The third book in my Recovered Innocence series, Reclaim, is now available for preorder. Here’s a sneak peek excerpt of the first chapter!
RELEASING JULY 5, 2016
I’m kind of a fuckup. It’s not something I aspire to. It just sort of happens. The effort’s there. It’s the execution that’s lacking. I’m not a total loser. I have a few things going for me. I’m told I’m good looking, but my appearance hasn’t delivered a single date for months and I’ve never had a steady girlfriend. I went to school—a good school—and got a degree, but that didn’t translate into a job in my chosen field. I bought the winning lottery ticket once and lost it. I don’t play the lottery anymore. The company that manufactured my first new car went out of business less than a year after I bought it.
I joke a lot about having bad luck and being cursed. That’s not what it is. I’m just one of those people who have to work harder than anyone else. Nothing comes easy to me. I get what I’m after . . . eventually. Usually on the third or fourth try. Never the first. I envy people who coast through life thinking about wanting something and then bam. They have it. My best friend, Dominic, is like that. He thought about settling down and getting married. A week later he met his wife. They talked about having children. She was pregnant within a month.
I don’t get people like that.
If it weren’t for my obstinate determination I wouldn’t have achieved a single thing in my life. Stubborn to a fault. That’s how my friends and family describe me.
At least I learn from my lessons. My friend Mike is one of those guys who keeps doing the same thing over and over, lamenting all the while about how he can never catch a break. You gotta make your own breaks. At least those of us who don’t get things handed to them. I’m always looking out for the next thing, the next whatever it’s going to be that’ll take me where I want to go. However circuitous the route. No straight lines to anything for me. Nope. The road to all of my achievements has been twisty and windy, filled with flooded potholes. Every once in a while something will fly out in front of me, forcing me to change course to avoid it.
It’s those unexpected detours that have led to the most interesting things in my life. Take my new job at Nash Security and Investigation. Totally not what I saw myself doing when they handed me my college diploma for my degree in criminal justice. I was going to be a police officer. Or maybe a sheriff. Okay, a small part of me kinda hoped the FBI would recruit me right out of college. That didn’t happen. Also it turns out that I’m not cut out to be a cop. A little more than halfway through the police academy entrance application I had the sudden, overwhelming realization that I didn’t want to go into law enforcement.
After that revelation—another something leaping across my road, making me jerk the wheel to avoid it—I found myself on an unfamiliar street, fenced in by unfamiliar surroundings, driving along at a snail’s pace. That was the year I wandered aimlessly through job after job, looking for The Thing. My Thing. Who and what I was meant to be. And then I came across the story of how this PI firm, Nash Security and Investigation, had helped to clear a man named Beau Hollis who was wrongly convicted for the rape and murder of his ex-girlfriend. That sounded like a really cool job. I mean, freeing someone after years in prison. Giving them their life back. That’s a fucking incredible thing.
I wanted to be a part of that.
It was the first time I ever had that feeling about anything. I sure as shit didn’t have it about selling cars or driving a delivery truck or working in customer service for an electronics company. Even the free pizza I got to eat doing deliveries for an Italian restaurant didn’t give me the sensation of being eminently useful. Contributing to society. Doing good. Making wrong things right. That’s what I want to do.
Except as usual I managed to screw things up the first chance I got.
I got the job at the agency that I wanted to work for, Nash Security and Investigation, nailing the interview. That never happens to me. I should’ve known it was too good to be true. Like I said, nothing’s ever been handed to me. Definitely not something as big and as sought-after as this job was for me. The very first assignment they give me on my own I screwed up. Like huge, major, no-going-back-from-this, lives-in-danger kind of fuckup. It should’ve been a cakewalk. Watch this retail center. See if this guy shows up. Follow him. See where he goes. Simple, right?
Not for me.
I got close enough to get his license plate. I followed him, thinking I was cool and important, then the guy lost me. One minute he was there then the next poof. Gone. When I got back to the office to give my boss, Cora Hollis, the car and tag info, the client, Vera Swain, pointed out that if I got close enough to get the guy’s plate then I was close enough for him to get my plate. And son of a bitch if he hadn’t. That’s how the asshole found Vera—through me. Finding her resulted in the bastard killing her sister and nearly killing Vera and Cora’s brother Beau, the guy who’d just gotten his life back after spending years in prison.
All of that shit was on me. Why Cora didn’t fire me on the spot I have no idea. Hell, I would’ve fired me. A young girl died because of me. I almost got Beau and Vera killed. All because I can’t get anything right the first time out. This was one case where the effort and the thought didn’t count. I tried didn’t mean shit. I’m sorry wasn’t enough. I didn’t mean to was useless.
Cora insisted there was nothing to forgive. An honest mistake, she called it. Could’ve happened to anyone, she said. You’ll do better next time, she placated. Would I, though? Second and third tries were iffy for me. Nearly as dicey as the first time. And that first time was a giant clusterfuck of epic proportions. I know it’ll get better from here on out, but that’s not much consolation. Like a category five hurricane downgrading to a three or a four. Still a major disaster. There will be damage. It’s just a matter of how much and who it will affect.
I show up at the office and keep my head down. I do as I’m told the way I’m told. I try to absorb as much as I can from Jerry, one of the old-timers whose unenviable job it is to show me the ropes. I hope the guy has good life insurance. I joked about that once with him. He didn’t laugh.
Cora hasn’t been in the office much the past few weeks. She visits Vera in the hospital pretty regular. So does Beau. Now that he’s out of jail after being accused of shooting Vera. That guy’s luck is as shit as mine. No. Shittier. Way shittier. I’ve never been in jail for anything, let alone being accused of hurting the woman I love . . . twice. That’s some powerfully bad karma he’s carrying around. When I think about all he’s been through I can’t feel too sorry for myself. If I don’t think about how he wouldn’t have gone to jail that second time because of me and how Vera wouldn’t have gotten shot and how her sister wouldn’t be dead.
Yeah. I try not to think about that. I do my job. I put in my best effort. I pray it’ll be enough. Maybe one of these days it will be. I’m not sure why I’m here except that because Cora’s not around a lot, there’s a ton of work that needs to get done. I owe her that at least. Whatever she asks, I do. Take out the trash—it’s out. Run a few copies—they’re done. Pick up lunch—I get the order exactly right. All I have to offer is my best effort. What happens after that is a complete and utter mystery. Could be good. Could be bad. Who knows? It’s me we’re talking about.
I’m running a computer search for client—a job Beau held for a while before the shooting—when Cora walks in, muttering over the open file in her hands. She’s really pretty, like make-you-drop-your-sandwich-and-stare-like-an-idiot kind of pretty. She doesn’t even know it. That makes her sexier. Even if she weren’t my boss she’d be way off limits to me. She’s dating the son of the owner of the agency. I don’t even exist to her on any level except employee. That’s okay, though. I’d screw that up too. She’s not the kind of person you mess around with casually. She’s an all-in kind of woman. The kind you marry and never cheat on. Her boyfriend is a lucky son of a bitch and he knows it.
“You almost done with that search?” she asks me.
All I get is the top of her blue-and-black-streaked head. I can’t help but stare at her when she’s not looking. Leaning back a little in my chair, I crane my neck to check out her legs in the skirt she’s wearing. Nice. High heels look good on her, making her legs longer somehow. It’s one of those tricks only women know that make a man forget his name and apparently the question he’s just been asked.
Shit. My gaze snaps up to hers. Busted. “Ah, yeah. Just about.”
“Good. I have something here I want you to take a look at.”
My mind spins her innocent words into something lurid. I give myself a stern lecture about workplace decorum and about not horning in on another guy’s woman. That’s not cool. That’s not who I am or who I want to be. I just wish my boss were a little less hot.
“Oh yeah?” I ask.
She slides the folder she’s holding in front of me and leans in with a hand on my desk. “The Freedom Project sent these cases over for our review. Every year we choose one and work it pro bono. I wish we could work on them all.” She sighs. “I see Beau in every face and it’s hard to say no. I need an objective opinion.”
She separates the three pages, spreading them across my desk. Her arm brushes mine briefly and I instinctively flinch away. If she notices it doesn’t show in her face. All of her focus is on the papers in front of her. There’s a crease between her brows, and her bottom lip is pinched between her teeth. This is important to her. Even if I didn’t know her brother’s story I’d know it in the look on her face and how she touches the black-and-white mugshots of the three incarcerated people staring back at her.
“What do you want me to do?” I ask.
“Read the case summary and the notes from the Freedom Project staff. We need to choose one, and I just can’t decide. It feels like I’m handing down a sentence to the other two if I don’t select them.”
And she thinks I won’t get the same feeling? I glance up at her.
“We’re not,” she amends. “Their cases will get handled by another PI firm, but it won’t be us, you know?”
“Yeah, I think I get it. That makes me feel better about choosing.” That’s a lie. I’m lousy at making decisions. She should already know this about me.
“Have a look and let me know what you think. I need to get back to them by the end of the day.”
She leaves behind her scent and the lingering sense of doom that I’ll make the wrong choice. God, really? She’s leaving this up to me? Someone’s life’s in my hands, the hands of a fuckup. Does she have any idea what she’s doing?
I pick up the first sheaf of paper. Bruce Swanson was convicted of the brutal murder of his parents, Doug and Nancy Swanson. As the only child he stood to inherit his parents’ vast estate, which entailed a personal fortune of close to eleven million dollars, a company worth twice that, and various real estate properties worth millions more. The conviction hinged on hinky DNA evidence and a questionable witness—a cousin who inherited everything when Bruce went away. As an only child I’m tempted to choose poor Bruce, who should be sitting on fat stacks instead of a thin prison mattress.
I force myself to put the paper down and pick up the next one. D’Shawnte Devon was convicted of attempted murder for the drive-by shooting of a rival gang member based on faulty eyewitness testimony. Three people—who also happened to be members of his gang and thus deemed unreliable—said that D’Shawnte was at a barbecue at the time of the shooting. There was nothing to tie him physically to the crime and although the eyewitnesses later recanted, D’Shawnte remains in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
That one sucks. D’Shawnte reminds me of me and my bad luck. I’m starting to see what Cora was saying about not being able to choose. You only have to have a smidgeon of empathy to want to do something that could change these people’s worlds.
The third page has a photo of a woman. A young woman. Nineteen. Dang. She looks younger. Like maybe fifteen. Carla Ruiz is an undocumented immigrant in prison for the murder of her son. Even though the coroner declared the boy’s death an accident, the district attorney filed murder charges and got a conviction. There’s a note about a witness that wasn’t called by the defense who could’ve corroborated the coroner’s report. She was sent to prison for a crime that wasn’t even a crime. That’s harsh. She lost her son then her freedom. I wonder what will happen to her if she’s freed. Will she be forced to go back to Mexico or will she get to stay in the U.S.?
I set her sheet next to the other two, my gaze bouncing from one to the other then the other. Who to pick? Eeny meeny miny mo? Roshambo? Put their names in a cup and draw one?
Cora’s depending on me to make a decision based on something real, not something arbitrary. I’ll probably have to justify my decision. It would be pretty tough to defend rock, paper, scissors.
I look at their faces. They’re all young. Under thirty when they went inside. They’re older than that now. D’Shawnte is in his forties. Bruce is thirty-six, and Carla is about to turn twenty-four—my age. I should pick D’Shawnte. He’s been in the longest. But Bruce reminds me of myself except for the rich parents. Carla lost her son. That’s a horrible thing. Uuuugh. I just don’t know.
I set the pages aside and try to go back to the computer searches I was doing. But my gaze strays. With I sigh I tear up little pieces of paper, write their names on them, and shake the folded scraps in my hands. I hope this is the right thing to do. I close my eyes and choose. Carla. I’m disappointed and yet not. I take out her page and look at it again.
“Well?” Cora stands in the doorway, ankles and arms crossed. “Were you able to pick one?”
As subtly as I can I scoop up the little pieces of paper and ball them in my hand. I can’t let her know that I couldn’t come to a decision. That I let fate randomly decide. I don’t know why I did it. Fate has never been anything but a bitch to me.
I hold up the page. “Carla Ruiz.”
She unfolds herself and comes toward me. She takes the sheet and nods. “This one got to me too. What made you choose her?”
I knew it. “She lost twice—her son then her freedom. That’s too much for anyone, let alone someone so young.”
“Yeah. I thought the same thing.” There’s a look in her eyes that I don’t like seeing. Sadness. She’s too pretty to be sad. “Beau was a year younger than her when he went to prison and they’re nearly the same age now.”
“That must’ve been awful.”
She nods, her focus on Carla’s photo.
“How’s Vera doing?” I have to ask. Then I hold my breath, waiting for the answer.
Her bright-blue gaze slides from the paper to me and it’s a warm wave crashing over me, making my breath catch. It’s the same blue as the streaks in her hair. Startling. Mesmerizing. Totally off limits.
She smiles. “She’s coming home today. That’s why Beau isn’t here. He’s getting her settled in.”
“That’s good. I’m glad.” So, so glad. It’s like someone just lifted a stadium off my shoulders.
“Thanks for taking up the slack.” She motions with the paper. “And for helping me choose.”
She starts to turn away, then comes back. “We’re still a little short handed around here. You’ve been so great about working overtime and filling in, I hate to ask . . .”
“Whatever you need.”
“Since you helped me pick the case I’d like you to take lead on it. I’ll help. It’s not like I’d be leaving you on your own. It’s just that the work you’ve been doing has been really great and I’d like you to start heading up a few cases. Jerry’s been making noises about retiring, and with Mr. Nash in semi-retirement already we really need another lead investigator around here. You’ve more than shown you can handle it. This could be a training case. Leads make more money and you’d get out of the office more. What do you say?”
I open my mouth to speak—because she clearly expects a response—but nothing comes out except a squeak. A horrible, embarrassing squeak. I cough to cover it up. She’s caught me totally off guard. Her eyes are hopeful and before I form the thought I’m nodding. What am I doing? Make it stop.
“Sure,” I say, completing the humiliation. My brain is melting down. While it burns the rest of me goes on automatic, responding totally separately from my mind. I can almost smell the smoke that is surely bellowing out my ears.
“Oh thank you,” Cora says. Her smile fans the flames. Sirens go off in my head. “I’ll set up the appointment for us to meet with the Freedom Project staff attorney,” she continues, totally unaware of the mass casualties in my skull. “You’re going to do great. Just great.” She backs away toward the door. “I’m looking forward to working with you.”
Before I can stop her she’s gone.
What have I done?