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The weight room at Project Justice smelled like gymnasiums everywherea hint of sweat, overlaid with eau de cleaning supplies. Claudia Ellison, dressed most inappropriately for the gym in a buttercup-yellow linen suit and cream leather heels, stood poised in the doorway observing her quarry.
He didn't see her. Billy Cantu sat on a bench doing reps with a barbell. His rippling biceps mesmerized her for several moments. She'd met Billy before, briefly, but she hadn't guessed how ripped he was underneath his neatly pressed shirts.
Wearing only a pair of gym shorts, Billy exposed an awful lot of skin, smooth and naturally tan due to his Hispanic heritage. Thick, almost-black hair, deep brown eyes, sensual lips parted slightly as he breathed from the exertion
She stopped herself. Her job wasn't to catalog Billy's masculine assets, charming though they were. She was supposed to be reading his body language, gauging his mood. Would he be receptive to her proposal?
He'd better be. Billy was her last hope.
Billy's face was relaxed. His arm moved slowly, no jerky motions. He didn't appear to be pressed for time, given the leisurely way he returned his hand weight to the rack and selected another to work on his lats. This might be the best time to garner his undistracted attention.
She walked briskly into the room, stepping around a stationary bike and a rowing machine, making sufficient noise that she wouldn't startle him when she spoke.
He looked up, and the first thing she saw was blatant male appreciationbefore he schooled his face. He controlled his features quickly, so quickly that only someone with her training would have caught that brief microexpression when he was unguarded.
"Dr. Ellison." He laid his weights on the bench and grabbed a towel, blotting the light sheen of perspiration on his face and neck. "You come to work out?"
She looked down at her suit and heels, then back up to find him grinning. She tried to mirror his teasing mood, calling up a smile of her own.
"Call me Claudia, please." She strode forward, hand outstretched. "It's nice to see you again."
His hand was large and calloused. It swallowed hers whole as they shook hands. She hadn't expected his touch to feel so so personal, and now she was the one who had to arrange her face into a pleasant but neutral expression. Adopting whatever mask fit the situation was something she did very, very well.
"I hope you're not here to shrink my head."
"No, not at all. But I do have something to ask you."
He stood and walked over to an old-fashioned watercooler and filled a paper cup with spring water. She tried to gauge his reaction to her interrupting his workout. Was he irritated? Did he welcome the intrusion?
Strangely, she couldn't read anything into his posture or facial expression.
She didn't know a lot about Billy, only that he was an ex-cop from Dallas who'd been working at Project Justice for about three years as an investigator, mostly operating in the background. According to Daniel, Billy had never been the point man on a case.
Now it was her job to convince him to do just that. An innocent woman's life depended on it.
She watched, fascinated, as he gulped down two cups of water, then crushed the cup in his hand. "You've got me curious. What is it you'd like to know?" Although he looked exotic, with his dramatic coloring and sultry, full lips, his speech bore no trace of a Spanish accent. He was a hundred percent Texan.
"Actually, I need your help. Do you remember the Eduardo Torres murder case?"
"Of course. Eduardo Torres was a key player in the Rio Grande Mafia. He was a murder suspect himself, killed some guy in a drug turf war. Then his wife offed him."
"Only she didn't. I was hired by the wife's defense attorney to do a psychological evaluation. I found Mary-Francis Torres to be deceptive on a number of issues. But not about the most important thing. When she said she didn't kill her husband, she was telling the truth."
"How do you know?" Billy sounded neither curious nor skeptical; the question was perfectly neutral.
"Well, that's what I do. I read body language and facial expressions, and with a high degree of accuracy I can tell when someone is lying."
"So, you believe the wife is innocent?"
"I believe she didn't kill her husband, and that she has no idea what happened to him. I testified to that effect."
"I guess the jury didn't believe you."
"Unfortunately, when the prosecutor cross-examined me, he focused on the lies Mary-Francis told. Most notably, she claimed her marriage to Eduardo was a happy one and that they hadn't quarreled. I had to point out to the jury, again and again, the instances in which I spotted deception. Sadly, I did her case more harm than good."
And she'd been racked with guilt about it ever since.
"I'm sorry to hear you were sliced-and-diced by the prosecutor. But I doubt you're to blame for the conviction. As I recall, the case was something of a slam dunk. They found about a gallon of Eduardo's blood in the bed he shared with his wife."
"But no body."
"The medical examiner testified he couldn't have survived that much blood loss."
"But someone else could have killed him."
"Maybe. But unless some new evidence has surfaced"
"That's the thing. Mary-Francis knows I'm a consultant for Project Justice, so she contacted methe only person who believed she was innocent, even if I wasn't much help in the courtroom. She claims to have new evidence."
"Hmm. What kind of evidence?"
"She couldn't explain it in the email. She doesn't write, spell or type very well. I told her I would come see her. But I'd like someone from Project Justice to come with me and evaluate whatever she hasfrom a law enforcement perspective."
She'd surprised him. At least she could read that much. But not much else. Billy Cantu was a blank canvas. She'd never met anyone so difficult to read.
"Why not you?"
"You can't just sneak in the back door like this. Surely you know how it works. There's an application process. Cases have to be evaluated. Then Daniel himself makes the final decision about which cases we accept."
"I talked to Daniel. He feels the case merits at least a preliminary investigation. But all of the lead investigators are stretched to the max right now. He said you're the only person who might be available."
"So, I'm your last choice?"
Was he teasing? She had no idea. "You're my only choice, Billy. And the only chance this poor woman has of getting off death row. Right now, I am the one person in the world who believes she didn't kill her husband. I have a responsibility to pursue this, or I can't live with myself."
Billy blew out a breath. "I'd like to help, Claudia. But I assist the other investigators. I don't take on my own cases." He moved to the weight machine, stacked up what looked like two hundred pounds, and started working his legs.
"Only because you don't want to." Claudia sat down on the adjacent station, so he would have to see her face. "Daniel says he offered to promote you to senior investigator, and you turned him down." And why was that? Claudia wondered. What normal man didn't want to be promoted, get a better title, a bigger paycheck and more prestige? But she didn't ask aloud. This meeting wasn't about making Billy uncomfortable.
"I like things the way they are."
Claudia sighed elaborately. "All right. I'll just have to tell Mary-Francis that you're too busy building muscles to save her life."
Billy let the weights drop with a clang. "Now, wait a minute. I'm not just goofing off here. I'm on my lunch hour. Anyway, part of a cop's job is to stay in shape."
"You're not a cop. And if you're not working in the field, if the heaviest thing you lift is a phone"
"I work in the field."
"Then come with me to interview Mary-Francis. C'mon, Billy, don't make me beg. You don't have to commit to the case. Just commit to the one interview. If it pans out, maybe Daniel will reconsider and assign it to someone else."
"You're not leaving me much choice," he groused as he resumed his reps. His thighs had muscles on muscles, and she had to force her gaze away.
"I never intended to. A woman's life, Billy."
"All right. One interview. But Mary-Francis better wow me. And just for the record? I'm not crazy about shrinks."
"All shrinks? Or me in particular?"
"Let's just say I'm a skeptic of your particular skill, and leave it at that."
She did her best not to show how insulted she felt. Most people, even cops, were impressed by her skills, or at least politely curious. "Fair enough. I'll call you as soon as I've set up the visit with Mary-Francis."
A road trip with a beautiful blonde sounded like heaven to Billy Cantuunless the blonde spent four hours straight studying him like a particularly fascinating species of toe fungus.
"I know I'm good-lookin'," Billy finally said, "but do you think you could stop staring at me for five minutes?"
"Oh. Sorry." Claudia turned to look out the windshield at the parched midsummer fields. "It's an occupational habit."
"It's also kinda rude. I mean, when women stare at me, I want to at least pretend it's because they're trying to get inside my pantsnot my brain."
"I don't want to be either place, thanks," she said tartly, and Billy grinned. A quick glance told him she was blushing.
"You've been awful quiet," Billy said. "How about you give me some more background on this woman we're going to see? I read the court transcript, but you must know stuff that's not public."
Claudia had a transcript in her lap, but she'd spent more time covertly studying Billy than looking at her notes. Maybe she'd thought he wouldn't notice, but he had excellent peripheral vision.
This interview was a waste of time. But Daniel wanted him to check it out, so here he was. Daniel had built Project Justice from the ground up and continued to choose which cases they took on. Apparently he trusted Claudia's opinion that Mary-Francis was innocent. Or he at least didn't want to offend her.
Billy preferred to work behind the scenes, supporting the other investigators. But lately Daniel had been pushing him out the door more and more.
"Mary-Francis isn't the most likable woman I've ever met," Claudia said. "She never should have taken the stand in her own defense."
"I'll say. The cross-examination was a bloodbath."
"And yet.. I still believe she's telling the truth. Not about everything, maybebut about not killing her husband, yes."
"Obviously, or you wouldn't have brought the case to Project Justice." As a psychologist on retainer with the foundation, she didn't normally bring in cases. She interviewed witnesses or analyzed interrogation or trial video. She was a nationally recognized expert on body language.
Which, if anyone asked Billy, was all a bunch of hooey.
Since nobody asked, he listened politely as she went through her notes. "Anytime she was questioned whether she knew where her husband was, or whether she'd killed him, or if she knew someone else had killed him, her body and face indicated her answers were truthful. If she were lying, her body would show more stress. But her shoulders were relaxed, her eyes wide and animated, her voice confident. However, she wasn't always truthful. She lied about some things."
"Like her marriage. She tried to pretend everything was fine, that she and her husband were deeply in love. But any time that subject came up, she would pull her head in like a turtle and hide her hands in her lap. In fact, whenever anyone raised their voice or tried to intimidate her, she showed the classic body language of an abuse victim."
A squirrel darted out into the road. Billy swerved to miss it.
Claudia squeaked and grabbed on to the door. "God, Billy! What the hell are you doing?"
"Trying not to hit a squirrel."
"Oh. That shows great compassion. But I'd prefer one dead squirrel to a head-on with a semi."
"It was a reflex." He didn't like her assigning a motive to his actions. Great compassion. For a squirrel? Really? But he had a lot of hours to spend with her, and he didn't want to spend them arguing.
"So," he continued, "you're telling me someone does an imitation of a turtle, they're lying?"
Claudia released the door handle and seemed to gather her composure around her. "That was one of many signs that she felt threatened when certain subjects were broached. Each person is different, though. I have to observe a subject for some length of time to get a baseline of their usual body language, then note when that changes"
"You don't believe me?"
He shrugged, unwilling to tell her what he really thought about hocus-pocus disguised as science. He much preferred the old-fashioned method of catching someone in a liebreaking them down with tough interrogation.
"What I do is legitimate science, backed up by scores of studies"
"Really, you don't have to convince me. It's not essential for me to understand your work to do my job, is it?"
"You just want me to interrogate Mary-Francis so she'll tell us about this supposed new evidence, and you'll observe."
"Interrogate is rather a strong word. I don't want you to put too much pressure on her. It could completely shut her down or cause her to end the interview."
"Hmm." He had his own way of questioning a suspect, a way that usually worked, honed by his experience with the Dallas Police Department. He'd have to play it by ear. "Any idea what this evidence is?"
"Only that it's something shocking. But whatever it is, I want you to evaluate it from a cop's point of view."
"That means I ask hard questions."
"I know. Just don't bully her, or her stressed-out body language will override everything else."
They lapsed into silence. Claudia shifted in her seat, crossed and uncrossed her legs. Billy couldn't help looking at the bit of leg she revealed as her skirt slid up.
Damn, hard to keep your eyes on the road when something like that was sitting next to you.
"So you really don't believe in what I do," she finally said.
He grinned. "That really bugs you, huh?"
"Why? You must be used to skepticism."
"Usually not from people in my own camp. I thought Daniel only hired open-minded investigators."
"You're saying I have a closed mind?"
"I think you refuse to open your mind to something that goes against your deeply held beliefs. In my business we call that"
"Stop right there. You are not allowed to analyze me. That's not part of the deal."