Having spent eight years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, Franky Dast now works as an investigator for the Justice Now Initiative, seeking to help others in the same situation. But when he learns that Bill Higby, the detective whose testimony helped convict him, is facing his own murder charge, Franky is torn. Should he help the man he hates more than any other, the man who remains convinced of Franky’s guilt to this day?
As Franky delves further, he comes to realize that in order to prove Higby’s innocence, he must also prove his own. Unless he finds out what happened that fateful night eight years before, the night 15-year-old Duane Bronson and his 13-year-old brother were murdered, Franky will always be under suspicion, and the real killer will remain free. What really happened that dark, wet night on Monument Road? And is Franky prepared for the shocking truth?
Will appeal to fans of GREG ILES and MICHAEL CONNELLY
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On the night that the Bronson boys died, I went fishing. At midnight, before the clouds moved in, a sliver moon hung over the Fulton Landing Boat Ramp like a hook that would snag the whole world and reel it in. I stood in the ocean at the bottom of the ramp, and I cast a finger mullet on to a sandbar in the deeper water. The bait settled until it touched sand – I felt it touch as if fingers neared my skin and the air between us had heat and friction.
A fish hit the bait. I whooped at the moon, snapped the rod up, and reeled in. I whooped again because the world was so full of such wealth that an eighteen-year-old boy could stand waist deep in the warmth and everything he needed would come to him. I could close my eyes, and still it would come.
And two hours earlier, as we partied on our driveway, Trina smiled at me, and that pleasant confusion, which felt like a change of tide, flooded my head.
I could have.
I knew in my head and my bones that I could.
Could have. But didn't.
Then the Coronas ran out, and my brother Jared took Trina's hand and led her inside to his bedroom, though she looked over her shoulder as if it was me she desired.
The world was full of such things.
Not that I was afraid of Trina.
Now, at one a.m., with the hook-moon buried behind a black cloud and a warm mist falling, I reeled in a second fish, a flounder. Thirteen inches long, if one. The Florida minimum limit – twelve inches.
I pulled out the hook, the barb ripping the rough skin around its mouth, and brought the fish so close to my face I could kiss it. I stared at its wandering eye. Then I lowered it to the ocean surface and released it. Because I was basically a good kid. Because, as Dad once said, I had a wild spirit but a soft heart. Because I was a boy becoming a man. Because the world was full of wealth and keeping a fish just an inch bigger than the minimum seemed greedy. Because Trina smiled.
Really, I didn't know why.
And one uncertainty bred another.
I put a new finger mullet on the hook and, with the next cast, reeled in an eighteen-incher.
Sometimes the world worked that way.
At two a.m. on the night that the Bronson boys died, the rain came hard and harder as the ebb tide went slack and the flood started to rise. In three days, I was due to start a job at the Rayonier cellulose plant. I would inventory boxes that came off a machine that made absorbent pulp out of pine fiber. Another company would turn the stuff into diapers. From my trustworthy hands to a baby's butt.
But on a night like this, the sweat of adult life seemed far away. The ocean water swelled around my belly and the rain poured down, stinging my eyes against the dark, and there was no better sting than that. I hooked another finger mullet and tossed it into the dark. With the battering and noise of the rain, I never felt the bait touch bottom, but I reeled in and cast again – and again – until a fish struck and my rod bent and tensed as if it was made of muscle.
That night, I had faith. I could have taken off my clothes and stood barefoot on the jagged oyster shells, bare-skinned in the world. I knew I would live and be strong. The world was my world.
At a quarter to three, I put the fish in the trunk of my dad's car next to his .22 rifle. I carried the bait bucket down the boat ramp and waded into the ocean. I poured the fingerlings and the slop into the sea. I rinsed the bucket in the saltwater and, after standing for a minute longer in the rain, trudged up the ramp and got into the car. I didn't pray then or ever, but I closed my eyes and was grateful. Then I turned the key and punched the accelerator to the floor.
Eight years later, homicide detective Bill Higby came after me like a wolf, though Judge Peterson had said, Get out of jail free, and the newspapers and magazines had said, Oh, the injustice – three years on death row and five more in Supermax for a crime he didn't commit – and Jane Foley and Hank Cury at the Justice Now Initiative talked about a hundred thousand per incarcerated year plus damages, and even the governor said, Something should be done to make him whole. So I rented a room at the Cardinal Motel on Philips Highway. Weekly specials. Hourly rates available. Jimmy marks on the doorjamb.
'Why the hell there?' Jared asked. 'Hookers and pimps for neighbors.'
'Who else will rent to me?' I said.
Bill Hopper, the motel owner, was a foul-mouthed, born-again ex-con, famous for taking in men like me. 60 Minutes did a segment on him. He asked the reporter, 'You think if Mary and Joseph had felony records, the stable wouldn't have kicked them out on their asses?'
'The judge let you go,' Jared said.
'I could stay with you,' I said.
'I wasn't joking,' I said.
'I don't think that would work so well, Franky.'
'I didn't think you'd like it.'
'In fairness, you did this to yourself.'
'Maybe we shouldn't talk to each other anymore,' I said.
'We would probably kill each other,' he said.
A man who'd gone through what I'd gone through didn't joke about these things.
'You'll always be my brother,' he said. 'That doesn't change.' As if he'd given me the gift of shared blood.
So I was at the Cardinal Motel when Detective Higby came knocking. With a fist like a club of wood.
I opened. What did I have to be afraid of? I was free.
But freedom meant little when a man like Higby blocked the only exit from a room. 'What?' I said.
'Just checking on you,' he said. He was a big man. His thinning hair – black when he sent me to jail – was mostly gray now. His back – broad and straight when he lifted me by the collar and held me against a wall – seemed narrower. The last eight years had been hard on him too. 'Just letting you know I know where you are.' He peered into the room, dark except for the flickering TV.
'You aren't going to invite me in?'
'The judge said I didn't do it.'
'No, the judge said we didn't prove you did it, Franky. Big difference. Lack of proof means still to be proved. It doesn't mean innocent. Your blood was on the boys. That doesn't go away.' With the glisten of sweat on his forehead and the weight he carried around his middle, he looked like he should smell.
'You've got no right to harass me,' I said.
'I'm halfway there,' he said. 'More than halfway. This time you won't get out.'
'The State Attorney says she won't try me again.'
'I don't know where you get your information,' he said. 'She'll do whatever the evidence tells her to do. When I'm done, the evidence will tell her to retry you. Count on it.'
I tried to close the door, but he held it with a fist.
'The damage you did to those boys,' he said, 'it haunts me.'
'I didn't do it,' I said.
'You told me you did.'
'You made me say it. If I could go back, I would let you kill me before saying I did something I never did. I was a dumb kid.'
He shook his head. 'There's a difference between dumb and having no soul.'
'You're the smartest client we've ever had,' Jane Foley told me six years ago when the Justice Now Initiative first took on my case.
'Thank you,' I said.
'That doesn't make you especially smart,' she said. 'Just the smartest we've had. Even that might be too much. Smart men manipulate people. They game the system, or try to.'
'You would rather I was stupid?'
'In many respects, yes,' she said. 'IQ below seventy, and you would be easy.'
'Sorry,' I said.
'Don't worry about it,' she said.
I did half the research that got me off death row and three-quarters of the research that freed me to the outside five years later. As Jane Foley said, smart prisoners gamed the system. We gave the guards something they wanted, if we had anything to give. I gave the one thing I could give, the thing they got too little of in a place where the funniest joke was splashing a cup of month-old piss on a passing uniform. They wanted respect. Which was different from fear – there was plenty of that. If I treated a guard right, he might allow me an extra fifteen minutes in the library or even forget I was there for a whole afternoon. Or, if he'd come to work after fighting with his wife and kids, he might brutalize me for the hell of it.
On the days that I went to the library, I looked up the names of wrongly convicted men who, after ten or fifteen or thirty years, got their freedom. Like me, most of them were on death row for rape and murder. I read their stories over and over until I could recite them, and I studied the mistakes they made as they tried to get someone to listen. I wrote down the names of the people who finally paid attention. Then I wrote letters to those people, telling my own story. I read the news articles on my case, and they made me look so bad that, by the time I finished, I worried I might be guilty after all. So I stopped reading the old news and put in a request for my court records. They came eighteen months after I asked for them. I also requested the police records. They never came. From the court records, I learned one thing my trial lawyer should have grabbed on to and wrestled to the ground but didn't, as if he feared getting gored. Aside from pointing out my blood on the older boy's shirt, which I explained a hundred times, the prosecution never took the next step. They did a DNA profile on the blood from the car battery and the blood on the shirt, but if they ever did a rape kit, no one mentioned it.
In my letters to the prisoner rights people and to the journalism professors who used people like me to give their students real-world, high-stakes investigative experience, I dropped phrases like missing serological report and post-conviction relief, and that got some attention, though it also made Jane Foley say I might be too smart for my own good.
'If I'd been smart when they arrested me, I wouldn't be where I am,' I said, 'and we wouldn't be having this conversation.'
'Smart answer,' she said.
The doubt she sowed when she told the court that the public defender failed to ask about a rape kit – ineffective counsel, if ever – got me off death row. After that, she and Hank Cury filed six requests for the investigation records before another court ordered the Sheriff's Office to turn over a box of them. The records showed that a rape kit had been collected but never tested. Then the Sheriff's Office said they lost the kit but, eleven months later, said they found it again. So Hank Cury asked for money to test the kit, but the State Attorney said there was no need – they already had their man – and two courts agreed until one didn't, and when the test came back, it said the man who raped the boy was ninety-nine-point-nine-to-the-fifth-decimal percent not me.
Judge Barbara Peterson ordered the state to let me go and praised the Justice Now Initiative for its work. Then Jane Foley offered me a job at the JNI. On occasion, they would ask me to speak about death row prisoner rights, she said, but mostly they would pay me to investigate other convicts' claims that police and prosecutors coerced confessions or railroaded them. A dollar above minimum wage, she said, but with insurance benefits that would include sessions with a reintegration counselor. When the settlement came through, I could decide whether to continue as an investigator.
The stink of prison hung in my nose. I wanted nothing to remind me of the life I had lived for the past eight years. But I needed money for food and my rent at the Cardinal Motel.
'You get shared use of a computer,' Jane Foley said. 'We're low-budget. Lower than low. We survive on grants and contributions. That means some weeks Hank and I don't get paid. But we pay the receptionist, and we'll pay you.'
'I'll think about it,' I said.
'You barge through closed doors. You don't let anyone turn you away. That will make you good at this.'
'I said I'll —'
'You need this,' she said. 'You'll fall apart without it. It's well documented.'
You have no idea what I need, I thought.
Then Detective Higby came knocking and pointed his fat finger at me and said, Your blood your blood your blood.
And I said, 'Only the worst kind of man can't admit he's wrong. That man thinks he's God. He thinks whatever he says is true must be true – even if it means putting an innocent kid like me to death.'
'You're no kid,' he said. 'Even when you were eighteen, you were as old as evil.'
So I went to the JNI office. They worked in donated space above an empty storefront near the old courthouse. They had two metal desks, one for Jane Foley and one for Hank Cury, and a wooden desk for the receptionist, whose name was Thelma Friedman. Bulletin boards, covered with thumbtacked letters and court orders, and white boards, scrawled over with names and dates, hung on the walls. When I arrived, a clock by one of the white boards said 8:28 AM, but already Jane was yelling into one phone, and Hank was yelling into another. Thelma Friedman was speed-freaking on a computer keyboard.
I stood and listened as Jane and Hank swore about exhausted appeals and death warrants – words that burrowed like acid in my ears – and Thelma Friedman leaned toward the computer screen as if it would suck her in. The clock ticked to 8:31 and then 8:38 and then 8:47. I could have disappeared in sparks and smoke, and no one would have noticed. But at 8:48 Hank slammed down his phone, and a minute later Jane hung up and wiped her eyes. Thelma stopped typing. They looked up at me as if I was a confusing problem.
Then Jane asked, 'Do you know a man named Samuel Thomas?' 'Sure,' I said. 'He was already on the row when I arrived. We called him Sam Nines. Nines as in nine-millimeter pistol. He's the only man I've ever met who told the truth a hundred percent of the time. I liked him.'
'The governor just signed his warrant. He dies tonight.'
I felt bile rise in my throat. I stared at her and Hank and Thelma, and they stared back. 'I can't do this,' I said, and I turned to go.
Thelma said, 'You also know Jamar Manheim?'
When I first went to prison, Jamar lived in the cell next to mine, except when the guards put him in solitary for threatening them or fighting in the yard. Like me, he was thin, and he taught me how to survive – mostly through examples of what not to do. 'Yeah, I know Jamar,' I said.
'He's the daddy of my little girl,' she said.
I went back to her desk. She was a thin-faced woman, her hair done up in cornrows with yellow beads. 'No offense,' I said, 'but he never mentioned you.'
She had hard, dark eyes. 'I couldn't let my little girl grow up with that in her life. I cut him off when he went in.'
'But you're still working here?'
'I've got to do something, right?'
I knew Jamar's story. He'd shot an old man and his wife while robbing their convenience store. He seemed to have no regrets. 'You think he's innocent?'
She gave me a sad smile. 'No,' she said. 'That man was born guilty.'
So Hank pulled a second chair alongside her desk, and for the rest of the morning I used her computer to try to track down four witnesses who'd testified against another death row inmate – Thomas LaFlora – who'd been convicted on charges of killing a couple of crackheads twenty-five years ago. LaFlora had a date with the needle in seven weeks, but Hank thought the police coerced the testimony against him. After the witnesses testified, the prosecutor – Eric Skooner, who'd since risen to become chief appellate judge – dropped drug charges against them, and one of them went on to testify in two more capital murder cases.
As I made my searches, I found that three of the four were now dead, including the repeat witness. But if I was right, the last one, the only woman among them, lived with a husband in Callahan, northwest of the city.
'You'll go with us to talk to her later this week?' Hank asked.
Sweat bristled on my back. 'I don't know about that.'
'A man like you, with your background, you could persuade her. One look from you and she'll come clean.'
I tasted bile again. 'Right.'
After lunch, Jane and Hank closed the office so they could drive to the state prison in Raiford and stand with other protesters who would hold a vigil for Sam Nines until the execution team hooked him up to the pentobarbital.
Excerpted from "Monument Road"
Copyright © 2017 Michael Wiley.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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