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Craig Andrews was moving in for the kill.
He'd trapped Becca Reynolds as neatly as any hound would trap a rabbit.
She swallowed hard, her mouth dry. To reach for the tumbler of water in front of her would be a sign of weakness, wouldn't it?
Yes. Better to have a mouth that felt as if a sandblaster had let loose in it than to have her actions prove it.
"Miss Reynolds "
Andrews pivoted on his Testoni dress shoes and held up a single sheet of paper. The corners of his mouth lifted, but the expression bore about as much resemblance to a smile as a shark's chompers did.
"You based your conclusions on weather patterns and the very scientific NASA photographs."
"Yes. Yes, I did. It is my"
But before Becca could explain how she knew the hailstorm had been nothing but cocktail ice and a few migrant workers beating plants down in the field, he held up one perfectly manicured hand.
Really. The fop spent more on his appearance than she and her father spent on their monthly office lease.
And now she was stuck on the stand, testifying in the first federal criminal-fraud case she'd investigated. The case was a slam dunk, or so she'd assured the feds and the insurance company who'd hired their firm.
It certainly didn't feel like that now.
"You even went so far as to say there were no tomatoes planted"
She gritted her teeth. "No. I said there weren't as many tomatoes planted as Mr. Palmer said. His insurance claim forms indicated he had several hundred acres"
"Yes, yes." He waved away her answer. "How much do you know of the weather in this part of the state?"
"I'm a private investigator, Mr. Andrews. I'm not a meteorologist."
"Ah, but you based your findings on meteorological evidence. So is it going to rain today, Miss Reynolds?"
With the prosecution's objection offered and sustained, and the laughter in the courtroom finished, Andrews came back. "Were you aware, Miss Reynolds, that this part of the county had heavy spring rains?"
Her stomach clenched. "No. My recollection of the rainfall levels indicated that they were a little above average but not inordinately heavy."
"But if your recollection" Andrews's emphasis of the word dripped with sarcasm "was faulty, would that impact your analysis?"
Becca swallowed hard again and this time succumbed to the call of the water on the witness stand. No way had she goofed those rainfall levels. She'd looked at them, standard procedure. She glanced at her father, the senior partner of Reynolds Agricultural Investigations. It was only after he glowered at her in a way that screamed "Don't screw this up!" that she answered Andrews's question.
"Possibly. It depends."
"You based your entire opinion on the analysis of photos. You said that you would be able to see evidence of tomato crops from satellite photos taken the week before, right? Isn't that correct?"
"Uh, yes. The red"
"Would show up." Andrews spun again on his Testonis, this time to face the jury. "But if the fruit was unripened? If the tomatoes were still green on the vine."
Becca wanted nothing more than to run from the courtroom and make it to the nearest bathroom stall. She didn't have the luxury of that option, so she stuck it out. "If the rains were heavy enough to delay planting, the ripening could be delayed, as well. But it would have to be extremely heavy rains"
"Something like these?" Andrews turned back and dropped the printout into Becca's hands.
It was worse than she thought. She'd never seen this reportit totally contradicted her own research. If these figures were accurate, the farmers in the area would have needed an Evinrude on the back of their tractors to navigate these rains.
After he'd dragged the offensive numbers out of Becca and retrieved the printout, he said, "Your Honor, I would like to admit into evidence rain reports from the county extension agent in the early spring of that year."
Becca sat, numb, twisting her hands in her lap, her fingernails digging into her palms. Andrews smiled again.
"Did anyone from Reynolds Agricultural Investigationsum, how did you put itgo on-site?"
She closed her eyes.
When would I have had time? Would that have been between visiting my dad in ICU and keeping the firm open while he was out?
But she bit back the words, which she knew would open a whole other can of worms with Ag-Sure, their client. Opening her eyes, she forced out, "No. Because the satellite images showed clear evidence"
"Of unripe tomatoes. Oh, yes. Right. Perfectly understandable. I mean, you just get paid to rip apart farmers' lives. We wouldn't want you to get dirt under your pretty little fingernails. You should leave that to the farmers who are trying to scrape out a living."
Even before the prosecution could get out its objection, Andrews withdrew the question. "I'm done with this witness," he said.
Becca's blood pressure spiked as she heard the bite in her father's voice.
"The jury's back already?"
"Yeah, while you dashed out for a bite to eat."
Her fingers tightened on the fast-food bag she had in her hand, supper for the both of them. "Dad, I wasn't gone"
But her protest that she had truly been gone for only ten minutes got interrupted by another of his impatient growls. "The federal prosecutor isn't happy, and neither are the insurance-company suits. This verdict torpedoes their earlier turndown. They aren't happy in the slightest, Becca. They're talking about using another firm."
"Because of one"
"One verdict? No. It's not the verdict that they're mad about. It's you."
"Me?" he mimicked her. "Yes, you. You blew that case. You should have been on that farm, interviewing the workers, interviewing the neighbors. You sure should have had the right rainfall figures. That lawyer sliced you up like a deli ham."
Becca gritted her teeth in an effort to hold her tongue. Not for the first time she asked herself why she wanted this job, why pleasing her dad was so important to her.
Uh, maybe because after the subject of a story you wrote sued you for libel, no other newspaper or magazine would hire you?
It hadn't been libel. Becca had written the truth in that article, and the target of her investigation just couldn't stomach it. She'd survived a humiliating lawsuit only to lose the fledging magazine she'd started up. In the countersuit she'd filed, the jury's decision to award her damages had come too late, and still, Becca had yet to see any money.
She tried to calm down by reminding herself who she was: An award-winning investigative reporter. Her dad had been the one, after his heart attack, to ask her to join his firm. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
"Dad you were sick, remember? You were in ICU with your heart attack. I couldn't be in two places"
"What I needed you to be doing was looking after the business. But I guess that's too much to expect from you."
"That's not fair! I worked hard, gave you my best effort"
"If that case was your best effort, then I am expecting too much from you. Honestly, I thought you'd season up. I thought you'd have gotten smarter after"
Her father stopped in midsentence. He shook his head and turned to head down the empty courthouse corridor.
Becca's anger bubbled up within her. She could not let her father's dropped conversation go. "Say it, Dad. You might as well say it. I'm a failure. I'm a disappointment. You took me on only out of pity. Say it. Because that's what you're thinking."
"Thinking? You really want to know?" He whirled around and stabbed a finger in her direction. "I'll tell you what I'm thinking. I'm thinking I'm a fool for ever thinking I could grow you into an investigator. I'm thinking I'm a fool for ever thinking you'd be grateful for me bailing you out."
"If you're referring to the libel suit and the bankruptcy, why don't you just spit it out, Dad?"
Her father shot a look around. "If I want a prayer's chance of saving Ag-Sure as a client, they don't need to hear even a whisper about you getting sued for libel. But yes, that was what I was talking about. You go into business, start up thatthat magazine against my best advice, you get mired in a counter-lawsuit you had no business even filing."
Becca swallowed. The way he said those things, she might even believe she was a complete flake.
"I won that lawsuit, Dad. And that magazine had a nameAtlanta Insider. Couldn't you just once call it by its name and not hiss and spit? It was a going business until I had one bad break. It will be again. One day. Just because the judgment is being appealed doesn't mean I won't eventually get my money."
Her father blew out a long breath and looked off into the distance. "Let's focus on the problem, okay? Right now one of our biggest clients is going south. I just wanted you to do your job. You're here. You earn a paycheck. You know what to do. I've trained you." He ran a hand through his clipped cut. "You just lose focus. Even with your own business, half the time you were cutting deals to nonprofits"
"It was my business, Dad. I got to choose how I billed my time."
"Right. Well, this is my business, and I say you've screwed up for the last time."
Becca sucked in a breath. "Are you firing me?" The memory of her long series of fruitless job interviews with magazines and newspapers rushed back to her.
"It'd be the smart thing to do. I'd fire any other employee who screwed up like you did."
"I did not screw"
"Take responsibility for this!"
Some men in suits filed out of the courtroom, and Becca saw her father's eyes track them. She lowered her voice and said, "Dad, you have to believe me."
"Go home. I'm going to try to save this account. You just " He gave her a withering look. "Just go home."
She watched him go after the suits, then she gripped the fast-food bag a little tighter in her hand and bolted for the stairs.