Meet Pete and Maria

Excerpt from ANGELS FALLING © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Pete and Maria find themselves assigned to the task force investigating the archbishop’s murder. They haven’t seen each other in over twenty years. . .

MARIA LOOKED AT PETE, EYES WIDE, BUT SAID NOTHING.

Pete reached out his hand. “Long time no see.” He cringed inside at his triteness.

She left his hand hanging in the air, stepped away from the doorway, and turned down the hall. Pete fell into stride next to her. He reminded himself that she’d never known his past feelings for her.

After walking ten steps, she stopped and turned to him, her face a frozen mask. “When I saw you at the cathedral, I hoped I was mistaken.”

Conflicting emotions stormed inside him. Twenty-some years contracted to minutes. Maria looked the same as he remembered, and different. The beautiful girl-nun he’d cherished had become a mature, attractive professional.

“I must go.” She turned to walk toward an elevator.

“Wait.” The word had escaped his mouth without clearing his brain first. She slowed, hesitant. Pete caught up with her. “We should talk.”

Maria stopped and faced him. She swept a strand of black hair off her face, swallowed. “No need,” she said. “I won’t be on the task force.”

Pete’s heart jumped. “Why not?”

“They don’t need both of us. I have an active clinical practice . . .” Her words trailed off.

He tilted his head, squinted at her. “This case is so bizarre; the task force will benefit from both our expertise.”

She looked at the floor, shoulders slumped.

“Is that the real reason, or do you not want to work with me?”

She pursed her lips, looked at him askance, shrugged.

“Can we discuss it?”

Maria stared past him; forehead wrinkled then smooth. “Okay, but . . .”

“Let’s go somewhere to talk.” He gestured at an open door leading to a vacant office. Maria nodded.

Pete led her into the empty room. She left the door open. He turned to face her. At six-five, he was almost a foot taller, so he stepped back to not appear threatening. At the same instant, she took a step back.

Pete fumbled for words. “I’ve never heard you speak English.”

She looked away. “One of many things I had to learn.”

“You seem to have done all right since . . .”

“Thanks to a wealthy physician and his family that took me in as their own.” Her guarded eyes scrutinized him. “You seem okay.”

“Yeah. Long road back, but, you know, poco a poco.”

Maria looked past him, nodded. “De veras.”

They stood apart, neither speaking, neither moving. When the silence became uncomfortable, Maria spoke without looking at Pete. “You’re FBI? I haven’t seen you before today.”

Pete shook his head. “Not an agent. I couldn’t pass the background check; because of that, uh, incident.” He glanced at the floor. “After I left . . .” He looked up to meet her eyes. “After I was forced out of the seminary, I knocked around in Arizona and California for a few years before I got myself together and went back to college. Got a degree in criminology then turned to profiling. Ended up back in El Paso. Moved here two years ago to teach at GW. FBI doesn’t mind using me as a freelance profiler. It works.”

Another long silence. Needing to end it, Pete said, “You?”

She shook her head. “I’m a practicing psychologist. Sometimes I support DC and other local police departments on forensic psychology.”

Pete dared not ask how the disgraced Mexican nun he knew years ago in El Paso showed up in his DC life as a forensic psychologist. She would have told him if she wanted.

They stood in place, each lost in thought.

Pete broke the silence. “How do we work together on this case?”

“Not sure we do.”

He tried a smile. “Don’t say the case doesn’t interest you.”

Her tone lightened; eyes bright. “Like none other in my career.”

“What would it take to convince you to stay on it?”

Her eyes flashed. “Start by not talking over me or mansplaining everything I say after I say it.”

Taken aback, Pete raised his hands. “Sorry. No offense intended.”

“Never is.” Maria smirked. “I may be over-sensitive.” She raised both index fingers to make air quotes. “Small woman syndrome.”

Pete chuckled. “Never heard that one. Short man, yeah, but never small woman.”

Maria smiled for the first time. “I’ve been accused of worse: ‘small hot-tempered Latina syndrome.’”

Pete shook his head. “Not in this case. I do talk over people. Bad habit. Small women or heavyset men. I’m an equal opportunity mansplainer.”

She laughed. “Okay, hombre.”

“Seriously, I’m sorry.” He paused. “I will do my best to stop my annoying habits, especially if it means you’ll stay on the case.”

Maria looked away. “I don’t know.”

“Look,” he said. “I get it. It will be a challenge, given our history.”

“So long ago. I’d gotten over it.” She gazed at him; eyes sincere. “The last couple of hours have been like a return to hell.”

“Yeah. For me too.”

She looked away.

Pete blurted the question foremost in his mind. “Gabriel?”

Her face clouded over. She shook her head. “Yes, Gabriel.”

“Did you see him that night?”

“Long story. Not for now. Probably for never.”

Another long silence. This time Maria broke it, posture at once erect, eyes making solid contact with his. She reached out her hand. “Okay. We work as a team, share information, coordinate input; and the past stays in the past.”

Pete shook her hand. “That works.” He smiled. “Thank you.”

They left the room and walked toward the elevator. Pete said, “I’ll see you at the autopsy?”

Maria did not hesitate. “Sure.” She preceded him into the elevator.