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When truth doesn't make sense, will lies prevail?
Cathy Cramer is a former lawyer and investigative blogger who writes commentary on high-profile homicides. When she finds a threatening note warning her that she's about to experience the same kind of judgment and speculation that she dishes out in her blog, Cathy writes it off as mischief . . . until her brother's wife is murdered and all the 'facts' point to him. The killer has staged the crime to make the truth too far-fetched...
When truth doesn't make sense, will lies prevail?
Cathy Cramer is a former lawyer and investigative blogger who writes commentary on high-profile homicides. When she finds a threatening note warning her that she's about to experience the same kind of judgment and speculation that she dishes out in her blog, Cathy writes it off as mischief . . . until her brother's wife is murdered and all the 'facts' point to him. The killer has staged the crime to make the truth too far-fetched to believe. Working to solve the murder and clear her brother's name, Cathy and her two sisters, Holly and Juliet, moonlight as part-time private investigators. Juliet, a stay-at-home mom of two boys, and Holly, a scattered ne'er-do-well who drives a taxi, put aside their fear to hunt down the real killer.
Stakes rise when their brother's grieving five-year-old son is kidnapped. As police focus on the wrong set of clues, the three sisters and their battered detective friend are the only hope for solving this bizarre crime, saving the child, and freeing their brother.
Hope budded where it had all but shriveled. Dropping everything, he wrote a quick note back:
I'll be right over. Leaving now.
Yes, it was a miracle. Annalee hadn't spoken to him in almost a year. Every visitation had been arranged through their attorneys. He had longed for the chance to talk to her face-to-face and tell her of his concerns for Jackson if she won full custody. Every other weekend and Wednesday night visitations—the deal most fathers got under this judge—would not cut it. He had wanted to remind her how desperately the child needed his dad. To remind her that children who had their father ripped out of their lives often grew up with voids they tried to fill through self-destructive choices. He'd wanted to appeal to her as an adult and a parent, to get past this bickering and put Jackson first.
Now he had an invitation to do just that.
It wouldn't be an easy conversation. He'd have to put aside his bitterness over her string of affairs and the influence some of her boyfriends had on his five-year-old son. He'd tread carefully, so as not to set her off.
He realized as he drove that he was almost out of gas. Why hadn't he filled up this morning? He pulled into a gas station and hurriedly put in ten dollars' worth, then headed to her neighborhood.
He turned onto her street, wondering if Jackson was home from kindergarten yet. If so, he would run to Jay yelling, "Daddeeeee!" Or was he still at day care? Usually, Annalee worked until seven or eight in her home office, taking tech support calls for the software company she worked for. She often had to work late, since she had to be available for those on the west coast as well as those in the Eastern time zone. Her long hours were the main reason Jay had tried to get custody during the week. There was no reason for Jackson to spend twelve or thirteen hours a day with a babysitter when his own father could be with him part of that time.
Jay slowed as he reached the neighborhood. The houses sat on five-acre wooded lots, so they were spaced far apart. He remembered the day he and Annalee had closed escrow on their lot. They'd been giddy with excitement and had pitched a tent and spent the night there.
It seemed like an eternity ago, back when they were still in love.
Then came Jackson, and the joys and exhaustion of parenthood. After that they'd entered the house-building phase, and the stress tamped their romance. Annalee wanted more than they could afford, running the cost higher with every decision. Their head-butting became more and more frequent. By the time they'd moved in, their love had grown lukewarm. It was probably around that time that she'd had her first affair.
But there was no sense in thinking about that now. He passed the stretch of woods separating their house from the others. As he rounded the curve, the house came into view.
A white pickup truck was parked at the curb in front of the house. Annalee's latest boyfriend drove a silver Jaguar, but according to her Facebook posts, they had broken up weeks ago. As far as Jay knew, she wasn't seeing anyone now. So who was visiting when she knew he was coming over?
As Jay pulled into the driveway, the front door swung open. He shifted into Park as a clown bounced out. Jay did a double-take. A clown?
The man wore a wig with a bald head on top and red curly hair on the sides, and was dressed in a red costume with yellow, white, and green polka-dots. His face was painted in full clown makeup, so it was difficult to tell if he was smiling or if that was just the effect of the red lips curving up on his face. The clown lifted his gloved hand in a wave to Jay as he went to the truck, his big yellow shoes flopping across the lawn.
Jay waved back. Maybe Annalee was hiring a clown for Jackson's birthday next month. But that wasn't like her. She rarely spent money on anyone but herself.
Was she turning over a new leaf?
He got out of the car and went to the front steps. A year ago he would have used his key and gone in, but she had made it clear that he was no longer welcome to walk in like part of the family, even though his name was still on the deed. He knocked, then rang the bell. Its chime rose over the wind, ostentatious and irritating. He'd always hated that bell, but she'd insisted on it.
She didn't answer, so he knocked again. Was this all a joke? Had she set him up to dash his hopes?
He pulled out his cell phone and called her, but it went straight to voice mail. Now what?
Maybe she was in the back of the house and couldn't hear the doorbell. He thought of leaving and chalking it up to her mood swings, but this was important. They were going to talk!
He pulled his key ring out of his pocket, found the house key, and unlocked the door, hoping the violation didn't send her into a rage.
He opened it and stepped inside. "Annalee!" he shouted. "It's me. Where are you?"
There was no answer. The front room was immaculate, just as her designer friend had left it. She only went in there to dust. He went through the front rooms and into the study where she usually worked. "Annalee?"
Still no answer. Her computer was on, her Arabesque screensaver dotting across the black screen. Her desk phone began ringing ... once ... twice ... three times. Where could she be?
Then he heard water running ... upstairs. Was she showering?
It was just like her. Luring him over, then changing her mind. Toying with him like he was some idiot. "Annalee!"
Still no answer. Getting angry, he bolted upstairs and looked in the open door of the master bedroom, where the two of them had slept for years. The bed was made up as neatly as always. Jackson's room was orderly too. His son wasn't here. Jay went to the hall bathroom where he could hear the running water, pounded on the locked door.
"Annalee? I'm here! Do you want to talk or not?"
Nothing. "Annalee!" he shouted, pounding again. "Answer me!"
Water began seeping out from under the door. What was going on? Was she in there with the water running over?
Sudden fear burst through him. Something wasn't right. He pounded again, and when there was still no answer, he backed up and kicked the door, his foot landing just below the doorknob.
Wood splintered, and he kicked it again, twice more, until the door broke and flew open.
And there she was.
His wife ... fully dressed and motionless in the bathtub ... pink water running over ...
For an eternity of seconds he stood frozen, staring at the scene, unable to take it in. Then reality shook him.
"Annalee!" He ran to the tub and turned the water off, got his arms under her, lifted her out, water sloshing over the side of the tub.
She was fully clothed and wearing shoes, but her white blouse was stained and torn ...
Horror pounding through him, he realized it wasn't torn. The hole in the cloth burned into a wound on her chest. Heart racing, he laid her on the wet floor and tried to revive her. "Annalee, wake up! Please ... God ... don't let her die!" She was limp and her face was gray, her lips colorless. Her eyes were partially open, vacant.
Jay groped for his phone with wet hands, couldn't find it. The other pocket ... he pulled it out, punched in 911.
The dispatcher answered, "911, what is your emergency?"
"My wife ... I think she's dead ..."
"You think your wife is dead?" the dispatcher repeated. "Sir, what's wrong with her?"
"She was in the bathtub ... shot, I think ... she's not breathing."
"You think she was shot?"
Why did she keep repeating his words? "Yes ... I don't know ... looks like a bullet hole. Please, send an ambulance!" He gave her the address.
"They're on their way, sir. Stay on the phone with me. Do you know CPR?"
He tried to think. Chest compressions ... "Yes. I think so."
"Sir, can you feel a pulse?"
He almost dropped the phone as he touched the carotid artery on the side of her neck, praying for a pulse.
There wasn't one.
"No! I don't feel one. You have to hurry!"
"Sir, I need you to put the heel of one hand on her chest and pump it with your other hand."
Trembling, he put the phone on the commode lid. What about her wound? He put his hands next to it, over her heart, and started pumping, praying her heart would start. The hole was to the right of center. Maybe it had missed the organ. If the paramedics came in time ...
"Sir, is she responding?" The voice sounded distant. He reached up and set it to speakerphone.
"No, not yet," he said, breathless. "When will they be here?"
"In a few minutes. Is the door unlocked?"
He tried to think. "Yes, I left it unlocked. Tell them we're upstairs." He kept pumping as he talked, Annalee's body jerking with the force of his weight. But nothing changed. Sweat dripped into his eyes.
"She's not responding!"
"You said she was in the tub?"
"Yes, with her clothes on," he said, breathless. "Soaking wet."
"Sir, keep pumping."
"Yes." He pumped, praying, but there was still nothing. Jackson ... his mother ...
This wasn't what he wanted. Despite all the fighting, part of him still loved her.
"Annalee, please!" he shouted. "Wake up! Jackson needs you!"
But she didn't move.
He heard the sirens coming—loud, spiral sounds in front of the house. They could save her. They'd give her oxygen, blood, defibrillate her, bring her back.
He heard the door downstairs, the thunder of footsteps coming up the stairs. "I'm in here!" he shouted. "The bathroom!"
Two firemen appeared at the door, dressed in firefighting gear. "No!" he shouted. "I need an ambulance, not a fireman!"
They stepped aside as a paramedic burst in and knelt across from him. "Sir, move away and let me," the medic said.
"Please ... I've been doing CPR ... she's not responding." Jay moved back as the paramedic examined her. "You have to revive her. We have a little boy."
"She's been shot," the medic called to someone. "Exit wound on her back."
The firemen pulled Jay out of the bathroom and into the hall. Only then did he notice that his pant legs and shoes were wet. His arms were soaked and stained pink.
Police were waiting for him on the staircase. They introduced themselves as Officers Shelton and Blake. "Sir, do you know who shot her?"
He started to shake his head, then remembered the clown. "There ... there was a guy when I got here. He was coming out the front door. He was dressed like a clown."
The eyebrows of one of the cops shot up. "A clown?"
"Yes. Big curly red wig and his face all painted up. He got into a white truck and drove east."
"Did you see the tag number?"
"No. His truck was facing me when I pulled in. It didn't occur to me to check his tag. I didn't know anything was wrong."
The cop named Shelton tipped his head. "So let me get this straight. You're saying a clown shot your wife?"
"I don't know if he shot her! I just saw him!"
Shelton sent the other one a look. "A clown."
They didn't believe him. He looked toward the bathroom. "There was water running out under the door, and the door was locked. I kicked it in."
Someone near the bathroom called up the hall. "Shelton ... you need to see something."
Shelton left them and walked over to stand at the bathroom door. Jay watched, breath held. He heard the word "gun," then Shelton stepped into the bathroom.
After a moment, he came back out. "Get some pictures, document how we found it. I'll notify Homicide."
"Homicide?" Jay asked. "No ... you have to keep trying!"
Shelton shot Jay a harder look as he came back toward him. "Mr. Cramer, do you own a gun?"
Jay tried to shift his thoughts. A gun? "No ... I mean, yes, I did. I left it with Annalee when I moved out."
"What kind of gun is it?"
"A .38 revolver. It's registered. I think she keeps it in her bed table drawer."
The men exchanged looks.
"Are they still working on her? Are they trying?" He had barely gotten the words out when he saw the first paramedic coming out of the bathroom, no longer hurried.
"Is she gonna be okay?" Jay asked, tears burning his eyes.
The paramedic shook his head. "No sir, I'm sorry."
Jay bolted forward, and the cops grabbed him, pulling him back. "No, she can't be dead. We have a five-year-old. He can't lose his mother!"
But he could see from their faces that it was too late. There was nothing they could do.
The pretty young defendant showed no signs of cracking, even after three weeks of sitting under the world's scrutiny, her hair slicked back in a severe bun each day. She was probably glad to be out of her cell this whole time, though Cathy would have been much happier to be hidden away if the same sorts of accusations had been hurled about her.
The accused child-killer was definitely guilty. Surely the jury saw it. Cathy's own readers of her investigative blog Cat's Curious saw it clearly, even though they relied on what Cathy's blog and the rest of the media interpreted into the court testimony.
The case, which was being tried right here in Cathy's home town of Panama City, Florida, had doubled her readership in the last few months and netted her some heavy advertisers for her blog. Her past as an attorney, her deep intuition about these cases after her own experiences with murder, and her fearless way of nailing the truth, kept her fans reading.
If people ever stopped killing each other, she supposed she'd be out of work. She could always switch to debunking urban myths or exposing corporate crimes, if she couldn't force herself to go back to practicing law. But until sociopaths developed consciences, Cathy was happy to do her part in championing the victims and dissecting the crimes for all to see.
At last, the judge called a recess until tomorrow. As the jury was led out of the room, Cathy locked onto the defendant's face. Sara Chesney's emotionless facade melted away, and she smiled at her attorney and gave him a wink.
Perfect. Cathy hoped no one else had seen that. Max, the reporter next to her, was focused on his notes. The TV camera had already cut off. The other reporters on the second row seemed to be watching the jurors' faces. Maybe Cathy was the only one who'd caught it. If not, she could at least be the first to report it. She'd write about it this afternoon. What could it mean? That Sara felt the defense had pulled off their latest subliminal suggestions to the jury? That she and her attorney had a thing going?
Or was it just that the defendant was relieved to be out from under the judging eyes of those jurors and that camera?
Sara was handcuffed and led out, her pastel button-down shirt more wrinkled than it had been this morning. Cathy wondered if the woman had ever worn a button-down in her life before now. The pictures of her before her niece's death showed that she preferred outfits that exposed skin and were at least a size too small. The schoolmarm image wasn't fooling anyone.
When the judge left the room, Max mowed through the spectators to get to the restroom. Cathy stepped out quietly, checking over her notes. She made a quick pit stop by the ladies' room, listening to the conversations among the spectators. They all seemed to have the same impression of today's testimony that she had—that the defendant's husband was lying, that the best friend was telling the truth ...
Cathy's instincts were rarely wrong.
She stepped out on the front steps of the courthouse. Media lined the sidewalk out front, some of them already broadcasting about the last few hours in the trial. She trotted past the television vans and hurried to the parking garage. Her Miata sat in a parking space on the top level, baking in the hot sun.
Excerpted from Truth-Stained Lies by Terri Blackstock Copyright © 2012 by Terri Blackstock . Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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