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

sightunseencoverart

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.”

What?”

“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.”

“Similar?”

“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.”

“His?”

“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.

“Serial Killer” – 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!

sightunseencoverart

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

 

“Serial Killer” — Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow, Book 1):

She lifted one brow and stared him down expectantly.  He fought the urge to chuckle. She was adorable, when she was pissed. Not that he was about to admit it to her.

“All right.” He threw his hands up in mock surrender. “You’re right. I had the forensic accountants go over his financials, and it doesn’t look like your pal, Adam, had any reason to want Parrish dead.”

“Good.” She turned back to the samples on her workstation. “Now maybe we can get back to finding the real killer.”

“Like Patton.”

She shot him a withering glance over her shoulder. “Would you let it go, already?”

“Why? Even you admitted he matches your profile of the type of person most likely to want Parrish dead.”

She turned toward him again, her arms crossed over her chest and her gaze cool. “Perhaps. But if he’s Ramsey’s killer, what’s his connection to Carol-Ann? Or the other five victims?”

“You found a solid link?” Jonathan straightened, instantly on alert. Mac wasn’t able to link the cases more than peripherally, before. Not enough to convince her they were connected, and he wasn’t about to argue with someone with her credentials, when it came to these things.

“Not conclusive, no. But I had Mark run gas chromatographic analysis of the clothing of four of the other victims, and there are consistent levels of the same incense components in all of them as we found on Ramsey.”

“What about the others?”

“Carol-Ann’s body was submerged in the Monongahela for so long, all chemical traces were washed away, and one of the other victims was little more than a skeleton. We barely found enough clothing fibers to confirm she was definitely clothed at the time of burial. Beyond that, there just wasn’t a big enough sample to get a definitive test, and we can’t be sure there wasn’t any environmental contamination of the sample.”

Jonathan reached into his pocket for his cell phone. “Consistent is good enough for me.  Thanks, Mac.”

Even as he dialed Damion’s number, Jonathan squashed the uneasy feeling in his gut. This was almost too easy. What kind of sick game was Haliatus up to, now?

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

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 6

Chapter Six

August 7
5:00 AM

An insistent, annoying buzz filled Chelsea’s head, dragging her from the arms of oblivion and into the dim early morning light. Bleary-eyed, she slapped her alarm clock off and groaned as she sat up, swinging her long legs over the edge of the bed. Damn Justin Blakely, anyway! He’d pushed Marlene’s arraignment through the courts faster than she anticipated.

Little as she liked the idea of Marlene being locked up, she couldn’t stop the growing fear that behind bars was the only safe place for her client, right now. She counted on the extra time to prove her case, but unless she came up with a compelling eleventh-hour argument for a continuance, Marlene would be arraigned, today. Oh, well, maybe it was for the best, she told herself with a heavy sigh. No use putting off the inevitable; whether arraigned or indicted, Marlene didn’t have a prayer of avoiding trial, and the older woman couldn’t handle much more jail time, anyway.

Rising with a sigh, Chelsea stumbled into the bathroom and a hot shower, in hopes of reviving herself enough to make it through the day. Five minutes later, as she lathered her hair with her favorite apple-scented shampoo, Chelsea frowned. This case could fall apart without one woman’s testimony. She had to find Linda Travis!

Rinsing off, she stepped from the shower and dried off, wrapping her hair in the towel when she finished. Standing before the clearing mirror, she studied herself critically. More than once, Sally declared it a waste Chelsea didn’t date, with the way she looked. She had a naturally slim figure even her poor eating habits hadn’t managed to ruin, yet. Sure, there were dark smudges beneath her eyes, thanks to a restless night and too little sleep in recent days, and her skin was pale from stress. But those could be covered up with cosmetics.

Her body, however, was only just beginning to show the ravages of stress. She was still willowy, with full, but not disproportionately large breasts and curvy but slim hips. Letting her hands slide down over her creamy, freckle-dotted flesh, she wondered dreamily what Justin would think. Would he appreciate the silkiness of her skin, or its sun-sensitive pallor? The thought of his hands on her caused her nipples to pucker and her insides to tremble. Then, as her foggy thoughts cleared, she gasped in horror. Why should she care what Blakely would think? He was never going to get close enough.

 Never.

Chelsea frowned darkly at herself. There was no way she would ever let another Blakely hurt her. Even if Justin’s kisses did make her blood hot and her knees weak…

 Stop it, she commanded her libido as she yanked on her robe and strode back into the bedroom, grabbing up the phone. Forget coffee, this morning — she was too wired, now. Besides, she needed to check in with Sally before court.

The phone rang twice before a sleepy voice answered, “Hello?”

“Sal, it’s me. Did you find any leads on Linda Travis, yet?”

“Good morning to you, too,” Sally muttered wryly. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”

“It’s five-thirty AM.”

“God, Chels, I love you dearly, but I swear I’m gonna kill you.”

“Sorry. I’m due in court by eight-thirty. Now, did you find out anything?”

Sally sighed, and yawned. “No. I called in a few favors from an old friend to get him to watch her place, but there’s been no suspicious activity, so far. The store’s been closed, and no one unusual has been in or out of the building since you were there. I got Deke to fingerprint the place, too. Chels,” her voice grew grim. “The only prints he’s lifted so far belong to Linda and your client, Marlene Cavarella.”

Excitement zinged through Chelsea. Finally, a break! “So Marlene was there? That’s great news, Sal!”

“Not if Linda’s been kidnapped, it’s not,” Sally said. “The D.A.’s office will be all over that one, and your girl might end up facing kidnapping and breaking and entering charges on top of the murder rap.”

Chelsea’s high deflated. “Damn; you’re right. Linda’s the only one who can credibly give Marlene a rock-solid alibi. Any leads on where she might have gone?”

“I think the question should be why, not where.” Sally’s tone implied how little she, too, liked this loose end. “I’ve already checked, Chels, and Linda Travis is in this up to her neck. The first suspicious thing I flagged was in her connection to your client. She was friends with Marlene in high school, when Linda was dating Dominic. The girls had a falling out over him, according to my sources, and didn’t speak from their senior prom until about two years ago, when Marlene apparently renewed contact with Linda. Sis,” her tone turned grim. “All this makes it look like Marlene had a motive to want Linda Travis out of the way.”

Chelsea’s gut clenched, and nausea swirled in her stomach. Her case was shredding around her. “Well, keep at it, Sal. We need to find Linda, regardless of where that leads.”

“I agree,” Sally said. “Take care of yourself, Chels.”

“You, too. Tell Mom I said hi,” Chelsea said, before hanging up. As she returned the phone to its cradle, she drew a shuddering breath, and gathered her strength for the day ahead. She still had to face Justin Blakely and pretend she didn’t remember the scorching kiss they’d shared.

It was a lost cause to try ignoring her hormones, Chelsea decided an hour later as she watched Justin stride confidently into the courtroom in a dark brown suit that outlined his trim, muscular shape and intensified the piercing green of his eyes. As his gaze raked over her, those eyes flared with hunger, and Chelsea’s heart sped up, even as her palms went damp and her mouth turned to cotton. Nervously, she wet her lips, and watched his eyes darken further as they fixed on her tongue’s motion.

“Counselor,” he said, nodding, and the husky timbre of his voice made Chelsea’s knees weak. Good God, what was wrong with her? Chelsea snapped back into her cool courtroom demeanor, reminding herself this man she was mooning over was a Blakely — a corrupt, disgusting specimen somewhere below human on the evolutionary scale. Nodding crisply in his direction, she turned away as Marlene was led into the courtroom, determined to ignore Justin Blakely’s presence across the aisle if it killed her.

By the time the bailiff instructed them to rise for the judge’s entry, Chelsea’s tension had reached boiling point. Somehow, through the thrumming in her blood, she belatedly registered the judge’s identity.

 Willard Jennings.

Chelsea blanched, even as she locked her knees against a defeated collapse. Jennings? She’d drawn Jennings, of all people?

 I’m doomed, she thought, feeling the building pressure of unwelcome tears behind her eyes. God, was she going to break down here, in court? That would be a great start to her case — prove Jennings and his assumption women weren’t cut out for litigation right. Stiffening herself, she pushed aside her building despair over her crumbling case, and her rotten luck and forced herself to concentrate on her client’s innocence. She would find a way to prove it, somehow.

*****

Justin, watching Chelsea out of the corner of his eye, saw her face pale, and the shakiness of her stance, before she snapped bolt upright. He imagined she’d locked her knees, and concern slashed through him. Was she going to pass out? She looked even more haggard — if that was possible — than her hollow-faced client did. God, Jennings would eat her alive, and he could see she’d reached the same conclusion. Even as he watched, her eyes hardened to ice-blue chips, and her features set resolutely, like a soldier preparing for battle. Admiration stirred in Justin, and he barely suppressed the urge to smile. He couldn’t afford to go soft over Chelsea Hanover. He needed to keep his wits about him, for justice’s sake.

Judge Jennings, a formidable-looking man with the jowls of a bull dog and the cold glare of a Gestapo agent, glanced over the docket he was handed, harrumphed quietly in clear disgust, and raised that implacable black glare to fix on Marlene Cavarella.

“You are Mrs. Marlene Cavarella?”

“Yes.” Marlene’s whisper barely carried in the cavernous courtroom, and her head bowed meekly.

“Mrs. Cavarella, I hold here an indictment claiming that you did, on June third, willfully and with disregard to the value of human life, murder your husband, Dominic Cavarella. Do you understand this charge as it has been read to you?”

“Yes.” Her murmured answer wavered, and she trembled as if holding back tears. Jennings frowned, clearly disgusted by the display.

“How do you plead?”

Chelsea’s eyes raised level with the judge’s and in a firm, clear voice she said, “The defense enters a plea of not guilty, Your Honor.”

Jennings’ beefy face contorted in disdain. “Very well. Let the record reflect that the defendant is pleading not guilty to the charges.”

“We further request bail to be set, Your Honor,” Chelsea continued, undaunted. “Mrs. Cavarella is under considerable mental and emotional duress, and to keep her incarcerated under these circumstances constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Your Honor, it could be argued just as easily that stabbing a man sixty-four times with a butcher’s knife, in hopes of killing him, is also cruel and unusual punishment,” Justin said blandly. “The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania requests the denial of bail on the grounds that a person capable of such a gruesome execution is both capable and likely to commit another equally brutal offence.”

Chelsea’s eyes flashed rage as she shot him a scathing glance. “A woman of my client’s size is hardly capable, physically, of committing the murder of which she’s been accused, let alone a second like it–“

“Ms. Hanover,” Jennings leaned forward, his expression disapproving. “This is an arraignment. Kindly reserve your opening statements for the trial.” As Chelsea snapped her mouth shut, her cheeks flushing with rage and humiliation, Jennings continued. “As to the matter of bail, I’m not inclined to view size as a determining factor in the commission of a crime. In regards to your request for bail, I find sufficient grounds to believe your client is an opportunist. Her type will take a man for everything, including his life. As I’m not inclined to offer her the chance to prove me right, I’m denying bail. Mrs. Cavarella will be remanded to the custody of the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution for the duration of this trial.”

Justin’s hackles rose, even as Chelsea straightened, rage flashing through her eyes. While it wasn’t uncommon for a judge to deny bail in a capital offence such as murder, he’d never seen a defendant’s sex used so openly against her, before. Justin let his own glare bore into Jennings, hating the arrogant, biased politician as he never had before. It would be a miracle if any of them got through this trial alive.

 

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
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Burden of Proof Final

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 5

Chapter Five

 

Plagued by troubling thoughts, Chelsea spent the drive home dreading the solitude of her apartment. Maybe, she mused with a twinge of loneliness, she should get a pet. She’d certainly never felt so alone in her life. Between the helplessness Marlene’s case resurrected in her, the fear of having her personal demons splashed on the front page, should the media ever learn why she took this case, and the tension — both professional and personal — her confrontations with Justin Blakely stirred, she knew she wouldn’t be safe with her solitude, tonight.

Grimly, Chelsea turned her SUV onto the Fort Pitt Bridge, heading for the Pittsburgh city center. Better to spend the night working than to face old ghosts and new crimes. There was something comforting about burying herself in her work; it gave her a sense of control nothing else could.

Pulling into the underground parking garage of the nearly deserted office building that housed her law firm, she breathed a tiny sigh of relief and, grabbing up her briefcase, slid from her vehicle and headed toward the elevators.

Two minutes later, she was unlocking her office door when a voice behind her made her pause, unease dancing through her.

“Chelsea! What are you doing here? I thought you went to visit your sister.”

How did she explain herself, now? Chelsea fought panic, until she told herself it was silly to be scared of answering to Gene Marshall. Of anyone in the firm, Gene knew she was at work more often than she was home. He once joked about installing a bed for her, until he realized she took his offer seriously.

Turning, she smiled as she watched Gene amble toward her, tugging on a light jacket. Gene didn’t race, or stride, or even walk. He moved slowly, but gracefully, in a way his wife, Cookie, called “moseying.” He always had a windbreaker around, too. Like a good luck charm. Chelsea let her smile expand into a grin. “And I thought Aunt Cookie told you no more late nights!”

He grinned at her mention of his diminutive drill sergeant of a wife. “In this case, she’ll forgive me. I was finishing up the Wiggaln estate paperwork, which means I am now officially on vacation for two weeks.” His grey-green eyes twinkled merrily. “The Clipper is going out, and I promised Cookie a cruise.”

Chelsea laughed. “Just see that you keep that promise. I don’t want to defend your wife, next!”

He sobered abruptly.

“So you took it.” No mistaking the note of concern there. He expelled a heavy sigh. “I was kind of hoping you wouldn’t.”

She cast him a sharp glance. Didn’t anyone think she was capable of defending Marlene? “Why not? It’s good money for the firm…”

“Forget the damned firm,” he said gruffly, his bushy brows meeting over worried grey-green eyes. “I’m worried about you, kiddo. I’ve known you since you were a baby, and I’m having trouble putting the kid I knew together with the woman you’ve become.”

Chelsea’s eyes shifted away. “I don’t know what you’re–“

“Bull. You spend too much time in this office, or in the courtroom. You work harder, and longer hours, than any three partners put together. I’ve never seen you anywhere outside of this place since you joined the firm. In fact, Cookie said something to me just the other day about how long it’s been since we saw either you or Sally at the house. Now,” he crossed his arms in the authoritative stance she remembered from her childhood, “do you want to tell me why you’re both working yourselves to death?”

She turned away, grim determination building in her. There was no way she could tell Gene her secret. He would do what Sally and Rebecca wanted to do but lacked funds or guns for, and she long ago promised herself she wouldn’t draw anyone into her mess. “It’s personal, Uncle Gene. Nobody’s business but mine.”

He continued to study her intently for a long moment, and then sighed. “All right, Chelsea. But don’t stay up here too late, okay? You need sleep.”

“Yes, Dad.” She waved him off with the teasing quip she used to in her teens. As his footsteps faded down the hallway, she rested one hand on the door frame, and closed her eyes against the sting of tears. It was good to know some things never changed. Eyes squeezed tight, she whispered, “Thanks, Uncle Gene.”

*****

Friday, August 6
9:45 PM

Justin shoved back from his desk and plowed his hands through his already-disheveled hair again. He’d been working on the Cavarella case for two months. How could a case so rock-solid also be so damned difficult to swallow? Glaring at the files and notebooks spread open on his desk, he only barely resisted the urge to hurl curses on Mack Martin’s head for handing this case off to him.

“If you didn’t already look ready to kill someone, I’d say that new, rumpled look of yours is pretty sexy,” quipped a cheery female voice from the doorway of his office. Glancing up, Justin smiled wryly. Slight, bespectacled, and with far too much sass for her own good, Darlene Masters was a highly competent A.D.A., and his childhood friend. Now, studying his face, small frown lines appeared above the rims of her stylish granny glasses. “Okay. What gives, Justin?”

Sometimes, he conceded darkly, Darlene could also be annoyingly perceptive.

“What makes you think anything’s wrong?” He masked his frustration, already knowing it was pointless. His courtroom face didn’t seem to work any better on Darlene than it did around Mack.

“Oh, no you don’t, Justin Blakely.” She marched into his office and planted herself determinedly in the seat opposite him. “I’ve known you since you were busy putting bugs in my hair and snakes in my lunch pail. You don’t get to pull that slick poker face with me.”

Justin regarded her in fond exasperation. Darlene was the closest he’d ever come to a sister, and she had a tendency to badger him like one.

“It’s nothing, Darlin’,” he assured her, falling back on the teasing nickname he gave her as a child. “It’s just this case I’m working on. It goes to arraignment Monday, but I don’t want to go charging into the courtroom without all the facts, this time.”

“‘This time’? Is this really the invincible, superhuman Justin Blakely I’m talking to? Don’t tell me you’re having an attack of nerves.”

He shrugged as his mind drifted back to those heated moments in the prison corridor. Damn, he’d never wanted a woman so badly in his life.

“You remember the Fairman case, two years ago?”

“The kid charged with armed robbery and evading arrest? Yeah.” She looked at him, her brown eyes wide in disbelief. “Justin, that was one case, and it was years ago. You’ve put away lots of bad guys and girls since, and never let that mistake affect your confidence.”

“Yeah, well, I haven’t had to face her again, either,” he muttered ruefully.

Darlene went dead silent. When she didn’t speak after a full minute, Justin glanced up at her, to find a wide grin plastered on her face, and her eyes twinkling.

“What’s so damned funny?”

“Is that what this is all about? Your infatuation with that defense attorney?” She laughed. “She’s really got you all tied up in knots, huh?”

“No, dammit, and I’m sorry I ever told you about that. Dar, have you ever faced Hanover in the courtroom?”

She thought a moment, and then shook her head. “Not yet, but I handle mostly sexual crimes cases. According to what I’ve heard, she never takes those.”

“Exactly. She’s–” He stopped dead, his heart clenching as he realized what she just implied. “What did you say?”

She shrugged carelessly. “She refuses to defend domestic abuse and rape suspects. It’s not that uncommon among female defense attorneys, actually. They don’t like to defend scum like that, and… Justin, are you okay?”

He stared at the files on his desk as his chest tightened with dread. Ill certainty settled like a lead weight as he replayed his conversation with Chelsea in the prison parking lot. The words she used weren’t what bothered him, he realized as the band tightened further, making breathing painful. It was the absolute contempt, and fear, in her eyes. If Chelsea Hanover refused to take on an entire category of offences, without exception, there had to be a very good reason.

Fighting against the pain lodged in his chest, he drew a breath and looked up at his friend with somber eyes. “Dar, I need you to do me a favor.”

She looked concerned. “Name it.”

“I need to know everything you can find out about Chelsea Hanover. The only way I’m going to piece together the truth in this case is if I can figure out what she’s thinking, and why.”

Darlene nodded, her cocoa eyes dimming with sympathy. “I’ll get right on it.”

Left alone in his office, Justin slumped back in his chair, and stared moodily out his window as Chelsea’s troubled eyes swam before him.

Just what are you hiding?

It was a question he would give anything to know the answer to.

 

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

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 4

Chapter Four

Sunday, June 20

Maybe her case was a long shot, after all. Chelsea sighed heavily as she pulled into the almost-empty parking lot beside a large Victorian boasting a placard sign reading Hanover Investigations. It’d been a long, tense drive from Pittsburgh to the small town of Pierce, the usual hour-long trip elongated by the perpetual Pennsylvania construction. Now, looking up at the bright blue building before her, the weariness seeped from Chelsea, and a smile inched across her face. It would be good to see Sally again, even if it was on business.

Sliding from behind the wheel of her SUV, she grabbed her briefcase and squashed the fleeting wish business wasn’t what usually brought her home to Pierce. With a sigh, she strode up the brick sidewalk she and Sally helped their mother, Rebecca, lay a decade ago. Climbing the few wooden stairs to the porch, she pulled open the side door leading to Sally’s detective offices, and stepped into chaos.

Martha Kline, Sally’s ever-present and over-protective secretary, was muttering to herself as she rooted through reams of paperwork on her uncharacteristically messy desk. Behind her, file drawers stood open, and the phone on her desk continued to ring, ignored. Typically the calm center of any storm Sally created, Martha now looked frazzled and unhappy. Chelsea bit back a grin.

“Hi, Martha,” she said as she crossed the short length of the receptionist’s lobby. “Sally in?”

“She’s always in,” Martha complained, clearly not happy about that fact. “I know she only lives next door, but she shouldn’t be here. It isn’t right — a woman in her condition, working like this. She should be next door, with her feet propped up and a man to take care of her, not out chasing murderers and thieves!”

It was a common complaint of Martha’s these days that Sally shouldn’t be working while pregnant, but the edge of real worry in the older woman’s voice today wasn’t lost on Chelsea.

“Is she okay?” Worry knotted Chelsea’s brow. “Mom didn’t say anything about any problems, when I talked to her a few days ago.”

“Oh, she’s fine,” Martha said, then sighed, waving one hand dismissively. “We got a new case handed to us by one of Sally’s old bomb squad friends, and she refuses to take a break. Personally, I think it’s the whole baby thing. It’s just not right, you know.” Martha’s silver-haired head shook as she located a file and shoved it back into one drawer with more force than necessary. “In my day, when a fellow got some poor gal in the family way, he did the honorable thing, and married her.”

“Sally doesn’t–”

“Oh, I know, I know,” Martha waved off her protest. “She claims she’s happy, and this is how she wants it, but,” Martha shook her head again, her dark eyes telegraphing her disbelief, “I’ve caught her many times, sitting there staring out the window with a wistful, heartsick look on her face. She misses that boy, whoever he is.”

“Martha!” Sally’s voice called through the open office door. “You find that fax, yet? I need to call Jerianne and let her know where we are on this.”

“Just did, hon,” Martha called back. “You have a visitor.”

“Who?” Sally’s voice sounded wary, and a little wistful.

Taking her cue, Chelsea walked to the door, poking her head in to grin at the brunette woman seated behind the desk. “Hey, Sal!”

“Chelsea!” Sally’s face lit with a wide smile, turning her pretty face into the kind of beautiful that made even women take a second look. Chelsea shook her head, wondering how Jack Carney ever let her sister go. She doubted it was willingly, knowing Sally. “Come on in, sis. God, it’s good to see you.”

“It’s been less than a week,” Chelsea quipped, laughing, as she made her way through the perpetual clutter that was Sally’s office. Her sister had never been the domesticated type. “I thought pregnant women were supposed to go through a nesting phase, Sal, not a pack rat one. What’s all of this stuff?”

“Hazards of the job.” Sally grinned, but the motion looked forced. “New case.”

“So Martha said.” Chelsea looked at her sister in worry. “Are you sure you should be doing this, Sally?”

“Not you, too,” Sally groaned, rolling her eyes. “Mom’s been over here three times already today, pestering me to come back home and rest, and Martha keeps muttering about working too much in my ‘state’.” She sighed. “Look, I appreciate the concern; really. But I’m only three months along. I can’t exactly sit around for the next seven months, waiting for this kid to get born. I need to work.”

Chelsea heard what her sister wasn’t saying. At barely three months pregnant, Sally was right. She was fully capable, physically, of working. Her emotional state was far more worrisome. Sally just wasn’t the same since she came home from Houston a month and a half ago. “Have you decided what you’re going to do, yet?”

“No.” Sally sighed again, resting one hand against her still-flat midsection. “I have the paper’s number tacked up beside the phone, next door, but I’m not sure I can actually use it. I mean, what do I say? ‘Hi, I’m sorry I left you in Houston. Oh, and by the way, you’re going to be a daddy’? Like he’s going to believe that, or even care. I was a one-night stand, Chels. We agreed–”

“But you’re in love with him,” Chelsea argued. “And your baby deserves to know a daddy. We both went through the fatherless thing, sis, and I don’t want my niece or nephew to go through that.”

Sally’s gaze turned steely. “Neither do I, Chels, but I don’t have much of a choice. Better no father than an indifferent one. Jack probably doesn’t even remember Houston.”

Chelsea bit her lip. Sally was deliberately selling herself short. Her relationship with Jack Carney was only three months ago. From the way Sally talked about her time with Jack, when she talked about him at all, Chelsea doubted either one would ever forget Houston.

Knowing it was none of her business, Chelsea sighed in surrender. “It’s your call, sis. Just promise me you’ll at least call me before you leave for the hospital.”

A grin flashed across Sally’s face. “Now, why would I go into labor without my coach? You think I want to go through this alone?”

No, she didn’t, which was the problem. Sally was terrified of pregnancy, and even more of being a parent. She needed Jack to reassure her she could do it, but her sister was too damn stubborn for her own good, sometimes. So, covering her worry with a grin, Chelsea said, “You can’t convince me you’re a wimp, Sally Hanover. I’m your sister. I know you too well.”

“Yeah, you do.” Sally’s smile turned wistful. “We still on for Thursday?”

Chelsea grinned. Ever since they were teenagers, they had set a standing “Sister Night” for every Thursday night. Whenever they were in the same town, they never missed. “Wouldn’t miss it!”

Sally gave her a long, penetrating look. Chelsea resisted the urge to wince. She knew her attempt at a cheery mood wouldn’t fool Sally for long. “What’s with you? When you were down last week, you didn’t look so… tense.”

Unbidden, the memory of Justin’s kiss rose in Chelsea’s mind, making her chest tight and heat flush through her. Tense wasn’t the word for it. Under Sally’s speculative gaze, she forced nonchalance and shrugged. “I had a run-in with the ADA over a new case I’m working. I guess the whole thing just has me stressed.”

Sally laid down her pen and gestured for Chelsea to take a seat. Chelsea did, settling back with a weary sigh.

“This case is driving me nuts, Sal, and I only just got it,” she admitted, closing her eyes. “Most of the clear physical evidence points to my client being guilty, but my gut’s telling me exactly the opposite. There’s some questionable evidence, but nothing anyone’s been able to pin down, yet.”

“Trust your instincts. Yours have always been really good.”

“Not always,” she countered, new tension rising in her as she reminded them both of the only time she let her guard down.

“You have got to quit beating yourself up over that, Chels,” Sally said firmly. “Wasn’t enough damage done, without you adding to it?”

Chelsea sighed heavily. “I know. I just… this case keeps bringing so much of that back up in my mind, I guess.”

Sally’s expression grew concerned. “This the murder splashed all over the news, lately?”

“I’m representing Marlene Cavarella. She’s been charged with stabbing her husband, Dominic, sixty-four times, leading to his death.”

Sally whistled. “That’s a lot of overkill. What’s the evidence look like?”

“She was found laying, semi-conscious but unharmed, beside her husband’s body, his blood all over her, and the murder weapon clutched so tightly in her hand that the paramedics had to pry her fingers loose.”

Sally winced. “So far, it doesn’t sound like a great case, for you.”

“I know,” Chelsea said glumly. “But Marlene claims she’s innocent. She even gave me an alibi to check out, and a play-by-play of her whereabouts the entire day.” She frowned. “Sal, she has victim written all over her.”

“So, you’ve got an alibi. Didn’t it check out?”

Chelsea grimaced.

“That’s part of why I came to see you, actually.” She snapped open her briefcase and withdrew the photographs and file it contained. “If you’re not too busy, I need your help tracking down a witness. Her name’s Linda Travis, and she’s been missing for almost over two weeks.”

Sally frowned at the items Chelsea held out. “Chels, this is a matter for the police…”

“They’ve been informed,” Chelsea assured her, then sighed. “But they said they can’t do anything as long as there’s no solid proof she didn’t just leave on her own. They claim there’s no evidence of foul play.”

“And you’re sure she didn’t?”

“Sally, you said to trust my gut. Well, since I got out of the car at the Travis place, all it’s been screaming is kidnapped! Someone wants Marlene to take the fall for Dominic’s murder.”

Sally nodded grimly, taking the file. “I’ll look into it. I have a few contacts in the Pittsburgh area. I’ll see if I can’t get an official investigation rolling.”

“Thanks, Sally,” Chelsea said with a small exhalation of relief. “You have no idea how much this case means to me.”

Sally studied her shrewdly. “Oh, I think I do. But, Chels,” she leaned forward. “Be careful about playing with fire. You’re liable to get burned.”

“Speaking of playing with fire, there’s something else.”

Sally’s concerned frown deepened. “What’s that?”

“Do you still have that friend at the forensic lab, down south?”

“Joyce?” Sally nodded. “Yeah, why?”

“Could you talk to her about getting some evidence tested? I can provide the samples.”

“I can ask.” Sally shrugged. “But rumor has it the pathologist who runs the lab is a real hard-ass about evidence collection. Why don’t you save yourself the trouble, and just use one of the private labs your firm already has on retainer?”

Chelsea shook her head. She already considered — and discarded — that idea.

“This case is already a media circus. I need a lab the media won’t find out we’re doing testing at, too. It lowers the chance of some reporter getting hold of the results and contaminating my case before trial.”

“Okay. I’ll call Joyce and see if she can send me their collection requirements and procedures.”

Chelsea relaxed. Maybe her case wasn’t as hopeless as she feared.

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