August fifteenth. It was a day following other days of sweat and hazy skies. There were no puffy white clouds or balmy breezes, only a wall of humidity nearly thick enough to swim in.
Reports on the six and eleven o'clock news glumly promised more to come. In the long, lazy last days of summer, the heat wave moving into its second, pitiless week was the biggest story in Washington, D.C.
The Senate was adjourned until September, so Capitol Hill moved sluggishly. Relaxing before a much touted European trip, the President cooled off at Camp David. Without the day-to-day shuffle of politics, Washington was a city of tourists and street vendors. Across from the Smithsonian a mime performed for a sticky crowd that had stopped more to catch its collective breath than in appreciation of art. Pretty summer dresses wilted, and children whined for ice cream.
The young and the old flocked to Rock Creek Park, using the shade and water as a defense against the heat. Soft drinks and lemonade were consumed by the gallon, beer and wine downed in the same quantity, but less conspicuously. Bottles had a way of disappearing when park police cruised by. During picnics and cookouts people mopped sweat, charred hot dogs, and watched babies in diapers toddle on the grass. Mothers shouted at children to stay away from the water, not to run near the road, to put down a stick or a stone. The music from portable radios was, as usual, loud and defiant; hot tracks, the deejays called them, and reported temperatures in the high nineties.
Small groups of students drew together, some sitting on the rocks above the creek to discuss the fate of the world, others sprawled on the grass, more interested in the fate of their tans. Those who could spare the time and the gas had fled to the beach or the mountains. A few college students found the energy to throw Frisbees, the men stripping down to shorts to show off torsos uniformly bronzed.
A pretty young artist sat under a tree and sketched idly. After several attempts to draw her attention to the biceps he'd been working on for six months, one of the players took a more obvious route. The Frisbee landed on her pad with a plop. When she looked up in annoyance, he jogged over. His grin was apologetic, and calculated, he hoped, to dazzle.
"Sorry. Got away from me."
After pushing a fall of dark hair over her shoulder, the artist handed the Frisbee back to him. "It's all right." She went back to her sketching without sparing him a glance.
Youth is nothing if not tenacious. Hunkering down beside her, he studied her drawing. What he knew about art wouldn't have filled a shot glass, but a pitch was a pitch. "Hey, that's really good. Where're you studying?"
Recognizing the ploy, she started to brush him off, then looked up long enough to catch his smile. Maybe he was obvious, but he was cute. "Georgetown."
"No kidding? Me too. Pre-law."
Impatient, his partner called across the grass. "Rod! We going for a brew or not?"
"You come here often?" Rod asked, ignoring his friend. The artist had the biggest brown eyes he'd ever seen.
"Now and again."
"Why don't we--"
"Rod, come on. Let's get that beer."
Rod looked at his sweaty, slightly overweight friend, then back into the cool brown eyes of the artist. No contest. "I'll catch you later, Pete," he called out, then let the Frisbee go in a high, negligent arch.
"Finished playing?" the artist asked, watching the flight of the Frisbee.
He grinned, then touched the ends of her hair. "Depends."
Swearing, Pete started off in pursuit of the disk. He'd just paid six bucks for it. After nearly tripping over a dog, he scrambled down a slope, hoping the Frisbee wouldn't land in the creek. He'd paid a lot more for his leather sandals. It circled toward the water, making him curse out loud, then hit a tree and careened off into some bushes. Dripping sweat and thinking about the cold Moosehead waiting for him, Pete shoved at branches and cleared his way.
His heart stopped, then sent the blood beating in his head. Before he could draw breath to yell, his lunch of Fritos and two hot dogs came up, violently.
The Frisbee had landed two feet from the edge of the creek. It lay new and red and cheerful on a cold white hand that seemed to offer it back.
She had been Carla Johnson, a twenty-three-year-old drama student and part-time waitress. Twelve to fifteen hours before, she had been strangled with a priest's amice. White, edged in gold.
Detective Ben Paris slumped at his desk after finishing his written report on the Johnson homicide. He'd typed the facts, using two fingers in a machine gun style. But now they played back to him. No sexual assault, no apparent robbery. Her purse had been under her, with twenty-three dollars and seventy-six cents and a MasterCard in it. An opal ring that would have hocked for about fifty had still been on her finger. No motive, no suspects. Nothing.
Ben and his partner had spent the afternoon interviewing the victim's family. An ugly business, he thought. Necessary, but ugly. They had unearthed the same answers at every turn. Carla had wanted to be an actress. Her life had been her studies. She had dated, but not seriously--she'd been too devoted to an ambition she would never achieve.
Ben skimmed the report again and lingered over the murder weapon. The priest's scarf. There had been a note pinned next to it. He'd knelt beside her himself hours before to read it.
Her sins are forgiven her.
"Amen," Ben murmured, and let out a long breath.
It was after one a.m. on the second week of September when Barbara Clayton cut across the lawn of the Washington Cathedral. The air was warm, the stars brilliant, but she wasn't in the mood to enjoy it. As she walked she muttered bad-temperedly. She'd give that ferret-faced mechanic an earful in the morning. Fixed the transmission good as new. What a crock. Damn good thing she only had a couple more blocks to walk. Now she'd have to take the bus to work. The ugly, grease-smeared sonofabitch was going to pay. A shooting star exploded and trailed across the sky in a brilliant arch. She never even noticed.
Nor did the man who watched her. He'd known she'd come. Hadn't he been told to keep watch? Wasn't his head, even now, almost bursting from the pressure of the Voice? He'd been chosen, given the burden and the glory.
"Dominus vobiscum," he murmured, then gripped the smooth material of the amice tightly in his hands.
And when his task was complete, he felt the hot rush of power. His loins exploded. His blood sang. He was clean. And so, now, was she. Slowly, gently, he ran his thumb over her forehead, her lips, her heart, in the sign of the cross. He gave her absolution, but quickly. The Voice had warned him there were many who wouldn't understand the purity of the work he did.
Leaving her body in the shadows, he walked on, eyes bright with the tears of joy and madness.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Sacred Sins by Nora Roberts. . Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.