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 3

Chapter Three

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.”

“Neighbor?”

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.

Damn it.

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.

 

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 RESERVED
ANY 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

 

 

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 2

Chapter Two

Friday, June 4
 9:30 AM

 

“I’m telling you, I didn’t kill my husband!”

Justin Blakely, Allegheny County Executive Assistant District Attorney, traded skeptical glances with Detective George Talbot, and anger slashed through him. He was less convinced of Marlene Cavarella’s innocence, if that was possible, than he had been when she was booked yesterday afternoon.

“Mrs. Cavarella,” he cut her off as he rose from his seat to pace about the room, “you were found with the murder weapon and the body, covered in your husband’s blood. Do you really expect us to believe you had nothing to do with what happened to him?”

Huge blue eyes filled with tears, and a dark head Justin was certain came straight from a bottle dropped into her hands as she sobbed brokenly. Marlene Cavarella was one hell of an actress, he acknowledged sourly, but all the tears in the world weren’t going to sway him.

“Oh, cut it out!” He slapped his hands down on the metal table. She jumped, her eyes wide in fear. Justin frowned. What the hell? “The waterworks aren’t helping your case, lady.”

“Find Officer Martin Kopinski,” she implored Talbot, turning her broken gaze on the veteran detective. “He’ll tell you. I’d never k-kill my hus…band.”

A low curse of frustration left Justin and he plowed one hand through his hair as she started sobbing again. He was just about to launch into a full-blown tirade when an icy voice broke in.

“Well, I guess some things never change. Still resorting to scare tactics, Counselor?”

Justin’s glare snapped to the doorway. He froze as he locked gazes with the new arrival, those electric-blue eyes like a sucker punch to the chest, knocking the wind from him. Her!

She was slim, but curvy, encased in a conservative powder-gray business suit and spectator pumps that still managed to show off enough of her long, shapely legs he was sure that outfit should be illegal. Coppery hair fell in a riot of curls over her shoulders, and one fine-boned hand clutched a dark leather briefcase so tightly he was surprised it didn’t shake with the strain.

But her eyes were what held Justin spellbound. They were eyes he fantasized about since the Fairman trial, two years ago. He never expected to see them, or her, again. Especially not like this. Lightning blue, and currently glaring back at him as if he was the most vile creature on Earth.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he snapped, scowling to cover his runaway pulse.

Her answering laugh was mocking.

“Why doesn’t it surprise me you’ve already forgotten I’m a defense attorney, Mr. Blakely? Naturally you’d want to forget about Chad Fairman, and the one smudge on your spotless record, wouldn’t you?” She snorted derisively. “Of course, you tried this very same tactic on that poor kid, whose only crime was running away from an abusive parent.”

He stared at her, thunderstruck by the suffusion of passionate rage on her classically beautiful features. He could have argued, turned her words back on her. He could have admitted he’d been unable to forget the Fairman case, unable to forget her, for all the trying he’d done in the past two years. Damn, but she was beautiful when she was furious. Even as the thought crossed his mind, a sharp retort sprang defensively to his lips.

“Well, if it isn’t the crusading Counselor Hanover. What brings you to the lock-up? Finally get arrested for contempt of court?”

 

Chelsea watched the smug little smile tug at Blakely’s lips, and the anger she held under tight control since walking in to find him bullying her client erupted.

“I’m Marlene Cavarella’s attorney.” Her glare raked over both men like striking lightning. “You gentlemen should have waited for me. Mrs. Cavarella isn’t required to answer a single question without legal counsel present, and you,” she fixed her scathing gaze on Justin’s bland expression, “should have known better than to badger my client. Or are you Blakelys all above the law you cherish so damned much?”

Justin snapped upright, contempt flaring in his green eyes at her accusation. He glared at her for a long moment, and then bit out a sharp bark of laughter, startling the bewildered-looking woman seated at the table.

“I was not, as you so eloquently put it, ‘badgering’ your client, Hanover. Detective Talbot and I were merely–”

“Trying to intimidate a confession out of an obviously-distraught woman,” Chelsea snapped, her tone dripping disdain, and watched Talbot shift as if his seat was uncomfortable. Triumph flared in her as she turned back to Justin. “Or am I misreading the detective’s squirming?”

“Now, wait just one damn minute,” Blakely protested, before his expression went as cold as she felt. “Can I speak to you?”

She raised a brow. She had to maintain the upper hand, here, if she had any chance of surviving this ordeal without some kind of break down. Her heart was already beating too fast. “Sounds like that’s what you’re already doing.”

Those intense eyes narrowed. Uh-oh. She already knew from the Fairman trial it was a bad sign when his gaze went intense like that. “Outside, Counselor.”

Chelsea debated the wisdom of following his request. One glance at her client told her Marlene Cavarella couldn’t handle the argument sure to come. Meeting Blakely’s gaze again, she nodded, and turned toward the door. Shock plunged through her as he grasped her arm, and she tried to jerk away. His grip tightened ever so slightly, and she gritted her teeth, knowing she couldn’t react without creating a scene. Once they were outside the door, however, he was a dead man.

 

Even before the door finished closing, Chelsea glared frostily up at him and demanded, “Remove your hand this instant, Counselor.”

God, but she was a beauty, Justin thought as he studied her flashing eyes. Too bad she was more mercurial than a damned thermometer. Irritated with himself for his fascination, Justin couldn’t resist a taunting, “Or what?”

“Or I will remove it, and you, permanently,” she retorted with a sharp yank of her arm.

Justin tightened his grip, but eased up when she winced in pain. “That sounds dangerously like the textbook definition of a terroristic threat, Hanover.”

“And you’re treading perilously close to assault,” she shot back, her gaze going pointedly to his hand on her arm. “Not that I’m surprised.”

A dangerous smile curved on his lips as an idea for putting her off-balance, while satisfying his raging curiosity, came to him. “In that case…”

Before Chelsea had time to realize what he was up to, he dragged her against himself and smothered her angry protest in a kiss damned close to incendiary, he decided as he drank in the sweet taste of her lips. She brought her hands up, and for an instant, he thought she’d save them both, and push him away. Instead, those hands ended up clenched in the lapels of his black suit jacket, as a soft sigh betrayed her.

Justin was shell-shocked. He wondered what it would be like to kiss her for nearly two years, fantasizing over what she’d taste like. None of his fantasies ever came close to the reality in his arms now, her mouth fused to his and her body plastered against him in a passionate response that knocked his experienced socks off. She tasted fresh and new, like a field of wildflowers after a summer storm, and her scent was apples and roses, surprisingly soft and innocent for such a driven woman.

Because he wanted to tear off those all-business clothes of hers and see if she was as soft and hot underneath as she was hard and cool in the courtroom, he took a mental step back, and pulled away from her. The dazed expression on her face made him chuckle, happy to have rattled her.

“So, Counselor, still think you can make those charges stick?”

He knew he was baiting her. He also knew Chelsea wouldn’t disappoint — she had too much passion buttoned up tight inside that prim little suit coat to not rise to the fight. Even as the words left his mouth, he watched ice-cold fury slice away the haze in Chelsea’s eyes. He tried to let her go; he really should. But the warmth of her, and the soft texture of cloth and warm female body conspired against him, and his hands refused to release her. With a gasp of outrage, she took the choice away from him, yanking away. Her palm connected with his face hard enough to burn.

“If you have anything to discuss with me or my client in the future, save it for the courtroom.”

With that, Chelsea spun on her heel and marched back into the interrogation room. As he watched her go, Justin realized he just made the biggest tactical mistake of his entire career.

Staring after Chelsea, Justin wondered what it would be like to actually get to know her. He’d seen her in court — the cool, imperious beauty whose faith in her clients’ innocence was unshakable, and far too often right. Her flashing eyes and sexy lips hinted at a woman hell-bent on mischief lurking somewhere under all that conviction. The passionate way she returned his kiss…

He wondered what other fascinating secrets she hid behind that all-business exterior of hers. One thing was for certain. Keeping up with her was going to be exhausting — just keeping a step ahead of her mercurial moods would require superhuman strength. How could one woman be so perfectly poised, and so supremely irritating at the same time?

She accused him of bullying the prisoner. Him. Had any other attorney leveled the accusation at him, he’d laugh it off, aware his pristine reputation for adhering to the letter of the law was in no danger. But something about Chelsea Hanover made it impossible to find the notion amusing. Her earnestness and complete lack of guile were an oddity in the business of criminal defense.

He witnessed, firsthand, how those same qualities served her in the courtroom. The results were staggering. Chelsea believed in her client’s innocence, and her unwavering faith spoke volumes to a jury. No matter the evidence, in the end Chelsea poked holes in the prosecution’s theories.

Grudgingly, he admitted she was right about Chad Fairman. The poor kid was set up from the beginning, and only Chelsea believed him, until she gave the most brilliant cross-examination Justin ever saw, and brought Chad’s abusive father to a tearful confession, right there on the stand.

That was when the fantasy began, Justin acknowledged, swallowing hard as he clamped down on his libido. From the moment Chelsea turned from the stand with that blazing look of triumph on her face, he was lost. He couldn’t admit just how much he wanted her, and nor could he approach her. They occupied different worlds, which only crossed at points like this one, leaving them no room to be anything more than adversaries.

Not this time, he decided fiercely as he reached for the door handle. He wouldn’t let her slip away on him again. He didn’t see belief in her eyes when she stormed into Interrogation, and he noticed the slight hesitance in her voice when she proclaimed herself Marlene Cavarella’s attorney. She wasn’t convinced of the woman’s innocence, either, and he planned to use her doubt.

As he opened the door, Justin suppressed a grin at the cool ultimatum Chelsea was in the process of issuing to a haggard-looking Talbot.

“–I will not allow my client to speak with you until then, Detective, so you might as well accept it. I want to speak with her now, before she answers another of your questions.”

“Ms. Hanover, please,” Talbot calmly tried to head off the storm. “It’s police procedure. We–”

“The Miranda Warning specifically states she isn’t required to answer a single question without legal consultation,” Chelsea brushed his explanation off, her back ramrod straight. It was obvious she was taking out her anger at him on Talbot.

“She’s right,” Justin broke in as Talbot opened his mouth in protest. “Mrs. Cavarella has both the right to silence and to an attorney. We’ve got lots of time. We can let her confer with her lawyer first.”

Chelsea turned, eyes wide in surprise for an instant, before she recovered. Her surprise bothered him. Did she think he would violate the law just to win? The mere idea she might was insulting. He was very aware of the law, and he wasn’t about to prove her earlier accusation right. The triumph on Chelsea’s face as she gave him a curt nod, then turned her glare back to Talbot, fascinated him. Just what was she trying to prove?

“If you gentlemen will excuse us, my client and I have some talking to do.”

Talbot rose from his seat and left, but not without a wary glance at the prisoner. Justin, taking a step toward Chelsea, leaned to murmur in her ear, “I’ll concede this battle, Counselor, but choose your future battles carefully, because I intend to win the war.”

With that, he turned and followed Talbot out of the room. But not before he caught the flicker of relief on Marlene Cavarella’s haunted face.

*****

Now, just what in God’s name was that all about? Chelsea wondered as she turned to frown at the closed door. Blakely made it sound like he was doing her a favor, rather than following a well-established principle of law. Weary, she decided she most likely didn’t want to know. Turning back to Marlene, she gave the other woman a brief smile.

“I’m sorry you had to be put through that display, Mrs. Cavarella. I’m sure you’re under enough pressure without having to deal with any unnecessary stress. My name is Chelsea Hanover. I was told you requested my services yesterday evening.”

The petite, pretty woman at the table nodded miserably. “Nick always said you were the best. He told me to call you if anything ever… if I needed… if…”

Every ounce of strength seemed to desert the tiny woman, and her calm poise of a moment ago evaporated. Burying her face in her trembling hands, she sobbed uncontrollably; great, heaving sobs that looked enough to tear her apart. Compassion flooded Chelsea, and she moved to sit beside Marlene, placing a comforting hand on the older woman’s shoulder.

Marlene Cavarella didn’t look like a murderer, or like she’d ever have been able to hold down and stab her six-foot-four-inch, two hundred-fifty pound husband. She was tiny, like a fragile china doll, and Chelsea doubted she weighed more than a hundred pounds. If the murder happened as the police report laid it out, then Marlene would have to have been acting in an emotional frenzy, which meant she was provoked.

Reaching into her briefcase, Chelsea drew out her digital recorder and a notepad and pen. Turning on the recorder, she gently rubbed the sobbing woman’s shoulder. “Tell me what happened.”

Marlene nodded, making a valiant effort to pull herself together, but her lips continued to tremble as she haltingly began. “My husband and I had a fight yesterday morning.”

Chelsea started, surprised. Was she hearing the beginnings of a murder confession? Please, God, don’t let it be!

“It was such a stupid fight. I don’t even know why we were arguing.” She looked up at Chelsea with weary blue eyes. “All we seem to do, anymore, is argue.”

“What did you argue about?”

A bitter laugh answered her. “Anything and everything. The kids. Work. Some woman he’s been seeing on the sly.” She shrugged helplessly. “Everything was falling apart. Nick was always working, Tim was in trouble constantly, and neither one of them would listen to me. So when Nick made a comment about having to work late last night, I guess I just lost it. I demanded he stop lying to me and just admit he’s been seeing some woman from the studio. He denied it, yelled at me about doubting him. I don’t know what else was said. We just screamed at each other.”

“And then what?” Chelsea prompted, her stomach knotted in dread.

“And then I left.” Marlene shrugged.

Chelsea blinked, hard. “You left?”

The older woman nodded. “I just picked up my coat and purse and walked out the door. I was afraid he might hit me if I stayed, with the mood he was in.”

Chelsea sucked in a sharp breath. “He hit you? Before, I mean?”

A half-shrug answered her.

“Marlene,” Chelsea pressed her fingers against the other woman’s shoulder, “you have to tell me. If he hit you anytime, it’s important I know.”

“Yes.” The word came out faint, barely more than a whispered breath. “He didn’t use to, but over the past year, Nick’s been… different. Tense and easily upset — moody all the time. He never talks anymore, unless we argue.” She sucked in a pained breath, fighting tears. “I was afraid of him, but he made me so angry, too. I had to leave.”

Chelsea nodded. “Where did you go?”

“To a friend’s house.”

“Can you give me a name?”

“Linda. Linda Travis. She owns Travis Catering. She’s my best friend.”

Chelsea allowed herself a small smile. At least she would have an easy time verifying part of Marlene’s story. “What did you do at Linda’s?”

“Talked. I told her about the trouble Nick and I have been having. Then we went shopping. I bought a…” she stopped, color flooding her cheeks, before she continued in a whisper, “I bought a new nightgown. I thought, maybe Nick would like it… you know… maybe we could get our marriage back on track.”

Chelsea smiled, vindicated. A woman who couldn’t hide her embarrassment over buying sexy lingerie would never be able to hide her mortification over committing murder. “That sounds like a good idea to me.”

Marlene gave her a teary smile. “That’s what Linda said, too.”

“What time did you return home?”

Marlene smiled again. “It was just shortly before two in the afternoon. I remember because I was thinking the kids wouldn’t be home for nearly an hour, when I saw Nick’s car in the driveway. I thought, maybe he’d come home to apologize, hoping I’d be there.”

“And then what?”

Marlene swallowed hard, her cobalt eyes going wide in horrified memory. “I walked into the living room, and… and…” Her lips trembled, and her face went ashen as her hands started to shake violently. “There was Nick, laying on the floor, with his chest all bloody, and one of my best kitchen knives sticking out of his chest.”

Chelsea reached out, placing her hands comfortingly over Marlene’s. “I know it’s hard to talk about, but I need to know everything that happened, exactly as it happened.”

Marlene swallowed again, fighting for composure, and steadily losing as her eyes became huge and haunted.

“I… I didn’t know what to do,” she whispered. “I ran to him, screaming his name. He opened his eyes… looked right at me, and said…” she stopped, looking away for a moment. “I don’t remember what he said. I was too busy trying to stop the bleeding. I thought, maybe… I thought if I took the knife out of his chest, he’d be able to breathe easier.”

Chelsea’s breath caught. Could the explanation be so easy? “Go on.”

“When… when I pulled it out, Nick started gagging… turning purple. I panicked. I kept trying to stop the bleeding, pressing on his chest with my hands. But…” her huge blue eyes lifted to Chelsea’s face, imploring. “The blood made me dizzy, the smell, I guess. I don’t remember anything after that, except Tracy screaming.”

“Tracy’s your daughter?” Chelsea already knew the answer; she’d studied everything in the file she’d wrangled out of research before leaving the office last evening. The Cavarellas had two children – twins. Timothy and Tracy both just turned sixteen.

Marlene nodded, a small smile flitting over her lips. “Yes.”

“What time was it, when you woke up? Do you remember at all?”

Marlene nodded timidly. “It was five o’clock. Time to make Nick’s dinner. He always eats at six, on the dot. I remember I looked at the clock, and thought I better start dinner, or he’d be…” Tears welled in her eyes. “He’d be mad.”

Chelsea sighed. It all sounded so innocent, but there was something strange about the whole picture.

“Did you call nine-one-one?”

“I…” Marlene’s gaze faltered. “No. It never occurred to me.”

Her ashen features as she admitted to that one small error convinced Chelsea Marlene was telling the truth. She was innocent. A woman who looked that guilty for not calling an ambulance and went so irrational as to be worried about cooking a dead man dinner would never be capable of carrying out the bloody kind of execution performed on Dominic Cavarella. With a reassuring smile, Chelsea squeezed Marlene’s hands.

“It’s okay. I’m sure the shock made thinking difficult. Don’t worry; I’m going to help you.”

 

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.

BECOME A PATRON – DONATE HERE

©2006 Burden of Proof by Esther Mitchell
All Rights Reserved
Any 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

“Dangerous Request” – Excerpt from BLOOD DEBT (Project Prometheus)

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When Doctor Michael Banks asked his brother to find him a specialist to help combat the biological weapon wiping out entire villages in the Amazon jungles, he expected a dedicated, licensed doctor with enough lab time to make Albert Schweitzer green with envy, and warrior enough to handle himself in the Amazon.  So he was stunned and disappointed to find himself face-to-face with a petite spitfire of a woman with no degree, desert features, and china blue eyes.  To beat the poison, Michael will need everything at his disposal, and the Persian spitfire at his side has the key to his most valuable weapon — if he can keep her far away from his darkest secret.

 

“Dangerous Request” –Excerpt from Blood Debt (Project Prometheus, Book 4) :

Michael, his head bent in concentration over the most recent batch of blood tests, jerked upright as a scream tore through the camp. As his brain registered the sound came from the nearby blood-supply tent, where Shahdi was working, icy panic lanced through him.

He lunged for the lab’s entrance, and dashed out into the bright light of day, with barely an acknowledgement of moving as he tore into the canvas of the collapsed tent next door.

“Shahdi!”

“Michael,” her faint voice, even muffled by the heavy canvas, sent an electric charge of relief through his veins. Shoving aside canvas as he went, Michael waded through the collapsed tent, until he uncovered a sight that made his blood run cold.

Shahdi lay pinned beneath a large chunk of the main support pole, with the heavy beam wedged sideways across her body from left shoulder to right hip. That thing had to be crushing her!

Scrambling to her side, Michael grasped the pole, muscles straining as he lifted the beam away. It wasn’t as heavy as it was awkward to lift, but it was still heavy enough to do damage when dropped from nearly fifteen feet above. Discarding the pole, he dropped to the ground at Shahdi’s side even as she tried to sit up.

“Don’t move!”

She gave him an odd look — probably questioning the sharp fear in his voice — but subsided with nothing more than a sigh and a wince. Michael ran his hands quickly over her body, checking for cracked or broken bones and warmer than normal spots that would indicate internal bleeding. Relief poured through him when he found nothing.

“This is not how I planned to have your hands on me.” The humorous lilt of Shahdi’s voice snapped his gaze to her face, and he scowled as his fear boiled over into anger.

“You could have been killed, and you’re cracking jokes?”

She rolled her eyes as she slowly sat up, his hands steadying her in spite of her apparent strength.

“You must learn to not fret so, Michael,” she murmured. “The point is that I was not harmed. Therefore, a little humor puts the situation into its proper place.”

“You’re going to have nasty bruises by tomorrow–”

“But they will heal with time.”

“You’ll be stiff and hurting–”

“But I am alive.”

He eyed her testily, his nerves drawn to breaking point. Damn it, she was hurt; couldn’t she see how much the idea scared him? “You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”

“No.” Her good humor fled, and her somber blue gaze met his. “I do not know how to make you love me.”

Blood Debt – Available from Desert Breeze Publishing on May 11,2016

“Unknown Variable” — Excerpt from IN HER NAME (Project Prometheus)

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Every story has a beginning. While Project Prometheus’ beginning is thousands of years in the past, Matt and Manara’s story starts not quite so long ago… with a brutal slaying, and a dangerous mission. Problem is, only one of them knows exactly how dangerous this mission really is…

“Unknown Variable” – Excerpt from IN HER NAME (Project Prometheus, Book 1) —
January 2, 2000

The noonday sun glinted off the Mediterranean Sea in sapphire and diamond shafts, reflecting light against dark sunglasses. Salty seawater sprayed up against the prow of the sleek speedboat, carrying with it the pungency of fish and seaweed. His jaw clenched as he shifted gears, watching the shimmer of approaching land dance in and out of view like a desert mirage.

Sidon. Matthew Raleigh’s stomach clenched with bitter memory. He was well-acquainted with the deceptively quiet Lebanese city. He’d been here too many times in a past that he’d just as soon forget as a Navy SEa, Air and Land operative on prowl-and-growl missions. His lips curved in a wry grimace. He wasn’t a SEAL anymore — there was at least that much mercy left in the world. Not that what he did these days brought him much peace either. Good thing he wasn’t looking for peace anymore. To deaden the pain in his soul and help reduce the nightmares that regularly stole away sleep, he formed Project Prometheus — a special mercenary organization dedicated to ending terrorism. A futile enough cause. He scowled. The men who’d hired Prometheus’ mercenaries had business in Lebanon. Scum was still scum. That never changed.

Matt pulled his mind from the dark thoughts creeping in; he needed to concentrate on the mission. Was the team ready? He brought them in under the cover of night yesterday. He hoped they made it to the pre-arranged safe house but he had no way of being sure. They were on radio silence and for safety’s sake, he couldn’t go to find them until he was ready to join them. Matt glanced at his wristwatch. Besides, he was already on his way to meet with their CIA contact, codenamed Star.

Uneasiness clutched Matt. He didn’t like that no one at Langley had ever actually seen Star. There was no picture, not even a physical description, though the Agency claimed Star was a miracle worker. Matt scowled. He didn’t believe in miracles or miracle workers. From the little Matt knew, he surmised Star was an important figure in Lebanon, well connected with an extensive knowledge of the local area. Matt also guessed Star, whoever he was, probably had connections to arms dealers or some other dubious operation. Great. Just what they needed; a contact they couldn’t trust.

Find out more about the mission. Pick up your copy of IN HER NAME, today! And look for the continuation of Project Prometheus with HOPE OF HEAVEN, coming in 2015!

Project Prometheus & Remembering 9/11

While most of today I’ll be talking about the release of Project Prometheus’ first book, In Her Name (well, re-release, really), I wanted to take a moment, right here at the beginning, and talk about the events that happened on this date thirteen years ago. The events of September 11, 2001 had a profound impact on the entire world. They also inspired a great deal of the most important changes made to the development of the book I’m going to be talking a lot about, today. Because of this, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the men and women who died that day, and who died in the days, weeks, months, and even years afterward, because of those events.

It was anger that drove what In Her Name would become. Not just anger at what happened, though that factored into what drove me. I was angry because the first instinct was to blame an entire ethnicity, before anyone even knew who was to blame, or if there actually was anyone to blame. Even after things began settling down and the task of figuring out what happened and who was responsible began, I wanted to show the world how wrong it was to turn a person into a criminal just because of their ethnicity or religious beliefs.

And so, a woman who had merely been a priestess of an ancient faith evolved, to become a heroine in her own right. Manara Binte Alzena became a symbol, and a lesson. Matt Raleigh came with built-in prejudice. The product of a disastrous childhood, he despises all things paranormal or spiritual.  Manara is the embodiment of everything his prejudice has set him up to hate. But she’s also someone to be admired, whose dedication to preserving life and serving what is right and just in the world has put her at dangerous odds with her world. She’s rushing headlong into Iraq, where her faith and her status could easily cost her life. But she’s determined to do what she has to do, no matter the cost. That’s something Matt can’t help but admire.

By putting a man with a deep hatred up against a woman who is both the embodiment of everything he hates and a source of great strength and help for him, I address the age-old question of which is stronger – hate, or love. It’s a question (and an answer) I think we could all learn a little something from.

Project Prometheus Badge

“The Score” – Excerpt from HERO’S HOPE (Underground)

Heros HopeThe character of Matt Clipper, aka Watchdog, is one of my more unusual and intriguing characters. Loosely based in equal parts on a friend with a very rough upbringing and a well-earned attitude that won’t quit (and covers a heart of gold), and my brother, from whom (among other details) Matt Clipper draws part of his core personality and name, Watchdog is an unusual blend of streetwise tough guy, a gang-banger whom Rick and Tamia, at different points, refer to as having an attitude the size of Texas, and the lonely, sensitive artistic type, given to a romanticism he rarely even shows a glimmer of.

One of the things I most looked forward to, with writing these later books in this Evolution, was finally being able to actually delve into this character and what he really experiences. In the first few books, we only ever get to see how he interacts with the team, and all we know about his interactions outside of the Underground are based strictly on what he reveals to other characters. He comes across as a thug with a few chinks in his armor, but generally not deep.

Well, hold onto your hats, folks! Starting in HERO’S HOPE, you get to see a whole other side to Matt Clipper… This is a man with a surprising amount of depth, and who, for his biological youth (he’s only 25), feels ancient because of what he’s seen and experienced. And, finally, we get to start seeing exactly what Watchdog does out there on the streets, at night. And his world isn’t a pretty one…

So I thought I’d share one of those glimpses into Watchdog’s world outside of the Underground… On the streets, where he’s known by the pseudo-alias “Clip.”  Here you go…

 

“The Score” – Excerpt from Hero’s Hope (Underground, Book #4) —

He told himself he was ready for this.  And he knew he was full of shit.  No one was ever ready to tangle with a dude like Terrence Walker.  One wrong move, one wild card in the mix, and it would all end in a bloodbath.  Matt Clipper sealed his lips in a grim line over the worried oath that pressed against his tongue as he primed his Colt Racer – a recent addition to street warfare, the weapon was a cross between a conventional handgun and a Super Taser – and double-checked that he had his backup.  He glanced into the rearview mirror of the Lincoln Continental.  “Y’all ready?”

“Let’s roll.”  Snooks brandished his weapon with a grin just this side of sadistically gleeful, and Matt bit down on the wave of nausea that spiraled through him at the sight.  Similar anticipation preceded too many of his nightmares.  He resisted the urge to shudder.  He was getting way too old for this shit.  Problem was, he didn’t see how he was of any use to the Commandos if he left the streets behind.  He didn’t have Blade’s skills, or Jen’s brains, or Red’s background.  He had nothing to offer but what he learned out here, and the one thing Matt Clipper wasn’t was a leech.  So he did the only thing he knew how to do.  Even if it killed him.

To combat the queasy uncertainty in the pit of his stomach, he pasted on his most cocky grin and reached for the driver side door.  He was about to put it on the line to get Big T to this meet-up.  The Man had best represent.

“Let’s go.”

Like a pack of wild animals, the gang-bangers piled out of the vehicle with none of the stealth or finesse Matt grew accustomed to as a Commando.  He winced inwardly, and triple-checked his weapons again.  He had a bad feeling this was about to go to Hell, and Jen would kill him if he got sloppy.  Hell, the Voodoo woman would probably dig him up just to kill him again, if he got himself whacked.

A snort of dark laughter nearly broke his lips, and he caught the wary look the kid beside him cast his way.  Rance stuck close to him since JT went down.  Poor kid wasn’t cut out for this life; too bad Matt didn’t know how to get him out.

Matt’s gaze went to the building before them, and the scene was far too familiar.  Rundown and solitary among the empty lots that flanked it on three sides, this pre-World War Three tenement was where JT was murdered, and Matt’s fall into Hell began.  No one knew how much he hated every time he had to come back here.  The queasy sensation in his gut talked loud and clear.  When Matt Clipper checked out, it would be in a place just like this one — a building on the edge of forgotten.

Damn.  He was dipping into the morbid, again.  That was a distraction he didn’t need.  Matt shook it off and cocked his weapon with a grin only he knew was forced.

“Playtime.  Just remember, the Big Man wants T alive, or we’re in deep shit.”

He wasn’t worried they’d fuck it up.  These boys might need some lessons in finesse when it came to assaults, but they were far from incompetent novices.  They had their own silent language, and while it didn’t have the sophistication he’d learned by hanging with Booters like Blade and Ace, he was comfortable with it.  These were streeters.  They knew the score.

The gang fanned out to surround the front door, waiting for Matt’s signal.  He edged up to the door and listened intently.  The sound of an old building settling, and the drip of water somewhere in the distance, reached his ears.  No voices, no footsteps.  Relief wound through him.  No ambush; and that was good news to him.  He jerked his head toward the door, then eased it open to scoot inside cautiously.  The same couldn’t be said for his gang.

Snooks barreled through the door like a maniac.  Damn it, was he high?  Matt couldn’t tell; he couldn’t see the kid’s eyes, but Snooks was sweating.  That was a bad sign.

“Yo, Snooks, hold up a min-” His caution fell on deaf ears as Snooks took the stairs three at a time, disappearing into the upper levels of the old building.  There was a loud crash, and the Snooks’ voice echoed down the stairwell.

“Prayer time, muthafu-”  His words died in a spray of gunfire that lit up the stairwell and echoed off the tile walls.  Matt immediately dropped behind cover, his instincts honed to self-preservation by years of Commando missions.  He knew what that gunfire meant.

“Damn it.”  Anger tightened his chest.  It wasn’t supposed to go down like this.  God damn it, Snooks knew better than to get high right before a hit.

“Shit, dude!”  Rance dropped back as well, his face a shade between green and gray.  Kid was scared.  Smart.  “What was that?”

“That,” Matt responded grimly, “was trouble.  Everyone, hang back.”

With that quiet instruction, Matt started slowly up the stairs, forcing himself to draw even breaths as he went.  This was it.  He’d never told anyone, but he always knew he’d die alone.  And here he was, climbing into the lion’s den, alone.  Still, if he wanted this to go down without any higher of a body count, he had to go it solo.

As he reached the first landing, Matt flipped his Racer to stun.  He didn’t want anyone going down for a permanent nap, least of all his mark.  The Man would never forgive him for that, and nor would anyone else.  Set to stun, the energy weapon would release a non-lethal electrical charge in a beam that would render the target unconscious.  He wanted Big T down, not out of the picture.  He had orders, after all.

Pick up your copy of HERO’S HOPE today at Amazon.com   and check out the rest of this critically-acclaimed fan favorite series, with TAMIA, MIND KILLER, and TERMINAL HUNTER. Find out more at www.esthermitchell.com