Nicole wiped the tears from her cheeks and forced her eyes from the sleek, black casket before her. She vaguely heard the minister as he spoke, but she was acutely aware of the birds singing overhead and the sound of the bees that buzzed nearby. 'Wasn't it supposed to be gray and rainy at funerals?' she wondered. This day was too beautiful, she decided with a sarcastic smile. The sky was a brilliant shade of blue and fluffy white clouds adorned it, moving along by only the faintest of breezes. The trees rustled occasionally in the mellow wind, and Nicole felt her auburn curls brush her face from time to time as well.
She brushed a lock of hair away now as the wind picked up momentarily, carrying with it the sweet smell of the many flowers that surrounded the freshly dug earth and her brother's casket. The minister's words pushed through her haze, and she realized he was praying. She bowed her head, closing her eyes briefly, but images of her brother flooded her mind when she did, and she quickly opened her eyes again as a murmur of "amens" rippled through the crowd.
Two large men stepped up beside Nicole as people began to filter by offering her their condolences. One of the men leaned over to whisper in her ear as yet another mourner approached her.
"Keep your eyes out for anyone you don't recognize," he whispered. "Murderers sometimes attend their victim's funeral."
Nicole nodded absently, but she barely knew her brother's circle of friends anymore. Although he was all the family she'd had left, he had kept her at arms length the past several years. Ever since Daddy died, she thought with a frown, choking on a sudden sob that rose in her throat. The elderly woman who was approaching placed a comforting hand on Nicole's arm.
"Stay strong, dear," she offered sympathetically. "I know Randall wouldn't have wanted you to cry for him."
"Thank you," Nicole mumbled, not recognizing the kind woman before her. "You knew Randall well?" she asked.
"I was his landlord, honey," she smiled. Nicole noted the glint of blue in the old woman's silver hair and the sharp blue eyes that reminded her suddenly of Randall. "Mrs. Pinkett," the old woman offered. "I expect you'll be by to collect his things?"
Nicole nodded absently, and one of the undercover officers with her offered to collect the information from the woman. Nicole sighed as the line continued. Endless, it seemed, and mostly women, she thought with a brief smile. Leave it to Randall to leave a string of grieving girlfriends.
Laughter bubbled up from her, escaping her lips despite the hand she pressed desperately over her mouth. The woman before her took the sound for a sob and quickly moved on, casting a sorrow-filled look at Nicole.
"I – I need to go," Nicole said, feeling suddenly overcome by hysteria. She bit her lip to hold in the laughter as she nearly ran from the gravesite. She headed up a nearby hill, just wanting to clear her head. Tears had quickly replaced the laughter, and she wiped furiously at them as they blinded her progress. Stopping to lean against a young cherry tree in full bloom, Nicole took several deep breaths before she looked back down toward her brother's casket. Groups of mourners continued to mingle around the grave, several with tear-filled eyes still locked on the casket. Nicole felt her cheeks warmed by more tears, and this time she let them fall unchecked.
A movement to her left caught her eye, and she glanced to her side to see a tall, dark man standing there in the shadow of a large maple tree. His face was turned toward the milling mourners below them, and he seemed oblivious to Nicole's presence. She studied him a moment. His hair was long and black but pulled neatly back at his neck. He wore black jeans and a long black, leather coat. She noted the intense look that filled his eyes as he studied the casket, and she felt a ripple of fear wash over her. A small gasp must have escaped her mouth for he turned suddenly to face her. Nicole brought her hand up to her throat when his coal black eyes bore into her face, his expression void of any emotion as he studied her. His face was handsome, she noticed, and she felt a tightening of her chest as she studied him.
A commotion below them drew both their eyes back to the casket where the two undercover officers were restraining two of the women from each other. Nicole frowned, forcing her attention back to the dark stranger but he was gone. Glancing around fearfully, she saw his retreating form briefly before he disappeared over the top of the hill. Remembering Officer's Dunham's words, she rushed down the hill. The scuffle had been completely diffused, and both women were loaded into cars by their friends with only angry glances thrown back at each other. Nicole ran to Officer Dunham's side, out of breath, and eyes wide with fright.
"I – I saw…someone," she stammered out of breath. "Up on the hill."
The two officers exchanged quick glances before Dunham ushered Nicole to the car and the other man, Officer Andrews, hurried up the hill. Dunham held the car door while Nicole slid into the backseat then he quickly climbed into the front. He drove carefully through the cemetery to the other side of the hill where Andrews waited, shrugging as the car stopped beside him. He slid in and glanced back at Nicole.
"How long ago did you see him?" he asked. "There weren't any signs of anyone when I got here."
Dunham was on the radio calling in a team to cover the area. Nicole stared blankly at Officer Andrews. He studied her expectantly, and she was once again struck by the feeling that he was not to be trusted. He was a fairly attractive man with short blonde hair and a neatly trimmed beard, but something in his cold gray eyes frightened her almost as much as the dark man on the hill had earlier. Of course, Andrews never created the breathless feeling in her the dark stranger had, she though unexpectedly.
"I came right down," she snapped angrily. "You think I watched someone who could be my brother's murderer get away?"
Dunham put down the radio. He glared at his young partner then turned sympathetic eyes on Nicole.
"There's a team in route," he said. "We'll need a description from you."
Nicole nodded but her eyes traveled to her hands resting in her lap.
"For now," she said softly, "can I just go home? I – I need…."
Dunham nodded without waiting for Nicole to finish.
"Wait here," Dunham ordered his partner. "I'll take Miss Patton home."
Andrews scowled at his senior officer but silently climbed from the car. Nicole felt herself relax when the younger man was gone. She appreciated the silence of Officer Dunham as he maneuvered through the city streets to the small apartment where she lived. She knew he'd walk her all the way to her door and probably search the apartment before he'd leave. His actions were unnecessary, she knew. Her brother's activities might have been questionable, but she knew now that he'd distanced himself from her for her safety. She winced at the thought as Dunham opened her apartment door and did a sweep of the apartment anyway.
Nicole sank into the plush, emerald chair that sat by the large window in the living room. Letting her head fall back against the cushion, she sighed, releasing all the frustration she'd held in since she'd answered that terrible phone call three nights ago. Dunham finished his search and smiled weakly from the doorway.
"If you need anything," he said softly. Nicole only nodded.
"Thank you," she whispered, forcing a weak smile. Dunham had been kind to her when many of the other officers simply considered her a drug dealer's sister. Maybe that's what bothered her about Andrews, she thought, and then pushed all thoughts of the younger officer from her mind as Dunham quietly closed the door behind him and she moved to lock it.
Moving to the kitchen, she turned on the flame under the teakettle and pulled out a delicate china cup with tiny blue flowers painted on its side. It had been her mother's favorite, she remembered with a smile, then brushed at a tear as she remembered how alone she was now. At least before, she had Randall to call on if something went wrong. Granted, they rarely saw each other, but he called her on her birthday and Christmas, and they still managed to run into each other occasionally. No matter how hard he tried not to, she thought as tears started to fall.
Their parents had both died within the last five years, and Nicole felt the overwhelming grief of her immeasurable loss seize her so suddenly that she staggered back, dropping the delicate cup, which shattered into tiny pieces when it hit the hard tiled floor. With a cry of despair, Nicole dropped to her knees among the shards of china and attempted to gather up the millions of pieces. A piece bit into her finger, and she cried out loud, carefully pulling the china fragment from her finger and moving from the kitchen to the bathroom to clean and bandage the cut. Annoyed now, and weary, she turned off the stove and curled up in her chair, pulling a soft, light green fleece blanket around her before she let the wave of grief wash over her so she could cry herself to sleep.