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.



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!


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!


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.


“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.”


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.

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 7

Chapter Seven


Talk about murder, Justin thought with dark humor as he dropped wearily into his chair after dealing with the inevitable circling of media vultures on the courthouse steps. He hated celebrity murders. He stared listlessly at the piles of paperwork that somehow always managed to congregate on his desk whenever he was in court. If looks could have killed, both he and the not-so-Honorable Willard Jennings would be dead men. Chelsea’s stormy eyes had shot lightning bolts at them that would have done Zeus proud. She made her disdain of Jennings’ role in this trial clear in her comments to the press.

For his part, Justin should be thrilled he drew a misogynist like Jennings to preside over a spousal-murder case involving a female defendant. Especially going up against Chelsea. Word around the office was Jennings had some kind of personal grudge against Chelsea Hanover. Yet the memory of her pale, lock-kneed courage clenched his gut, and he wished they pulled Halvanes, a feminist of the nth degree.

Chelsea had no way of knowing how much he detested Jennings’ degrading remarks at her expense, or worried about the vulnerability Justin saw in her eyes when she first realized she pulled Jennings. She’d looked ready to burst into tears for a moment, and the potential punched a hole the size of the Grand Canyon in his gut. Sighing heavily, Justin closed his eyes and rubbed his face as if that could banish the feelings stirring in him.

“Why so glum, Justin? I hear the big case is going well.”

Justin looked up to see Mack Martin, the Allegheny County District Attorney and his best friend since college, leaning in the doorway. Just what he needed today; one of Mack’s Semper Fi pep talks. A burst of dark humor went through Justin.

God, they must brainwash Marines in boot camp.

“Yeah.” He tried to work up enthusiasm, but Chelsea’s pale face hung before his mind’s eye, dampening his triumph. “It’s going great. All the evidence is pretty conclusive, and I’ve got Jennings presiding. I should be able to nail this one to the wall without much effort.”

“So why are you sitting here looking like someone just shot your dog?” Mack asked, stepping into the office and closing the door. Justin stiffened, frowning. Mack never closed doors for his little pep talks. Not unless they were potentially embarrassing to his staff.

“I’m up against Hanover again,” he finally admitted in a mutter.

Mack winced, but grinned. “Hey, she’s a pretty straight arrow, Justin. At least you don’t have to worry about perjured witnesses or sticky forensics from her. And she’s easy on the eye, too, you know?”

Justin bristled, not liking the glimmer of interest in Mack’s hazel eyes. But he forced himself calm. After all, who the hell was he to deny it, when he wanted Chelsea to the point of distraction? Calling himself a hypocrite didn’t cool his agitation. He didn’t want anyone else looking at her the way he did. Forcing the issue aside, he practically growled, “Yeah, but she also doesn’t take a case unless she’s sure of her client’s innocence.”

“And that’s got you worried?” Mack suddenly looked concerned, himself. He leaned his arms on the back of the chair opposite Justin, his expression pensive. “Look, Justin, I gave you carte blanche on this case, but not with the intention of driving it into the ground. We’ve dealt with some sticky cases before, but nothing like this. I don’t like the evidence we’ve got. It seems a little… ah, hell, Jus, it’s circumstantial, at best.”

What?” Justin sat bolt upright. He hadn’t known Mack reviewed the case at all. “We’ve got a solid–“

“Not really.” Mack’s shoulders slumped. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about Dominic Cavarella, and you can bet Hanover will be pulling them all out at some point. Hell, there are even serious questions about the feasibility of the murder as the police have it outlined.”

Justin went absolutely still. “What are you saying?”

Mack’s hazel eyes were troubled, when he met Justin’s gaze and a pang of doubt twisted through Justin. Mack looked weary.

“Damn it, Justin, if I was a juror, based on our evidence, I can’t say I’d be willing to convict Marlene Cavarella. I mean, I’ve seen the woman before, and I have to tell you, I’m amazed if she really did pull it off.”

Justin shifted in his seat, recalling Chelsea’s open scorn on that very issue. “Maybe she had an accomplice,” he said. “I’m already looking into the possibility.”

Mack’s frown deepened. “And maybe she was set up.”

“Are you saying we should just drop the charges? She’s already been arraigned, Mack…”

“What I’m saying,” Mack said with uncharacteristic grimness, “is tread lightly, with this one. You tend to be a bludgeon with the law, and this case isn’t going to be that easy. Be open to ideas or deals if Hanover comes to you, and work with her on this one, Justin. We don’t want to lock up an innocent woman any more than we want to let a guilty one get away with murder. Okay?”

Justin nodded glumly, and started to speak, but a sharp rapping at the door cut him off. Mack lifted one eyebrow in question, rose to his feet, and opened the door.

“Blakely, I’ve got to talk to you.” Chelsea burst into the office, looking out of sorts, and too sexy for her own good, Justin decided as his heart and gut slammed together, sucking the breath from him. She gathered a deep breath in the same instant, and the significance of it punched Justin between the eyes. Behind her, he saw Mack raise a surprised brow.

“I’m in a meeting, Counselor.” Justin regained his composure first.

Chelsea blinked, and gasped as she glanced back and saw Mack. Mack, ever the Irish charmer, flashed her a wide grin and a wink, and Justin’s good humor fled. Mack Martin was an attractive man, and a born charmer who, at thirty-six, had women following him around in droves. That Chelsea could be one of them…

She smiled apologetically at Mack. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt…”

“Hey, pretty ladies are never an interruption.” Mack shot her another roguish grin. “I’m Mack Martin, by the way.”

“Chelsea Hanover. I know who you are, Mr. Martin. I was glad to see you get elected this term.” As she gave Mack a shy smile, jealousy slashed though Justin again, startling him. He wasn’t the possessive type, but for reasons he couldn’t explain, Chelsea stirred all sorts of primal urges in him — not least of which was the desire to pull her into his arms and stake his claim in a way that would no doubt get his face slapped.

“All right, Mack, leave the lady alone,” he said, trying for the teasing camaraderie he often used at Yale to pull his flirtatious friend back on task. Evidently, his attempt fell flat, since both Mack and Chelsea turned to regard him in surprise — Mack’s turning to a roguish grin, and Chelsea with the look of a cornered doe.


“I’m outta here,” Mack said, tipping an imaginary cap to Chelsea. “Nice to meet you, Chelsea. Justin, remember what I said,” he warned, then winked and, devilish gleam in his eye, added, “Play nice, you two.”

As the door closed behind Mack, Chelsea’s bemused gaze moved between it and Justin. “What was that all about?”

Justin shrugged. “Mack likes to give little pep talks to everyone around here — too many years as a Marine, I guess.” He leaned back, letting his gaze slide over her appreciatively. God, the woman always looked good. She definitely looked much better now than she had earlier, in court. There was color in her cheeks again, and her blue eyes were vibrant. “So what brings you down here? Already want to cut a deal?”

Temper flashed in her eyes, making him wonder if she applied the same passion to every aspect of her life. It unsettled him, how badly he wanted to know the answer.

“No deals, Blakely,” she snapped stiffly. “I don’t plead innocent people guilty.”

He shook his head in wry amusement. With her prickly shell, it was amazing she hadn’t ended up in contempt of court. “How do you manage to sleep at night?”

She blinked, clearly nonplussed. “Excuse me?”

“With all that passion and conviction, I’m amazed you can wind down enough to sleep.”

Chelsea averted her gaze. “I manage just fine. Are we going to discuss this case or not?”

He eyed her warily. “You said you weren’t here to deal…”

“I’m not,” she confirmed, then withdrew a sheaf of papers from her briefcase — God, didn’t she go anywhere without that thing? — and held them out, frowning. “I’d like your support in backing up my petition to the court to have Judge Jennings recuse himself on the grounds of personal bias.”

Watching the nervous way her gaze jumped from the papers to his face and back, and the way she licked those sexy-as-hell lips, Justin resisted the urge to smile. This was going to be fun. His expression deadpan, he leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest as he regarded her speculatively. “Now, why would I do that?”

“In the interest of justice,” she said with a defiant tilt of her chin. “I know you think you’re above fair play, but there’ll be no such thing as a fair trial with Jennings on the bench, and I’ll tie this whole farce of a trial up in appeal, if I have to.”

Her words stung. Didn’t she think he knew about Jennings’ bias? Didn’t she think he was as anxious to remove bias from these proceedings, in the interest of justice, as she was? Studying her wary, defiant stance, he sighed. Evidently, she thought nothing of the kind.

“I’m sure we can come to an agreement of some kind,” he said, striving for nonchalance he no longer felt. “How about we meet somewhere for dinner tonight, and discuss it?”

Just like that, an arctic chill wrapped around Chelsea’s entire posture, and her eyes grew icy and hard.

“How about we settle it here and now?” She bit out the words, each one snapping with disdain. “This isn’t a game, Mr. Blakely, and I’m not a prize to be won.”

“I never said you were.” Justin blew out a short breath. Damn, what did it take to get close to this woman? To be honest, he was as surprised as she about the dinner invitation. He wanted her, sure, but he wasn’t about to use this case to get to her. It was unethical, and she was too close to it, for reasons that mystified him.

“Sorry, Chelsea. I didn’t actually mean that the way it sounded. I guess… I’m just worried about you.” When her eyes flared with surprise, he shrugged uncomfortably. “You didn’t look too steady in there, today, and I was just thinking you seem the type who ties herself up in knots over a case, and doesn’t eat or sleep. You need both.”

Her expression softened, her eyes shimmering with gratitude, and Justin’s heart squeezed. God, he wanted to hold her. Just wrap her up in his arms and keep her safe. He frowned at his own thoughts. He never had these feelings, before.

“Thanks for the offer, and the thought, but I’m doing okay.” She met his gaze, then. “Can you help me with the judge?”

“Yeah.” He gave her a small smile, and the first olive branch of their ‘war’. “I’d already planned to file a petition of my own. You just beat me to it. I’ll back you up as far as I can on this. You’ve got enough to deal with in this case, without adding Jennings into the mix.”


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.



Burden of Proof Final

“Partnership in Peril” – Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Guardians, Inc: 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!

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.


“Partnership in Peril” — Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow, Book 1) 

Where was Jonathan? He left to take a phone call, yesterday, and promptly disappeared. She hadn’t heard from him in nearly twenty-four hours, and with the recent arrival of bodies from Allegheny, Monongahela and Wayne National Forests and cryptic messages their arrival was “per Agent Caulder’s approval,” she was steadily going from concerned to pissed off. No one said what bodies came into her lab except her. Even worse, Jonathan sent Linda photographs of the dump sites, but couldn’t be bothered to extend Faith the courtesy of alerting her the bodies were coming, let alone get her approval for the transfer. Damn it, there were procedures to follow!

She frowned as she leaned closer and carefully sniffed the discolored patch of cloth stuck to the most recent body. “Where did Agent Caulder say they found these bodies?”

“That one was buried along the river bank near where you dredged up Carol-Ann, according to the Forest Service on-scene notes.” Linda glanced up from her sketch, and made a face. “Do you have to smell them, like that?”

“That’s not right.” Faith lifted one decomposing hand, turning it over to study the palm.

“I agree.” Linda blinked when Faith looked up at her in confusion. “Oh, you meant where the body was found, right? My mistake.”

“I’m no geologist, but this soil doesn’t look consistent with the samples I took from where Carol-Ann was found.” She peeled off one glove to retrieve her cell phone and hit speed dial, tapping one foot impatiently until Sandy picked up the other end. “I need you in autopsy, to take some samples. We need a soil analysis on the new arrivals.”

“I’ll be right there.”

As she hung up, she turned to find Linda studying her with a concerned expression.

“What do you think is going on, Faith?”

Faith’s gaze fixed on the body, and she sealed her lips grimly over her suspicions. She only knew two things for certain, right now. This victim was never buried near the Monongahela, and Jonathan Caulder was up to something. What she didn’t know was what. But she intended to find out.

“Laurel’s on her way in. When she gets here, tell her I need drawers four through nine sanitized, and pre-autopsy films taken on all the new arrivals before she puts them in the cooler. But she’s not to clean them or do anything else until Sandy collects soil and Mark goes over them for trace.”

Linda frowned. “Where are you going?”

“To find out just what the hell the FBI’s up to, and why they think they can commandeer my lab.”

Look out for the release of SIGHT UNSEEN, and the beginning of a brand new series from critically acclaimed Suspense author Esther Mitchell, coming October 11, 2016 from Desert Breeze Publishing!

“Manhunt for a Monster” – Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow)

sightunseencoverartIn 2003, I pitched a novel I’d written eight years before to my then-publisher, about a member of law enforcement who wasn’t quite what he appeared, and a skeptical pathologist with a disdain for the paranormal.

I was told it would never work the way I’d written it, because the characters were too different. My editor at the time tore the book apart and put it back together the way she thought it should be, removing large chunks of the most valuable character development and interaction, and essentially turning it into a completely different book (complete with different character names and professions) I was none-too-happy with.

Now, over a decade later, I’m a great deal wiser about the industry. I know the characters work as I originally wrote them (I always believed so). While working on other current projects, I worked on returning the book to its original context (I did update the timeline from the 1990’s to 2014, with all the technological updates to go with it). The book is now completed, and will be released by Desert Breeze Publishing on October 11.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share a little bit of what was removed with you…🙂


“Manhunt for a Monster” – Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow, Book 1):


His cell phone rang, jolting his attention from his recently departed visitor. Punching talk with his thumb, he lifted the device to his ear. “Caulder.”

“I thought you were on a manhunt.”

“I was. I am. But I’m not sure he’s a man, anymore.”

There was a pause. Then, “I think you got his attention.”

Jonathan frowned at the tone of his boss and friend’s voice. Damion George didn’t beat around the bush like this. He wouldn’t even call unless it was necessary. Necessary, with Damion, meant either Crucibani or demons. Given his choice of words, Damion obviously knew which, too.

“You know who it is, don’t you?”

The sound of papers being shuffled around carried through the line, then Damion sighed.

“We don’t have any reports of Para activity in that area, if that’s what you mean. At least…” There was a pregnant pause.

“At least what?”

Another pause, another sigh. “You’re not going to like it.”

“Try me.”

“Well, Witch Hollow’s notorious for various Para activity. There are several Paras located up there.”

“Why do I hear a ‘but’ in there?”

“The Paras in that area aren’t the problem. Not exactly.”

Jonathan’s heart sank. He knew it. From the moment Mac identified his description of Ramsey Parrish’s murderer, he knew he’d located the bastard. “Hailatus.”

” ‘Fraid so.  You don’t sound surprised.”

“Someone’s already been here about him. A Dr. Faith MacKenzie.”


“She didn’t ask about him by name. She came for help solving a murder. She says there was a faint smell of incense at the crime scene — I still haven’t determined what kind. The perp didn’t leave any other accidental clues, and no one saw him.”

“The latest alias I was able to uncover for him is Rene Haley. Some kind of businessman, from what I was able to find.”

“Damn.” Jonathan scrubbed a hand over his face, anxiety gnawing at him.

“What’s the matter, Jon? I’d think you’d be happy we finally tracked him down.”

Normally, that would be true. Any other time, under any other circumstances, he’d be relieved to finally have a bead on the monster of his father’s making. But if Hailatus was involved in Ramsey Parrish’s murder, things were about to get complicated, quickly.

“I’ll have to get back to you.”

Another silence, punctuated by the click of computer keys. “All right, I’ll keep an eye on things. Meanwhile, see if you can pick up anything you don’t have to report to the Bureau, if you get my drift. And keep me posted on what you find out.”

Jonathan signed off with an affirmative, and tossed the cell phone on the coffee table as he plopped down on the sofa. Great. This just kept getting better and better.

“Beginnings” – Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Guardians, Inc.: Witch Hollow)

sightunseencoverartWhat 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, 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.


“Beginnings” – Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Guardians, Inc.: Witch Hollow, Book #1):

The rain fell in sheets, lashing across the windshield with vicious force. Dr. Faith MacKenzie wiped again at the misty condensation on the windshield’s interior and cursed the miserable weather. She could barely see the road through the rain, and each spike of lightning and accompanying roar of thunder nearly blinded and deafened her.

It was raining when her alarm woke her at six this morning. That gentle cascade lifted the fragrance of damp grass and lilac through her open bedroom window, promising a peaceful spring day. However, somewhere along the way it turned violent. It was evening now, shortly after seven, and the pounding storm made her wish she owned a boat rather than her navy-blue Chevrolet. After the week she had, she could do without another waterlogged crime scene. Especially one so close to her family.

The ring of her cell phone, currently synched to her car’s hands-free system, cut through the hypnotic drone of the windshield wipers and the pelting of rain against the car, startling her. Righting the car’s trajectory, she tapped the answer button on her steering wheel.

“Doctor MacKenzie.”

“Hey, girlfriend. It’s me.” Joyce Lindon’s cheerful voice filled the car. “How’d the floater go?”

“Wet. The body’s on its way to the Bunker.” Faith grimaced at the memory of the swollen, putrefied body of a young woman she just finished dredging out of the Monongahela River when she got the call for the Manor. “Let Mark know he needs to go over the body and collect any trace, before he puts her in the cooler. Oh, and can you tell Linda I need her to meet me out at the Manor?”

“She’s already out there. As soon as we got the call, she left with her sketch pad. She has fresh SD cards for the cameras, too.”

“Good. Did you all get any more information on what’s going on out at the Manor? All I know, at this point, is that someone discovered a body somewhere on the grounds.”

“You know as much as we do.” Joyce sounded concerned. “I was actually calling because I hoped you had more information. You haven’t heard from Patrice or Ramsey?”

“No.” And the silence worried her. With the body count racking up, she didn’t like knowing this killer had access to her uncle’s home. Between the floater and the body she was on her way to collect at the Manor, this made five bodies in the past two weeks, spread over the entire Witch Hollow area. That made more violent deaths in one area than she saw in the past six years since she returned to Haitsburg. “The varying degrees of decomposition suggests whoever is responsible for these killings isn’t new at this.”

“You still think it’s all one person?”

“The three decedents we already have in the cooler have similar injuries.”


“Enough to indicate the possibility of a serial killer. If the body I just recovered and the one at the Manor show consistent injuries, I’ll be comfortable calling it confirmed.” Four days ago, she and her crew unearthed the first skeletal remains. The state of the bones indicated the murder took place years ago — maybe even decades. She’d checked the National Crime Information Center, but so far she hadn’t come up with any other matches. “NCIC didn’t have anything for us, but I can’t rule out the possibility his other victims haven’t been found, yet.”


“Statistically, serial killers are predominantly male. Particularly when the victims are women.”

“All right. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” With that Joyce signed off, and Faith tapped the end button and released her breath in a heavy sigh.

As fascinating as the prospect of a serial killer was, from an investigative and profiling standpoint, she knew how bad this was. Cases like Ed Gein and Ray and Faye Copeland were proof enough how dangerous having a serial killer running around in a small town community was. Being a forensic pathologist and profiler wasn’t usually the busiest of jobs in a small town like Haitsburg. In fact, probably half the county thought she was crazy. She turned down positions in Philadelphia and New York City to come back to rural Pennsylvania, where she grew up. No one else knew why, or understood her reasoning if they did know. They all thought she was crazy to turn down a glamorous, big-city job.

She didn’t care. After nine-eleven, she had nothing left to prove to herself or anyone else. She had more than enough nightmares to last her for the rest of her life.

Want to know more? Stay tuned… SIGHT UNSEEN will be released October 11, 2016 from Desert Breeze Publishing.