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Doug Bard has been a detective with the sheriff’s department in La Graciosa, California, long enough to know the score. Now that an influx of upscale chain stores and luxury housing has turned sleepy Chumash County into a boom town, the last thing anyone wants is crime casting a shadow over the prosperity. But Bard also knows he’s not the kind of man who can write off a double fatality as a tragic accident—especially when all his instincts tell...
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Doug Bard has been a detective with the sheriff’s department in La Graciosa, California, long enough to know the score. Now that an influx of upscale chain stores and luxury housing has turned sleepy Chumash County into a boom town, the last thing anyone wants is crime casting a shadow over the prosperity. But Bard also knows he’s not the kind of man who can write off a double fatality as a tragic accident—especially when all his instincts tell him it was murder.
When a devastating housefire claims the lives of a kindly local retiree and his eleven-year-old piano student, District Attorney Angela Stark wastes no time declaring the blaze a mishap. But the verdict just doesn’t sit right with Bard. Inconclusive but troubling clues—marks on the dead girl’s neck, a strange bootprint on a kicked-in door—are enough to make the veteran detective buck the party line and fight to keep the case open. It’s a stand that puts the renegade Bard at odds yet again with his superiors. Until a suspect surfaces.
Placed at the scene of the deadly fire by an eyewitness, Jed Jeremiah is a backwoods loner with a homicide conviction in his past. But even as the sensational murder trial gets under way, the same instincts that told Bard there was foul play afoot now convince him that the wrong man may face the death penalty—and a calculating killer is still at large.
Defying the sheriff and the D.A. and putting his job on the line, Bard begins to dig for the truth. What he discovers is a shocking link to his own past—one that will put the people he loves most in deadly jeopardy.
From crime scene to courtroom, Lines ofDefense unravels a cunningly plotted tale of detection and justice. Michael Connelly has declared, “with Barry Siegel you don’t read a story. You feel it. You live it. And you always want more.” The third novel by the acclaimed author of Actual Innocence and The Perfect Witness brilliantly proves him right, on all counts.
In La Graciosa, ten miles from the sea, the most luminous summer evening can still suggest winter’s chill. The central plaza’s park benches, its bear statue, the winding creek, even the asistencia itself can abruptly vanish behind a low, thick wall of fog. Cars crawl then, blinking futile headlights. Pedestrians step with care, searching for familiar landmarks. Muffled voices blend with the smell of kelp. Invisible feet crunch on gravel.
“Goddamn, Jimmy, you know where we’re going?” Douglas Bard, Chumash County sheriff’s detective, peered into the mist.
“Of course I do,” promised Jimmy O’Brien, editor of La Graciosa’s News-Times. “I can find my way to JB’s blindfolded.”
“Just what I’d expect of a journalist. No doubt you’ve memorized each step from the newspaper to the tavern?”
“That would require far too much concentration. I’m just following the smell of whiskey.”
“All I smell is seawater.”
“Jesus, Doug, how can you be a detective if you can’t find your way to JB’s?”
In truth, Doug Bard could find his way anywhere, for he held in his mind an intricate image of Chumash County. When all else failed, this mental map guided him through the densest fog. He savored La Graciosa’s misty insulation. To him, it felt like the protective embrace of home.
“That’s why I need you, Jimmy. You’re better than a guide dog. Without you I couldn’t—”
A burst of static from Bard’s two-way radio interrupted him. At first he heard only acrackly electronic hiss. Then a distant voice. Jake Baum, the sheriff’s dispatcher.
Trouble at Ollie Merta’s house . . . not sure what’s up . . . urgent open call . . . Whoever’s listening, get on out there . . . need all the help we can get tonight . . . Repeat, this is urgent . . .
“Ollie Merta?” Jimmy frowned. He knew Merta as a kindly if peculiar old man. Not someone to have trouble at his house. “What’s that about?”
“I don’t want to know,” Doug said. “I’m off duty.”
“As are all your colleagues.”
Jimmy had a point. It was early Sunday evening, so there were only two deputies working. Likely, one would be trying to resolve another of the Clackhorns’ sorry domestic disputes, while the other would be in bed with the Foghorn’s barmaid, his radio turned off. Bard gazed in the direction of JB’s, then turned and started for his car. “Okay Jimmy, you win. Hold a stool for me at JB’s, I’ll be there just as soon as I can.”
“What do you mean, hold a stool? I’m coming with you.”
“Why bother?” Bard asked. “Haven’t you already closed tomorrow’s paper?”
“I can reopen it if I want. That’s the awesome power of a small-town newspaper editor.”
Ollie Merta’s home, ten miles from La Graciosa’s central plaza, sat by itself in a tranquil, oak-thick dell framed by the eastern foothills of Chumash County. Bard kept his foot heavy on the accelerator despite the fog. Heading down a twisting country lane, he and Jimmy could see a pink glow in the distance. Black smoke began to fill the sky as they closed on the house. Rolling around a final bend, they found three county fire trucks and four sheriff’s patrol cars, their blinking red lights piercing the mist. A dozen men milled about while radios screeched.
The fire was out. Merta’s house, drenched now and smashed apart, had burned half to the ground.
“Christ,” Bard said, sitting motionless behind his steering wheel.
Next to him, peering through the windshield, Jimmy counted the officers. “Nearly everyone with a badge or siren seems to have shown up.”
“Even the honorable sheriff himself.”
Doug climbed out of his car and walked over to Sheriff Howie Dixon. He studied his boss, holding back, waiting. Dixon had a bristly crew cut, a barrel chest, and hands like catcher’s mitts. He didn’t get out in the field much anymore. He preferred the comfort of his office, where he could swivel about in his high-backed leather chair and work the battery of phones that kept him linked to everyone who mattered in Chumash County. At the moment he looked indisposed, as if suffering from indigestion or an aversion to the smoky night air.
“Goddamn it, Doug,” Dixon said. “What’s that reporter doing in your car?”
“As you know, Howie, Jimmy isn’t a reporter anymore. He’s the editor of the News-Times.”
“Reporter, editor, what the hell. He’s the press.”
It’s obvious you can and will print anything you see fit. That was Dixon’s standard response whenever Jimmy O’Brien sought his comments about a controversial investigation. When out-of-town reporters left phone messages, he offered even less. “You do whatever you wish,” he’d write to them, “but I have no intention of spending county money on a long-distance phone call to you.”
Bard watched Dixon seethe as Jimmy climbed out of the car. “O’Brien was with me when the call came in,” Doug explained. “So I let him hitchhike. He’d have made it out here by himself anyway.”
“Maybe so,” Dixon snapped, “but he’ll have to stay back. This is a restricted zone right now.”
Bard looked toward O’Brien. “Hear that, Jimmy?”
“Hear what?” the newspaper editor called out. “You know my ears aren’t so good.”
Dixon turned away and gazed at the smoldering house. “There’s a body inside,” he said, talking softly now. “I assume it’s Ollie. Been so hot, we haven’t pulled him out yet.”
Bard stared at the sheriff. “He’s still in there?”
Dixon nodded and shifted on his feet.
“Still too hot?” Bard asked.
“The fire crew just went in for him.”
Bard stepped toward the ruined home. He steeled himself for whatever he’d find. Fire victims, burned a blackish brown, grimy and blistered, were among the worst corpses to look at. Sometimes there was no face left at all, no ears, no hands or feet. You were supposed to deal with death in a clinical manner, not project a personality on the body. But looking at such victims, Bard always thought, that’s someone’s husband or mother or child.
Squinting, handkerchief to his mouth, he entered what was once Ollie’s living room. Smoke filled his throat and made his eyes water. He moved slowly, feeling his way with his hands. He sank to his knees when he reached Merta’s body. Ollie lay curled on the floor in the shell of a bathroom, watched over by two silent, ash-covered firemen. Recognizing Gergin and Turloff through their grime, Bard murmured a greeting. With relief, he saw that they’d quenched the fire before it had entirely consumed Merta. He still had a face. You could tell it was him. His shaggy brows and thick gray mustache were burned off, but those were Ollie’s big funny ears, that was Ollie’s round gnomish body. A lifelong bachelor, he’d lived alone, in his own way. Watching him ride his small mule along the Graciosa Creek horse trail, it was easy to consider him eccentric. Merta wasn’t the least bit disagreeable, though. Not to Bard, at least.
He rose and continued stepping through the wreckage. Charred shelves, blistered cans, mounds of ashes—slowly he worked through the residue of Ollie Merta’s life. A pile of toasted books, a stack of old melted record albums, a scorched computer . . . Bard stopped. In a corner of the kitchen, a crumpled form half-hidden under charred beams caught his eye. He walked over, sank again to his knees. For an instant, he felt dizzy. Another body. This one much smaller, under five feet. The burned ribbon in her hair looked pale blue. A little girl. No more than ten or eleven. Just about the age of Bard’s daughter.
“Two bodies,” he called out. “Not one.”
Sheriff Dixon was suddenly at his side, bending over. Shock spread across his broad wrinkled face.
“A little girl,” Bard said. “Any idea who she is?”
“Who says it’s a little girl?”
Bard looked up at Dixon. “I do.”
Another figure suddenly appeared beside Dixon. In the gloom, Bard squinted, trying to see who had joined them. Keen dark eyes set in a pale oval face stared back. Usually, Chumash County District Attorney Angela Stark wore her long raven-black hair pulled across her scalp, but now it fell loosely to her shoulders. Instead of her customary business suit, she was wearing a black-matte jersey dress and three-inch heels. The dress clung to her body. Fresh from another high-powered dinner party, Bard figured. His eyes moved slowly down her legs.
Stark said, “What are you looking at, Bard?”
Bard nodded at the small form. “A second body. Ollie Merta wasn’t alone. As I was telling the sheriff, it’s a little girl.”
A tremor played across Stark’s face, or so it seemed to Bard. In the gloom, he couldn’t be sure. Studying her now, he saw only her customary steel, a steel that usually came tempered with a good deal of impatience. The DA rarely responded to a dispatcher’s call. She wasn’t one for field work, preferring to contemplate the big picture, which—she made plain—she felt Chumash County sorely lacked. She spent considerable time at legal conferences, plotting possible runs for statewide office. She liked her action fast paced. Being under pressure galvanized her, as did the promise of any intense experience.
“It’s a privilege to have the DA herself on the scene,” Bard said. “On a Sunday night, no less.”
Stark ignored him. Her eyes rested on the little girl’s charred body. “Merta volunteers at the elementary school,” she said. “Teaches music or something. Maybe she’s a student.”
With that, Stark turned slowly, surveying the ruined house. “What a horrible accident,” she muttered, as much to herself as the others. “What could have happened? Maybe Merta left the stove top on. Maybe Merta was smoking a cigarette. Maybe Merta fell asleep.”
You’ve just got to think it through, she liked to say. The Ricco drug case was a prime example. Two people in a Ford Bronco, the driver in front, a passenger in back. The cops saw a bag of cocaine sail out a window. The driver’s defense attorney insisted it was the rear-seat passenger who did the throwing. On a hunch, just before trial, Stark decided to call up Ford. It turned out that with this model Bronco, the back windows didn’t roll down. The DA didn’t even have to fly out an expert. As soon as she informed the defense, the driver pled guilty.
Stark moved step by step through the smoldering room. “Look here,” she said, pointing. “I’m willing to bet the fire began there on that couch. Here’s a cigarette butt. You can see where it started, where it spread.”
Bard tried to hold his tongue. Even though Angela was a crackerjack prosecutor, she had a taste for closing cases quickly. For a mix of reasons—impatience, civic boosterism, and political calculation chief among them—she either went for a swift conviction or didn’t wade in at all. In this, she fit well with the spirit of Chumash County, which liked to cast itself as a crime-free oasis on the Central Coast. Bad things weren’t supposed to happen around La Graciosa. When they did, they were often painted as something else. When that didn’t suffice, they were addressed and moved along with dispatch.
Bard understood and usually tried to cooperate. Everyone benefited, after all, if their county prospered. He’d lived around La Graciosa all his life. So had his father and grandfather, both honored veterans of the sheriff’s department. His dad, Oscar, had made it all the way to deputy chief. Bard, his fellow cops—they all owned property here. They all had kids in the county schools. They all had pensions and medical plans. They all had a stake in this place.
Sometimes, though, Angela Stark got on Bard’s nerves.
“Why are you assuming it’s an accident?” he asked.
Stark pointed a warning finger. “Watch yourself, Bard. Don’t be a cowboy. I believe you’ve heard that advice before.”
She could look striking sometimes. Raven hair against that pale skin, eyes bright as candles. Men often offered her their business cards when she spoke at conferences, telling her they admired her wit. She invariably tossed them out, muttering that she hadn’t been all that funny.
“Yes,” Bard allowed. “That’s true.”
She walked toward him, her manner softening. “Look Doug, I’m the prosecutor here. Howie’s the sheriff. We’re the ones paid to make the decisions.”
“That’s also true.”
Stark offered a faint smile. “I’m no angel of mercy, God knows. I like putting people in jail. But I don’t like wasting our time and energy. We have limited resources. We have to deploy ourselves wisely. We have to make choices.”
“That we do,” Bard agreed.
“This cigarette burn in the couch. I’m surprised you didn’t no- tice it.”
“You’re too quick for me.”
Stark’s eyes ran once more around Ollie Merta’s ruined house. “Can you think of anyone who’d want to harm this old man? Or anything of his you’d want to steal?”
“Not a thing.”
“Well then.” She strode off, finished with him. Bard looked toward Sheriff Dixon. “Who called this in?” he asked.
“Neighbor farther up the canyon saw the flames. Notified the dispatcher.”
“They put out an open call to all available hands?”
Bard glanced around at the others now stepping through the wreckage. He spotted two of his colleagues on the force, Bruce Spraker and Josh Ericson. He waved them over. “What do you think?” he asked.
Spraker resembled a Chumash State grad student, with his steel-rimmed glasses and watchful brown eyes. Ericson had a white mustache and a face webbed by age. They both stole looks at the sheriff, vainly trying to get a reading before responding. Eric had a career in front of him, Josh a pension to protect.
“Not sure,” Spraker said. “Arson team is still on its way.”
“They’re rather late to the party,” Bard pointed out.
“We couldn’t track them down on a Sunday night,” the sheriff explained.
They heard the coroner’s van roll up on the gravel driveway. A moment later, a two-man team entered the house, pushing a pair of gurneys. As Bard and Dixon walked outside, Jimmy O’Brien rushed up. “What you got?” he asked.
“I’ve got a journalist who’s violated a restricted zone,” Dixon said. “That’s what I’ve got.”
“Just tell me if—”
Dixon put a meaty hand on Jimmy’s arm. “O’Brien, I’ll handcuff you to Doug’s car unless you go back there on your own.”
Bard stepped between the sheriff and Jimmy. He’d bailed his buddy out of jail twice in his life, and didn’t want to go for three. “Jimmy,” he said, giving him a look. “Back to the car.”
Sensing in Doug the promise of a later briefing, Jimmy retreated. Bard turned to Dixon.
“Who called the DA?” he asked.
Dixon ran a hand through his crew cut. “Lord knows, not me. I suppose she heard the dispatcher, just like all of us.”
“Looks like she was at another big-time dinner party.”
“So maybe that sort prefers to listen to police chatter over their chardonnay instead of Frank Sinatra. Hell, does it matter?”
“It doesn’t. I’m just wondering.” Bard studied the facade of Merta’s home. He walked to the charred front door, knelt, and pulled a flashlight from his back pocket. “It looks like this was kicked in,” he said. “Door jamb’s splintered. And this looks like a boot mark.”
Dixon leaned over Bard’s shoulder. Doug’s flashlight guided his eyes. “Yeah, we saw that. It’s obvious a fireman did that. We just haven’t figured out which one yet.”
“No doubt you will, soon enough.”
Bard rose and began circling the house. Ollie Merta lived a modest life. His home was no more than a bungalow, really—wood frame, rolled composition roof, small porch, two cramped bedrooms. Merta had used one as an office, Bard surmised. He’d seen a blackened computer in there. A fax and a printer, too. What was it that Merta did, exactly? How did he live? What mattered to him? Bard didn’t know. Mainly as a hobby, Ollie kept a few sheep out back of his house, on the steep pasture that climbed into the foothills. He wasn’t a farmer, though, or even a gardener. That much was clear. There was little cultivation here: no flowers, no fruit trees, no vegetables.
Bard stopped amid the brush at the south side of the house. Something had glinted as he’d waved his flashlight. He leaned over, yanked at the chaparral. He went to his knees and yanked some more. His hand brushed against something metallic. An empty beer can. The local Graciosa Brew.
“Funny,” Bard called out, showing Dixon what he’d found. “Merta didn’t drink.”
Dixon shrugged. “So he had visitors.”
Bard blinked in the gloom. It was hard to believe this was a summer night. Hard also to describe its appeal. You had to have a feel for the Central Coast. “For that matter,” he said, “Merta didn’t smoke.”
Once more, Angela Stark was at their side. Bard wasn’t sure when she’d joined them. “How do you know?” she asked.
Bard brushed back the lank black hair hanging over his forehead. He had a rugged face, crooked nose, and engaged, clear blue eyes, which taken together some women at JB’s found attractive. He was clad, as usual, in faded jeans, scuffed boots, and a leather jacket. He carried no gun. Guns, he liked to say, didn’t look good on a plainclothes cop; the bulge of an unholstered revolver in a pants pocket just wasn’t his style.
Bard examined Stark now. He offered the lopsided grin that so confounded his bosses when they tried to rein him in. “To be a detective,” he said, “you’ve got to know your people.”
A gray sedan rolled up to the house. Out of it spilled a man and woman, coats askew, hands clutching the air. “What’s happened here?” the woman called out. “Oh my God . . . Oh my God . . . Where’s our daughter . . . ?”
Harvey and Cynthia Cooper. She was a yoga instructor, he the proud proprietor of a small winery located some dozen miles beyond Ollie Merta’s cabin. Angela Stark knew them well. She stepped forward. “Harvey, Cynthia. Don’t tell me. Was Marilee with Ollie? Was Marilee in Ollie’s house?”
Cynthia Cooper stared wild-eyed at the burned hulk. “A piano lesson, she was taking a piano lesson . . . We couldn’t get her right after, so Ollie was baby-sitting . . . Where . . . Where’s Marilee?” She started toward the house, but Sheriff Dixon stopped her.
“Don’t go in there, Mrs. Cooper. You don’t want to see. There’s been a terrible accident.”
At that moment the coroner’s team emerged from the ruined home, pushing the two gurneys, each bearing a blanket-wrapped body. The Coopers wailed and lunged but again Dixon held them back. Doug Bard, unnoticed, approached the bodies, his back to the others. He held up a hand to stop the coroner’s men.
The fog had lifted now, leaving a dark hazy sky. Bard raised the blanket on one gurney, then the other, studying the blackened yet still recognizable faces of Ollie Merta and Marilee Cooper. Both of them were curled into the fire victim’s usual pugilistic position, arms bent and fists clenched as if ready to fight. This, he knew, didn’t mean they’d been alive at the time of the blaze; all bodies react similarly in a fire, the muscles contracting in response to furious heat. Bard couldn’t keep his eyes off Marilee. Yes, she must have been eleven, same as Molly.
Didn’t Molly have a school chum named Marilee? He ought to know, Bard thought. He didn’t, though. Not for sure.
He shouldn’t touch the bodies, he understood that, but he couldn’t stop himself. He cupped the little girl’s face in his hands. He moved his fingers along her cheeks, down her neck. Then he sensed something.
Marilee’s throat felt odd around the larynx, as if the cartilage and muscle there had been compressed. He bent closer over her. Now he spotted what looked to be three slivers etched on the side of her throat, each the size of a fingernail mark. He lifted her eyelids and examined the mucous membrane lining the inner surface. He saw there a cluster of small red dots. He pulled back and looked at Marilee’s entire face. There were no smoke stains around the nostrils or in the nose, no blistering or marginal reddening of her skin.
“Our firefighters extinguished the fire too soon,” Bard called out. “They left some evidence.”