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Criminal Intent

"Father forgive me for I have sinned.

"Father forgive me for I have sinned.

"Father forgive me for I have --- "

Helen's voice broke off. She was breathless. She had murmured the words a hundred times, a thousand perhaps. But it didn't seem to help. Nothing seemed to help.

She was on her knees in the church prayer garden, surrounded by birch trees and flowering plants and multicolored azaleas, a Garden of Eden recreated. Was she Adam, the one who submits to temptation and therefore must be cast out? Or was she Eve, the temptress who leads others to sin and degradation?

"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will bedone . . ."

Her hands were folded and her head was bowed. She was saying the words, chanting them like some arcane ritual. But who was listening? Who would hear the prayers of a woman who had done what she had done?

Had done and been doing for years, she thought, and the sickness took hold of her, sending waves of nausea throughout her body. She doubled over in agony.

At first, what they did had not bothered her. Or perhaps it had, but somehow she managed to suppress the guilt, to bury her true feelings in a morass of rationalization and intellectual posturing. And then one morning, not long ago, she awoke and realized --- she was a sinner. A pawn of Satan. What she had done --- what they all had done --- was worse than mere sin. It was complete and utter corruption. Moral bankruptcy.

It was evil.

"Father forgive me for I have sinned.

"Father forgive me for I have sinned.

"Father forgive me for I have sinned."

She recited the words over and over again, but she obtained no comfort from them. She glared up at the ebony sky, but she found no answer, no release. What was she going to donow? She had gathered some of the others, had talked to them about it. Some had even admitted they shared her feelings. But it wasn't enough. Talking would never be enough. Action was required. She had to do something.

She heard a noise behind her, from somewhere deeper in the prayer garden. The door at the base of the bell tower was closing. But who would be in there at this time of night? Was it the priest? One of the church regulars? An irrational fear gripped her. She didn't want to be seen, not in here, not now, not like this.

"What are you doing?"

She let out a small sigh of relief when she saw who it was. Nothing to worry about there. "I'm just . . . having a quiet moment. Spending some time alone. If you wouldn't mind . . ."

"Could you please help me?"

Helen tried not to frown. This was one of the inescapable realities of being in a church --- there was always someone who needed help. An old woman wanting someone to run after her groceries. An Altar Guild guy recruiting help with the cleanup. And it always seemed to come at the least convenient time. "I don't know. . . ."

"Please. I really really really need your help."

"What is it?"

"I saw something in the garden, near the base of the tower. Something strange and . .. frightening."

Helen pushed herself to her feet. "Show me."

She followed down the cobbled sidewalk toward the bell tower, in one of the most isolated and secluded parts of the labyrinthine prayer garden. There were two marble benches flanking a small recess planted with honeysuckle and flowered hedges. Many of the parishioners had buried the ashes of loved ones here; a tall marble obelisk behind one of the benches stood as a memorial.

"So? . . ."

"Over there. By the bench."

Helen looked in the direction indicated. Someone had been digging. Signs of excavation were evident; an azalea bush had been all but uprooted.

"My God," Helen whispered. Had someone been digging up . . . one of the graves? She had been at the funeral last week, and she knew this was where Ruth's sister's ashes had been buried. "Why would anyone --- ?" Helen's eyes widened with repugnance and amazement. "You?"

She turned just in time to see the shovel right before it struck. It hit her on the side of the head, knocking her sideways. The pain was excruciating. She felt as if her brain had been dislodged, her jaw shattered. Her legs crumbled, and she fell down onto one of the benches.

She remained conscious, but just barely. She watched as the shovel came closer, then closer, then closer still.

"But . . . why?" Helen managed to gasp.

"Why not?"

Her assailant's hands clutched her throat with a strong, unbreakable grip. Helen felt her consciousness fading, and she knew that in a few short moments she would be dead. Was this the penance she had been seeking? Was this what it took to make her feel clean again? Her brain was too muddled to make any sense of it. As she felt her life slowly trickling away, her thoughts were not focused on these questions of theology and personal redemption. As she stared into the face of her killer, all she could think was:

I can't believe it's you! I can't believe it could possibly be you!

Excerpted from CRIMINAL INTENT © Copyright 2002 by William Bernhardt. Reprinted with permission by Fawcett Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.E

Criminal Intent
by by William Bernhardt

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Mass Market Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Fawcett
  • ISBN-10: 0345441753
  • ISBN-13: 9780345441751