About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Truth Trap
By Frances A. Miller
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Frances A. Miller
All rights reserved.
The stream of cops in and out of the abandoned movie theater had slackened and ceased. The wailing ambulance had come and gone, taking the small body away with it. The crew from the lab had finished up, and only two men from Homicide were left. It was Tony Prado who spotted the boy hanging around on the opposite side of the street. A big kid — eighteen at least — wearing the regulation faded jeans, a navy blue windbreaker; and a blue denim work shirt. Thick dark hair fell raggedly across his forehead, obscuring his eyes.
"Les," Tony said to Lieutenant Ryder. "That kid across the street — maybe a little too interested in what's going on?"
Ryder included a swift look at the kid in his casual sweep of the block. "He matches the description, and he's plenty big enough for this job." The coldness of his voice betrayed Ryder's loathing for the murder and for the kid who could have done it. "Let's get him."
Leaning against a doorway, hands in his pockets, the boy ignored them until they were halfway across the street. Then he straightened with a jerk, watching them intently.
"He's going to run," Ryder said under his breath, and as the boy took off for the nearest corner, he was right behind him.
The kid was fast. With a longer lead, he could have gotten away from them, but when Ryder made a grab for him, the kid turned on him like a wild animal. Fighting furiously, he had given Ryder a bloody lip before Tony caught up with them and pinned his arms. When they brought out the cuffs, the boy stopped struggling suddenly and slumped against the wall.
"What in the hell ...?" Ryder angrily straightened his rumpled jacket. "Do you always act like that when people want to talk to you?"
"I never talk to strangers," the kid sneered, and Ryder hit him hard across his smart mouth. Raging incoherently, the kid threw himself at the lieutenant again. As Ryder spun him around by the shoulder and shoved him down the sidewalk in front of them, Tony saw the pain and fury in the boy's dark eyes.
They took him downtown in Ryder's Mercedes. Ryder drove, his white-knuckled grip on the wheel the only sign of the cold rage that had settled into him. Tony realized that with his partner in this kind of mood, the kid didn't stand a chance. He found himself sizing up the boy, looking for clues that would tell him who the kid was and why he had been hanging around the Palace that afternoon.
To begin with, the kid's stomach was growling. He was grimy, too. He had covered a lot of miles since his last crack at a shower. On his own, Tony decided, maybe for the first time, and finding it tough going. He had a hunch that home was not L.A., although the clothes told him nothing. They were the standard uniform of any kid from anywhere in America. But the face was another story.
An intelligent face. Deep-set eyes that looked straight at the world, that answered fury with fury of their own — but did not, thought Tony, know how to lie. Not yet. This was a kid who had probably been letting everyone know exactly where he stood and how he felt since he was born. Even with the muscles of his tense jaw hardened in a tight angry line, the corners of his mouth curved upward, making it look as if life, until now at least, had given him plenty to be glad about and not much reason to hide himself from others.
Under any other circumstances, Tony reflected — and he was surprised at this gut reaction to a kid caught up in circumstances about as lousy as they come — he'd have classified him as a good kid. A kid he'd be happy to have ringing the doorbell someday and asking for his daughter. But if he was the one they wanted for this job, then somewhere along the line he had really messed up. Something had happened, and recently. Tony would have given a lot to know what it was.
They parked in the basement garage, and Tony took the kid up to Homicide while Ryder stopped off at the lab. Picking up some ID forms, Tony showed the boy into one of the interrogation rooms and gave him his rights while removing the cuffs. Dropping wearily into a chair, the kid nodded a couple of times, but Tony had the impression that he either did not understand or did not care what was happening to him.
For a long time, Tony stared at the boy in silence, trying to bore through the deceptive openness of his face to find signs of the anger or the sickness that could have driven him to batter, strangle, and probably rape a child. Arrogance, contempt, panic, even barely suppressed excitement — any of these would have sent Tony a warning signal, but none of them was there. He could not shake off the image he had gotten on the ride downtown of a tired, hungry kid. A decent kid. But even the decent ones can come apart, Tony reminded himself sharply, and it looked as if this one had.
"Name?" he rapped out suddenly. The boy sat up with a jerk.
"Matt ... Simmons."
Was there the slightest hesitation there? "Address?"
Another pause. "294 Ocean View."
No hesitating here at all, as if he were used to the question. That made them one for three. Tony sighed. Not a good start. "Okay, Matt. You want to tell me what you were doing this afternoon, just before you started running?"
The answer was a long time coming. "Just hanging around. No law against that, is there?"
"No law. So why the panic?"
The boy's eyes slid away from Tony's. He glanced up once, his mouth working nervously. Something was obviously eating at him.
"Out with it, kid," Tony said patiently. The tone of his voice seemed to reassure the boy.
He relaxed slightly, one of his fingers absently tracing the pattern of a long line gouged in the surface of the table. "I don't know. Just having you two guys come at me like that without saying anything, I guess. I didn't know you were cops."
"And if you had known, you would have walked right over and introduced yourself, right?"
The boy glanced at him again, and Tony's grin drew a slight answering smile from the tense mouth. "Right," he was saying as the door opened. Ryder entered the room, and the boy's eyes narrowed instantly. On top of the table his hands curled into taut fists.
Hell, thought Tony. What lousy timing! Just a few more minutes and I'd have had him talking to me.
"What have you got?" Ryder scanned the form, crumpled it up, and leaned across the table. "Let's start from the beginning," he said in a contemptuous voice that struck at the kid like knotted rope and sent the boy Tony had begun to draw out of his shell back into hiding. Facing Ryder now was the defiant kid who had attacked him less than an hour ago in an attempt to flee the scene of a violent murder. Leaning back in his chair, the boy returned the lieutenant's gaze for several seconds without flinching, but defiance could not shield him from the loathing in those flint-gray eyes. He looked away finally, and Ryder was quick to press his advantage. "Name." The word flicked out.
"Matt ... Matthew Simmons."
"I told you ... Matt Simmons."
Tony had watched Les work on punks this way many times. Sooner or later, infuriated by his relentless refusal to acknowledge their lies, most of them came apart and screamed the truth at him. It was a kid's trick, usually successful on kids. But this kid was something else.
"Matt Simmons," he said evenly. A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth.
Abruptly, Ryder switched tactics. His hand came up and he slapped the kid sharply. "Name," he said again, without any change in the inflection.
"Matt Simmons." The boy jerked his head away from Ryder's hand.
Again the slap. Again the single word, the quiet answer, the crack of Ryder's hand against the boy's face. Tony had just decided he would not lay odds on either of them being the first to give up, when the door opened and Charley Grey came in, eating an enormous sandwich. The airless little room instantly took on the rich atmosphere of Dino's Deli across the street.
"Sorry, Lieutenant," Grey said. "Phone for you. Something about a delivery."
The lieutenant went out, leaving the door ajar. "Ryder here," they heard him say. "Yes. 2020 Verde Canyon Road. Right. Anytime after seven." Ryder hung up, and the phone rang again immediately. "Yes? Yes, all right. Be right down." He hung up again. They heard him talking to someone in the outer room.
The boy was following the progress of Charley's sandwich as if he were hypnotized. He swallowed a couple of times, caught Tony's eyes on him, and looked resolutely away. Remembering the stomach rumblings in the car, Tony had a sudden thought. "I'll be back in a minute," he told Charley on his way out. Maybe a little bribe would loosen the kid up again.
Grey finished his sandwich in silence, while the boy stared determinedly at the tabletop. Good-looking kid, Grey was thinking. Not the one he'd have picked out of a lineup for this kind of murder, either. Man, you just never can tell ...
"Is Charley here?" an anxious voice asked in the other room.
"Yeah. Coming." And, unaware that Ryder and Prado had both left the floor, Grey went out into the large room, leaving the boy by himself.CHAPTER 2
Matt was alone. It hit him as soon as the excruciating smell of ham and tomato had faded. His stomach growled threateningly at him. How long had it been? A day and a half? Five meals in a row ...
Forget food, he told himself fiercely. Katie's the main thing. Nine years old and completely deaf, she was terrified of the dark, and she had stayed by herself all day in that gloomy, decrepit building. Clutching her stuffed Snoopy Dog for comfort and her flashlight for self-defense, she would be waiting anxiously for him to come back and tell her he had a job and money for food and a place for them to live. He had to get out of here while he had the chance.
Beside the door a second later, he peered cautiously out at the busy room. Several people were working at desks or talking to each other. No one was looking his way. Ryder and the other detective who had brought him in were nowhere in sight, and the cop with the sandwich was across the room with another man, looking at something in the light from the window. Their backs were to him.
Easy now, McKendrick, he warned himself, forcing down the panic that made him want to race blindly through the long halls. Reaching the elevators without being seen, he kept his finger on the button and held his breath as the doors swished open, half expecting to hear sirens going off all over the building and find the elevator full of S.W.A.T. cops. It was empty. The first break he had had all day. A few minutes later, heart beating wildly as if he had sprinted the last 880, he was strolling out of the basement garage. Putting a few blocks between himself and police headquarters, he began to run.
He was hoping Katie's day had gone better than his. He had counted on having some good news to bring her, but he had nothing. Not even a hot dog to give her empty stomach some hope. Face it, McKendrick, he told himself wearily, the Great Escape Plan isn't working the way we thought it would when we were back home in Idaho.
A week ago — three weeks after their mom and dad had been killed in a car crash on Route 55 — his best friend, Gary Maitland, had warned Matt. Gary's family would take Matt in to live with them, but in spite of Matt's fierce objections they were going to send Katie to the state school for the deaf in Boise. He had not believed Gary at first.
All the time the Maitlands and Sheriff Hensley were telling him that Katie would be better off living with people who were trained to help kids handicapped the way she was, he had tried to convince them that putting Katie in an institution was a lousy deal for her and for him. It was too soon. For the next couple of years he planned to teach her himself. He had his mom's books, and he had watched her working with Katie so many times, he was sure he could do it. And then, when he was eighteen, he was going to get a job in Boise near the institute so she could go to school and still live with him. Losing their mother and father had been rough on both of them. They didn't want to be separated. As long as they had each other, they were going to be okay.
Give us a chance. He had said it over and over again, but in the end nobody in Craigie, not even the Maitlands, had listened to him. Not even the Maitlands, who had known him and Katie all their lives, had understood that it was important for them to stay together. It was Katie, of course, who had come up with another solution. If they couldn't both stay in Craigie, then both of them should go somewhere else to live before it was too late.
When he told Katie they had to go, she had packed her things immediately — her stuffed Snoopy Dog, her notebooks and pens for talking to strangers, her flashlight, some underwear; and a couple of her favorite books. They had taken the bus to Boise and begun hitchhiking, first through Oregon and then farther and farther south to get to the year-round warm-weather area of California. Eating hot dogs and hamburgers until their money ran out, they had arrived yesterday afternoon in L.A., worn out and hungry. And today had not been an outstanding success. It was sink or swim for them now, and it looked as if sink had a big head start on swim.
The old theater was up ahead on the next block. Matt crossed the street and approached it warily. With enough warning, he could outrun almost anybody, but those two cops had surprised him today. In their plain clothes, they had looked like the building's owners giving it a routine check or something. He still didn't know what they wanted him for, but it couldn't have been for anything worse than trespassing. He and Katie would find another place for tonight. Tomorrow he would get that job for sure.
Matt grinned. That was Katie's thinking. Against all the odds, she could make him feel that everything was going to work out all right. How could he argue with a peanut-sized kid who had the persistence of a mosquito and the determination of a bulldozer, and who could tune him out completely just by closing her eyes? When he told her about his lousy luck today, she would probably punch him a couple of times to shape him up and tell him to ship himself out again tomorrow.
His gloom already retreating at the prospect of meeting Katie's unquenchable optimism head-on, Matt was suddenly anxious to share the disastrous day with her so they could laugh at it together, get it behind them, and start working on tomorrow. He glanced up and down the deserted street and slipped into the alley, but the exit door they had found ajar yesterday was jammed shut. He had to look for another way in.
Up the alley, closer to the street, were two frosted-glass windows. With the help of a trash container and an old broom handle, he broke out the glass and hauled himself through one of them into the debris of what had once been the men's room. Katie should be next door in the ladies' room, but if the two cops had come inside the building and she had seen them in time, she could be anywhere. Crouching behind the broken seats in the auditorium, maybe, using her flashlight to defend herself against the terrible dark.
He checked out the ladies' room. She wasn't there. Their bag was gone, too. Pride and affection for his gutsy little sister momentarily filled the hollows inside him with warmth. Good girl, Kat, he congratulated her silently. Trust you to think of hiding it with you. Being deaf was a small thing to Katie McKendrick. Being alive and Matt's sister was the greatest.
She was three when she had gotten it through to him that he was as important to her as she was to him. He was nine and already running for the sheer joy of it. Every morning early before doing his chores, he would run the one and a half miles down their driveway to the main road, another mile to the Maitlands' gate, and back again.
One morning on his return trip, he had met Katie running down their driveway in her nightgown. She had wanted to come with him, and her bare feet were cut and bruised from the trip down the dirt road. Weeping furiously, she had pummeled him with her small hard fists until Matt had finally swung her up on his back and carried her, still crying and pounding on him, the rest of the way home.
When they reached the yard and he had put her down, she had wrapped her arms around his legs and given him her bear hug — the Baby Bear's hug, his dad called it — before she hobbled into the house. After that he had dressed her every morning and let her run as far as she could with him. When she got tired, she would fling herself down in the grass beside the road and wait impatiently for his return. Before long, she was racing him home.
Excerpted from The Truth Trap by Frances A. Miller. Copyright © 2003 Frances A. Miller. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.