Delaney could hear her breathing. He sensed she had recently been crying.
"Hello, is this Mrs. Maclean?"
"Who is this?"
"My name is Mike Delaney. I hope you'll forgive this cold call but I think you may have known my wife. I found your name and this number in her address book."
"Really? Your wife? What's her name?"
"Her name was Maria, Mrs. Maclean. You may have known her as Maria Montalban."
There was silence from the other end of the line.
"Yes, I'm here and yes, I have had contact with Maria. I've been waiting for her to call me. She promised she would. How is she?"
"Well, she's dead, Mrs. Maclean. She was murdered two months ago."
"Oh my God!"
"I'm sorry to call you like this. There are things I need to know."
"Murdered? I can't believe it. She was going to help me. She was so kind."
"Where are you, Mrs. Maclean?"
"Norfolk, Virginia, and it's Lena. Please call me Lena."
"I'm so sorry. She told me she was married but never mentioned your name."
"She mightn't have, Lena, not if she was working. You said she was helping you."
"We were helping each other. I've been trying to get the media interested in things that have happened to me and she was the only one who really believed or cared about it."
"There is a lot to talk about, Lena. May I come and see you?"
"Of course, but..."
"But what, Lena?"
"Frankly, I'm frightened, Mr. Delaney. How do I know you are who you say you are?"
Delaney had not been expecting this question.
"I'm not sure how I can convince you long distance, Lena." He thought quickly. "Do you have email?"
"How about I email you some wedding photographs. I have a folder on my laptop?"
"That would be fine. I'm sorry to be so suspicious, but Maria warned me to be very careful."
"What's worrying you?" asked Delaney.
"I think there are people watching the house."
"It's probably my imagination but ever since I spoke with Maria I've had a feeling I've been followed. Maybe I'm just stressed out but I imagine I see two men. Sometimes they are across the street in a car. And I'm sure if I go out to the mall or somewhere, they are watching me there. Now Maria..." she began to sob quietly.
"I don't think we should speak on the 'phone," said Delaney softly. "Why don't I email you those photographs, then I'll call you from outside your house and you can check me out before you let me in?"
"I'm in California. I could be in Norfolk tomorrow."
"Very well. My God, I'm so sorry to hear this news."
"I can tell you are, Lena. Give me your email address. I'll have a new cell 'phone number tomorrow and I'll call you with it. And don't worry about being watched. If you are then maybe I can help. Isn't your husband with you, Lena?"
"I'm a widow. My husband was killed in a collision a year ago."
"It's my turn to say I'm sorry," said Delaney.
"That's all right. You weren't to know. Looks like we have something in common."
"It looks that way."
"I'll log on to the Internet now and wait," she said. "Here's my address and email."
Delaney made a note.
"While you're on line," he mentioned to her, "why don't you go to confess-confess.com. I know the people behind the site and they've promised to help me find out why Maria was killed. You'll see your name there because I managed to salvage some of Maria's notes. Someone tried to burn down our house at the same time."
"Someone tried to burn down your house? Now I'm really frightened. Something's going on and I don't understand what it is."
"Neither do I, Lena. Maybe we can help each other," Delaney told her.
"I'll look at the site and I'll see you tomorrow," Lena Maclean replaced the receiver.
Delaney found the folder he was looking for on his laptop. When Maria had been away on one of her many business trips he sometimes looked at the images of their wedding day. He thought he had never seen anyone look so beautiful as she did then. He looked a bit stiff and military and Bob Messenger looked around ten pounds or so lighter.
He didn't want to allow himself to slide into a state a maudlin self-pity so he quickly selected a couple of shots, sent the email to Lena Maclean then left the motel and scoured Hollister for somewhere to buy a new cell 'phone. Eventually he found a store and spent an hour making his selection. He needed a service that would let him send and receive emails and access the Internet. Finally, he found the model he was looking for and had to blink at the price. He had the assistant set it up for him except for inputting personal data so that he was ready to roll.
Next consideration was the car. To get to Norfolk he had decided he'd fly out of San Jose. He wanted to stay clear of Monterey for time being. And, for all he knew, he could be travelling the length and breadth of the United States so driving long distances just wasn't an option. He would fly most places he needed to go and book a rental if he needed wheels. Besides, the sedan had belonged to both of them. It carried Maria's imprint despite his attempts to clean it thoroughly. He could sell the car and buy another sometime in the future. Renting cars also gave him the advantage of a degree of anonymity. He had all the necessary paperwork with him.
He checked out a list of automobile dealers in the San Jose area at the same time he was booking a flight. His plan was to sell the car somewhere close to the airport and catch a cab.
Back in the motel, he stripped off and spent an hour working out. He tried to keep in shape every day if he could. He had perfected the technique of building strength by the manipulation of his breath. This meant that he seldom visited a gym and pumped iron. He did a little of that, but he found his system of breath control coupled with old-fashioned sit-ups, push-ups and yoga power stretches kept him simmering just under peak condition.
He showered and dressed, reminding himself to collect his laundry later, Next day, he headed for San Jose, did a deal for the car and booked an early flight to Norfolk. He had to force himself to walk away from the old sedan without a backward glance. While he was waiting in airport departure he called Lena Maclean and gave her his new cell 'phone number and told her he would there late afternoon. She sounded more relaxed and comfortable with him than she had done the previous day and since she had seen the wedding photographs. He emailed Bob Messenger with the same information and checked out the website. He was surprised to see the reaction there had already been to the story. There was a good deal of geeky debate about forensics interspersed with some knowledgeable experts debating the pros and cons of murder scene investigations.
Then he saw some posts that jump-started his heartbeat. The first was an entry from an anonymous contributor stating that there had been a similar murder six months ago in Boston. From the language and tone of voice Delaney guessed it was from a cop. A young woman had been found in a disused Church Of The Risen God chapel. She was naked with the sign of the cross carved on her back and, as with Maria, the cause of death had been a savage wound with an unknown weapon, but not before a tape recording detailing her sordid sins and confessions had been found inside her mouth. In this case, no confession from the killer had been forthcoming, but in every way the homicide was identical. The tape recording gave no clues and forensics had discovered nothing, as though the killer had been invisible.
Surely the police had picked this up?
Some website devotees had been vicariously hoping for the emergence of a new super serial killer.
In The Priest, they may have found him.
There had been responses to Delaney's post, mostly negative and many clearly blind alleys. Delaney was beginning to realise the pros and the cons of the confess-confess site. Yes, it could reveal vital information but you had to trawl through the garbage to find the nuggets of gold. There were also questions and enquiries that were clearly from the media. For the moment, this might be hot story but it would die down as it became old news. But, the emergence of the Priest could change all that and intrigue the press so that the story could run and run.
He glanced at his watch as his flight was announced. It was too early to call Bob Messenger in England but he went to a pay phone and made a call to his nearest neighbour in Monterey, William Stokes, a retired realtor, just to make sure everything was all right. Stokes told him that reporters and TV crews had been visiting the house on a regular basis and had called on him and other neighbours. He had told them nothing. He knew why they were calling. They wanted the grieving husband's side of the story. Oh, and a police officer named Dorsey had been round. He had seemed annoyed that Delaney wasn't at home. William Stokes told them all he had no idea of the whereabouts of Mike Delaney and he would not mention this call to anyone. Delaney was not to worry. He would keep his eye on the house.
Delaney arrived at Norfolk airport and rented a car, He had one suitcase that doubled as a bag pack in which he had placed his laptop. Lena Maclean's address was in an area of the city called Ghent, a district with genteel European pretensions. She must be fairly well off, thought Delaney as he headed for Mowbary Arch and Smith's Creek. What he saw of Ghent was a richly landscaped neighbourhood. In addition to long established tree lined boulevards, most residences observed a common set back line from the streets and were mostly of brick construction, some with stone facing on the front façade, fronted by shrubbery, neat lawns, and small flower gardens. Large trees with full branches lined both grass banks providing color and shade and adding to the park like setting.
Delaney cruised along by a riverbank lined with park benches where residents wrapped up against the chill sat and chatted and a group of determined looking joggers ran by.
He found the street he was looking for. The houses were large, two or three storey family residences. This was clearly a well-heeled area of Norfolk, not the place to find sinister men watching your house. With that in mind, Delaney slowed as he entered the tree-shaded street. Most cars were parked in well-apportioned drives, but there were one or two by the side of the street. One in particular caught Delaney's eye. Two men who looked a little out of place from this distance were inside. Delaney had the impression they were large and well muscled. As he cruised by, they glanced over. Out of the corner of his eye Delaney appraised them. One had a distinctly ex-military look. There was just something about him. The other looked like he worked out. Both wore dark suits and dark glasses. Delaney didn't give them the benefit of seeing his face clearly. He located Lena Maclean's house two along on the right, directly in the line of sight of the watchers.
Delaney parked so as to obscure their view, grabbed his case and took out a piece of paper. Then he called Lena Maclean and when she answered he told her he was parked outside and was going to approach the house. She could check him out from the window.
He locked the car, hefted his case over his shoulder, glanced at the piece of paper as if to check the address and loped towards the front door. He could see a woman's face peering from a downstairs window. He rang the bell and after a moment the door opened an Lena Maclean stood there.
She was late thirties, what men's magazines would describe as buxom, with her auburn hair tied into a bun. She was attractive and dressed in jeans and a simple white shirt. She was barefoot.
As she welcomed Delaney she shot a glance back over his shoulder and her expression changed. Delaney could sense she was worried and not just by the mysterious watchers.
"Lena," said Delaney. "I'm Mike Delaney."
"Please come in," she led the way inside. As he closed the door behind him he looked over and saw that the watchers were still there, one was talking into a cell 'phone. The house was spacious, airy and light, tastefully decorated and clearly had been lived in by a family for a long time. The living room had high ceilings and comfortable furniture. Delaney could appreciate good taste and there was plenty of it here in the paintings, murals and ornaments.
"Would you like some coffee, Mr. Delaney?" Lena asked him.
"Great, thank you," he said, "and please, call me Mike."
"Okay, Mike, I won't be a moment." She disappeared into an adjacent kitchen. Delaney looked around the room, noting the French windows that led to a large and well-tended garden. He turned to the mantel above the fireplace and inspected the collection of framed photographs. They were all family shots of one sort or another. There were many of Lena and a lean looking man with crinkly eyes. Delaney assumed this was her deceased husband. And there were others of family groups, two children, a boy and a girl and photos of the children separately, grown up, around seventeen or eighteen. The girl in particular was the image of her mother. She was attractive, even beautiful, with wide apart eyes and an adventurous expression.
"That's Rachel, my daughter," said Lena as she carried in a tray of coffees. "And my son Robert."
"She's very lovely," said Delaney. "You must be very proud of them both."
Lena sat down heavily on the sofa and stifled a sob. She pulled herself together and Delaney was acutely aware he had opened a sensitive door.
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