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.”
“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?”
“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.
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©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
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