Private investigator Sydney Brennan has had a difficult few months. The last thing she wants to do is work a demanding criminal trial. But longtime friend and mentor Ralph Abraham owes a debt to a dead man—the defendant’s father—so when Ralph asks for her help Sydney can’t refuse (even if the only thing worse than the defendant’s case is his attitude).
Soon Sydney’s investigation uncovers information so dangerous that someone is willing to kill to keep it buried. Torn between loyalty to her mentor and duty to her client, how far will Sydney go to protect Ralph’s past? And his life…
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I heard the squeak of sneakers, right before the man slammed into me from behind. His choking arm bent my body backward and nearly lifted my feet off the ground. I grabbed his arm with both hands, but there was no give in it.
“Gimme your purse,” he said.
My hands slid down his arm, looking for a weakness. His other arm clamped his wrist, doubling the strength of his hold. I inhaled the slightly musky scent of his deodorant and felt the heat of his body against mine. My heartbeat filled my ears, louder and faster, overpowering the voice that said, Come on, Brennan; you know what to do.
Because I didn’t. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t breathe. A field of gray swallowed my peripheral vision and made its way toward the center of my eyes, clouding the world as it moved. My legs grew numb, weak …
Time and space shifted and my feet did leave the ground this time, coming back down to rest awkwardly on someone else’s, someone with intense body odor. A hand grabbed my hair at the base of my skull and yanked my head back. The sky was relentlessly black above my wide-open eyes. His voice pushed its way in, through my ear, on to the nerves and the brain.
Are you a real redhead? I hear there’s only one way to tell for sure.
His arms loosened enough for me to plant my feet back on the ground. I tilted my head forward, then slammed it back into teeth and chin. The man let go, and I stumbled sideways.
Run. Run for the trees.
But before I could run, something smashed into my face. Pain shot from my cheek through my skull, to my eyes and my neck, and the impact spun me around. Disoriented, I shook my head to clear sudden, intense nausea. Bile rose in my throat, and I struggled to not vomit. When I lifted my head, he was staring at me, dark eyes behind a darker mask, filled with the knowledge of the ways I would die before he was finished.
I shrieked and swung my leg with everything I had. His knees buckled and he rolled forward, moaning and clutching his groin. My legs gave way, dumping me to the floor with a thud that rocked my tailbone. I scuttled backwards, then hugged my knees as my body was overcome by shaking.
* * *
“You sure you’re okay?” Glenn asked.
I nodded, uncertain if he could make out the motion but not trusting my voice. My hands were still trembling, so I’d tucked them beneath me. I hoped that would be enough to quiet the physical yearning to crawl under the desk and curl up in a ball. We sat in a small office on the far side of the dojo, alongside the bathroom. I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten to the office, or how long I’d been here. Couldn’t have been that long. Someone had turned off the lights, but there was a hint of a streetlight coming through the blinds, and the glare from the still-active dojo was visible through the doorway. Vince, the Sensei, was making noise about taking someone’s belt away, whatever that meant.
“I dropped by to check in with Vince on some things.” Glenn leaned forward, his long, reddish-brown braid falling over his shoulder. His voice was low and soothing. “Not just you. But that’s why I was in here for all the commotion.”
I nodded again, pulled my feet up on the chair, and fought the urge to rock back and forth. Glenn should be checking on me. He was the one who’d pressured me to come to his friend’s self-defense class in the first place. I’d told Glenn there was a reason martial arts expertise wasn’t included on the Florida private investigator’s licensing exam. He’d said someone with my demonstrated skills at pissing people off needed to be prepared for the moment I pushed someone too far. Okay—he may have used the plural moments, and pointed out a few occasions when that had already occurred. Eventually, I’d agreed. Three classes before having a meltdown … must be a record.
“The little bastard is lucky he was still on the floor holding his balls when we got out there. Otherwise, I would have kicked them up his ass.” Glenn crossed one jean-clad, booted leg over the other, as if his legs were twitching at the prospect of assaulting a student two decades his junior.
We sat for a while in silence. I missed the reassuring sound of Glenn’s gruff voice, but hadn’t yet reconnected to the world enough to figure out how to make him keep speaking. I set my feet back on the floor. Closed my eyes. Felt the texture of the padded chair. It was an old chair. Vinyl or pleather. Heavy wood arms and legs, with some padding on the arms. Circumference bigger than most people, even today’s hefty people. I inhaled deeply and felt my heartbeat slowing, its rhythm losing those extra Fear Improv beats.
I let my breath out in a ragged sigh, and Glenn looked over at the sound. “Good job, by the way,” he said.
“I don’t know about that,” Vince said, blocking the light from the doorway briefly as he entered and went to sit behind the desk. “It sounds like Patterson was letting you go when you head-butted him.”
Vince’s pale face, bracketed between dark hair and a white T-shirt, appeared ghost-like in the dark. I hadn’t had much interaction with the Sensei. The young guys looked at him as if he were a god (if not the God), and that made me a little uneasy. But Glenn trusted Vince enough to send me here, and I trusted Glenn enough to listen.
“But it also sounds like Patterson had it coming,” Vince said, looking at Glenn. “They had some words beforehand …”
My chest seized up as I remembered being called to the front for the exercise. “You ever think you shouldn’t look so excited about attacking a woman?” I’d asked. “You ever think you should keep your mouth shut in the dojo?” he’d responded. Later, I’d laughed because his breath tickled the back of my neck when we walked through it. And then, he’d tried to hurt me, while Daniels—the guy in charge—kept telling me I knew what to do.
Vince’s calm voice cut through my growing anxiety, and I latched onto it. “… Patterson let his temper get the best of him. Daniels finally clued in to what was going on and told him to stop, but Patterson didn’t listen.”
“I want to apologize, Ms. Brennan,” Vince continued. “Training is one thing, but I should have known better than to leave a student in charge of a self-defense class, especially one with … special referrals.”
Vince turned to Glenn and asked, “What’s your opinion?”
“My opinion is you should go old school and let me show this Patterson prick what it feels like when—”
“What’s your opinion of her?” Vince cut in.
Glenn grumbled, not ready to let go of the prospect of ass-kicking, but he answered. “Syd’s got good instincts, if she can get out of her own way. Shut off that goddamned busy brain. But I also think she’d have better instincts if she had some training. That’s why I brought her to you.”
Vince nodded, setting his hands on his desk as if it were speaking to him. “Okay, here’s what I’m thinking. If you’re interested, we’ll have a special class. A small class, with people like you.”
I cleared my throat to get my voice free. “Broken people,” I said.
“Maybe just a little cracked,” Vince said, with a hint of a smile. “People who know—from first-hand experience—that they aren’t indestructible.”
“But they’re still ready to kick somebody in the balls when he’s got it coming,” Glenn said, heavy mustache fighting the curl of his lips.
“Okay,” I said. “When do we start?”
Glenn rose, flinging his long braid back over his shoulder. “We’ll let Vince figure that out. I gotta hit the head before we leave. I’m giving you a ride home tonight.”
I didn’t argue. Once Glenn had gone, I asked Vince, “Was Patterson wearing a cup?”
“He should’ve been,” Vince added. “I tell them to, but he said he didn’t think he needed to tonight. Doubt if he’ll go without again.”
“Here.” Vince pulled a soft ice pack from a mini fridge and tossed it to me, along with a thin hand towel. “I can already see the bruise. Patterson’s elbow?”
I shrugged, still not sure what had happened, and wrapped the blue pack and held it firmly against my cheek, relishing the cold sensation.
“You can bring it back next class,” Vince said. “I told Patterson he could keep his, once it had been on his groin.”
My cheek punished me for smiling, but I forced a small one anyway. “Thanks,” I said, and stood slowly. My legs were tight, with the ragged muscle burn that accompanies losing a sprint, but I made it out of Vince’s office without tripping. The floor area was brightly lit, but thankfully did not have a mirrored wall. I hugged the back, trying to slip out of class unnoticed by the three rows of mostly young men. Patterson was nowhere to be seen, but one of the other front row gunners, a blonde twenty-something in a bad-ass black T-shirt, looked over his shoulder at me. His fists clenched, and I could almost hear his teeth grind.
I flipped him the finger, and hoped he couldn’t see my hand shaking from across the room.
My teenaged neighbor Ben dropped me by the dojo the next morning on his way to school (legally, since he’d finally traded his learner’s permit for a real driver’s license).
“Doesn’t look like a dojo,” he said, taking in the brick and glass building and the rest of the block. “Just looks like another office.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” I said. Even after I’d started classes, I’d still considered it a big empty office with floor mats in the corner, next to the Indian travel agency that was probably a front for something else. But I’d remember it was a dojo now.
The warped passenger door of Ben’s car gave a metallic squawk when I pushed it open. I winced, then face-bruise winced, before slowly making my way out of the car while moving as little as possible … a red-headed sloth in action.
Ben stretched across the seat, and I could see a shadow of light brown stubble on his cheeks where he’d skipped shaving. Shaving. Was it selfish to wish he’d stayed fifteen?
“Can I come watch next time you get your ass kicked?” he asked.
“Only if you’re next in line.”
“Never. I am a ninja.” Ben followed his assertion with a series of complex but totally fabricated arm movements that culminated in him knocking off his rearview mirror. I tried not to laugh.
“Happens all the time,” he said, pressing the mirror hard against the windshield until it stayed put, then taking a moment to tame a tuft of his short hair. “Later, Syd!”
My sweet Cecil was unharmed, not because he was parked outside a dojo, but because he was parked in Tallahassee, a city not generally known for its random car vandalism. I slid behind the wheel of my Cabrio almost as slowly as I’d gotten out of Ben’s beater. There were few cars on the street, and no sign of life in the building. I hadn’t slept well the night before, so I was glad I didn’t have to decide whether to check in with Vince, since I really wasn’t in a decision-making mood. In fact, I planned to hide in my office all day and avoid all other humans and any choices more involved than which frozen lunch to nuke. Of course, the universe had other plans.
* * *
A few hours later I had my head down, jotting notes on a legal pad, when there was a knock on my office door.
“Come in,” I called out, still scribbling my thought before it escaped into the ether.
“What the hell happened to you?”
I jumped at the sound of my friend Ralph’s voice. “When’s the last time you set foot in my office?” I asked.
“What happened to your face?” he reiterated.
I set down my pen and tilted my head to give him a better look. “Believe it or not, self-defense class. You should see the other guy’s balls.”
“I think I’ll pass,” Ralph said, settling his bulk into a chair on the other side of my desk. “The last time I was here was O’Connor.”
No wonder I didn’t remember. I’d driven Ralph to Florida State Prison for the final visit with our client, James O’Connor, before his execution. We’d hadn’t spoken at all on the two-plus hour return trip. Then instead of going home, Ralph and I sat in my office and polished off a bottle of something amber and potent he’d pulled from a paper bag for the occasion. We’d drunk in the dark, mostly silent, until I finally called a cab for Ralph. Unable to drive, I’d slept at the office in my bathtub (one of the advantages of using a converted house for your place of business). It’s a claw foot tub and I had a pillow, plus it was conveniently close to the toilet.
“Still the only black man I ever met named O’Connor,” I said. James had joked about that toward the end, about good luck leprechauns and four-leafed clovers, but he’d done it for our benefit. His was not a case with false hope.
“How many black men you know named Abraham, besides me?”
“Good point. Although I don’t know any white men with Abraham for a last name either.” Ralph still hadn’t said why he’d stopped in, and my stomach flipped. He liked to say he was a semi-retired investigator, but Ralph always had one ear to the criminal justice ground. “Tell me they didn’t sign another death warrant.”
“No,” Ralph said. “It’s been pretty quiet at the Governor’s office. They must be distracted by the elections and pretending to run shit.” He leaned forward and knocked on my wooden desk. Superstition about executions runs deep.
“Want some coffee?” I asked, lifting the thermos I’d brought with me from home. As little sleep as I’d gotten the night before, I should have brought a second one.
“Pfft, what the hell is that? This isn’t a camping trip. Tell me again why you don’t have a coffee pot in your office.”
“Mostly because I like having a reason to leave my office. I just didn’t feel like leaving it today.” It had been hard enough to make myself leave my house.
He grunted, pushing his baseball cap back from his forehead a bit to take another good, long look at my face. “Self-defense class, huh? I take it you’re not the star pupil. How long you been going?”
“Not long. Guy runs a little dojo across town. Friend of Glenn’s. You know Glenn, the guy that owns Cooper’s bar?”
“Yes, I know Glenn,” Ralph said, in a carefully neutral voice.
“Anyway, things just got a little … out of hand last night.”
“I can see that,” Ralph said, folding his hands over his slightly bulging belly. “You have a flashback last night? During class?”
Not much gets past Ralph. I nodded, for some reason unable to admit it out loud. “Ralph, do you think I’m messed up?”
“Other than your eye?” he asked.
Actually, the back of my head was pretty tender, too. “You know what I mean.”
“Sydney, you’re no more messed up than you were before. These things just take time. What’s it been, six months?”
“A little less,” I said. He should know; after a murderer turned my living room into a crime scene, I’d spent a few days with him and his wife until I was ready to go back to my house.
“And then all that shit happened with Ben’s dad over by Panacea,” he continued. “It just takes time. So maybe you had a little setback last night. So what? Just don’t dwell on it.”
“It’s just …” I stared down at my coffee, trying to wrangle my thoughts so I could explain them to him. The nightmares weren’t so bad anymore. Or they hadn’t been, before last night. And I’d stopped jumping at every sound, every movement. “I thought I was over it.”
“Syd.” Ralph set his hand flat on the table next to my coffee cup and waited until I looked at him. I still couldn’t meet his eyes, so I focused on the graying stubble below his round cheeks, following it around his chin where it grew unevenly from a central dimple. “This isn’t the flu. It’ll get better, but you’re never going to be able to pretend you weren’t kidnapped, that the man didn’t try to kill you and Ben. It’s part of who you are now. But it’s not all you are.”
I nodded again and stood, unable to stay still. Ralph looked up at me. “You know what you need? You need to keep busy. And yes, that’s why I’m here. Come on—stop hiding in your office and let’s go get a decent cup of coffee.”
Exhausted as I was, a kind of antsy hum vibrated through my body, and I was beginning to think more caffeine wasn’t the wisest idea. But a walk would do me good, maybe take the edge off my agitation. I jammed my cell phone and wallet in my pockets.
“You taking your purse?” Ralph asked.
“You’re carrying one big enough for both of us,” I said, gesturing at the bag he’d hung over his chair.
Ralph headed toward my car while I fiddled with the screen door. He never drives, so his wife must have dropped him off. I shook my head. “It’ll take longer to find parking than it will for us to walk.”
Ralph humphed indignantly.
I ignored him and asked, “So what was your ulterior motive in dropping by today? Tell me how you’re going to keep me busy.”
At that moment, a man caught Ralph’s eye on the opposite sidewalk. “Hello, Representative Stubbs! Congratulations, sir!” Ralph yelled.
The man raised an arm and smiled, but continued on his way.
“Can you believe that bozo just got reelected?” Ralph asked. He vented about the elections for the rest of the short walk to the coffee shop, and continued until he had his caffeine in hand and we’d tucked into a table out front. Ralph is very politically engaged—he’s like the politics version of those sports fans who can give you stats on players and programs since time began—but I knew this time his polemic was a form of throat clearing, getting rid of mental phlegm before starting the task at hand. Which told me the task at hand was important to him, and was about to be important to me. My long-ago mentor at the Public Defender’s Office, Ralph had taught me everything I know about waiting people out. (Well, everything I hadn’t learned from my mother.) But I didn’t have all day, so I took advantage of one of his coffee-sipping, oratory lulls.
“So what is it you want me to help out on?” I asked.
“All about you, isn’t it?” Ralph asked, but he eventually cracked a grin. “Okay. There’s this case …”
I groaned. Ralph’s cases were never simple, and they often involved me being overworked and underpaid.
“No,” he said, reading my mind, “it’s not like that. The family has some money. And Roger’s on board to handle it.”
“Really?” I said, surprised. Roger Weber is a friend and an excellent attorney, but he does not come cheap.
“Well, he said he’s on board if you’re on board.”
Ralph had the good grace to almost blush. So Ralph must have called in some favors with Roger to get him to take the case.
“Okay, give me the thumbnail.”
“Robbery-shooting, but the victim got lucky and lived. Our guy’s looking at life without parole.”
“Looking at?” I asked. I’d assumed it was an appeal, since that’s what we usually worked together now. “Ralph, I don’t know if I feel up to doing a trial right now.”
“That’s exactly why you need to do one,” he said. “To be honest, I doubt there’s much to it guilt-wise, unless you can get something out of the two codefendants. Wheel man already pled out, got a deal for testifying. The other guy was found guilty earlier this year.”
“So the State Attorney’s lining them up like dominoes, and your guy was the trigger man.”
Ralph nodded. “Should have gone to trial long ago, but Jerome’s previous attorney had a heart attack. As soon as he was well enough to file a motion, he got off the case, and every other one he had. I think he moved to Arizona.”
Thus the age-old question is answered: where do people from Florida go to retire?
“Tell me about the client,” I said.
“Jerome Adams. Employed sporadically, and doesn’t have as many priors as you might expect for his age. But it cuts both ways—he’s old enough to start knowing better, if he were ever going to. I’m not asking for him. I go way back with his family. That’s why I can’t do the investigation myself. I can do records requests and help behind the scenes, but I’m afraid I’m a little too close to run the show.”
“Too close how?”
“His dad—Lewis Adams—and I did civil rights work together,” Ralph said, sipping at his dregs. “He was part of the NFJL, too.”
“The North Florida Justice League. And yes, I tried to tell them it made us sound like a comic book gang. I sure as hell used the abbreviation when I could. Anyway, Lewis was killed in 1974.”
“You know who did it?” I asked.
Ralph looked away. “Same old story—no one was ever charged.”
A trellis, overgrown with something green and gnarly, separated our entrance seating area from the adjacent sidewalk. Little bits of sunlight stabbed through the gaps between the leaves. I’d forgotten my sunglasses, so I closed my eyes, ignoring the face-bruise twinge. Ralph hadn’t actually answered my question, and the man had never met a politically sensitive case he didn’t have a theory about. He wasn’t telling me everything. Ralph had never done that before—that I knew of, at least—never held back on me. I wondered why he’d started now.
“We don’t have a trial date in Jerome’s case yet, but there’s a hearing on Monday.”
“Monday? Are you serious?” I asked, my voice squeaking a little.
“I know—short notice. The judge’ll probably set a trial date then, but you know Roger. He’ll get us plenty of time to prepare.”
My heart beat faster, and I tried not to flinch when a motorcycle went by on the street a few feet from where we sat, a little too fast and a little too loud. Sounds and sudden movements had been tough for me lately, and even more so today. But it was just a motorcycle. And Jerome’s case was just another trial. I could do this.
I opened my eyes, and Ralph was staring at me, waiting for an answer.