“The First Fire” — Excerpt from UP IN FLAMES

UpInFlamesCoverArt

A serial arsonist’s path of destruction has turned into an eerie serial murder, and jurisdiction falls to the FBI’s resident expert on the bizarre, and the only forensic lab in the country equipped to handle tracking down a renegade psychopath. Are Doctor Faith MacKenzie and her team ready for what they’re about to uncover?

A mysterious serial arsonist has been setting fires over the Witch Hollow area for months, and when a charred body turns up at the most recent arson scene, Faith and Jonathan are called to the scene. While Faith begins the process of identifying the victim and determining cause of death, Jonathan suspects the danger runs deeper than either of them could have predicted. As the number of fires, and the body count, grows, the partners will have to ask themselves what’s most important — bringing down a killer, or finding the truth.

“The First Fire” — Excerpt from Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow, Book 2: Up In Flames

The blare of sirens jerked Doctor Faith MacKenzie from sleep. Through sleep-blurred eyes, she watched the whirl of colored lights dance across her bedroom wall and disappear, then closed her eyes again. She needed her sleep. Since the Bunker joined forces with the FBI a month ago, on a case so strange it left her questioning her own reality, her sleep was sporadic at best. More often than not, memories of events she still couldn’t reconcile tore any chance of sleep from her, leaving her in her studio at all hours, trying to forget the images of an obsidian knife biting through flesh, and blood covering her hands, clothes, and the floor of her lab.

She touched her fingers to her throat, aware the soreness lingering there was little more than memory, even if the yellowing bruises were not. Faith shuddered. She often woke unable to breathe, with the phantom sensation of hard fingers digging into her throat, or the impossible pressure of a hand as cold as the grave wrapped around her heart.

If only those were the worst of her recent memories, she might be able to ignore them. After all, Rene Haley was dead, the case closed. However, for the past week, the memory of a brutal dismemberment case they just wrapped up four days ago plagued her sleep. She still couldn’t say for sure what caused some of the marks on that body, regardless of her new partner’s assurance they had enough evidence for a conviction.

She started to drift back to sleep, only to be jolted awake again by the shrill tone of her cell phone, on the nightstand beside her bed. Fumbling for the device, she punched accept without looking and put the unit to her ear as she fell back against the pillows with a muttered, “This had better be good.”

Special Agent Jonathan Caulder’s wry chuckle filled her ear. “Good morning to you, too. I don’t suppose you heard the sirens screaming through town.”

She refused to open her eyes. He would go away, if she just pretended he wasn’t there. Then, with a sigh, she realized he was waiting for an answer. “Mmm. And if I was a firefighter, I might be concerned.”

“C’mon, Mac. Batter up — we have a dead body.”

She swung her legs out of bed, and groaned as she sat up. “No way can they know that yet. I doubt the flames are even out. Besides, what can’t wait until a decent hour? And what’s this ‘we’? Since when are fire-related deaths considered an FBI matter?”

“Since a scorched body ran out of a burning building, screaming about demons.”

Ice plunged through Faith, and she groaned again, in disbelief. Not again. “Demons.”

“Yup. Up and at ’em, Mac. Wetherly already signed over jurisdiction. Meet you at the crime scene — I’ll text you the address.”

Before she could protest that bodies neither ran nor screamed, he hung up, and her phone beeped, indicating an incoming text. Glancing down at her phone, she pressed open and her eyes widened at the address showing on her phone’s screen.

Look for this second book in Guardian, Inc: Witch Hollow

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Ending COTW Experiment

Given the clear lack of interest (I can see stats on views, as well as likes and comments), I am discontinuing my attempt to provide a chapter per week of one of my books.

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COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 9

Chapter Nine

 

Tracy Cavarella was her mother’s daughter in looks, if not in attitude. Petite and pretty, with softly-styled dark hair and huge blue eyes ringed with dark eyeliner and capped with soft, earth-toned eye-shadow, her mocha-tinted lips turned down in a frown, she stared warily at Chelsea as she entered the room.

“Kim said you wanted to see me.” Her tone was sullen, with an undisguised note of hope at the possibility Kim was mistaken. She paused in the doorway, looking ready to flee at any moment and then, when Chelsea showed no inclination to excuse her, sighed heavily and sank onto the edge of one lounge chair. “It’s about Mom, isn’t it?”

Chelsea nodded, and pity twinged her. This girl was facing not only the loss of her father, but the possibility of losing her mother as well. If anyone had a right to be wary of strangers, it was Tracy Cavarella. As Chelsea understood it, Tracy and her twin brother were sixteen, and Tracy, at least, was hoping for college, and the chance to have a career in surgical medicine. Privately, Chelsea thought Tracy Cavarella didn’t look strong enough to handle such a blood-and-guts career.

“My name is Chelsea, Tracy. I’m representing your mom in court. I’d like to know about your mom and dad, and I’d like you to tell me what you saw the day your dad died.”

Tracy’s mocha lips trembled, and her blue eyes filled with tears, before she turned her face away.

“It… it was horrible!” she murmured, shuddering. “Mom and Dad have been fighting a lot, lately, about stupid stuff. I mean, who cares if he’s seeing another woman, again? He’s been doing that for ages. But Mom went crazy on him that morning, screaming at him that she wasn’t going to take it anymore. Then she just took off. Dad was pretty pissed, and stormed out after her. All day, I kept worrying one of them was going to do something stupid. Then, when I came home…” She sucked in a sharp breath. “There she was, just hacking away at him. It was…” Tracy blanched, and then buried her face in her hands, sobbing.

Chelsea’s blood went cold. “You actually saw her stab him?”

Tracy nodded, sobbing, before she drew in several gulping breaths. “I screamed, and ran over here to call the cops. I was afraid she’d kill me, next, if I stayed there. She just flipped out!”

Chelsea’s stomach roiled queasily. The only eyewitness to the murder actually caught Marlene in the act of murdering her husband. What kind of trouble did she get herself into, this time? Biting back a disheartened groan, she dimly recalled her conversation with Justin Blakely, in the prison parking lot. He’d called her case a lost cause. Had he already known?

Clearing her throat, Chelsea reached out to pat Tracy’s shoulder. “All right. Thank you, Tracy. Do you know where I can find your brother?”

Tracy blinked, her tears abruptly halting. “Tim? Why would you want to talk to him?”

Her reaction struck Chelsea as odd. “I need to know what he saw, and what he knows.”

“He didn’t see anything!” Tracy snapped with a hostile, defensive glare. “I’m the one who saw it all!”

“Tracy,” Chelsea’s expression hardened. “I have to talk to everyone involved. It’s part of my job. Now, do you know where your brother is?”

Tracy looked away, pouting like a four-year-old. “He’s next door, in the greenhouse.”

“Thank you, Tracy,” Chelsea said, rising smoothly from her seat. “And I’m sorry about your father.”

The girl’s only response was an annoyed shrug. How odd.

*****

The sound of the line ringing was a klaxon in her ear as she worried one dark-painted thumbnail.

“Come on. Come on. Pick up the phone,” she commanded in agitation, her gaze marking the progress of the redheaded suit through the back garden. No way was she going out on this one alone.

“Hello?” The sound of a familiar voice cut through her panic, but did nothing to slow the erratic bounce of her heart in her chest.

“They know!” She practically screamed the words, clutching the phone in both hands.

“They?”

“Some lady who knows about Mom and Dad. She knows what I did!”

“That’s impossible. What did you tell her?”

“J-just what you said to tell anyone who asked. I swear.”

There was a long pause from the other end, and a new terror gripped her. What if they decided she was a liability?

“I don’t want to die,” she sobbed into the phone, pleading for her life.

“Oh, shut up,” the voice on the other end snapped. “You’re not going to die. Not as long as you do exactly as I tell you…”

As she listened to her new instructions, the girl wiped away her tears, leaving black smudges on her cheeks. She would follow the instructions she was given, to the letter. After all, she had school to pay for.

*****

It shouldn’t seem so odd for Tracy Cavarella to be so reactionary, Chelsea reasoned as she walked toward the glass building to the right of the Cavarella house, just outside the police tape. Tracy was understandably shaken up, and Chelsea did her best to put herself into the girl’s shoes. To come home and find your mother stabbing your father to death would be a traumatic experience for anyone. Chelsea wondered if Tracy was receiving counseling. She’d have to ask Kim Manning.

If there was one thing her interview with Tracy hadn’t prepared her for, it was her meeting with Tracy’s twin. Shock reverberated through Chelsea. She didn’t know what she expected, but it certainly wasn’t this. Where Tracy was petite and delicate, Timothy Cavarella was tall and muscular, and Tracy’s emotional fragility was eerily missing from Timothy’s hardened, unflinching eyes. Though they were the same age, Timothy looked years older than his sister, and it probably had a lot to do with those eyes. They were a dark chocolate color reminiscent of Dominic Cavarella, though they lacked Dominic’s arrogance or cruelty. His hair was dark, like his sister’s, but longer and swept back in a short ponytail. He barely glanced at her, his attention riveted on the gangly tomato plants he was transplanting.

“Yeah?”

Chelsea bit back a smile. She knew a preoccupied greeting when she heard one. “Timothy, my name is Chelsea Hanover. I’m an attorney–“

“If you’re from the D.A.’s office, you’re wasting your time, Ms. Hanover. I’ll never cut a deal.”

Chelsea started. This wasn’t the response she expected. “Excuse me?”

“You won’t get me to testify against my mom. Your case is a bunch of bullshit, too, by the way.” He regarded her with a measured look before turning back to the plant, muttering, “No one’s gonna miss that no-good bastard, anyway.”

“I’m not with the D.A.,” she told him. “I’m representing your mother.”

He stopped then, turning to give her his complete attention. After studying her face for a long moment, he arched one brow in surprise. “You’re serious.”

“Very. I need to talk to you about your parents. I have to find a way to prove your mother didn’t kill your father.”

His answering laugh was cynical. “The idea’s ludicrous, lady. She didn’t do it, okay? Mom can’t stand the sight of bloody meat for very long, before she gets dizzy. If she was going to kill someone, she sure wouldn’t choose anything bloody.”

Chelsea sucked in a sharp breath, her pulse accelerating with hope. Timothy Cavarella just corroborated his mother’s story that she passed out from the smell. “Do you know where your mother was when your dad was stabbed?”

“Maybe.” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter if I do, though. You can’t put me on the stand.”

“Why not?”

His answering look telegraphed she was either crazy or stupid. “The D.A. would tear me, and Mom’s case, to shreds on the stand. I’ve got a record.” At her stunned look, he laughed sharply. “Yeah, a record. Geezus, lady, don’t you have anyone doing research?”

Chelsea bristled. “I’ve been trying to track people down since I took the case. I haven’t had a chance to check out backgrounds.”

He gave her a searching look, and then shook his head. “You do that, first. But trust me, you’ll have to dig deep. Dad was a goddamned bastard who made a lot of enemies. He deserved everything he got, too, but Mom would never have killed him, no matter how hard he pushed her.”

With that, he turned back to his plants, and Chelsea knew it was a hint for her to leave. But she had one more mystery to clear up. Taking a step closer, she said, “Tracy said she saw it all. She claims your mother killed him.”

Timothy grimaced, not bothering to look up from his task. “My sister has a lot of problems, Ms. Hanover. She’s hardly a reliable witness.”

“Problems?”

He turned to pin her with his dark stare. “Tracy is lucky to know who she is, most days. She can hardly be counted on to remember an accurate detail about a crime scene.” He turned back to his plants again, dismissing her presence. “Good-bye, Ms. Hanover.”

It was an agonizing, question-filled drive back to the office, and none of the questions seemed to bring Chelsea any closer to the truth — just more questions. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a researcher, and she wasn’t good at digging up answers. Investigation was always Sally’s strength, and why Chelsea never wanted to defend a capital offence case. Capital cases were always full of difficult questions.

Again, Justin Blakely’s words came back to haunt her. You don’t like to risk losing.

“Damn,” she muttered, swiping with one hand at the tears stinging her eyes. What the hell was wrong with her, anyway? She hardly ever cried, and never over a case. But, for some reason, the idea of Justin reading her so accurately brought her to tears. Maybe because no one ever pierced her defenses so easily, before.

“This is stupid,” she chastised herself as she pulled into the parking garage of her office building. There was no way she let a Blakely get to her, again. “You’re just upset about the case.”

The case.

Timothy Cavarella’s words came back to her in a rush, along with all her unanswered questions. What had he been trying to tell her? She sensed he was hiding something important. What did he know about the murder? Who was he protecting? And why was everyone so certain Marlene couldn’t have killed Dominic except the eyewitness? Only Tracy claimed her mother to be mentally or emotionally disturbed enough to kill. But Timothy said Tracy was the unstable one. Just what the hell was going on in the Cavarella family?

Those questions stayed with Chelsea clear to her office. There, tossing her blazer over the back of one visitor’s chair, she grabbed the phone and punched the button for Tom Greene, the head of legal research.

“Tom, I need some help,” she said as she sank wearily into her seat.

“Sure thing, kid. What’s up?”

“I need anything you can get your hands on about Cavarella Enterprises, the Cavarella family, and a Linda Travis.”

There was a low whistle from the other end. “That’s a tall order, Chelsea. Our files on Cavarella Enterprises are quite extensive, and I’m sure there’s more we don’t have. Can you narrow the playing field a little?”

“Anyone who had a reason to want Dominic Cavarella dead ought to do it,” Chelsea said with weary humor. “Think you can do it?”

“I’m not a miracle worker,” he warned.

That slapped Chelsea’s brain into function. She was an idiot. She knew exactly who to ask.

“No.” She jerked upright in her seat as excitement bubbled through her. “But I know someone who is. Do what you can, okay, Tom?”

“You got it.” With that, the connection clicked off, and Chelsea punched the number for the one person she knew could help her.

The phone rang twice before it was picked up. “Hanover Investigations. How may I help you?”

“Hey, Sal. Where’s Martha?”

Sally laughed. “I sent her to nag Hal for some information I need. She’s probably enjoying every minute of it.” There was little love lost between Martha Kline and Detective Harold Pulowski, and Sally tended to use that relationship shamelessly.

“Someday, that’s going to bite you in the butt, girl,” Chelsea said wryly. “How’s the mommy-to-be?”

“Sick of not seeing my feet,” Sally said and sighed. “Do you know how hard it is to chase down suspects when you have to stop to pee every ten steps?”

Chelsea suppressed a chuckle. She’d been wondering when her highly athletic older sister was going to start complaining about her pregnancy. Sally was given to the dramatic when her independence was threatened. Then, noticing the line had gone silent, worry stabbed her. “Sally?”

“Chelsea, why are you calling me?”

“Can’t I call my sister, if I want to?”

There was an exasperated sigh from the other end of the phone. “Of course you can. But my sister only calls for a reason, and never in the middle of the workday. I know you too well, Chels. What’s wrong?”

“Okay, okay.” Chelsea sighed. “I need your help again, Sal. In the professional capacity.”

There was a sharp intake of breath from Sally’s end. “What’s happened?”

“Sally Anne Hanover, wipe that horrified look off your face this instant,” Chelsea chastised, humor edging her voice. Sally had a tendency of being overly suspicious. It made her a damned good detective, but left her prone to thinking the worst. In Chelsea’s opinion, Sally’s suspicious nature drove her sister away from Jack Carney. Chelsea’s smile fled.

“I’m not in any trouble, Sal. At least, not yet,” she amended wryly, even as a shudder lunged through her. “It’s about the Cavarella case. I need you to help me with some background checks.”

Sally made a confused sound. “That’s all? Chels, that’s what legal researchers are for. I swear someone was just bragging that Marshall, Bateman and Powell had the best in the business.”

“Tom’s looking into it, too,” Chelsea assured her, “but it’s a complicated case, and I thought you might be able to get your hands on the information faster. Besides, you have an infallible nose for when things aren’t right. Tom doesn’t.”

She heard Sally’s chuckle. “One of these days, I’m going to screw up big time, and you’re going to have to eat those words, sis.”

“Not you,” Chelsea teased back, even as sadness slipped through her. Sally made only one mistake in her life, in Chelsea’s opinion. She walked away from the only man she ever loved. “You’re invincible, sis.”

“Yeah, right. Hang on.” Chelsea smiled as she listened to the rustling sounds and muttering from the other end of the phone. Sally was forever losing her pens. It was funny to Chelsea, how a first–rate investigator like Sally could lose something as simple as a pen. After another minute of rustling sounds, Sally’s breathless voice returned. “Okay, I’m ready.”

Chelsea couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “Find a pen?”

She could picture Sally’s blush, even as she heard her sister laugh. “Yeah, finally. I swear, pregnancy’s made me more scatterbrained. If it wasn’t for Martha…”

Chelsea grinned. Martha Kline’s organizational skills were the only thing that stood between Sally’s office and total chaos. “What are you going to do when she wants to retire?”

“Find a quiet corner and go completely postal!” That comment brought back, with stabbing swiftness, Chelsea’s unsettling case.

“Don’t joke about that, Sal. Please.”

There was a long moment of silence, before Sally asked, “What do you want me to find out, Chels?”

“Anything you can about the Cavarella family. Something tells me there’re a lot of skeletons in this closet, but the damned door’s stuck. I can’t get anyone to talk.”

“Okay. I’ll see what I can find.”

Chelsea’s phone chirped then. “Thanks, Sal. I’ve got to go.”

“Okay. Take care. Come down and see me again, soon.” Sally’s cheerful voice signed off.

“Will do.” Chelsea punched the cut-off button, and then hit the blinking button on the console. “Chelsea Hanover.”

“Hey, kid,” Tom Greene’s excited voice boomed over the line. “I found something interesting. Are you sitting down?”

“Yeah. What do you have?”

“Seems young Timothy has quite a record. The D.A.’s office sent it over early this morning, claiming it was crucial to the case, whatever the hell that means. Apparently, my intern didn’t know what it meant, either, since it ended up in the bottom of a filing stack. I just got off the phone with the A.D.A., Blakely, and he seems convinced it’s worth you having a look at.”

Chelsea sighed. Was Blakely trying to make her life even more difficult than it already was? She wouldn’t put it past him. “I know about the record, Tom. Timothy confessed as much to me earlier.”

“He tell you what for?”

“No, just that he had one and it wouldn’t do any good to put him on the stand.” She rubbed her forehead as her head start to pound. It wasn’t even noon, yet. “Is it important?”

Tom uttered a short laugh of disbelief. “I’d say so. Seems our boy’s gotten himself arrested at least once for everything from possession to assault with the intent to cause bodily harm.”

Chelsea straightened abruptly, her headache pushed aside. “What?

Now, her earlier conversation with Timothy Cavarella began to make a sickening kind of sense. Good god, was this going to turn out to be another case like the Menendez brothers in California?

“Yep,” Tom was saying as she turned her attention back to the conversation. “He apparently got into a fight about six months ago, and attempted to beat some drunken sod to death with a pool cue. Worked the guy — one Eric Leland — over real good before they were finally able to pull Cavarella off him.”

A quick temper, a tendency toward uncontrolled violence, and a deep grudge…

My father was a bastard who deserved everything he got.

Suddenly queasy, Chelsea realized why Timothy’s statement bothered her ever since he uttered it. It had the ring of an unrepentant confession.

“Oh my god,” she managed, the fine edge of panic pressing against her pulse.

“Chelsea?” Tom’s concerned voice reached through the panic, freeing her. “You all right?”

She swallowed hard, unprepared to voice her suspicions, yet. “Yeah, Tom. Thanks for letting me know. And see if you can find any skeletons in Tracy Cavarella’s closet, as well. Last thing I need is a spotless eyewitness who claims my client killed her own husband. Keep me posted on what else you find on the Cavarellas.”

“You got it.” He paused a moment, and Chelsea wondered if he’d hung up, until he quietly said, “Hang in there, kid. We’ll nail this one down sooner or later.”

Chelsea made a non-committal sound and hung up. Then, staring blankly at the phone, she knew that, no matter how soon they wrapped this up, she’d never be ready for the answer. She had a dreadful premonition the answer was far worse than anyone suspected.

 

Like what you’ve read so far? Consider donating to my fund in benefit of RAINN and The Rape Foundation. 50% of all proceeds will be divided between the charities and donated directly. 50% of the proceeds will go into a special fund to help with publication costs to get this book printed and more widely circulated, to further help these causes.                                       

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 ©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL

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Burden of Proof Final

SIGHT UNSEEN available for sale!

I am super excited and pleased to announce that Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow’s debut book, SIGHT UNSEEN, is now available for sale!

If you’ve been waiting for this book, it’s finally here! You can pick up your copy of the e-book today at any of the following locations:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Desert Breeze Publishing

All Romance Ebooks

Hopefully, it’ll be available in print very soon. I will keep you posted on that front.

If you want to know what the book is about, keep reading:

What happens when you bring together the best independent forensic lab in the country, one of the leading pathologists and criminal profilers in the world, and a Federal agent with a very unique skill set, and a gun loaded with Slayer bullets?

Welcome to Witch Hollow!

When a wealthy philanthropist is found dead in a locked room, in the midst of a series of bizarre murders, with no apparent cause of death beyond the faint scent of incense, Dr. Faith MacKenzie and her team have their work cut out for them.

As the case starts to go cold, she’ll be forced to turn to a man with abilities in which she can’t bring herself to believe, and credentials that leave her no choice but to accept the possibility he might just be on the level.

sightunseencoverart

 

 

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 8

Chapter Eight

 

Justin was still feeling good two hours later as he made his way through the run-down neighborhood known as the Hill District. Why it was a source of pride that this area had been the inspiration for a popular crime drama, he’d never understand. Normally, he hated when a case brought him into this high-crime, heavily littered section of Pittsburgh. It set his teeth on edge to see how casually overlooked the crime he fought was among these abandoned storefronts and rundown tenements. Fortunately for him, today was different. With Chelsea’s smile hanging in his memory and warming his heart, he barely noticed the calculating stares of the street corner hangers-on, or the suspicious glares of the pushers and pimps leaning against the chain link fence surrounding an empty lot.

Scanning the storefronts, he saw the grime-covered neon sign proclaiming Painted Lady in garish pink. Smothering a sigh, he pulled into an open space in front of the building and resigned himself to this task. The file on Maria Cavarella said she owned and operated a tattoo parlor out of this building. From that sign, he wasn’t too optimistic about what he’d find inside.

Shutting off his car, he slid out and double-checked the locks before turning toward the building. Frowning, he glanced back at his new BMW Z-3 roadster, uncertain it was a good idea to leave it parked along these unsafe streets. Not like he had much choice. He had to go into this building if he wanted to talk to Dominic Cavarella’s sister. Her file indicated she might have information about her brother’s marriage, but she’d avoided him with the adroitness of a trained spy. She hadn’t returned any of his calls — no big surprise if she was hiding unaired family laundry — but she also ignored the official requests sent from the District Attorney’s office for her to appear for questioning. That brought him here in person. For the sake of his case, he had to know what Maria knew about her brother and his wife.

Justin strode through the door of the graffiti-covered building before he could change his mind, and promptly wished he hadn’t. Even the loudly-rattling air conditioner, working overtime to cool the windowless space, didn’t mask the eerie jangle of a bell, before a feminine voice called out, “Just a minute!”

Uneasy, Justin glanced around the small lobby again, suppressing a shudder of disgust. He didn’t consider himself a prude — hell, with the dreams he’d been having since his first run-in with Chelsea, he should lock himself up for indecency — but this entire room gave him the creeps. It was like something straight out of the Marquis de Sade’s sickest fantasies. The furniture was dark wood and black leather, covered with an uncomfortable array of metal studs, and the deep red-brown hue of the walls reminded Justin of the few gruesome crime scenes he’d seen firsthand. The artwork covering the walls — if one took the liberty of calling grotesque charcoal drawings art — was clearly meant to shock as much as disturb. They all featured nude, tattooed models — both men and women — in various states of torment. Over each hovered a shadowy, bat-winged demon.

The beaded curtain rattled, and Justin was relieved to have somewhere other than those pictures to look. He snapped his gaze to the woman who’d come through the curtain, and stopped cold. She was tall and slim — emaciated-looking, really — and dressed in a black lace dress that flaunted a decided lack of curves. Spiked bands circled her neck and both wrists, and her dark hair was a wild mass of spikes that fell into her hollow, dark eyes. Her maroon-tinted lips curved wryly as she looked him up and down, before her eyes narrowed on his shocked expression. Clearly, his discomfort amused her.

“You don’t look like the tat type, sugar,” she observed in a Winston-and-whiskey drawl dripping with disdain. “Aren’t you in the wrong neighborhood?”

“I’m looking for Maria Cavarella.”

“You a cop?” Her gaze shuttered, her expression grown wary. Then, as she studied him, she snorted. “Of course not. Your suit’s too expensive. You must be one of Dom’s thugs, right?”

Thugs? Was she implying Dominic Cavarella had Mob connections? “Are you Maria Cavarella?”

She sighed heavily. “Yeah, that’s me. I told Dom I wasn’t gonna back down, so you can just kiss my Catholic–“

“Miss Cavarella, my name is Justin Blakely. I’m with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office. I need to talk to you about your brother, Dominic.”

She scowled. “He’s a pompous ass. There, you got what you wanted. Now, go away.”

“Miss Cavarella, I’m afraid that’s not enough.” He stopped her as she turned away. “Are you aware your brother was stabbed to death by his wife, two months ago? No one remembers seeing you at the funeral.”

She muttered something under her breath, and then barked a sharp laugh, before turning to face him again. “So? What do you want from me?”

Her attitude grated on his nerves. “So, it’s suspicious. I need to know where you were on June third, and if you know of any domestic difficulties Dominic and Marlene had, prior to the murder.”

She snorted indelicately. “Sugar, Dom and I haven’t spoken a word directly to each other since the sorry sonuvabitch threw me out and cut off my inheritance at his damned wedding. You think I’m working in this shabby dump because I like it here in the Hill District?” She looked him up and down, her gaze turning calculatingly heated. “You got company for tonight, sugar? I can free up my schedule if you want a tour.”

Suppressing a disgusted shudder at the thought of spending time with Maria, Justin scowled. “Whatever you’re trying to sell me, lady, I’m not buying. Your brother’s secretary said he received two calls from you the day of his murder, and he was on the phone for over an hour, both times. She also said he’s met with you at least three times in the past six months.”

An icy wall descended over Maria’s face, and her stance turned hostile. “I think we’re done here, Mr. A.D.A. You want to talk to me again, you call my lawyer. Otherwise, I don’t have to tell you a damned thing.”

And, as Maria Cavarella sashayed back through the beaded curtain, Justin couldn’t help but wonder if Chelsea didn’t just have something with her avowals of Marlene’s innocence. Compared to Dominic’s sister, Marlene Cavarella was a damned saint.

*****

August 8
10:30 AM

This wasn’t where she wanted to be, Chelsea acknowledged as she pulled into the sprawling, tree-lined driveway of the Gothic mansion abutting the Cavarella estate. The whitewashed stone walls of the old building looked cold and forbidding, and she shivered, hoping those walls weren’t harbingers of her acceptance here.

She wasn’t looking forward to dealing with the rich and famous today, but the police report listed supermodel Kimberly Manning as having assumed temporary custody of the Cavarella children at the time of their mother’s arrest, and Chelsea needed to talk to the kids.

Glancing through the oak trees forming the border between Ms. Manning’s home and the equally lavish Cavarella estate, Chelsea could see the taunting flicker of caution yellow dancing on the stiff afternoon breeze. Since Marlene’s arrest, police had cordoned off the Cavarella house and grounds for investigation, and she couldn’t wander into the crime scene without a writ or warrant from the judge, which wasn’t likely to happen. However, she could do the next best thing, for now. She could talk to Marlene’s teenage twins.

Not sure what to expect, Chelsea parked her car and walked toward the mansion’s front door, still wondering how she managed to get mixed up in a society murder case. Didn’t these people stick to their own? She frowned, recalling the last time she dealt with the rich. They certainly seemed inclined to band against her.

Shuddering in spite of the mid-afternoon warmth, Chelsea wondered how Sally stood the pressure of her case in Houston. It generated national media attention, and the trial was a circus. Sally shied away from any cases that might attract media attention, since then — a hard thing for a Private Investigator of her expertise to do — but Chelsea understood why. The longer Sally stayed out of the news, the longer she remained hidden from the Sentry Brigade.

If only she could stay out of the media limelight, too. Chelsea sighed as she rang the doorbell. A sweetly pitched voice called, “Just a minute!”

An instant later, the door opened, and Chelsea found herself looking into the smiling face that had adorned fashion magazine covers for the past three years. Kimberly Manning was a slim, beautiful woman with long, straight blonde hair and huge indigo eyes. Her softly tinted lips were curved into a welcoming smile that warmed her entire face and startled Chelsea. Weren’t models supposed to be cool prima donnas?

“Hi!” Kimberly said cheerily. “Can I help you?”

Chelsea blinked, nonplussed. “Do you always answer the door yourself?”

The musical cascade of Kimberly’s laughter was warm and friendly. “Usually. I like my private life to be private.” She winked. “I guess you can take the girl off the farm, but not the farm out of the girl. I grew up about two hours away from here, until high school. I thought I was so cosmopolitan, going to high school here, but all I did was prove how rural I really was.”

Chelsea nodded, unable to find a suitable reply. Clearly, Kimberly Manning’s magazine smile was the genuine article, as was the woman herself.

“Ms. Manning, my name is Chelsea Hanover. We spoke on the phone, earlier.”

Kimberly thought a moment. “Oh, right. Marlene’s attorney, right?”

Chelsea nodded.

Kimberly’s smile faded. “I can’t say I’m surprised someone killed Dominic, but I never would have suspected Marlene. She was always such a sweet, shy woman.”

Chelsea studied the woman carefully. How much did Kimberly know? “You know the Cavarella family well?”

Kimberly nodded, holding the door open as she stepped back. “Come on in. I’ll help you any way I can.”

As Chelsea followed the model through her house, wry humor bubbled up inside her. Kimberly wasn’t kidding about being a farmer’s daughter. There wasn’t any fancy art, or decorative furniture in the place. Everything was sturdy and functional, and there was very little clutter.

Kimberly saw her interested look, and grinned. “Not what you expect from a model, huh?” She shrugged, then. “I grew up with four brothers and two sisters. My mother didn’t believe in owning anything us kids could break, and clutter was just unacceptable.”

Chelsea smiled, then turned the conversation back to her case. “How well do you know the Cavarellas?”

Kimberly shrugged again, frowning. “I met Dominic about five years ago, when I was just starting out. My agent thought Cavarella Enterprises would be a good jumping off point for me. I guess he was right, but I wasn’t very thrilled by the idea, at the time. I’d heard a lot of bad stuff from industry people connected to Cavarella, and I didn’t want into any of that; it would have given my parents a stroke. And I didn’t care much for Dominic’s personality, when I met him. He was arrogant and domineering, and worked everyone at the agency nearly to death, but especially the models. He encouraged anorexic behavior in his models, badgering us to lose more weight. I ignored him, but most of the other girls were too afraid he’d kill their careers if they didn’t do what he wanted. I got out of there as fast as I could. Then, after the Paris show for Chritein Toumé three years ago, my agent had me buy this place, because I refused to move to New York or L.A. Marlene introduced herself to me almost immediately. I could tell she was lonely, shut up over there in that mausoleum with only two kids to keep her company. Not that they were much company, anyway.”

“Mr. Cavarella wouldn’t let her leave the house?”

Kimberly snorted. “Like I said, he was arrogant and domineering, and he particularly enjoyed lording it over his wife. Marlene made a lot of excuses for him, but I could see even she didn’t believe some of them. But she wouldn’t leave him, either. Not even when I offered to take her with me to my show in New York. I just wanted her to get out of there, to see that the world wasn’t as scary, alone, as she thought.”

“What did she say?”

Kimberly shook her head sadly. “She said Dominic had saved her. She’d worked too long and too hard to give him up.”

An eerie finger of dread ran down Chelsea’s spine. “If Marlene found out that her husband was having an affair, do you think she’d be capable of killing him to keep him?”

“No way,” Kimberly said firmly as they stepped onto the back patio. “You’d have to have seen them together to understand. Marlene was head-over-heels for that Neanderthal, but there wasn’t a shred of jealousy in her body. He flaunted his affairs in her face; I think he got some kind of power trip out of it. She gave up things for him, and she made his excuses, and she covered his tracks when he stepped out of line. The idea of facing life without him scared the hell out of her, and he used that power mercilessly.”

“What do you mean?”

Kimberly shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “He threatened to leave her constantly, just to hear her weep and beg him not to. He had affairs just to watch her crumble until she gave in to whatever he wanted. He thrived on her fear, and I don’t think she’s even aware of it.”

Chelsea frowned, remembering the soft-spoken, dainty woman she met two months ago. Marlene did seem well and truly beaten down — shaken, with an abandoned look in her eyes painful to see. But was it enough to prove the woman incapable of murder?

“Ms. Manning, I appreciate your candor in this matter. Would you be willing to testify to what you’ve told me, when this case goes to trial?”

“My mama taught me you have to stick up for people who can’t stand on their own. Of course I’ll testify.”

Chelsea smiled her thanks. “I need to speak with Mrs. Cavarella’s children, if you don’t mind.”

Kimberly shrugged. “I don’t mind, but they might. Tracy’s upstairs in her room. I’ll go see if I can convince her to come downstairs.”

“And Timothy?”

Kimberly laughed sharply. “Your guess is as good as mine, Ms. Hanover. Timothy has a tendency to…disappear.”

 

Like what you’ve read so far? Consider donating to my fund in benefit of RAINN and The Rape Foundation. 50% of all proceeds will be divided between the charities and donated directly. 50% of the proceeds will go into a special fund to help with publication costs to get this book printed and more widely circulated, to further help these causes.

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©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
ALL RIGHTS RESERVEDANY UNLAWFUL REPRODUCTION, DUPLICATION OR PRESENTATION OF THIS MATERIAL WITHOUT THE EXPRESS, WRITTEN CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR IS SUBJECT TO PROSECUTION UNDER INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS LAWS.

Burden of Proof Final

“The Threat” — Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Witch Hollow)

 

What happens when you bring together the best independent forensic lab in the country, one of the leading pathologists and criminal profilers in the world, and a Federal agent with a very unique skill set, and a gun loaded with Slayer bullets?

Welcome to Witch Hollow!

sightunseencoverart

When a wealthy philanthropist is found dead in a locked room, with no apparent cause of death beyond the faint scent of incense, Dr. Faith MacKenzie and her team have their work cut out for them. As the case starts to go cold, she’ll be forced to turn to a man with abilities in which she can’t bring herself to believe, and credentials that leave her no choice but to accept the possibility he might just be on the level.

 

“The Threat” — Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow, Book #1):

“We’re on the same side, here, Agent Caulder.” The man glanced down at the weapon laying on the table. “We both want this monster dead.”

“You threatened my partner. We’re not even close to on the same side.” Jonathan didn’t budge, his hand resting on the gun threateningly. No matter what this asshole thought, Jonathan was onto him. He knew way too much about the Crucibani to ever fall for their shit.

One silvered brow rose. “I thought your partner was that abomination Jason Guardian convinced the Vatican to release.”

No mistaking the derision in that description. While he didn’t worry about Reesha like he did Mac, Jonathan didn’t like the sound of that comment. “Her, too. You come near either one of them, again, and I’ll give you a brand new definition of Hell.”

The Crucibani assassin snorted, rising to his feet. “If Haliatus gets to either one of them, first, it is you who will know Hell, Agent Caulder, not I.  You really have no choice but to let me do what I was sent to do. Keep your…partner out of my way, and she’ll be safe.”

Jonathan swore a blue streak inwardly as he glared a hole in the back of the man’s retreating head. They both knew he couldn’t do anything more than threaten, unless the Crucibani broke the law, which they were always careful to never do. At least, not with witnesses or evidence around. If he wanted to catch this bastard, he was going to have to find a way to tell Mac the truth. And that would be a disaster of biblical proportions.

Look for the explosive first book of Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow, SIGHT UNSEEN — coming from Esther Mitchell and Desert Breeze Publishing on October 11, 2016.

“No Coincidence” – Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Witch Hollow)

What happens when you bring together the best independent forensic lab in the country, one of the leading pathologists and criminal profilers in the world, and a Federal agent with a very unique skill set, and a gun loaded with Slayer bullets?

Welcome to Witch Hollow!

sightunseencoverart

When a wealthy philanthropist is found dead in a locked room, with no apparent cause of death beyond the faint scent of incense, Dr. Faith MacKenzie and her team have their work cut out for them. As the case starts to go cold, she’ll be forced to turn to a man with abilities in which she can’t bring herself to believe, and credentials that leave her no choice but to accept the possibility he might just be on the level.

 

 

“No Coincidence” – Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow, Book #1):

Faith paled. “There’s another body?”

Jonathan nodded grimly. “This one was called in by a couple of hikers, out in the woods. The officer on the scene couldn’t tell me much, but he says there’s not a lot left of the body that he can see. Hopefully, it’s enough for an ID.”

Faith started walking, already digging in her purse for her car keys and cell phone. “I’ll call Linda. She can be there faster, and start taking photos and measurements. She’ll get us an ID. I just hope there’s enough flesh left for toxicology.”

“You’re not just planning to run a random tox. screen, are you? You’re looking for something.” He fell into step beside her.

Faith didn’t respond, phone to her ear. “Linda, did you get the call about the new body?  Yes. Can you get out there and start your preliminaries? Take the camera, too – you can get some wide angles and preliminary position shots. Also, if you can do it without disturbing the body, I’d like a few rough reconstruction sketches. Just to give Caulder something to start working with until I’m finished with the body.  Thanks, Linda.”

She ended the call and glanced at Jonathan. “You were saying?”

“You have a hunch.”

“I don’t have hunches. I rely on facts.”

“You’re looking for something. Otherwise you wouldn’t be running a tox. screen.”

She sighed, punching the disengage button for her car alarm as they neared the vehicle. “I couldn’t find any of the traditional poisons in Ramsey’s body, or in any of the prior victims.”

He met her gaze, saw the flicker of suspicion there. She knew something she wasn’t telling him. “But?”

“Remember when I told you I smelled some kind of incense around Ramsey, when I first examined him?”  She looked distinctly uncomfortable, and he knew she was onto something.

“Yeah.”

“Well, I took your advice.”

He blinked. This, he hadn’t expected. “Excuse me?”

“I thought outside the box.  I researched toxins that could be breathed in, rather than ingested, and I think I found something.”

“What?”

She shook her head. “Until I can confirm it from a second source, I’m not comfortable making a full assessment. At the moment, it could be nothing more than some kind of weird coincidence.”

Jonathan froze. “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

She shot him a look as she slid into the driver’s seat of her car and reached for the door. “I wasn’t aware there was anything you didn’t believe in, Caulder.  I’ll meet you out at the scene.”

With that, she closed the door and started her car. Watching her pull out, her tail lights retreating through the parking garage, Jonathan had the strangest sense of someone else there, watching. Someone who was none too happy of his presence in Faith’s life.

Look for SIGHT UNSEEN, coming from Esther Mitchell and Desert Breeze Publishing on October 11, 2016.