Read an Excerpt
By LAUREN BACH
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Kathleen G. Holzapfel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRichmond, Virginia
"You have to take this job, Rach. Pleeease. For me!" Jimmy Parsell, Rachel Anderson's younger cousin, kept his voice whiney and low as he escorted her down a hall to the private office of U.S. Senator Thurston Benjamin IV.
Jimmy looked even more desperate than he sounded, his spiky hair poking out in twelve directions, its bright red color contrasting sharply with Rachel's fairer blond.
She grabbed his fidgeting hands. "I agreed to meet with him. For you. And until I know more, that's all I'll commit to."
It was a small lie. When Jimmy called yesterday, asking for this favor, Rachel had flat-out refused. Then his mom called. Jimmy, the little weasel, knew damn good and well Rachel couldn't say no to Aunt Laura.
Still, there was no way in hell she'd accept this case. She knew from experience that celebrities and public officials were pains in the ass to work for. Every move first had to be weighed for its impact on the client's image, then maximized for publicity.
Worse, if anyone came up with mud on their face, it was always the hired help. And the fact that a U.S. senator needed a private investigator-a discreet private investigator, Jimmy had emphasized-signaled a potential mudslide.
As a courtesy to her aunt, Rachel would listen to the senator, suggest a course of action, then recommend another firm. She planned to be back in Atlanta by ten tonight.
"Before this, the senator didn't even know I was one of his aides." Jimmy turned at the end of the hall. "Now he's hinting that I have a shot at a higher position after graduation. Do you know what a leg up that is?"
"I realize this means a lot, but don't pin your hopes of promotion on me."
"A lot? It means everything!" Jimmy wailed. "Look, the man's had a hellacious year. He lost his daughter and now his wife is seriously ill."
Rachel scowled. "Don't play the sympathy card, Jimmy. I'm not in the mood. I dropped everything to come here and-"
"Shh!" They had reached the senator's office and had to stop talking.
Giving her one last beseeching look, Jimmy straightened the lapels of her suit before adjusting his own tie.
"By the way, I told him you were a Republican," he hissed as he knocked.
If the door hadn't opened just then, Rachel would have decked her cousin. Instead, she gritted her teeth as Senator Benjamin greeted Jimmy enthusiastically.
A distinguished-looking man with piercing blue eyes, the senator was shorter than she expected. Perhaps only an inch taller than her own five-six. And he exuded a sense of energy that belied his age.
He held out a hand. "You must be Rachel. Jimmy's spoken highly of you."
"I could say the same. It's nice to meet you."
Smiling, the senator dismissed Jimmy with a curt nod. Rachel caught a brief glimpse of her cousin's crestfallen face as the door shut. Had he honestly expected to be included in their meeting? The kid had a lot to learn.
Benjamin motioned Rachel toward his desk, an oversized mahogany barge. The matching credenza was loaded with expensive Steuben glass sculptures. One piece, a crystal eagle poised for flight, was spotlighted from above, a fitting symbol of devotion to country.
Rachel recalled what she knew about the man. In his early fifties, Benjamin was in the midst of his fifth term in office. His marriage to an oil heiress made him the second wealthiest member of the Senate. And the second most powerful.
Coincidence? Hardly. Money and power went hand in hand, especially in the Capitol.
"I appreciate your coming on such short notice," the senator said.
"Jimmy mentioned you were preparing to leave with an overseas delegation." While still pissed about the Republican thing, Rachel tried to make certain her cousin got some of the credit.
"The timing for this trip isn't ideal, but it's not every day we get invited to China to discuss international banking security issues."
Rachel took a chair in front of the desk.
"Coffee? Or perhaps something a bit stronger?" the senator offered.
She settled back. "Not for me."
"I'm afraid caffeine is one of my true vices."
Rachel raised a brow as he turned away. The fact that he needed a discreet investigator suggested it wasn't the only one.
Having poured a cup, Benjamin started to take a seat behind the desk, but at the last minute took the chair across from hers. She recognized the maneuver for what it was-an attempt to lower barriers between them. Which made hers rise.
The whole time, he continued making small talk. Small talk with a point. "Jimmy's a fine young man. He has a bright future here."
"That's good to hear. Of course, I'm prejudiced since we're related."
"Which brings up a delicate point." The senator reached across the desk and slid a single sheet of paper toward her. "Do you mind signing a confidentiality agreement? The matters we'll be discussing are highly personal. None of my staff here or in DC are aware of these issues and I want to keep it that way."
"I have no objection to signing one, though I always treat any disclosures by prospective clients as confidential."
"So I've heard. Your firm's name in the field is sterling."
As confidentiality agreements went, this one was straightforward and blessedly short.
It wasn't the first time Rachel had been asked to sign one, and as always, it piqued her curiosity. Particularly the subject line: Cindy Benjamin. After scribbling her name, Rachel pushed the sheet and pen back.
The senator looked relieved. "I'll get right to the point. You're aware my stepdaughter, Cindy, died in an automobile accident seven months ago?"
Rachel nodded. The tragic story had garnered headlines. It had been Christmas Eve and Cindy had been on her way home from college when her car plunged down an embankment after being struck by a hit-and-run driver. Twenty-two hours later, she was found. She was estimated to have been alive for ten of those hours.
Was that what this meeting was about? Did Senator Benjamin want what the Virginia Highway Patrol hadn't been able to give him? The person responsible for his stepdaughter's death?
She relaxed slightly, beginning to see the man in a different light. What father wouldn't want justice for his child? She understood the need for answers, for without them, closure was incomplete.
But why the secrecy? Unless there was more to the accident. Something he didn't want publicized. God knew politicians were notoriously paranoid when it came to the press.
"If I remember correctly, the other driver was never found," Rachel said. "Is that what you're seeking?"
"No." The senator glanced away as if gathering his thoughts. "The police have exhausted all leads. It was snowing and dark the night of the accident. Witnesses saw only the taillights of a speeding vehicle. Road conditions were so slippery it wouldn't have taken much to trigger the accident. So it may not even have been a hit-and-run. The other car could have simply passed Cindy, causing her to swerve and lose control. At least that's what the police are now suggesting."
Uncertain what to say, Rachel nodded again and waited for him to continue.
"You're also aware my wife has been diagnosed with leukemia." He cleared his throat. "While we've tried to keep the news releases about her illness positive, the truth is ..." He glanced down at the cup he held, his mouth tightening. "Well, the truth is she hasn't responded well to treatment."
"I'm sorry," Rachel offered, feeling guilty that she'd misread the senator's actions at the beginning. Perhaps his decision to sit opposite her instead of behind the desk hadn't been calculated.
Looking up, Benjamin nodded and took a sip of coffee. "My wife's doctors have expressed serious concern over her will to live. On top of everything else, she's suffering with deep depression. We, ah, got her diagnosis just two days after Cindy's funeral. Not many people know that at the time of the accident, my wife and I were estranged from Cindy. We hadn't seen her in nearly eighteen months. So her coming home-what we assumed was to be the first step in mending our differences-was a total surprise to us. And it made her loss that much more difficult."
Several questions about why they had been on bad terms came to mind, but Rachel stopped herself from voicing them. No matter how sorry she was for the senator's loss, she wasn't changing her mind. "I can't imagine how difficult that must have been."
The senator grimaced. "Yes, well, in hopes of finding proof that Cindy had indeed had a change of heart, I did something I probably shouldn't have."
He stood, crossed to warm his coffee. "Shortly after her death, I received some of her belongings. The college had done as I asked with her clothes and furniture, donating them to charity, but they had boxed up some of what they viewed as more personal items. I went through them last week for the first time and found a diary. Much of it was what I expected to find. An outpouring of frustration with us. With her professors. With her classmates."
He looked at Rachel. "Even as a child, Cindy was incapable of accepting love. As she grew older, she became more so. Nothing her mother or I did seemed to help. I suppose my chosen life path, the demands of public office played a part."
Rachel sensed he was stalling, mentally justifying his behavior in violating his stepdaughter's privacy. "What else did you find?" she pressed. "In Cindy's journal?"
"That she claimed to be pregnant."
"Claimed?" The senator's choice of words struck her as odd.
"Unfortunately, Cindy occasionally ..." He paused as if considering his words again. "Let's just say it wouldn't be the first time she'd played with the truth."
"But certainly a pregnancy would have shown up in the autopsy."
He rubbed his forehead. "I'm sorry. I guess I wasn't making myself clear. The entry was made back in February of last year and on the final page of the diary." Frustration cracked his voice. "If she began a new diary after that one, it wasn't in what was sent to us."
Rachel's middle tightened as she recognized the direction the conversation was taking. Given her firm's reputation for finding missing children, she now knew why the senator had wanted her to take the job. "So you want to know if she was pregnant? And, if she was, what became of the baby?"
"If Lenore thought she had a grandchild out there ..." Again his voice faded. "Well, I think it's about the only thing that will make her continue with treatment." He looked Rachel in the eye. "To be completely truthful, it's not the child that matters so much to me as my wife. I'll do just about anything to keep Lenore alive."
He glanced down at his cup again. "And that's hard for me to admit because if there is a child, the press will have a damn free-for-all with the story. It won't exactly end my career, but it certainly won't put me in the White House either."
As he spoke, Rachel had found herself leaning toward him, but with the last she sat back. For a moment, she had actually started to warm to the man. Until he had revealed his true motive.
Bottom line, the reason he'd chosen Rachel-an outsider on the DC scene-was because he was concerned about his damn political image. Her skill in the field had nothing to do with it.
He was afraid the scandal of having a stepdaughter who had become pregnant out of wedlock and given up the child, before then getting herself killed, might keep his name out of the presidential hat come next election. Which made him just another self-serving politician.
Rachel was suddenly anxious to end the interview, but recognized that because of Jimmy-or rather, her aunt-she needed to be tactful. She'd ask a few more questions and tell him she needed to think over the case. In the morning she'd make a call to the senator, declining.
"You're convinced, solely on this diary entry, that Cindy had a child?" Rachel asked.
"Coupled with the fact we hadn't seen her in so long, yes. And while the diary entry rambled, Cindy mentioned being counseled against abortion, though she seemed to consider adoption an alternative. She was also worried her mother would disown her-which Lenore would never do. My wife would be crushed to know that. In spite of their ups and downs, Lenore truly loved Cindy."
"Have you checked with her boyfriend?"
"She, ah ... wasn't dating anyone that we know of." His tone held mild censure.
"How about her other friends at college? Do you know who counseled her? And what about her medical records?"
The senator drew a deep breath and briefly held it. "I've done what I could, but there are extenuating circumstances you should be aware of. Cindy had a troubled past that we've worked hard to hide. She had been treated for drug abuse, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity. There were also a couple of incidents where she falsely accused young men of date rape, causing one psychologist to label her a pathological liar. As much as I want to believe for my wife's sake that Cindy might have had a child, I have to remember the entry could have been fabricated."
Rachel gave herself a moment to process all he'd just said. It was evident Cindy had been a troubled young woman. Their estrangement made more sense now.
"Still, her giving birth should be easy to ascertain. Cindy would have had to deliver somewhere. There are computerized records that can be inconspicuously searched." She stopped herself from saying hacked.
Shaking his head, the senator stood and paced toward a window. "Believe me, I thought of that. But searching the records of Shepherd's Cross College is impossible from outside the campus. I don't know if you've heard of it, but Shepherd's Cross is a small divinity college in rural West Virginia, and they brag about how they're Internet free. I understand their parent church had an incident where their database was stolen. Afterward, both the church and campus simply disconnected from the Internet-formed their own network or something. Sounds rather rash to me, but darn if they haven't put a remarkable spin on it. Several other campuses are considering doing the same thing."
Rachel was aware of the incident, as it had made the cover of Newsweek. While the college was small and obscure, the church was anything but. Thousands of credit-card holders, mostly elderly, who had ordered videos, CDs, tapes, and books had been ripped off for hundreds of thousands. And the church had reimbursed every dollar.
Subsequently, Shepherd's Cross had for all intents and purposes disconnected from the Internet, allowing a third party to handle Web-site sales. None of their data mainframes had modems, making it a hack-proof system.
Excerpted from PROJECT EVE by LAUREN BACH Copyright © 2005 by Kathleen G. Holzapfel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.