Shaking her head at the insanity of men who believed a woman capable of a gruesome execution, but not of political or social acumen, Chelsea sighed as she stepped out from the oppressive jailhouse walls and into the bright June sunlight. Patting her purse, she smiled in satisfaction as she felt the soft thump of metal and plastic under her hand. Marlene’s story was safely on her recorder, her alibi secured in Chelsea’s head. All she had to do now was to verify the alibi, and they’d be ready for whatever Blakely planned to throw at them.
As she crossed the parking lot, Chelsea cast a wary glace toward the cluster of reporters peppering Detective Talbot with questions. At the moment, only Chelsea and her client knew for a fact she’d taken on Marlene’s case. Chelsea dreaded the day the press found out. This trial was high profile and already a media frenzy — exactly the kind of case most attorneys lived for. Exactly the kind of case she did everything she could to avoid.
Chelsea frowned, aware of the struggle ahead of her, even if her client was not. It wasn’t going to be an easy case to prove Marlene’s complete innocence. Especially not with the media already trying the case in the court of public opinion. Right now, as far as they were concerned, Marlene was guilty as hell. And, while Chelsea was convinced Blakely could never make a Murder One charge stick, Marlene had, by her own admission, been the last person to see Dominic alive. The murder weapon was found literally clenched in her hand, and she’d been covered in Dominic’s blood.
The only person who could possibly save Marlene from that damning evidence was this Linda Travis she’d mentioned. If that fell through… Chelsea’s face set grimly as she dug into her purse for the keys to her Ford Explorer. It wasn’t going to fall through, she promised herself. She wouldn’t let Blakely add another win to his near spotless record.
“Such a serious expression doesn’t belong on such a beautiful woman.”
The words, spoken in a mild, sexy voice she’d have recognized anywhere, sent Chelsea’s pulse skittering in a mixture of fear and unwanted anticipation. Snapping her gaze up, she met Justin Blakely’s lazy grin and smoldering green eyes. Bedroom eyes, her adoptive mother would call them. Staring into those thick-lashed, soulful eyes certainly made Chelsea wish for a bedroom.
Pulse skittering as she realized what she was admitting to, Chelsea pushed the thought, and the images it evoked, away. This man was the enemy, and she’d do well to remember it.
Letting her gaze slide from his, over his limber body, she schooled herself to objectivity. Not an easy pursuit, she admitted grudgingly, with a man who radiated masculinity and pure sin. He was leaning nonchalantly against the hood of her Sport Utility Vehicle, his well-muscled, trouser-clad legs crossed at the ankles and his arms crossed casually over his broad chest. With the stiff summer breeze ruffling his neatly cropped brownish-blond hair, he looked like a magazine model come to life. The effect, she decided as her breath backed up in her throat, was damn near lethal.
“What do you want, Blakely?” she asked, forcing herself to remember this man was an arrogant, dangerous opponent, and a Blakely, besides. He was not fantasy material; he had the power to destroy her, again. “I’m very busy.”
At her sharp tone, he stiffened, the lazy, sensual magnetism of a moment ago displaced by brisk efficiency. “I want to know what sob story Marlene Cavarella dished out to you, to get you in her corner.”
She glared at him as she moved to open the driver’s side door. Just what kind of brainless moron did he take her for? “Why? Because I’m a silly, sentimental female who’ll go to any length to stand by another woman?”
“No.” His eyes narrowed. “Because I don’t think you’d take the case without a reason.”
She lifted her chin in open defiance. “So who’s to say she gave me a sob story?”
The feral gleam in his eyes as he crossed in front of her SUV gave his answering smile a sardonic, dangerous cast. “Last I checked, you weren’t into losing cases, Counselor.”
She stiffened, righteous fury for the maligned Marlene Cavarella shooting through her. “You think I’m going to lose?”
“It’d be a long shot for you to win.”
She refused to let another Blakely intimidate her. With forced bravado, she shook back a cascade of coppery curls and offered him a saccharine smile. “Maybe I like long shots.”
His eyes took on a hooded look, an unholy gleam entering them.
“No,” he said as he took a step toward her. “You don’t. You like sure things, definite wins. You don’t ever risk losing, Chelsea.”
That unflattering, but accurate, observation pricked her, especially from this man. He made it sound like her being cautious was a bad thing. She didn’t imagine he’d ever done much particularly reckless in his own disciplined life. Only fools rushed into things with the intent of getting burned for their mistakes. Well, she’d been burned enough to learn it wasn’t worth the pain, and she had no intention of letting anyone close enough to do it again.
“So, what did your new client tell you?” Justin pressed, watching her intently.
“You know I can’t tell you that.” She glared at him again. “Attorney-client privilege.”
He frowned. “So you did take the case.”
She nodded curtly, meeting his assessing gaze. “Yes.”
His gaze grew darker, more intense, before his hand came up, fingers stroking a strand of flyaway hair from her face. The brush of his fingers against her skin set off a flurry of sensations Chelsea didn’t want to contemplate.
“Why do you believe she’s innocent?” he asked quietly.
Chelsea stiffened, calling herself a traitor even as a shiver of delight wound through her. There was no way she’d ever trust a Blakely again. Her glare pierced him.
“Because a ninety-eight pound, five-foot-two-inch woman can’t just overpower a six-foot-four-inch, two hundred-fifty pound weight lifter long enough to stab him even once, let alone sixty-four times. Because a woman who looks stricken and guilty for forgetting to call nine-one-one in a crisis would hardly be capable of hiding her guilt if she premeditatedly killed her husband.”
Chelsea’s quiet words hit Justin square in the face, facts he could hardly argue. While he might have argued a good actress could hide or display guilt and grief at will, even he had to concede that a woman of Marlene Cavarella’s size would have to be operating in an emotional frenzy to stab her much-stronger husband, and even then, she would sustain wounds of her own before she managed to subdue him. He frowned. There went Murder One. The best he could hope for now was second degree. There was no way he’d accept Marlene Cavarella as innocent. Provoked, insane; whatever case Chelsea made, the crime scene evidence didn’t lie, and it said Marlene was as guilty as sin. He could only hope time and the detectives on the case could unravel how she’d carried it off.
The sound of a door slamming brought Justin out of his thoughts, just as Chelsea started the engine of her Explorer. Watching her drive away left him frozen inside, caught between duty and desire for the first time in his life. For some reason, he knew he’d have to sacrifice one for the other, and he had a sinking feeling he knew which would win out. It was an immensely depressing thought.
The next morning, half an hour of negotiating Pittsburgh’s hellacious tunnels between Green Tree and the Strip District brought Chelsea to a block of brick warehouse buildings converted into shops and loft apartments in the Strip District.
Breathing in the mouthwatering scents of fresh bread and meat, mixed with an abundance of ethnic spices, Chelsea maneuvered her SUV into a parking space in front of a confectionary-white building with plate glass windows proclaiming Travis Catering in bright, blue, and flowing script. Even as she stared at the beautiful window display, however, a frown creased Chelsea’s brow, and an eerie tingling raced along her spine. Something was wrong; she could feel it.
Her hyper-vigilant awareness screaming at her, Chelsea studied the building and its environs. Beyond the colorful display of patriotic symbols and plastic foods, the interior of the shop was dark. Glancing at her watch, Chelsea noted that it was shortly after eleven in the morning on a busy Friday, and less than two weeks from the Fourth of July. Concern etched her brow. Surely, being closed like this constituted a bad business practice for anyone in the food industry. Or maybe the store just looked closed.
Climbing from her SUV, Chelsea strode toward the door, her eyes searching the darkened interior for some sign of movement. Worried, she tried the door, only to find it locked.
“Looking for someone?”
Chelsea turned at the sound of a voice, to find herself face-to-face with a jovial-looking Asian man dressed in slacks, button-down shirt, and loafers.
“Linda Travis,” Chelsea said with a rueful nod. “Do you know when she opens?”
He shook his head, his expression worried.
“Very strange goings-on, there,” he nodded toward the darkened store. “I’ve been Linda’s neighbor for nearly five years, and I’ve never seen that store closed.”
He nodded. “I’m George Tzou. I own the Happy Dragon,” he explained, gesturing toward the next storefront, where an assortment of Chinese art was festively displayed. “I sell jade and fine jewelry.”
Chelsea offered him a small smile, shaking his extended hand. “Chelsea Hanover. I’m an attorney.”
“Attorney? Linda in trouble?”
“No.” Chelsea shook her head. “She’s a potential witness in a case I’m handling. Do you know Ms. Travis well?”
A broad smile split his face. “Oh, yes. Linda’s a very social person, very approachable. She runs a business owner’s organization for this block, and I doubt there’s a person who frequents this area who doesn’t know her. Very friendly.”
“And she’s never been closed?”
His smile faded, the worry lines reappearing on his forehead. “Up until the other day, no. She used to be there, cooking up a storm, until ten or eleven at night, most nights. Then, suddenly, she’s closed for two days straight during one of her busiest times of the year, and her assistant, Merrill, hasn’t been able to reach her.”
Uneasiness knotted in Chelsea’s stomach. So far, George Tzou’s words provided nothing except more questions, prime of which was, where was Linda Travis?
“Do you know where Ms. Travis lives?”
He pointed toward a nondescript door nestled between the two storefronts. “She lives in an apartment above the store.”
“She owns the building?”
He nodded. “Yes. She has two tenants in her building, besides myself.”
“And no one’s seen her coming or going?”
“No.” He sighed. “When Merrill first came to me, I spoke with both other tenants. They live on the third floor, so it didn’t surprise me when they both said they hadn’t seen her, but Sheryl Turner, one of the tenants, said she called down to Linda about her kitchen sink not working, and Linda never called her back or went up. Highly unusual.”
“And her car?”
“Blue van. It’s parked around back.”
Chelsea frowned. There was most definitely something wrong here. “Didn’t anyone call the police?”
He nodded. “Merrill did. Twice. They said they didn’t have any reason to believe she hadn’t left on her own, since she’d still been working, with the store’s door locked, when I went up Wednesday night.”
The eerie tingling at the base of Chelsea’s neck grew. “Do you have a key to her apartment?”
He nodded. “Linda left a key, in case she accidentally locked herself out.” He smiled. “She’s always losing her keys. Bad habit for a landlady.”
“May I borrow it, please? I’d like to make sure she’s all right.”
He studied her for a long moment, and then nodded. “If I may accompany you, yes.”
Chelsea nodded her agreement, but cautioned, “Just don’t touch anything, no matter what we find.”
As George returned to his store to get Linda’s spare key, Chelsea studied the building with a critical eye. Three windows on the second floor stood open, letting in the summer breeze, but no noise drifted out from them. Dead silence settled over the building, and caused Chelsea’s taut nerves to pull tighter. Suddenly, she wished Sally was with her. Her sister was a trained Private Investigator, a former bomb squad dynamo who could usually tell at a glance what was wrong with a scene.
Chelsea paced restlessly, cursing her bad luck. Without Linda Travis, Marlene’s alibi fell apart on the spot. It wasn’t enough Marlene left the morning of Dominic’s death — she was angry, and they’d argued. That gave her motive. The murder weapon was one of Marlene’s kitchen knives, which gave her means. Without Linda’s testimony, it wouldn’t be hard for Blakely to establish opportunity, either.
George returned with the keys, and Chelsea followed him silently as they climbed the stairs to Linda’s apartment. Inside, Chelsea stopped dead as she heard George swear softly. Her eyes wide in dismay, Chelsea took in the disaster inside Linda Travis’ apartment, before turning to look at the man beside her.
“Tell me she’s a messy housekeeper.”
He shook his head. “Not Linda. She’s a very orderly person, very neat. Has,” he swallowed hard, “do you think she’s been robbed?”
Chelsea glanced over the contents of the room, before shaking her head. “Not unless the robber was looking for something specific. Her TV, stereo, and antiques are still here, and I’m betting her jewelry’s right where she left it, too.”
His dark eyes widened in fear. “Then what do you suppose–?”
Chelsea frowned, feeling her case crumbling beneath her feet. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation.
“Mr. Tzou, would you please call the police and report the break-in, and remind them Ms. Travis is still missing. I think she might be in danger.” And any hope of saving Marlene along with her. Chelsea scowled. Whoever did this, whoever killed Dominic Cavarella, would pay. She wouldn’t rest until she proved Marlene’s innocence once and for all.
If there was one part of his job Justin hated more than any other, it was dealing with the press. Sure, he could have left that to Talbot and the other investigators on the case, and for the most part, he had. Appealing to the public, however, could get them badly needed witnesses, so he did his face time with the cameras. He even spoke to the witness and EMTs, and all responding officers to the scene.
With Chelsea Hanover sitting opposing counsel, he wasn’t about to leave anything to chance. Bad enough she got under his skin, and he was having trouble concentrating on anything other than the fascinating paradox of a woman so driven she sent most of the District Attorney’s office fleeing for their lives at the mention of her name, but whose nervous demeanor and frightened eyes gave her the look of a cornered doe in the middle of hunting season.
Her obsessive dedication to this case rattled him. Chelsea Hanover didn’t defend anyone whose innocence she didn’t believe in. That she took on Marlene as a client left him questioning whether or not this case was the slam dunk it appeared to be when it first landed on his desk two weeks ago. Her staunch defense of Marlene Cavarella, from the very beginning, left him with one indisputable fact — if he didn’t do his due diligence and speak with everyone involved with the case directly, this case could blow up in his face, later. And if there was anything he hated worse than talking to the press, it was a case imploding at trial.
Justin grimaced, and tossed his suit jacket over the back of a chair as he rounded his desk and dropped into his own chair, already logging into his computer as he did. The witness interview with the victim’s daughter, Tracy, netted him a story he questioned, and the First Responders hadn’t provided him anything he didn’t already know about the scene — he hadn’t expected they would — but it did give him an idea or two where to start in getting a confession out of Marlene Cavarella.
His desk phone rang, and Justin snagged it, even as he scrolled through e-mails from the lab and investigators. “Blakely.”
“She’s back. Again.” Talbot grunted out the last word, his annoyance clear. “She’s demanding access to the physical evidence. What do I tell her?”
Justin’s lips twitched, and he wasn’t even sure if he was annoyed or impressed, himself. One thing for sure — Chelsea Hanover wasn’t just stubborn. She was a bulldog, when she was on a case. And she was getting on Talbot’s last nerve, apparently.
A wry grin tugging up his lips, he answered Talbot, even as he opened an e-mail from the lab. “Direct her my way. Tell her to direct all of her inquiries to my office. I’ll handle it.”
Talbot grunted again, and Justin thought he heard the man mumble something that sounded like “Good luck,” before the line cut off, and a dial tone filled his ear, instead.
Hanging up the phone, Justin focused on the e-mail from Penny James. A single line of text read Come to the lab. We need to talk.
Justin’s gut clenched. What did Penny find? Normally, she just e-mailed him the result forms, for his file, and left him to call her if he had any questions. Getting summoned to the lab was rare, and only rarely good news.
Scrubbing his hand over his face, Justin levered himself back out of his seat and, with a heavy sigh, bypassed the chair where his suit jacket still hung, and headed for the lab, tugging loose his tie as he went. God, he hoped Penny had good news to tell him.
Five minutes later, Justin stopped in the doorway of Forensic Technician Penny James’ lab and leaned one shoulder against the door frame.
“Tell me you have something good.”
He knew better than to cross the threshold without permission. The sixty-two-year-old grandmother of four scolded him like one of her grandkids a number of times when he was a rookie prosecutor about cross-contamination and improper attire for the lab.
Now, she glanced up at him over the rims of her glasses, her brown eyes twinkling in welcome. “Depends on what you consider ‘something good,’ young man.”
“At the moment, I’ll take whatever you’ve got.” Normally, he enjoyed matching wits with Penny. She had a brilliant mind, and a sharp sense of humor. He knew she and his Uncle Mic went way back, but he never dared ask how far, or how close.
Today, however, with Chelsea’s assertions of her client’s innocence ringing in his ears, he was just too weary, and too worried, to muster up the fortitude for one of Penny’s brain teasers.
“You’re sure in a mood, today.” She tsked beneath her breath and turned toward her desk, flipping through the files neatly stashed in the drawer there. “Case got you on edge?”
He opened his mouth to agree, but the words wouldn’t come out, as Chelsea’s thunderous green eyes seared through his mind, again. No, he was pretty sure the source of his mood wore a skirt and blazer that looked more second-hand than high-end. His breath caught at the memory of her slim form — the woman really needed to eat more — severely controlled red hair, and flashing green eyes… and he didn’t want to let his mind wander that way. No matter what he wanted, for years now, Chelsea Hanover wasn’t going to ever give in. She might look like sex up and walking, but she made it pointedly clear she considered him somewhere beneath pond scum on the evolutionary chain.
“I just need to know if this case is going to fall apart on me, Penny.”
She frowned. “Well, I don’t know anything about that. All I can tell you is, at the moment, the evidence is confusing.”
His own lips turned down. “How do you mean?”
“The autopsy report says the victim wasn’t a smoker. Are any of your suspects?”
Since he only had one, and there was no indication Marlene Cavarella smoked, he shook his head. “No. Why?”
“Because the swabs taken at the scene turned up a trace of tar and nicotiana tabacum around the wounds. The same trace turned up on the swabs we took here in the lab, off the knife.”
“Tobacco?” Justin didn’t like the sound of that. It hinted there might be another suspect. Tension stirred in his gut. Could Chelsea be right?
He didn’t want to believe it. Not yet. There was still far too much evidence against Marlene that couldn’t be explained away. “That’s it?”
She glanced over at him, looking over the tops of her glasses. “That’s significant, young man.”
“But not conclusive.”
She shook her head. “Not one way or another, no.”
“So, basically what you’re telling me is that, even though the prime suspect was found next to the victim, covered in blood, and with the murder weapon in her hand, none of the evidence you found conclusively proves she committed the crime.”
Peggy lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. “I know it’s baffling, but the evidence doesn’t lie, young man, and aside from fingerprints that appear to have been deposited on the weapon after it was used to stab your victim, there’s no physical evidence to prove Mrs. Cavarella committed this crime. Even the blood on her clothes and skin are more consistent with after-death transfer. I went over her clothes three times, and couldn’t find a single cast-off pattern. I don’t have to tell you that with a stabbing this brutal, the perpetrator should have been covered with spatter from the attack.”
Justin rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily. “You realize I have to turn all this over to the defense, right? Hanover’s going to have a field day with this.”
Peggy’s lips twitched. “And if that’s the part of all this that’s got you worried, young man, we have bigger problems than this case.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I’m more concerned about what we did find than what we didn’t. None of it matches the alleged attacker, and if she’s not the killer…”
“Then we still have a brutal murderer out there, running free.” The idea was sobering, but he really didn’t see how the murderer could be anyone but Marlene Cavarella.
“I’m still waiting on DNA results from swabs taken of the blood on the knife,” Penny offered. “That should give us something definitive.”
“Because killers who stab often end up cutting themselves as well,” Justin concluded.
“Right. And I’ve sent some of the samples to a colleague at the Bunker, down in Haitsburg. He’s a brilliant trace evidence expert, and I’m waiting to see if he comes to the same conclusions I did, before I release the results.”
Justin frowned. As a rule, he didn’t like forensics being farmed out to other labs. “Why? I trust your results, Penny.”
“Given the samples, I’ll feel more comfortable with my results if they’re corroborated by an outside source. It’s the trace we found in the blood sampled from the print on the phone, and the unknown footprint found beside the body. That trace wasn’t found anywhere else at the scene.”
Justin sighed heavily, and tugged at his already-loosened tie, unbuttoning the top button of his dress shirt. Nausea gripped him, and he wondered if he was in for a strike two against Hanover.
“All right. Send me the results when you get them. And, if you wouldn’t mind, could you copy Chelsea Hanover, at Marshall, Bateman, and Powell, as well?”
Penny cast him a curious glance, but nodded without further comment, turning back to her task. Leaving the lab behind, Justin headed back out onto the night-draped streets, turning up Forbes Avenue toward the Courthouse, and his office. He had no idea where the evidence would end up leading, now, but he just had to keep his attention on finding justice. The rest would take care of itself.
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©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
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