try to stop me during a one block walk? It'd be smarter to try to ambush me further down the street. By those big bushes or from behind the sign."
      She gestured down the street to the furthest parking lot entrance, where the church sign hung mounted on a low brick wall, flanked on either end by thick pines. On the other side of the driveway were more pines and some thick bushes that looked positively black in the early morning brilliance off the snow.
      "Okay, so you weren't being unusually courageous." Xander shrugged and turned off the engine.
      "Or brainless?" She batted her eyelashes at him until he smiled.
      "Optimistic. Just because Sunday is sacred to you doesn't mean..." He shook his head and unlocked the door.
      Nothing in the world would persuade Hannah to tell Xander just how much she appreciated him stopping by and worrying about her. How warm it made her feel to know he was worried. It would embarrass him, and she might just make a fool of herself, presuming on a nonexistent depth to their friendship. When the crisis was over, the White Rose Killer or the copycat caught, they would go back to their friendly partnership. Just like after the last crisis.
      Partners. That was all they would ever be to each other.
      Once again, Hannah prayed for the serenity to accept what she could have and be grateful, so hunger for what she couldn't have would not poison it.
      Xander caught hold of her arm after only a few steps across the parking lot.
      "What will the White Rose think?" she asked under her breath.
      "That I'm keeping his angel from falling on the ice and breaking her neck." He gestured at the blacktop before them, then stepped sideways to lead her around it. The change of angle revealed black ice, just dull enough with a dusting of snow and ice melt crystals ¾ ineffective in the lower temperatures ¾ to be nearly invisible.
      They said nothing during the remainder of the walk to the back door. Xander didn't let go of her arm until they were inside and hanging up their coats in the first hallway outside the fellowship hall. He stayed by her side as they went in, searching for coffee. Hannah wondered what he would have done if the double doors into the hall were closed. Would he have made her wait until he went through first and checked out the premises?
      You're being silly, she scolded herself.
      They often sat together in church, so Hannah doubted anyone would remark on it today. Unless of course the White Rose had never entered their church before, and attended today just to keep an eye on her.
      Hannah mentally slapped herself for giving in to those fears. Hadn't she prayed hard enough last night?    What had happened to that peace she thought she had found, after what seemed like hours of praying and studying her Bible?

      The problem was, she enjoyed Xander's attentiveness. Maybe she felt guilty over the cause of it, or the fact that she enjoyed, just a little bit, the danger and new attention paid to her?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

December 21: DETOURS

      Her grandparents stayed behind the barrier while Bekka went to the conveyer belt line that flashed her flight number.
      "Third degree, huh?" Shane said, stepping up next to her. He grinned and nodded over his shoulder in the general direction of her grandparents.
      "They love me, they just... don't understand me." There was no way she was going to go into even a minimal explanation for him. Not at this time of night -- or was it morning? "How much did you hear?"
      "Enough. So, what church do you go to back at school?"
      "Church?" She blanked. What made him ask that? Then she thought about what her grandmother had said. Sure, Shane had to conclude she went to church. "Tabor Christian. It's up on--"
      "Yeah, I know where it is. Small world, huh?"
      "Excuse me?" Maybe she really was sleepwalking.
      "I go there when I'm not working the midnight shift on Saturdays. Here's my gear." He dropped his duffle and reached for a suitcase that looked like it had been through a war. Zippers were held together with industrial strength safety pins, the entire bag wound with half a dozen wraps of twine, and what looked like two garment bags attached to the entire conglomeration. Four tiny, wholly inadequate-looking wheels stuck out the bottom. It made Bekka think of a very broken-down R2D2 unit trying to carry too much luggage.
Then her bag came around and she stepped away to snatch it up. When she turned around, Shane was already at the little gate, showing his baggage tag and ticket to the uniformed attendant. He looked back, waved to her, and stepped through. Bekka waved and suddenly felt too tired to move. She had to, though. She couldn't expect her grandparents to help out, even if it was to carry her computer bag and backpack.
      "Who was that?" Grandma wanted to know as they stepped away from the gate.
      "Shane... Sorry, I'm too tired to remember his last name."
      "You let a stranger pick you up on the plane? Rebekah Joanne Sanderson--"
      "He goes to BWU, Grandma. We had a history class together." No way was she going to mention it was theater history.
      "Oh. Well. History." Grandpa nodded and looked down the concourse, where Shane was already little more than a stick figure about to vanish around a corner. "Clean cut young man. What are his prospects?"
      "Oh for pete's... Grandpa, Shane is more interested in Kat than me."
      "What does that little tramp have that you don't?" Grandma blurted.
      "Hold it!" Bekka didn't care who stared at them. She stopped short and let her suitcase hit the floor with a bang. "Kat is not a tramp."
      "She doesn't have a steady boyfriend." She sniffed, her mouth flattening in distaste.
      "Neither do I. Does that make me a tramp?" Bekka pressed on. "She doesn't date a guy more than twice. She doesn't even kiss one tenth of the guys who take her out. How does that make her a tramp? Sounds more like she's a nun."
      "Rebecca--"
      "I'm too tired to be polite. If you can't promise to be quiet about my friends, I'm staying here and taking the next plane back to Ohio."
      "It would be nice if you had some Christian friends," her grandfather grumbled. Neither of her grandparents would look at her -- but they seemed more ashamed than irritated, Bekka noted. That was a good sign. Points for her cause. Maybe their new church and new friends were having a good influence on them.
      "I do have Christian friends. Lots of them."
      "That flighty girl in the singing group -- and that foster child of the Holwoods', who ran away. Fine friends."
      "They go to church, don't they?" Bekka shook her head and continued. "But they don't need me like Amy and Kat do. Maybe the apartment is my mission field. Do I have your promise you won't talk about them, since you can't say anything nice about them?" She waited, prepared to head back down the concourse to the ticket counter. Her grandparents were just stubborn enough to get their feelings hurt and tell her to go ahead, ruin her Christmas break, waste the money she had spent on the tickets, and go back to Ohio.
      "I promise," Grandpa finally said. He looked at Grandma, and she nodded, murmuring a 'promise,' Bekka could barely hear.

      "Good. Thanks. That means a lot to me." Bekka picked up her suitcase and gestured down the concourse again. At least her Christmas vacation would be quiet, in terms of Kat and Amy.

Friday, December 20, 2013

December 20: WHITE ROSES

      Toni was in the circulation office, chatting with Marty Sykes, when she heard a crash from the newsroom. She hurried down the hall, her heart in her throat. One of these days, her overactive imagination was going to get her in trouble. For just a second, she had a clear image of a man dressed all in black, breaking into the newspaper office through the back window and attacking everyone, to punish them for the stories they had written about the White Rose Killer.
      Curt was alone and there was a new dent in the side of the filing cabinet standing at the end of their desks. He hunched over, but his face showed anger more than pain.
      "What did the filing cabinet do this time?" she blurted to distract him, just in case he wanted to attack the innocent piece of furniture again.
      Curt stared at her a moment, but he didn't laugh. He swore, making Toni jump.
      "What happened?" Gut instinct guided her to reach for his hand. It wouldn't be safe to wrap her arms around him, but touching would help, wouldn't it?
      "You just heard, didn't you?" Angela said, coming out of her office. The angry sparks in her eyes matched Curt's fury. The three of them were the only reporters left in the office. Toni had the feeling she was going to be glad for that in a minute.
      "Okay, could someone let me know what's going on?" she demanded.
      "Hannah Blake got a white rose yesterday," she answered after a long pause, when Curt sank into his desk chair and raised his fist for a moment as if he would pound something else.
      "No." Toni thought she would throw up, but settled for finding her own chair and sitting down.
      "The thing is, Donovan thinks it's a copycat," Curt said.
      "What?"
      It took very little time for Angela and Curt, taking turns, to tell Toni about the Butler-Williams University student who had received several white roses and kept silent, fleeing home in terror. Then they compared what little the police and university officials knew to what had happened when Hannah and Xander came to the police station with the white rose and threatening note she had received. But in that short time, Toni felt as if everything had been turned sideways.
      "Why would someone be so sick as to play games like this? I'm not talking about the White Rose," she hurried to clarify. "Whoever is pretending to be him, that guy is even more sick. I hope it's a copycat going after Hannah."
      "Why?" Angela said. She settled down on the edge of Sherwood's desk, which sat against the opposite wall.
      "Because if the college girl is the White Rose's target, he won't realize she's gone until January. That's a few weeks that the next girl is safe from him."
      "And that's more time for us to narrow down who the White Rose could be," Curt said, nodding. He managed a tired smile. "But until then, we have to worry what the copycat might do next to Hannah."
      "I don't suppose she could go away to a safe house?"
      "No." Angela shook her head. "Hannah isn't the type of girl to give up and take the easy way out."
      "Tell me about it." Curt's smile warmed a little more. "She's been waiting for Xander to wake up and see she's there for -- what? Three years now? She hasn't given up on him, so why run away when some loony is sending her nasty love notes?"

      "I think I'd like to meet Hannah," Toni mused.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

December 19: COMMON GROUNDS

      "Distraction," Xander said slowly, after Hannah reached him at the office and spilled her theory. "Makes sense. I'll call the Chief. Maybe I should call Joan and ask if anyone has run into any really nasty trouble lately that would send someone out on a vengeance quest."
      "Do they do that a lot?"
      "When you fight the forces of evil in high places…" He sighed, and it was a nearly musical sound over the phone. "How are you doing? I assume it's been quiet enough to give you time to think of things like that."
      "I'm calming down. Enough to think of all the work that didn't get done today because you were holding my hand."
      "Hey, I like holding your hand. I don't like thinking of you facing all that alone. Or something happening because I was too busy somewhere else," he added with a slight growl in his voice. "Donovan called a little while ago to ask for your cell number. They're putting together a schedule for surveillance, and he's going to want to do a walk-through of your building, to look for weak spots, hidden places, that sort of thing. He'll be calling you to let you know when he's on his way over."
      "Good. Otherwise I might see an intruder and attack him with a can of paint." To her surprise, jagged laughter spilled out of her. It sounded almost normal, and she actually felt a brightening in the atmosphere. Like a storm that cleared the electrical charge in the air.
      "Remember what we decided. No going anywhere alone or without telling someone where you're going and when you'll be back. And no going out after dark without an escort or two."
      "My life is going to be so boring."
      "Better a boring life than — well, let's hope you're right, and it's just Montgomery descending into his second childhood and trying to scare us out of Tabor."
      "How do we prove it? That's the problem." Hannah closed her eyes, fighting the dizzy sensation that came over her when her mind filled in Xander's unspoken words. Better a boring life than no life at all.
      "Hey, you're the organizational genius who keeps my life from falling apart, and I'm Sherlock Holmes, remember? You just concentrate on having fun with the office and let me watch your back, okay?" he said, with a definite teasing growl in his voice.
      "Okay." She had to smile.
      Well, at least Xander was paying more attention to her, even if it was just her back.
      "That's my Hannah. What time is dinner?"
      "Dinner?"
      "Hey, don't muzzle the ox that treads the grain, the workman is worthy of his hire, and the watchdog earns his chow. Or something like that."
      "That's not in the Bible!" she sputtered, and another cleansing burst of laughter escaped her.
      "Didn't say it was. Come on, Hannah, save me from stale bread and goose liver for dinner."
      "Yuck, is that all you have at home?" Hannah caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of her eye and turned to see Maggie stomping up the steps to the front door. "Haven't you seen enough of me today?"
      "Considering somebody threatened to keep anybody from ever seeing you again… I don't think I can see you enough." Xander's voice went scratchy. He cleared his throat.
      Hannah had an instant image of him sitting at his desk, his feet up on the paper-covered surface, with his shoes off. Probably wearing those awful plaid socks. She imagined him rubbing at his eyes, hiding any hint of sentimentality.
      Fear for her.
      It was a step in the right direction, wasn't it?
      Should she be grateful for this terror in her life, if it made Xander notice and value her more than usual?         "Everything works together for good," she whispered.
      "What was that?"
      "Nothing. How does toasted cheese and salad and chili sound to you?"
      "Heaven. Or the next best thing." Someone spoke close to Xander's desk, and by the sound Hannah thought it might be Walter. "Look, I gotta go. I'll meet you at the office and walk you back to your place about five-ish?"
      "Rene's meeting me, and it'll still be light enough out we can walk twenty steps down the sidewalk. The lights will be on at the theater and it'll be rush hour, so we'll have plenty of witnesses if somebody tries something," she hurried to add.
      "Smart alec," he growled. "Don't let anybody in there without five forms of identification and a police escort, hear me?"
      "Seig heil, mein Fuhrer."
      Xander's snort of laughter hit just before the connection broke. Hannah sighed, grinning wider than she thought she could ever grin again. What would she ever do without him?

      "Thank you, Lord, for sending him into my life," she whispered as she switched her phone to standby and turned to go back to her painting.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

December 18: COMMON GROUNDS

      He got the idea just as he fished out his car keys, one-handed, and handed them to Hannah, to unlock the back door. Xander turned it over in his head for a few seconds, liking it more with each examination.
      "How about we meet for dessert after your class?" he said once everything was loaded in his back seat. "We can celebrate your acing the exam. It's Dr. Holwood and you love his classes, so you're sure to pass."
      "I know." Between the shadows of the parking lot and the chill wind, it was hard to tell if she was blushing or her cheeks were just cold. "I didn't think you paid that much attention."
      "Everything you do is important, Hannah. Don't sell yourself short. My entire life would be in ruins if you walked out." Xander forced a chuckle. His lips felt slightly scalded from letting out that confession. What had possessed him to say that? "So," he continued, trying for a light tone, "that's your official notice that you are stuck working at Common Grounds for the rest of your life. Got it?"
      "Got it." Her nod was a little jerky, along with her voice. She definitely blushed now.
      Xander didn't know why that made him feel so good. What was wrong with him? He could read juries and witnesses with a skill that might have come directly from God, but he couldn't understand himself or someone who was becoming very important to him.
      "So, what about dessert?"
      "Can't." She took a few steps backwards toward her car. "I'm — ah — well, I actually have a date."
      "A date?" He winced, hating the shock in his voice.
      Of course she had a date. Hannah probably had offers to go out three or four times a week. She was beautiful, she was smart, she had a good sense of humor, and she was 'real,' as his mother would say. What man in his right mind would pass up the chance to spend time with her?
      Xander's stomach dropped down to his shoes. Maybe this was what the blind man felt like when Jesus smeared mud on his eyes and told him to wash. A little ridiculous, and blinded by the sudden brilliance that filled his head.
      "Anybody I know?" he continued, and coughed, praying she would think his voice had cracked because of an oncoming cold.
      "I don't know. Al Colson? He's in my class. We were going to go out for dinner tonight to celebrate surviving, but since the class was postponed until tonight, it'll probably be just coffee somewhere."
      "Colson." Xander started to shake his head.

      He thought his heart would stop as an image flashed into his mind: a long, golden-tanned face and hard planes that gave new definition to 'chiseled features', Granite-gray eyes, movie star perfect golden hair that never mussed even when it dripped with sweat after a hard game of basketball. He had played Colson more times than he could count in the basketball league formed of young lawyers and paralegals throughout the county. Colson stood five inches taller than Xander, and sometimes it seemed like the ball was attached to his hands with invisible elastic rope. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

December 17: WHITE ROSES

      When he drove past the dormitory that afternoon, following the schedule he had made to ensure the safety of his angel, he saw her come out the door. Then he saw the suitcases in her hands. She hurried to her car and tossed the suitcases in the back seat, then hurried back inside, but left the car door hanging open.
      He frowned, confused. He was positive she didn't plan to head home until tomorrow. He had heard her talking with her friends about her plans. She wanted to relax for one more night after she finished her exams and go caroling with her friends in the choir.
      Something was wrong. Or maybe she had just changed her mind.
      Yes, something had to be wrong at home. Why would she want to leave Tabor any sooner than she had to, and leave him? She was a good girl, hurrying home and giving up her fun with her friends because her family needed her.
      He parked his car far down the street, but close enough he could still keep an eye on her car and make sure nobody stole anything. Just before he passed the big, dark pines that stood in front of the dormitory, the door banged open and two more girls hurried down the steps, carrying boxes. They put the boxes in the trunk of her car. He frowned, even more confused. Why were they putting all those things in his angel's car?
      Maybe she was driving someone home. Yes, that was it. That was probably why she was leaving early. To help someone. His angel would do something like that, even if it took her away from him.

      He waited until the girls went back inside the dormitory, then looked in all directions before he approached her car. There was room in the back seat. This was yet another sign his Angel had come back to him as she promised. The timing was perfect. He had her present in the car with him, to safeguard it. Now, he tucked the package in between her suitcases and pulled the car blanket around the box to pad and protect it. He whistled a Christmas carol as he walked back down the sidewalk, heading for his car. He wished he could be there when his angel found the present. She would laugh at how he had managed to sneak it in among her belongings without her seeing.

Monday, December 16, 2013

December 16: WHITE ROSES

     The window display at the Treasure Chest caught his attention that night as he walked past after his dinner break. He stopped to look, expecting nothing.
     The angel stared at him from the top shelf of the display done in white and silver. Light danced off the cut glass edges, shattering into prisms that filled the display window.
     Angel had had earrings of crystals that made rainbows dance in his eyes. He remembered how she laughed and turned her head from side to side to let the sun catch in the tiny, multiple splinters of diamond brightness.
     It was another sign that the right Angel had returned to him.

     He bought the angel, paying cash, and had the clerk wrap it for him. He had to hurry to give it to his angel before she went home for Christmas. He imagined her joy, imagined the angel as her favorite present and most treasured possession. He imagined her eager and impatient to come back to school, so they could be closer together.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

December 15: A QUIET PLACE

      "So what are your plans?" Nathan asked, when they met up with him at Mancuso's that night for one of their regular threesome movie-and-pizza nights. He stared a little too long at the tasteful diamond and sapphire ring, and barely touched Jeannette's cheek when he bent down to kiss her in congratulations.
      "Well, we have some ideas." Brody slipped an arm around Jeannette, drawing her closer to his side. "I'll graduate in May, and we're going to have a small wedding the next day, while all our friends are still here to attend. You have to give the bride away, by the way."
      "I have to, huh?"
      "Either that or stand as best man. Since I've been best man a couple times, I think it's an easier job playing brother of the bride."
      "That's what you think," Nathan muttered into his glass as he took a big gulp of the foamy brown froth on top of his root beer. Jeannette could have sworn his hand shook a little and he went pale for a few seconds, but it was hard to tell in the shadowy corner of the restaurant. "So what are you doing after the official stuff?"
      "I've been thinking about seminary."
      "Well, you're ready." He gestured with his glass. "It's practically against the law to go to seminary without a wife."
      "Hey, that's not why I asked you," Brody hurried to say.
      "So why seminary?" Nathan asked, while Jeannette was still deciding whether to laugh or dig her elbow into Brody's ribs. "Not that I don't think you'd be a great preacher, because you would be."
      "Youth minister. Jeannette's had me helping with some of her Sunday school classes, and I like it, but I'm not the diaper set, if you know what I mean."
      "He throws up when he's within ten feet of a kid with messy pants," Jeannette offered in a loud whisper.
      "Anyway..." Brody glared, and nudged her hard with his elbow. "I volunteered a few times with the junior high class, and I really liked it."
      "You'd better start applying right away. Most guys are accepted into seminary before they graduate. You've only got five months to get your act together."
      "Yeah, well..."
      "What?" Nathan looked back and forth between the two of them.
      "We're thinking about..." Jeannette tried not to feel the dropping sensation that came over her every time she thought about Brody's plan. She agreed with him, in principle. The problem was that she had heard too much from him in the last year about the unreasonableness of the people he called his family. "We're thinking about spending a year or two in Glenwood. Brody's home church is dead. He wants to see what he can do to get things back on track, kind of a test drive, to see if he really has a calling for the ministry. We'll save up money for seminary. And we won't have the strain that seminary students and their wives have in their first year of marriage."
      "But we're still thinking about it," Brody hurried to say.
      "It's a good plan," Nathan said slowly. "What does your family think of it?"
      "Haven't told them yet." He picked up his ginger ale and studied the bubbles rising through the golden liquid. "Wish I still drank. I could sure use some extra courage. Mom has this girl she's been trying to match me up with since kindergarten. You can bet she's going to be waiting under the mistletoe when I get home." He shuddered, making Nathan laugh. Jeannette knew just how little of that shudder was acting. When Brody described the girl to her, he referred to her as his mother's clone.
      "So you're just letting him go home, without putting any kind of tag on him?" He grabbed hold of Jeannette's hand, as if to take another look at her ring. "Half the reason for the engagement ring is just to warn other guys to stay away from his territory."

      "Oh, you make that sound so romantic," Jeannette muttered. That earned laughter from the men.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

December 14: WHITE ROSES

      Toni was gratified to see how many people attended Annalee's funeral. The Gray family hadn't been in Tabor very long, but the sanctuary was more than half-full for the service at Tabor Christian. She couldn't stay for the luncheon afterwards in the church fellowship hall, despite Mr. and Mrs. Gray's earnest invitation. She nearly burst into tears when Annalee's mother hugged her and told her how much her daughter had enjoyed Toni's friendship.
      There was only one place Toni could go after that. Only one person who wouldn't condemn her for breaking her vow that the White Rose wouldn't hurt anyone else.
      The daisies and carnations she had brought yesterday were still on Angel's grave when she reached the cemetery a short time later, shriveled a little by the cold air, but still bright. Toni stood a long time, arms wrapped around herself, trying to frame in words the questions that burned deep inside. The worst part of this painful new inability to verbalize what was inside her head and heart was the sense that if she could just bring this elusive idea to her conscious mind, she would have the answer to the puzzle, she would know what to do to get the White Rose to identify himself and stop causing so much pain. She barely heard the footsteps approaching from behind her, and didn't look up when she saw the shadow move across the snow. It was hard enough to fight the tears without having to look at people and see the sympathy or even the questions in their eyes.
      "No matter what we do, it's never enough, is it?" Angela said.
      Toni looked up, startled. She had somehow expected Curt to follow her from the church. Her face warmed at that thought. She glanced around and saw Chief Cooper stood at the edge of the asphalt cemetery road, head bowed, hands jammed in the pockets of his long coat, his gaze distant. She wondered what he saw when he looked at her sister's grave.
      "We have to keep praying, and keep trying, and trust that we will find the answer," Angela continued. She hooked her arm through Toni's and patted her arm with her other hand. "Annalee is safe now. She won't be afraid or hurt anymore. We have to remember that."
      "It's not enough." Toni swallowed hard. Her voice rasped like she had gargled with sand. "She shouldn't have to find her peace here. Angel shouldn't be here, either."
      "We'll catch him," Chief Cooper said. He sounded tired.
      "When? How many more girls have to be scared for their lives? How many more have to die before we catch him and make him pay?" She shook her head and tugged her arm free of Angela's hold. It wasn't done as gently as she could have wished, but she needed to get away from all that useless sympathy.
      "We can never make him pay," he said, finally raising his gaze from Angel's grave. "There's nothing in the world that can pay back the lives he took. But we can stop him and make our town safe again. I'll be thankful for that much."
      Toni nodded, unsure she could speak and not spew all the questions and anger and frustration that twisted inside her. She wished she had told Curt where she was going, maybe even asked him to drive her here. She knew the warmth and caring and comfort he had wrapped around her on Wednesday had been an aberration, a result of the strain and pain that had drowned them both, but she missed his arms around her and knowing he understood exactly what she felt. The longer she stayed here in Tabor, the more she was going to want that warmth and closeness to become permanent.

      She had to find the White Rose and expose him and get out of here. It was ironic that to heal one pain, she might have to endure another.

Friday, December 13, 2013

December 13: COMMON GROUNDS

      "It's not that I'm superstitious or anything…"
      Hannah cast a sideways glance at Xander as they walked up the steps of the old house. Officer Donovan and Mandy Gordon walked behind them. Only two days after the body had been found, everything inside the house that could be tied to Annalee's death had been examined. All that remained was the final inspection and walk-through, and to officially clear the house for use again. Hannah had volunteered not to do anything with the back room, mostly because she didn't have plans for it in the immediately future. Chief Cooper had thanked her, even though he said it wasn't necessary.
      "Superstitious?" Xander asked.
      "Friday the thirteenth," Donovan muttered.
      "It's only bad luck if we let it be." He reached the top step and crossed the porch. Xander allowed himself a moment to pause and look around the old-fashioned porch on both sides of the big doorway. He imagined putting some benches out there, sitting outside with friends, clients, townspeople on fine, warm summer evenings. Becoming a part of the town's traffic and lifeblood.
      Maybe Arthur Montgomery was so dead set against him opening up the branch office here in Tabor Heights because Common Grounds and its employees could become an integral part of Tabor in ways and depths that the older law firm never would. Xander smiled and silently admitted he was pleased with the contrast between their two legal firms. Montgomery & Associates would never be a part of the heart of Tabor Heights, where people turned in good times as well as bad. They were necessary, but they didn't exist to help people through good will and the simple desire to help. Who would be grateful to turn to high-priced lawyers who treated their clients as stepping-stones to a grander reputation?
      Montgomery had turned down his share of questionable cases, but Xander knew many people shared an opinion he had never voiced: Montgomery's office turned down a case because his firm couldn't win, it wouldn't have paid well, or it simply wasn't big enough to suit their standards and reputation. Montgomery and his people might sneer at Common Grounds because the only criteria was that the clients honestly needed help. Xander could smile under that scorn because he knew his conscience was unscarred, and he could face himself in the mirror every morning.
      "Okay, let's get the show on the road," he muttered as he unlocked the door and pulled it open.
      He bowed with a flourish to let the other three go in ahead of him. Donovan nodded and Mandy winked at him. Hannah just gave him that slightly fond, slightly exasperated little smile and shake of the head that a best friend would give him when he was being just a little ridiculous.
      Her golden-red hair caught the light for a moment, and Xander caught his breath as a totally unexpected thought hit him from out of left field. The relief he felt at that sudden bit of insight shocked him.
Hannah would never be the White Rose's target.
      Xander examined the thought as he followed the other three indoors and tugged the door closed. Hannah would never be a target. She didn't fit the profile. She was a strawberry blonde, and all three murdered girls were brunettes. She had a roommate and worked, and the victims had all lived at home with their parents or other relatives.

      The sense of relief that made him feel a little giddy also made him wonder if he had been pushing himself just a little too hard the last few weeks. What was wrong with him, lately, that his mind kept wandering into areas he vowed he would never examine? Such as Hannah becoming a part of his life outside the office as well as inside.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

December 12: DETOURS

      Amy had given Joe tickets for the opening night performance of the Christmas play. Joe not only forgot about the play, but he met with one of his music buddies to do an impromptu audition for a friend of a friend of a friend who was in the music industry.
      Bekka couldn't decide what made Amy more angry – that Joe had wasted the tickets she got him and didn't bother telling her, that it looked more certain than ever that Joe had a career waiting for him in Nashville someday -- or the fact that after this latest spat, in the library, loud enough to get the attention of the head librarian, Joe wasn't likely to ask Amy to go with him when he headed south.
      It was hard untangling Amy's streams of words that kept clashing and going in new directions, but Bekka let her roommate vent as they walked home after their last classes of the day. They would have less than an hour to rest and eat before they had to head over to the theater for the next performance of the General's Christmas 'monsterpiece' as most students referred to it.
      "Well, at least I'll be getting more sleep and studying without Joe to babysit all the time," Amy concluded, when they stopped in the apartment building lobby to check their mail. Her voice sounded very small, making Bekka wonder if this breakup was worse than the others.
      "That's the spirit." Bekka knew better than to offer advice. Joe and Amy had to work out their little spats themselves. Anybody who tried to act as go-between usually got crushed between them.
      "Look on the bright side. I have lots more time to spend with you and Kat."
      They were both quiet when they got upstairs to their apartment. Kat sat on the floor in front of the TV with her notebook in her lap and books spread around her, but she stared off into the distance, her shoulders hunched, and flinched when they walked into the apartment.
      "Bekka, there was a call for you." Kat gestured at the phone. "Something about a prayer chain."
      "Yeah, from church. Did they leave a message?" Bekka shivered when Kat nodded and swallowed audibly, and her shoulders hunched a little more. "What happened?"
      "They said to pray for the Grays -- do you know them?"
      "Yeah, Annalee joined the Singles group a few months ago. Why?" She knelt next to Kat, wondering how a prayer chain call could bother the younger girl so much.
      "She's dead." Kat shoved her notebook off her lap, but didn't get up. "They said the White Rose killed her."
      "What?" Amy's voice cracked. "Nobody said anything about a new victim." She flung her hands up in the air. "We should have known that loony wouldn't have just gone away."
      "Did you know her?" Kat said.
      "A little. I talked to her a few times. Always so busy." Bekka took a deep breath to fight a sudden feeling of pressure in her chest. She wanted to call Max Randolph. The older girl worked at the Tabor Picayune as copy editor. If anyone could give her the inside scoop, she could. Bekka shook off that idea a moment later. Annalee worked at the paper, too. The entire office was probably in too much of an uproar right now. Maybe later she could ask.
      The phone rang, startling all of them. It was Ron Parker.
      "Did you hear about Annalee?" he asked, as soon as Amy handed the phone over to Bekka. "I think we need to have a date, let a lot of people see us together, as soon as possible."
      She opened her mouth to say she was too busy with the Christmas production. That was true, but there were more important things to think about right now. Bekka just wished she could think of what they were, but her brain was spinning.
      "How about you hold my hand during the funeral?"
      They made plans to meet at church. Bekka felt like a selfish coward, worrying about her own safety, if her theory about the White Rose's pattern was even valid.
      "I'm going over to the Grays' for a while," she said after she hung up. "I knew Annalee a little bit. If I'm late for the performance, well..." She shrugged.
      "Let me send over that pie I made this morning," Amy said. She got up off the floor with jerky motions and rubbed her eyes with her sleeve. "You always need lots of food at times like this."

      "That'd be nice. Thanks." Bekka dropped down to the floor next to Kat when she saw the younger girl still shivered a little, and slipped an arm around her shoulders.