A ticked-off judge has tossed Abby in the slammer for contempt of court, and during her brief but unpleasant stay she learns the story of a condemned woman who is facing a far more serious sentence. Skylar Miller has been found guilty of murder and faces the death penalty. Everyone believes she's guilty, including her own family and her ex-husband—everyone, that is, except Abby, whose finely honed intuition tells her this woman doesn't belong behind bars.
With the help of her husband, Dutch, and her friend, Candice, Abby launches her own investigation to clear Skylar and find the real killer. But after a final appeal is denied and Skylar's attorney scrambles for a stay of execution, time is running short—and the list of suspects keeps growing. There's no margin for error as the life of an innocent woman hangs in the balance.
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THE PSYCHIC EYE MYSTERY SERIES
For Lilly, who was the whole of my heart
There was chaos in the courtroom as I was dragged kicking and screaming from it by two beefy bailiffs. After I landed a pretty good kick to someone’s kneecap, the number of bailiffs “escorting” me out of the courthouse increased by two. It would’ve been humiliating if I’d paused long enough in my struggles to consider it. Mostly I yelled my head off and wrenched my limbs back and forth until one of the big and beefies put a can of Mace right next to my nose and threatened to let loose. I piped down quickly after that and settled for glaring hard at my captors before being handed off to a couple of deputies. The deputies made quick work of handcuffing me and placing me into a van for a short road trip to a large loading dock, where I was unloaded and moved inside a big ugly building. After that I was put through the process of getting my butt thrown in jail.
On the plus side, there wasn’t a strip search (thank the baby Jesus!), but I did have a panicky moment during which I seriously regretted my decision to go commando that morning. Some days it just pays to wear underwear.
Still, I had to give up my dress slacks and blouse for an orange jumpsuit, and I don’t care what anyone says: Orange is so not the new black.
After demanding my right to make one phone call for the eleventh time, I was handcuffed and led down a dark, narrow, claustrophobia-inducing hallway to a bank of phones attached to a wall. The husky woman in uniform who’d led me there growled, “You have ten minutes,” before moving a little way down the hall to eye her watch and then glower at me.
After squinting meanly at her retreating form, I turned to the phones and called my hubby. “Rivers,” he said when he picked up the line.
“Hi, honey, it’s me.”
“Edgar,” he said with honeyed tones, using his favorite nickname for me. I love the sound of my husband’s voice. So rich and seductive. It soothes me like a morning cup of coffee, heavy on the cream and sugar. “How was court?”
“Oh, you know. Not quite what I was expecting.”
“Was it tough on the stand?”
“Yeah, this defense counsel of Corzo’s . . . he’s a slick bastard. Did you get beat up a little?”
I swallowed hard. “Um, yes, actually. You could say that it went exactly like that.”
“Aw, dollface,” Dutch said. “Don’t let ’em get you down. You did great on this case. Gaston even pulled me aside yesterday to say how happy he is with the work we did to nail Corzo. And, between us, I think he’s especially proud of you.”
I winced. Dutch’s boss’s boss was Bill Gaston. Regional director for the Central Texas FBI office. Former CIA. Totally great guy, until you got on his bad side. Once on said bad side, you might as well pack a bag and leave town. Quickly. “Speaking of Gaston,” I said, trying to keep the waver out of my voice, “could you maybe get him to come down to the county jail for me?”
There was a lengthy pause; then (after adopting a slight Cuban accent) my hubby said, “Edgar? What did you do?”
I took a deep breath. “I sorta outed the judge to a packed courtroom and then he attacked me and then I was thrown in jail for contempt of court.”
Another (longer) pause. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”
There was a muffled sound, which I suspected was my husband trying to quiet a laugh. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
I opened my mouth to give him the 411, but at that moment the guard tapped her watch and gave me a stern(er) look. “Actually, honey, maybe you should just call Matt Hayes. He can give you the play-by-play. But please also call Gaston. I have a feeling we’re going to need his clout to get me out of here.”
I thought I heard my hubby stifle another laugh with a cough. After clearing his throat, he said, “I’ll call Gaston and Matt. We’ll have you home for dinner, sweethot.”
Dutch had slipped into his best Bogie impression for that last bit, and it actually made me feel a little better, even though he thought my getting tossed in the clink was high-larious.
After hanging up with Dutch, I shuffled down the hallway to the waiting guard, and she led me by the arm back down the corridor, to a window with a redheaded, freckle-faced inmate standing ready behind a counter in a little enclosed room with lots of neatly packed supplies behind her. I was pushed up to the window and a pillow, sheets, a thin blanket, and some toiletries were shoved into my chest. “We’re out of toothpaste,” she said, as if I’d already noticed and had copped an attitude.
“Okay,” I replied.
“Are you on your period?” she asked.
I felt heat in my cheeks. I’m a bit modest when it comes to discussing bodily functions. “Not presently.”
“Good. We’re out of tampons, too.”
“Got any aspirin?”
“Yeah. You got a headache?” she said, reaching behind her for a small packet of one-dose Tylenol.
“Here, but that’s all you get,” she said firmly before jotting down the added item on a clipboard in front of her.
“Thank you very much.”
She rolled her eyes and turned away. I wondered if we’d end up braiding each other’s hair later.
Stern Eyes then led me to a set of doors, which required us to get buzzed through. Once we were through the doors, the conversations and shouts and jeers on either side of the hallway from the inmates currently jailed there echoed and bounced off the concrete walls like a mad game of Pong.
I tried not to tremble as Stern Eyes pulled me along, but I might have let out a whimper or two.
I’d been in jail before. Trust me on this: It’s not a place you ever want to be. It’s loud, it’s jarring, and it smells like a mix of Pine-Sol, BO, and perhaps a soupçon of desperation.
Plus, it’s dangerous. I mean, it’s literally wall-to-wall criminals. Think about that the next time you want to jaywalk. (Or out a federal judge to a packed courtroom . . . ahem.)
Stern Eyes walked me down the length of the open section of the jail, and I ignored the catcalls and whistles from cells to my right and left. I suspected that new prisoners got paraded in front of the other inmates like this on a regular basis. It was meant to scare the newbies—and make them easy for the guards to handle initially—and I can tell you for a fact that it’s effective.
About midway down the length of the open section, Stern Eyes tugged my arm and directed me to the right. “You’re here,” she said, coming to a stop in front of a closed cell door with only one inmate inside. Using the radio mic at her shoulder, she ordered the cell door to be opened, and after a rather obnoxious buzzing sound, it slid to the right. She didn’t even wait for it to get all the way open—she merely gave my back a hard shove and I stumbled forward, barely able to stop myself before my head hit the top bunk on the right side. “You have a new roommate,” Stern Eyes said. It took me a minute to realize she wasn’t talking to me.
I turned cautiously to look across the cell at the other inmate and did a double take. She wasn’t at all what I was expecting.
Tall and willowy, she had very long, very curly blond hair, big blue eyes, and the kind of heart-shaped face that would break a man’s heart. (Or a woman’s, depending on which team you’re playing for.)
She considered me without a hint of expression, and I wondered how I measured up in her mind. I tried to square my shoulders to show her that I was cool, yo. All she did was blink.
The guard then turned to me, and with a thumb over her shoulder to the inmate across the cell, she said, “That’s Miller. Play nice with her or we’ll send you to solitary. You missed lunch, so dinner’s at six. When the doors open, move out into the corridor and stand to the left of the opening to wait to be counted by one of the COs. Then move single file to the cafeteria. It’ll be your only chance to eat for the rest of the day, so make it count. Lights out at nine p.m. Sharp.”
With that, she motioned for me to raise my arms, and after dumping my assigned goodies on the metal frame of the top bunk, I held my hands out so she could undo my cuffs.
After pocketing the keys, Stern Eyes got up in my face and glared hard at me, as if she alone could scare me straight (good luck with that), and then she simply turned on her heel and walked out.
A moment later the door buzzed and slid mechanically closed.
I looked meaningfully at my new bunkmate and said, “Well, she’s not getting a holiday card from me this year.”
The corner of Roomie’s mouth quirked, but there was no real humor in her eyes. Instead, I noticed for the first time a rather profound sadness there. Like all the mirth had been sucked right out of her, and what remained was something hollow. Broken. “So you’re one of those, huh?” she asked me.
I stiffened. “One of whats?”
“One of those people who makes a joke out of everything as a coping mechanism.”
I laughed and waved my hand. “No. I definitely have a serious side.”
“What’d you do to get in here?” she asked.
“Used my charm and quick wit when I should’ve used diplomacy.”
That quirk came back to her mouth. “Well, whoever you pissed off, they must’ve been high up the food chain. I’m on death row and I’m not supposed to have roommates.”
I stiffened again. “Death row? I’m on death row?”
“Relax,” she told me. “I’m down here from Mountain View, for my appeal. Normally they’d put me in solitary, but that’s full up from the last fight in the cafeteria, so they moved some people around and I got the luxe digs here.”
I gulped. The urge to ask her what she’d done was heavy on my tongue, but I wasn’t sure that was (a) polite or (b) a question that could get me shivved in my sleep, so I simply nodded and said, “Well, I shouldn’t be here long. My husband’s gonna get me out, hopefully before dinner.”
Her brow rose skeptically, but then she went back to a rather blank expression. “So, what do you do when you’re not expelling lots of charm and quick wit?”
I struggled with her question for a moment; no way was I gonna reveal that I worked with the Feds, especially not in here. But I also wondered if it was a bad idea to let her know that I was a psychic. I mean, maybe I was bunking with the only serial psychic killer in all of Texas. “I’m an accountant.”
She squinted at me. I had a feeling she could smell the smoke from my liar, liar, pants on fire. “Ah,” she said. And then she sat back on her bunk and picked up a paperback. In jail only ten minutes and I’d already failed my first test.
“Actually,” I said, taking a seat on the lower bunk, “I’m not an accountant.”
“Quelle surprise,” she said flatly. She didn’t even look up from the book.
“Okay, I deserved that. The truth is, I’m a professional psychic.”
Her gaze slid over to me, as if she were waiting for my orange jumpsuit to actually explode in a ball of flames. I made sure to hold her gaze. “For real?”
“You make a living at that?”
“So . . . what? You just look into a crystal ball or something?”
I grinned. “No. Crystal balls, head scarves, and lots of bangles are for amateurs. My technique is to focus on a person’s energy—their electromagnetic output, if you will. We carry bits of our future in the energy we expel, and someone like me can focus on that energy and tell a person about what’s likely to happen in the future.”
I waited for her to ask me what I was picking up about her, but she surprised me with her next question. “Can you look back at something?”
I cocked my head. “Back? You mean, can I look back in time?”
She sat up and put her feet on the ground, resting her elbows on her knees after setting the paperback aside. “Yeah. If I told you about something like a break-in, could you see who did it?”
“That’s actually a more complicated question than you’d think,” I told her. “If you’re asking me if I could see how a crime unfolded, and give a description of the offender, yeah. I could do that.”
Tears welled in her eyes and I couldn’t imagine what I’d just said to upset her. “Have you ever worked on a crime before?”
I thought about lying again, but her sudden display of emotion and those sad eyes got the best of me. “Yes.”
“You work with the police?” she asked, a hint of suspicion in her eyes.
I was quick to shake my head. “My business partner is a private investigator. We work quite a few cases together.” And that was not a lie, albeit not exactly the whole truth either.
My roommate took a deep breath and looked away from me to stare out the bars of the cell. It was a long moment before she was able to compose herself. Putting a hand on her chest, she said, “My name is Miller. Skylar Miller.”
I got up and extended my hand. “I’m Abby. Abby Cooper. Rivers. Cooper. Cooper-Rivers.”
She took my hand and that small quirk at the corner of her mouth returned. “You sure?”
“I still can’t decide if I want to take my husband’s last name or not.”
“How long you two been married?”
I returned to my side of the cell. “It’ll be a year in November.”
She nodded. “Keep your own name,” she said. “Don’t give up your identity.”
“Word,” I said, and put my fist out for a bump, but she didn’t raise her hand or acknowledge the banter. My hand dropped limply back to my lap. “You okay?” I asked her after an awkward moment. She still looked so sad, and she hadn’t asked me about this break-in she’d mentioned earlier. I’ll admit that she’d more than piqued my interest.
“Yeah,” she lied. Then she reached under her pillow and pulled out a Twix. Opening the wrapper, she shook out one bar and offered it to me.
As someone who never turns down free chocolate, I was quick to get up and retrieve it. “Thank you.”
“Can I ask you something?” she said, looking thoughtfully down at the remaining candy bar.
“How much would you charge me if I wanted to ask you about something that happened a while ago?”
“That break-in you mentioned?”
Her gaze lifted to mine again. Her expression was still so sad, but for the first time since meeting her, I swore I saw the smallest glimmer of hope. “Yeah.”
I took a good bite of the Twix and held what remained up. “You’re in luck today. I’m running a special. All glimpses into the past are priced at one Twix bar.”
“I’m serious,” she said.
“So am I.”
She nodded, but she didn’t rush to ask me her next question, and I thought maybe a demo of what I could do was in order. “You’ve been in jail for . . . ten years, right?”
She squinted at me and nodded slightly.
I assessed her for a bit before continuing. “This is your last appeal.”
Again she nodded.
“You don’t think it’ll go well.”
“You’re right. Your lawyer is shit.”
“He came cheap.”
“When’s the appeal?”
Skylar sighed. “It was supposed to be today, but it got postponed to the nineteenth.”
I nodded. That wasn’t even two weeks away, and in Texas, when your last appeal doesn’t go well, you’ll have an IV filled with lethal toxins in your arm by midnight.
As I sat there, I took in all of Skylar’s energy, which was extremely complex. She carried a whole lotta baggage and it was tough to riffle through it all. “You’ve had a pretty tough life,” I told her. “But a lot of it you brought on yourself.”
She squinted skeptically before waving a hand to indicate the cell we were in.
I ignored that and kept going. “You struggled with addiction. It got the best of you for a lot of years, but then I feel like you worked really hard and overcame it.”
Her expression softened. I’d just struck a chord.
“You’re divorced,” I said next. “And your ex is still really angry at you.”
She gave me one short nod.
I closed my eyes to better concentrate, feeling my way along her energy, looking for bits of information that I could talk about. “You lost someone,” I said. I didn’t know why I hadn’t touched on it sooner. It was the loudest thing in her energy. “Someone very close to you was murdered.” And then I gave a small gasp and opened my eyes. “Your son?”
Her eyes had misted again, but she didn’t look away from me. Instead she asked, “Can you see who murdered him? Can you tell who it was?”
My brow furrowed and I stood up. The energy from my roommate had shifted dramatically; it was as if the floodgates had been opened and there were now waves of guilt rolling off Skylar—an ocean of regret filled the space between us and it was so intense that I had to withdraw my intuitive feelers. “Skylar,” I said, because I needed to get her to close those floodgates. “What are you in here for? Why are you on death row?”
“Cooper!” someone yelled at the door to our cell, and I jumped a whole foot. Stern Eyes was back, handcuffs dangling off her index finger. “Step forward with your arms in front of you and put them through here.” Stern Eyes was indicating a small square open section of the bars next to the lock, where she wanted me to stick my hands.
“Someone’s here to see you,” she said. “Someone with big brass balls and a whole lotta pull, so hurry it up.”
Gaston. It had to be him. I gulped. God, I hoped Dutch was with him. Especially after what I’d pulled in court. I shuffled over to the door and put my wrists through the small window so she could slap the cuffs on me.
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that Skylar was staring at us, and I tried to offer her an apologetic look. “Let me go meet with this guy and when I get back, we’ll talk,” I said.
“What if you don’t come back?” she asked, and that small glimmer of hope that I’d seen in her eyes vanished.
“I will,” I promised.
“All right, Cooper, step back and I’ll have them open the door,” Stern Eyes said.
“I will,” I repeated to Skylar as I moved two steps back and waited for the buzz.
It came, and as the door began to slide open, Skylar said, “That question you asked me about why I’m here?”
“You know why, don’t you?”
I nodded again—reluctantly, though. She was here for her son’s murder, and those waves of guilt still sloshed around the cell. I didn’t quite know what to think about that.
Skylar studied my face for a moment before she turned her gaze to the wall. As the door clanged to a stop, I turned, still feeling the sticky residue from the Twix bar heavy on my fingers.
I was partially right about who’d come to visit me at the county jailhouse. In a small room with a table and two chairs, Gaston was waiting for me, along with two other men: my husband and U.S. assistant prosecutor Matt Hayes.
Matt looked bad, like maybe he himself had gone a few rounds with Judge Schilling, the man I’d outed to a packed courtroom a few hours earlier, who’d then leaped across his bench and grabbed me by the shoulders, shaking what little sense I had left right out of me. To make matters worse, I’d been found in contempt and thrown in jail.
Seeing Matt, however, I started to feel really bad about what I’d done, but we’d been about to lose the case anyway, and my (infamous) temper had gotten the best of me. When I’d been up on the stand, Judge Schilling had flat out called me a charlatan, a faker, a fraud. Where I come from, them’s fightin’ words, and I’d unleashed the kraken, pinging Judge Schilling with all his secrets, including his biggest—the affair he was having with his cute male clerk. Judge Schilling was a happily married pillar of Christian values in the community. At least, he had been that before I’d gotten through with him.
I hadn’t really wondered what’d happened in the aftermath, but here in the little room I could clearly see more stuff had gone down, because Matt was as furious and worked up as I’d ever seen him, his tie askew, his shirt wrinkled, and I bet he’d been pacing a small section of the room right before I came in. Meanwhile my husband was leaning against the right wall, one arm crossed over his beautifully broad chest while he rested the other elbow on it so he could hover his index finger over his mouth.
I narrowed my eyes at him because I knew that stance. He was doing his best to appear serious while trying to tamp down a chuckle.
Hayes expended no such effort. Visibly seething, the second I came fully into the room, he let go. “What the hell were you thinking, Abby?!”
“Can I at least get my cuffs off before you start in on me, Matt?” I asked more calmly than I felt. I then turned slightly so the guard could undo the cuffs, but she simply offered me a mocking grin and started to leave. At that moment Gaston cleared his throat and with a one-finger wave toward me, he said, “Hey, CO. Her cuffs. Now.”
Stern Eyes turned slowly toward Gaston, as if she couldn’t believe he’d just given her a direct order. He casually opened his blazer to expose his badge and said, “Warden Hoffman is an old friend. I was godfather to his son, Quinn. If you’d like to have me call him and order you directly, I can do that.”
Stern Eyes paled and her face slacked into a decidedly less stern expression. I had to work to hide a smirk. She stepped forward and undid my cuffs, then left us alone, closing the door behind her.
For a minute nobody spoke. I think we were all waiting for Gaston to say something else, but he merely eyed me coolly, so Matt took it upon himself to get back to yelling at me. “Do you realize what you’ve done?”
I pulled the seat out from the table and sat down across from Gaston. “It looks like I blew your case to kingdom come.” I don’t think Matt was prepared for that answer, because all he did was bob his head up and down with his mouth hanging open like, “Yeah you did!”
Swiveling in my seat, I turned to Dutch and said, “How bad is it?”
He lowered his hand, all hidden mirth vanishing. “Schilling called a mistrial.”
“He did?” I said. “That’s awesome!”
“How is that awesome?!” Matt shouted.
“He was going to rule against us,” I said calmly.
Matt glared at me. “You don’t know that!”
I tapped my temple. “Yep. Yep I do.”
Gaston said, “Abigail, I haven’t heard the full story yet. Tell me what happened in court. And please, start at the beginning.”
For the next thirty minutes I told Gaston all about what’d gone on in court. The whole thing had been so ridiculous, so slanted against me, as if I were the one on trial and not Don Corzo, a serial killer who’d murdered at least three women in two states that we knew of.
I’d been brought on to the case late in the game. The trail had long since gone cold after the March night two years earlier when Misty Hartnet’s body had been found in a small park. She’d been raped and strangled, but forensics had been unable to pull DNA off her from the rape, for reasons that were a bit too graphic to get into.
Anyway, we knew that her murder was linked to two other murdered girls by the way she’d been posed holding a white carnation over her heart.
I’d looked through the other girls’ files first and hadn’t gotten a lot from their cases, but when I opened Misty’s case, I felt strongly that something at the crime scene had been overlooked. And yet, in the file was a stack of photographs that documented the scene in infinite detail.
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something about or at the crime scene had gone unnoticed, so I, along with Dutch and two other investigators, headed out to the park to check it out.
That’s when I’d had the strong sensation that we were looking in the wrong spot, and I’d then spied a gazebo next to a running path about four hundred yards away. I’d been drawn to it and I’d called the boys with me as I went to check it out.
As we poked around the area near the gazebo, Oscar Rodriguez—one of the other FBI investigators—discovered, after digging through some leaves, three items perfectly preserved, as if they’d just been waiting for us to find them. A license, a bank card, and a charm with Misty Hartnet’s DNA on it, which also perfectly matched the one her sister had given her for Christmas. The license and the bank card belonged to one Don Corzo, an air-conditioning repair guy who’d worked in Oklahoma—where one of the other girls, Wendy McLain, had been murdered—and in Texarkana, where Donna Andrews had been murdered. We knew we’d hit pay dirt with the circumstantial evidence, especially when the DNA results came back confirming the charm’s owner.
The problem was, somewhere along the line when we’d all been preparing for trial, the defense got wind that I’d been the one to alert the FBI to the second crime scene, and he’d come up with the rather convenient argument that I was a big fat faker. He submitted a motion to suppress all evidence collected at the second crime scene under the premise that I’d actually stolen Corzo’s wallet, planted it at the scene, and pointed the FBI boys right to it.
To prove that I was a fraud, he called in a former client of mine, Stephanie Snitch. (Swear to God, that’s her real name.) Stephie wasn’t a fan of mine. Of course, she wasn’t a fan of anyone, except perhaps herself.
On the stand, Stephie had lied her ass off. (I’ll gladly pay that quarter to the swear jar.) At the end of her testimony she’d even gotten in a little jab: “You don’t have to be psychic to know Abby Cooper isn’t psychic.”
The defense attorney, Jack Reiner, had laughed.
Corzo had laughed.
The courtroom had chuckled.
Even Judge Schilling had grinned.
Me and Matt? Not so much. It was a cheap shot, and I wondered how long it’d taken Stephanie Stoopid to come up with it. (Okay, so that’s just me being petty, but seriously? How many eye-roll-worthy bad psychic jokes can a person bear in her life?)
Anyway, we had a whole ton of clients willing to testify that I was, in fact, the real deal. And I even had a recording of the actual reading I’d done for Little Miss Snitch to show how accurately I’d predicted what would happen to her in the following months. The problem was, I’d never gotten written or verbal consent on the tape to record the session. That the session was going to be recorded wasn’t in my disclaimer form. And I’d only said to Stephanie at the start of our time together that I’d record it and e-mail her a copy. She’d said, “Okay,” and then I’d hit play.
All of that forced us into the rather awkward position of having to ask Stephanie if we could play the recording of her session in court. She’d said no faster than you can type the word.
So the judge ruled that the tape was inadmissible; he’d rely on testimony alone. Stephanie had given hers (liar, liar, pants on fire), and in rebuttal, I’d been called to the stand. The judge had actually interrupted Matt’s initial questioning to insert several questions of his own. After he flat out told me that the Bible itself condemned the false prophet, it was abundantly clear to me exactly where the judge stood on psychics in general.
It’d gone downhill from there as he goaded me with a few more truly insulting inquiries into my sanity, and . . . well, I’d lost my cool. And then he’d lost his. It’d been a mess.
After I’d finished telling Gaston all that had happened, for which he’d remained patiently quiet, he said, “Did you really get dragged from the courtroom shouting, ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ at Judge Schilling?”
I gulped. “Uh . . . yes, sir. I might’ve said something to that effect.”
Dutch made a barely stifled snorting sound. I turned steely eyes to him and he swiveled to the wall, his shoulders shaking with mirth.
“It’s not funny, Rivers,” Matt said.
He and I were fighting a losing battle, because Director Gaston also chuckled. “Oh, counselor, I think it is a little,” he said.
Of course, that made me crack a smile, but Matt wasn’t in a mood to think lightly about any of what’d happened today. Honestly, I couldn’t really blame him.
Dutch cleared his throat, got hold of himself, and turned back to face us with only a slight quirk to his lips. “Matt, how soon can you refile the charges?”
The federal prosecutor shook his head. “You guys don’t seem to get it,” he said. “The defense knows how to beat us. We can’t go marching back into court with any of the evidence that Abby led us to. If Corzo’s attorney found one former client of Abby’s willing to testify she’s a fraud, the next time we go to court, he’ll have a parade of witnesses claiming she’s the biggest scam to hit Texas since Enron.”
“Hey!” I snapped. “My clients are awesome. There’s no way he’d find a parade of them to come out against me.”
“Yeah?” Matt said, putting his hands on the table and hanging his head a little to look angrily at me. “Well, Corzo’s team doesn’t really need a parade, Abby. Today, in fact, they only needed one.”
“We’ll get you more evidence, Matt,” Dutch said, back to being serious again, and sounding so sure, but Corzo was a pretty slick guy, and we’d gotten very, very lucky with the second crime-scene evidence found in Misty Hartnet’s case.
Matt considered Dutch skeptically. “The first team worked these files for years with no hard evidence against Corzo, Rivers. Your team worked it for another three months before the ID and bank card were found. What makes you think there’s any evidence left to discover or that we have time to let you look for it?”
“In point of fact, Hayes,” Dutch countered, his tone frosty, “it was three months before I assigned the case to Abby and asked for her impressions. We had the ID and the bank card within a day after I asked her to look into it.”
Matt shook his head. “But that’s the problem. She can’t touch this case from here on out. All evidence brought in by her psychic abilities is out. If I’m gonna file new charges against Corzo, then I need brand-new evidence without the fruit from her poisoned tree.”
Dutch opened his mouth to protest, but Gaston held up his hand and said, “Mr. Hayes is correct, Agent Rivers. Corzo’s attorney will have the jury convinced that Abigail is a fraud and that we planted any additional evidence discovered simply to avoid embarrassment for having hired her in the first place. They might not all believe we did that, of course, but all he needs to create here is reasonable doubt. And as long as she’s officially on the case, she’s a reason to doubt its credibility.”
I squirmed in my chair. Coming from Gaston, that stung. “Sir—,” Dutch said, but Gaston cut him off by holding up his hand.
“That’s my final word on the issue,” he said. “Abigail may not formally comment on this case moving forward. All future evidence must be the direct result of your team’s strong investigative skills. Look through the files. See if you missed something. I have confidence in your keen eyes in particular, Agent Rivers, to find something we can use.”
Both Matt and Dutch appeared a little stunned, Dutch to have lost the argument and Matt to have won it so easily. I settled for pouting in my chair, feeling deeply ashamed that I’d disappointed the director. I really liked Gaston, and it felt bad to let him down.
“Now,” Gaston said, as if the matter were settled and there was nothing left to do but shake on it, “if you’ll excuse us, Mr. Hayes, I’d like a moment alone with Abigail and Agent Rivers.”
Matt nodded and offered me a rather resigned look before heading out. Gaston waited a moment after the door was closed and then he focused on me. “I’m working to get you out of here, but it might be tomorrow morning before I can arrange it.”
“What?!” I gasped. “Tomorrow? Are you serious? Director, I was attacked in a packed courtroom!”
“Yes, and you also severely embarrassed a federally appointed judge to that same packed courtroom. That’s a blow he won’t soon recover from.”
My shoulders sagged and I dropped my chin. As much as I wanted to say that Schilling had it coming, and that lying to his lover and to his wife and to himself about who he really was had been a crummy way to conduct himself, I could now see how my actions and outing him were nothing but petty, unwarranted, underhanded moves. “Yes, sir.”
“It upsets me too that you’ll have to stay in here overnight,” Gaston said, squeezing my arm good-naturedly.
I lifted my chin. “Yeah. It’s not so bad. My cellmate is nice at least.”
“Good. That’s good. Still, I’ll be dropping off copies of the case files of Wendy McLain and Donna Andrews to your house as soon as you’re free.”
I stared openmouthed at him. “Wendy McLain and Donna Andrews, sir?”
“As in the two other girls murdered by Don Corzo?”
I looked at Dutch to see if he understood what Gaston’s angle was. Dutch seemed as puzzled as I felt. I turned my attention back to the director. “But . . . I thought I wasn’t supposed to comment on the case against Corzo, sir?”
“You’re not. However, if you notice anything in the case file that might be of interest to us, or something you feel we should pursue, please pull it out and attach it with a paper clip to the front of the file. If a map is needed, please get one and attach it the same way. Agent Rivers here will be tasked with studying the files in the evening to see if anything sticks out that will need to be followed up on. Agent Rivers, perhaps what should jump out at you are those items paper-clipped to the front of the file.”
Dutch offered the director a sly grin. “Yes, sir. I understand perfectly, sir.”
“Excellent,” Gaston said, pushing his chair back and getting to his feet. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I will wait outside for you, Agent Rivers, and give you some time with your wife.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, so relieved that he’d forgiven me.
Gaston stepped to the door. “You’re welcome.” After opening it, however, he paused and eyed me over his shoulder. “By the way, Abigail, try not to incite a prison riot before we can get you out of here, all right?”
I nodded. Vigorously. Because I knew that the director wasn’t even close to kidding.
After he’d gone, Dutch stepped forward to scoop me up into a hug. I sighed contentedly and he kissed the top of my head. “Sorry we can’t spring you from this joint until tomorrow.”
I smirked against his shirt. “But a small part of you is sorta hoping that a night in jail is gonna teach me a lesson, huh?”
“It’s like you know me.”
I rolled my eyes and looked up at him. “What’re you gonna do with your night off?” The image of an impromptu poker game and a cloud of cigar smoke blossomed in my mind’s eye.
Dutch held me tighter, folding my head back into his chest. “I’m gonna miss my wife,” he said. “Lots.”
“Good answer, cowboy. You been saving that one up?”
He chuckled. “No. It just came to me. But not bad for one off the cuff, huh?”
“I’d give it more brownie points if I didn’t know that invites for an impromptu poker game have already been sent out.”
Dutch stiffened and I knew I had him. At that moment his phone buzzed from his back pocket and he stiffened again. “That’ll be Oscar,” I said, my radar homing in on the message as well as if it’d come to me directly. “He can make it.”
Dutch’s chest shook again with quiet laughter. “I can’t get away with anything around you, can I?”
“Nope,” I said, tilting my head back to stare up into his gorgeous midnight blues. “And don’t you forget it.”
He stroked my cheek and then his good humor seemed to leave him and he got all serious on me. “You gonna be okay in here, Edgar?”
“I’ll be fine,” I assured him. “I even have a nice cellmate. She gave me a Twix.”
He cocked his head. “Only one cellmate? I figured county would put at least four to a cell.”
“She was supposed to have a cell all to herself, but solitary’s all booked up and I guess they’re really overcrowded in here.”
My hubby’s brow shot up. “Why is she supposed to have a cell all to herself?”
I shrugged again. “She’s on death row and they don’t like those guys to mix with the general population, I guess.”
Dutch gripped me by the shoulders. “What the hell do you mean they put you in the same cell with a death row inmate?” And then he looked to the door, ready to hurtle through it and cause a big scene.
“Hey,” I said, grabbing his arms in return. “It’s okay, Dutch. She’s cool. I swear.”
“Abby,” he said, his voice very stern, “you don’t understand. The reason they don’t mix death row inmates with the general population is because they have nothing left to lose. They can kill without fear of retribution because there’s no stick left to hold over their heads.”
“Yeah, but I swear, she’s cool. We had a good chat and she’s really nice.”
And then Dutch blinked and if it was possible, he appeared even more alarmed. “You haven’t told her that you work for us, have you?”
“No,” I said quickly. And yeah, you probably noticed that was one of those not-quite-a-lie but not-quite-the-truth statements again.
He narrowed his eyes. “You’re sure?”
I held up three fingers. “Scout’s honor.”
“Okay, well, don’t. The last thing I need is for you to get your ass kicked while I’m having the guys over for a poker game.”
I grinned. “True dat, pal. I’d definitely hold that over your head for the rest of your life.”
He let go of my arms but hugged me to him again. “Please be careful, okay?”
“I will, honey. I promise.”
* * *
After Dutch and I said our good-byes, I was handcuffed and led back to the cell I shared with Skylar. When I got there, it was empty and Stern Eyes informed me that I’d missed the call to dinner. She dumped me at the door without offering to take me down to the cafeteria, and I understood pretty quick that I was being punished for the way that Gaston had ordered her around.
“Bitch,” I muttered after the cell door closed and Stern Eyes had walked away. My stomach grumbled to let me know that it would also be contributing to the swear jar quarter collection. After listening to an hour of Stoopid Stephanie Snitch’s testimony, and then my go-around with the judge, my total for the day had definitely risen into the double digits, so what was a few extra quarters?
I looked over the cell for something to do or read, but it was fairly sparse as jail cells go. My gaze eventually landed on Skylar’s side of the space and I saw that she had just a few items on the small shelf behind her bunk. I glanced toward the door, but then realized that I’d have plenty of advance warning if I wanted to do a little snooping. I’d hear the inmates coming back from the cafeteria and the door would of course give that loud buzzing sound before it opened.
Moving over to the small shelf, I bent double, hoping to find a book or something to read while she was away. Luck was with me when I spied a well-worn paperback with the image of a man and a woman embracing in a passionate kiss. I smiled. I’m a sucker for a good romance novel.
Picking up the book, I snuck back across the cell and settled into my bunk for a little reading time. As I opened it, however, something slipped out onto my lap.
At first I thought it was Skylar’s bookmark, but then I saw that it was actually a photograph of Skylar in younger, happier days with her arms wrapped tightly around a boy, who resembled her, grinning from ear to ear. He’d lost several of his teeth, but in front of him was a birthday cake with the words Happy Birthday, Noah! There were nine candles on the cake.
My chest constricted a bit as I took in his image, which was flat and plastic looking—a clear sign to my intuitive mind that Noah was deceased.
My gaze drifted to Skylar and her radiant smile. She was beaming at the camera; holding her son close, she looked like someone who had everything in the world she needed to be happy.
I then scanned the background looking for the other party guests, but the shutter had been trained only on Skylar and her son. I flipped the photo over and read, “May 29, 2004.”
I didn’t know when Noah had died, but I did note that he would be nearly twenty years old now if he’d lived. Flipping the photo back over, I gazed for a time at Noah’s sweet face, with his bright blue eyes, lean features, and broad smile, which mirrored his mother’s. I wondered how long after this photo had been taken that the vibrant young boy’s life had been snuffed out. It pained me to think that someone so young, with such promise, could have met such an abrupt and untimely end.
“You poor little guy,” I murmured, caressing his image with my fingers. I wondered if his mother had done the same thing in the years she’d held on to the photo.
At that moment there was a loud buzz and my cell door began to roll open. Accompanying this was the sort of sound that large crowds make—a sort of milling of voices that blend together to make nothing that’s said discernible except for the occasional higher pitch of laughter.
I scooted out of my bunk and rushed the paperback and the photo back to Skylar’s side, setting it back exactly as I’d found it before darting for my bunk again. When Skylar walked into the cell, I was lying back, idly staring up at the ceiling.
“How was dinner?” I asked, my stomach giving a little gurgle.
She wore a small smirk and she came over to my side, unzipping her orange jumpsuit to pull something out of the T-shirt underneath. “Here,” she said, handing me two packages of peanut butter crackers. “I figured they wouldn’t escort you down for dinner. They’re mean here at county. They never cut the newbies a break.”
I took the crackers greedily before remembering my manners. “Thanks,” I said. “I really appreciate it. I’m starving.”
Skylar shuffled over to her bunk and lay back on her cot. It was quite obvious that her mood had shifted. She’d been somewhat open to me before I’d been taken away to meet the boys, but now I could see that she had withdrawn again. I couldn’t tell why, but maybe it’s just what happens when you spend a decade in prison on death row. Pretty soon, I would imagine, mentally you just fold in on yourself, and it becomes hard to interact with people or even to show a spark of personality.
Skylar closed her eyes as if she were tired, but I had the impression that it was more of a meditative posture than anything else. I crossed my legs on the bunk and nibbled at the crackers, watching my cellmate studiously. “Hey, Skylar?” I said.
“Will you tell me about your son?”
She didn’t answer me for a long time, and I was beginning to think she wasn’t going to when she said, “He was my whole world. He was my sun and my moon and everything I lived for. Now that he’s gone, I have nothing left and I just wish the state would hurry up and get it over with.”
I scanned her energy for the second time and I didn’t like the signals I was picking up. Skylar’s energy indicated that her life would come to an abrupt end—soon. And what really, really bothered me was the specific energy surrounding her death, because there was no justice to it. In fact, it felt like a murder. I should know—I’ve been around enough murder investigations to sense exactly when a death goes from something that feels energetically “justified” to something much darker.
Now, I have my own views on capital punishment. I’m definitely not a member of the “Let ’em all burn in hell!” camp, but there are instances when I’m not wholly against the idea of sticking a needle in the arm of a serial killer either. Some crimes are just so heinous, so cruel, so unspeakable, and the people who commit them so inherently evil that when it comes to snuffing out their lives, I think, “Yep.” And I can tell you that there’s a feeling in the ether—the spiritual energy—surrounding these particularly evil doers when they are put to death that reads, to my intuitive mind at least, that justice has been served. And yet, I’ve also come across instances when someone has been convicted of a capital crime and put to death and the ether surrounding that capital sentence felt somewhat unfair, if not quite unjust.
Capital punishment is not a black-and-white issue, even spiritually, it seems.
With Skylar, however, when I focused on her impending death, it felt like she was about to actually be murdered unjustly by the state, and that really bothered me.
“How old was Noah when he . . . passed?” I asked her.
Skylar’s chest lifted with a deep breath and she sighed out her reply. “Nine.”
My mind flashed back to the photo and I felt that pang in my heart again. “That’s a great age,” I said. I knew I was probably being a pest, but I wanted to keep her talking. I felt the strongest urge to figure out her story and see if I could help her. Why, I couldn’t quite put into words, but it was there, that feeling that I was somehow mingled with her future—that I might even be her last hope. “So tell me what happened,” I said softly.
She opened her eyes and turned her head a little to look at me. “What do you see?”
“About what happened to your son?”
I concentrated, focusing my gaze on the opposite wall away from her face. “It’s a little murky, but I keep seeing a knife.”
I heard a tiny gasp escape her lips. “That’s true.”
“As for who was wielding it, I swear it’s someone you know.”
My gaze traveled back to Skylar. She sat up and looked me level in the eyes, but all I saw there was confusion.
“Miller!” my favorite guard yelled. Skylar and I both jumped as the CO appeared at the bars again. “Stand up, grab your personal items, come to the bars, and put your hands through the window.”
Skylar and I exchanged a look before she got obediently to her feet, pulled up her bedding—folding it quickly and putting her book into the space between her pillow and blanket—then shuffled over and obeyed the command to put her hands through the opening, while balancing her belongings on her arms.
“Where’re you taking her?” I asked.
“None of your business,” said Stern.
“Ah,” I said. “Tomorrow, I’ll be sure to sing your praises to the FBI director so that he can pass them on to the warden.”
Stern Eyes glared hard at me. Good thing I’m immune to that whole “if looks could kill” thing. “A spot opened up in solitary,” the CO said grudgingly as she snapped the cuffs on Skylar. “And since you seem to have friends in high places, you get this ten by ten all to yourself.”
“Let’s see if you still feel that way in the morning,” the charming CO replied with a smirk. She then moved a bit down the corridor and the cell door buzzed and began to slide open. Skylar kept her head down, submissively waiting for the cell to open all the way before stepping through. It upset me to think that prison had taken that sunny, bright-eyed woman from the photo and turned her into a beaten, battered shell of a person. She seemed so resigned to her fate—unjust though it might be.
“Skylar,” I called, right before the door clicked to a stop.
She didn’t look at me, but I felt like she was listening.
I stayed on the bunk, but I leaned out a little while Stern Eyes waved Skylar forward. “I’m gonna help you,” I called to her. She made no acknowledgment of it. She simply took two steps forward out of the cell, and I knew that she put about as much faith in my words as she had left in the justice system.
The cell door buzzed again and it began to close. I got up and waited for the bars to slide across the threshold. Skylar and the guard quickly disappeared from my view. Grabbing the bars, I put my mouth between them and called out again. “I will, Skylar. I will!”
I wanted so much to reach her. To give her something to hold on to. A tiny light in the darkness. But as I extended my energy out toward her, all I felt was an empty sort of resignation.
That bothered me more than I could say.
I’m pretty sure that Stern Eyes wanted me to spend a night in jail totally freaked-out and unable to sleep, but the truth is I slept like a rock. I woke up hungry as hell, but instead of getting ready to grab some grub with the other prisoners, I got up, made my bunk, and paced the floor until a new CO appeared at the door to my cell.
I held my wrists out in front of me, and when she nodded, I scooted forward and slid my wrists through the small window by the lock. “Time to go home!” I sang, even before she could tell me. Some days it really pays to be psychic.
As happy as I was to be let out of the cell, my psychic sense didn’t predict what would come next, which was basically a lengthy sit-down with Matt Hayes while he pleaded for my release with Judge Schilling’s clerk on the phone in the same small visiting room from the night before. In the end I was forced to write a lengthy apology to the judge and agree not to press charges against him for assaulting me in the courtroom. It irked me that Judge Schilling was coming out ahead in the deal, but Matt offered me little sympathy when I protested both the required written apology and the agreement not to press charges. “What can I say, Abby? You pissed off a federal judge to the point where he lost his temper and wanted to end you. Even if he ultimately gets tossed off the bench for it, no judge who hears about what you did will welcome you back in the courtroom until you show some remorse for your part in provoking Schilling and respect for the post in general.”
With Matt’s words weighing heavily on me, I typed out the sincerest apology letter I could, which Matt then e-mailed directly to the judge. It was rejected three times, so I suppose my sincerity needed to be slightly more earnest. The fourth time was the charm. Or the judge just got tired of reading about how very, very, very, very, very, very, very sorry I was.
Twenty minutes after the judge lifted the contempt-of-court charge against me, I was free and racing out the door to throw my arms around my BFF, Candice Fusco. “FREEDOM!” I shouted after hugging her and stepping back to raise my arms high.
Candice laughed. “Goofball,” she said, nudging me with her shoulder.
I looked around. “Where’s my hubby? And for that matter, where’s yours?”
Candice snaked an arm around my shoulders. “The boys send their regrets. They were here earlier, but it took you so long to write an apology to Schilling that they got called back to work by Gaston. He wants them to get cracking on finding some other evidence to nail that son of a bitch Corzo.”
“Is he back on the streets?” I asked.
“Last night,” she said grimly.
I hung my head. “I feel like it’s my fault he’s out.”
I glanced up at her. “You think it’s my fault too?”
She gave my shoulders a squeeze. “No, honey, but in any case we lose, you always assign the blame to yourself. You gotta stop doing that. It’s not healthy.”
“I’ll work on that,” I said, shushing my inner lie detector.
“You probably want something to eat, huh?” she asked.
“Nope,” I told her. She raised her brow. “I want many somethings to eat.”
Candice chuckled again and tugged me toward the parking lot. After leaving county, we shot over to one of my favorite Mexican joints, Mi Madre’s, which serves THE best giant burrito ever put together, and you can order it at any time of day, which meant I’d be able to have at it even though it was only ten a.m. I’ve never been able to eat a whole burrito in one sitting, but that has never stopped me from trying.
While we waited on our food, Candice and I nibbled on chips and salsa. I did my best to restrain myself from gobbling down the entire basket. “So tell me,” Candice said with a slight twitch of her lips. “Anyone in county make you their bitch?”
I suppressed a grin. “No,” I said with an exaggerated sigh. “Do you think my looks are fading?”
“Yes,” Candice said without hesitation. I narrowed my eyes at her and she broke out into a hearty laugh. “You’re too easy, Sundance.”
Sundance is my nickname. Well, one of my nicknames. Candice calls me Sundance, Dutch calls me Edgar, and I’m Abs to my sister. The guys at the bureau call me Cooper, but the director almost always calls me Abigail. To our handyman I’m the Abster, but when I look in the mirror, all I see is me. Abby—a girl with long brown locks, a nice enough nose, high cheekbones (thank you Gram!), and mildly moody sea blue eyes.
Our lunch arrived and I tucked in with relish (but not before requesting more chips). “So how was it, really?” Candice asked.
“What?” I said after savoring the mouthful of my giant burrito (spicy beef, French fries, avocado, lettuce, tomato, and creamy chipotle sauce all wrapped in a light flour tortilla). “You mean, jail?”
Candice nodded, having just taken a bite of her modest egg, cheese, and potato taco.
I shrugged. “It was fine. I mean, I knew I wasn’t staying long, so it didn’t freak me out much. But I did meet someone who left quite an impression on me.”
“Was she pretty?” Candice asked, with a bat of her eyelashes.
“Will you quit it?”
Candice chuckled. “Sorry. I’ll stop. Who was it you met?”
“This woman named Skylar. Skylar Miller. She’s on death row, in county waiting for her appeal. We shared the same cell.”
Candice’s brow furrowed. “How did you get to share a cell with a death row inmate? That’s not supposed to happen.”
The frown on Candice’s face remained. “Still, I can’t believe they allowed that.”
“It wasn’t a big deal,” I insisted.
“Sundance,” Candice said, reaching out to put a hand on my arm, like she just realized I’d escaped some sort of terrible danger. “Death row inmates have nothing to live for. They’re dangerous to the rest of the population for a reason, because there’s usually nothing you can threaten them with to keep them in line.”
“Skylar’s not like that,” I told her. “She gave me half her Twix bar and a couple of peanut butter crackers when the CO refused to let me go to dinner.”
“Most people on death row are also masters at manipulation.”
I sighed. “Candice, will you please listen to the rest of the story before deciding that I just lost one of my nine lives?”
Candice lifted her hand from my arm. “Okay, tell me the rest.”
I took another bite of the burrito, moaned—it was so good—but chewed quickly before saying, “From what I could ascertain mostly through my radar, Skylar was convicted of murdering her son. He was nine. Stabbed to death back in two thousand four or the first half of two thousand five.”
Candice winced. “Ouch.”
“I don’t think she did it.” The minute that came out of my mouth, I felt a lightness in the center of my solar plexus. That was my intuition telling me I was speaking a truth.
Candice set down her taco and looked hard at me across the table. “You think she’s innocent?”
“Is that your gut talking or the Twix bar?”
I frowned at her and tapped my temple. “My radar says she’s innocent.”
“What do you mean, ‘how innocent’? Isn’t innocent innocent?”
“Well,” she said, “if I’m hearing you right, I think what you’re saying is that she didn’t wield the knife in her son’s murder.”
“Yes. That’s what I think.”
“But what if she was indirectly responsible?”
“I’m still not following.”
Candice shifted in her chair. “What if she had a motive to kill him and contributed in the form of conspiracy to commit murder?”
My jaw dropped. “Candice,” I said. “What reason could a mother ever have to directly or indirectly kill her own child?”
Candice shrugged. “Off the top of my head I can think of a couple of reasons—”
“Such as?” I demanded.
Candice ticked them off on her fingers. “Munchausen by proxy, to collect an insurance settlement, or because she was an impatient woman who decided she was sick of caring for a young child and wanted her life back. Or even that with him to feed and clothe, it left her less money to buy alcohol and/or drugs. I mean, what do you know about this woman’s background?”
I frowned. I’d picked up on the addiction issues in Skylar’s past right off the bat. “Okay, so you might have a point,” I conceded. “But here’s the thing: I don’t think she was indirectly involved either. I think she’s been falsely accused, and she’s on her last appeal and the state is prepared to give her the needle at the first opportunity.”
Candice folded her napkin and dropped it on her empty plate before leaning back in her chair to let out a sigh. “You’re gonna ask me to help you look into the case, aren’t you?”