The gripping sixth title in the popular Lucinda Pierce series sees the homicide investigator’s own judgment put under serious scrutiny . . . When the landlady of Brad Loving’s vacated house rings pest control over what she suspects is a dead rat, a shocking discovery is made – five bodies, two of which are skeletal. One of the bodies is that of Emily Sherman, whose stepmother, Martha, Homicide Investigator Lucinda Pierce helped convict for Emily’s murder. As doubts are raised over the investigation and another of Lucinda’s previous cases, and her young friend, Charley Spencer, is arrested on suspicion of vandalism, Lucinda faces her toughest test yet . . .
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A Lucinda Pierce Mystery
By Diane Fanning
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2012 Diane Fanning
All rights reserved.
Lieutenant Lucinda Pierce had one foot across the threshold of the homicide department when the voice boomed out, 'My office, Pierce!'
She watched the back of Captain Marcus Holland receding down the hall. For the first time, she noticed that the red bristles on his head were speckled with white and a spot on the crown of his head was thinning. She shook her head and sighed. It was no time to think about the ageing of her commanding officer. The order had been given; she'd lost track of the number of times she'd heard those words. They were always the precursor to bad news. She followed him down the hall with apprehension dragging at her heels.
As she entered his office, Holland was scanning through a stack of file folders on his desk. Most of them had worn-out, tattered edges and bent tabs as if they'd been wrapped in rubber bands for quite some time. Without looking up, he said, 'Please have a seat, Pierce.'
Lucinda started. Holland never said 'please'. Must be really bad news, she thought. Still, her instinctive urge to remain standing whenever she was told to sit down kept her on her feet.
Holland looked up at her. 'Please, Pierce,' he said, gesturing to the chair in front of his desk.
Lucinda looked at him. No throbbing in his temples. No redness blotching across his cheekbones. No evident signs of anger. He looked more defeated and sorrowful than irritated or wrathful. Definitely not his typical demeanor after calling her into his presence, raising Lucinda's level of apprehension but stirring her curiosity, at the same time. She slid into the chair and regarded him with wary fascination, her fight or flight response on high alert.
Holland looked back down at his desk, fiddled with his files and cleared his throat. She'd never known him to be at a loss for words unless he was too enraged to speak. 'Sir?'
He cleared his throat again, raised his head and twisted his neck in the collar of his shirt. 'Do you remember when you joined Homicide, Pierce?'
'Yes,' she said, recalling that dreadful, pivotal moment captured by Court TV cameras. Lieutenant John Boswell had been on the stand all morning, and for most of the afternoon, in the trial of Martha Sherman who'd been charged with first-degree murder in the death of her stepdaughter Emily. The judge had decided to dismiss the court for the day and leave Boswell's cross-examination for the morning. Boswell had risen from his chair, then the color had drained from his face and he'd slumped back down. He'd struggled to speak as his face turned gray and he'd keeled forward, his head making a loud thump as it hit the rail of the witness box.
Heart attack. Boswell was dead before he reached the hospital. A thirty-year law enforcement veteran with more than twenty years in Homicide, he'd brought some of the most dangerous men in their jurisdiction to justice. He'd survived bullet wounds, head trauma and countless tense situations in the field. So many risky situations; so many opportunities to die and yet it was the betrayal by his own body that ended his life. If it weren't for his death, she wouldn't have gotten the job – at least, not at that time, and she had to admit, maybe never.
'Yes, sir. I most certainly do. It was because of Boz. That bothered me a lot at the time; in fact, it still does when I think about it.'
'Do you remember what happened after Boz died?'
'There was a delay in the trial. Then, the funeral. I escorted Mrs Boswell that day. When I finished with my duties, I got the message that I was wanted in your office.'
'Did you know why?'
'No, not really. Frankly, sir, I assumed that as Lieutenant Boswell's next-in-line, you wanted a report on how well his family was holding up; I thought you wanted to know if there was anything you could do. I was more than a little surprised when you offered me a position in Homicide. I really wanted it, but I thought it would be years – even with the vacancy created by Boz's death.'
'Remember I told you that Boz had spoken highly of you and that you were on my shortlist for an opening?' Lucinda nodded, 'Yes, sir.'
'I didn't tell you the complete story at that time and I never planned on telling you. But now, there have been some developments that make it necessary – regrettable, but necessary.'
Lucinda's brow furrowed. Would he ever get to the point?
'Remember Sergeant Carmody?'
She remembered him only vaguely. 'The one who left about a month after Boz died?'
'Yes. He took a job in Homicide down in Raleigh. He was not pleased that he was passed over in favor of you. We lost a good man when he left; he's done some good work down there.'
'And now he wants to come back? And he wants my job?' The thought flew out of Lucinda's mouth before she even had a chance to absorb it.
'No. No, Pierce. Nothing like that. Please bear with me.' Holland pulled a hand across his face, leaving a weary expression in its wake. 'At the time, Carmody was one of my top two choices. I was also considering hiring from the outside. Getting some fresh blood into the department. And, honestly, you were the third option – but you were a distant third.'
Red tinged Lucinda's cheeks. That bald statement of fact wasn't all that surprising but it certainly was embarrassing and humbling. She had a thousand questions in her head but she sat mutely waiting for Holland to continue.
Holland sighed. 'I'd already decided that I needed a replacement for Boz sooner rather than later. I planned on Carmody taking his place. I was going to tell him after the funeral. But before I left for the service, once the DA walked through my door with the Chief of Police, everything changed.'
'Something was wrong with Carmody?'
'No. Absolutely nothing. He had excellent performance reviews. His outside life was squeaky clean. By rights, he was next in line to move up to Homicide. He earned it. But the DA and police chief convinced me that there was something bigger at stake. The judge had ruled on the motion submitted by Martha Sherman's defense team. He'd thrown out the testimony of Detective Boswell since the defendant no longer had the opportunity to cross-examine him. The state had to present that evidence all over again. Of course, that meant you.'
'Yes. I'd been assisting Boz since the first day of the investigation. I was with him all the way. I knew the case inside and out. I was on the witness list from the beginning but the DA had said he wouldn't be calling me because Boz could cover it all. I was ready and willing already. Did he think I needed to be bribed with a promotion to do a good job on the stand?'
'No. He didn't have a doubt that you'd do an excellent job. In fact, he remarked on the eye patch you wore back then as something that would add to your gravitas while simultaneously tugging at the sympathies of the jurors.'
Lucinda rolled her eye. 'Then what are you saying, captain?'
'He insisted that I give the job to you and the chief concurred. They believed it was vital that whoever took the stand to deliver the evidence was a detective – someone who would be addressed that way by the state. And if the defense refused to use that honorific with you, they could appeal to the female majority on the jury by pointing out that lack of respect at every opportunity.'
Lucinda's palms flew to her temples, her fingers sticking through her hair on either side. This was awful. In a quiet voice, she whispered, 'I only got the job so the state could use me as a political tool in the courtroom? I got the job because my gender was right – not because of anything I'd done?'
'Not exactly, Pierce. No matter who assisted Boz on that case, male or female, they would have found a spin for it. The DA was just using what you were to their best advantage. They were determined to get a conviction in that case and they knew you were the only person who could get them there.'
'And you went along with this?'
'You've got to understand, Pierce. Andrew Sherman, the dead girl's father, could apply a lot of pressure. He was powerful, wealthy, and a major political contributor. He wanted his second – and soon to be ex – wife to spend the rest of her life behind bars for killing his daughter. I really had no wiggle room.'
'Really, captain,' she sneered.
'Really, Pierce,' he said giving her a hard stare before continuing. 'They did give me an out, though. They said after the trial was over, I could demote you as fast as I promoted you. And they'd back me up all the way.'
Lucinda exhaled sharply through her nose and pursed her lips. She was well past the embarrassment and humility phase now. She was flat-out pissed. She moved her focus away from the captain and stared at the wall behind him.
'Well, I didn't, Pierce, did I?'
Lucinda turned her head towards him then jerked it back facing the wall. She didn't trust herself to speak. Too often words she'd spoken in the heat of the moment had come back and knocked her off her feet. She was trying to get some control over her temper, but it wasn't easy.
'I didn't because I didn't believe it was fair. You did perform admirably in the courtroom. The state did get a conviction. It only seemed right to give you the opportunity to prove yourself.'
Lucinda jerked back. 'Or fall on my face?'
'Yes, Pierce. Or fall on your face. I gave you control of your own destiny and quite frankly, I think that is significant. And you did prove yourself. Every time. Never once did you give me reason to regret my decision.'
'Oh, stop, captain, you know that isn't true. Stop patronizing me.'
'OK, Pierce, there were times when you made me doubt the wisdom of my decision. You caused me to question it from time to time; but in the end, you always came out on top. Not for one moment did I ever regret offering you the job.'
'OK, I'll take your word on that, sir,' she said, not really certain whether she should believe him or not. 'But why are you telling me all of this now?'
'The body of Emily Sherman has been found.'
'That's wonderful – I thought we'd never find her.'
'Actually, the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the body are a bit problematic for all of us.'
Lucinda tilted her head to the side. Why would he be conflicted by this? Andrew Sherman would finally be able to bury his daughter. Isn't that what we always wanted – to bring a missing victim home? 'I don't understand, sir.'
'Emily Sherman is now part of the Mack Rogers case.'
'What? That is ridiculous. Why would anyone come to that conclusion?'
'Last night, the forensic anthropologist identified one of the skeletonized bodies you found in the basement.'
'No! That can't be true.' Lucinda jumped to her feet and rested her hands on Holland's desk. 'It couldn't be her. It just couldn't.'
'It was, Lucinda. The forensic odontologist suspected it when he compared the dental X-rays, but couldn't be positive about his identification because of the rodent damage to the skull that dislocated some of her teeth. But the DNA results are in now. There's absolutely no doubt that one of the bodies in that basement belonged to Emily Sherman. And very, very little doubt that Martha Sherman was wrongfully convicted.'CHAPTER 2
The basement. How she hated basements. In fact, if the negative subterranean experiences continued much longer, she feared she'd develop the same phobia of the space that little Charley Spencer had. She had found the body of Charley's mother in a basement; the little boy she accidentally killed had been held in the range of fire, unseen, behind a dirty basement window; the serial killer who sliced her Achilles tendon was in a basement.
And now this basement. She had first arrived at the house on DeWitt Street, filled with the same solemn, optimistic enthusiasm she possessed at the inception of every homicide investigation. Sergeant Robin Coulter, the newest addition to the homicide squad and the only other woman, briefed Lucinda in the front yard. The horror she prepared to face chipped away at her positive attitude. Actually entering the basement destroyed it.
The landlady, whose cleaning of the house for a new occupant prompted the discovery, sat on the front porch of the small white bungalow with dark green trim. A home that looked much like any of the others on the block – nicely painted, unassuming with a freshly mowed front yard. Before the patrol cars swarmed around it, there had been no indication that it bore any difference to its neighbors. The landlady's minister sat on one side of her, the police psychiatrist on the other. She was as close as anyone could get to hysteria without running stark, raving mad into the street.
The pest control company employee, who actually discovered the first body, sat stunned on a bench beside the drive. A patrolman sat beside him trying to get something more than yes or no answers to the questions posed, but requests for elaboration seemed to generate nothing more than a faraway stare.
She walked through the front door choking with dread. She could smell the faint whiff of the basement's contents the second she stepped inside. An officer handed her a jar of mentholated gel to smear in her nostrils before she descended the steps. Usually she didn't bother, but this time was an exception. The smell by the door to the lower floor was so intense, so nausea inducing, she could not resist. It diminished the odor but could not eliminate it.
At the foot of the stairs, the semi-finished section appeared perfectly normal. Along one wall, a washer, a dryer and a large utility sink looked ordinary. The rough concrete floor was typical. The air felt damp and she imagined, without the odor of decomposing bodies overwhelming all else, it would smell a bit musty and dank.
She walked toward the entrance to a peculiar kind of hell. The door was three-quarters of normal height. A broken hasp canted crookedly from the frame. A busted padlock lay on the floor.
She bent down and eased her way onto the dirt floor on the other side. She couldn't stand upright and didn't want to brush her head against the dust, cobwebs and grime on the rafters, making her duck lower than necessary. The floor rose gradually in front of her, narrowing the gap down to cat height before reaching the foundation on the other side.
To the left of Lucinda, and about four feet from where she stood, the toes of a pair of shoes broke through the ground. The pest control employee had brushed away the dirt over the legs to make sure that what he thought he saw was really what was there.
Further back in the crawl space, a figure in a Tyvek suit, booties, gloves, head covering and a face mask with a breathing filter, raised a head and shouted out a muffled, 'Lieutenant!'
'Marguerite, is that you?'
'Yes, lieutenant. Let's talk outside.' Forensic specialist Marguerite Spellman duck-walked across the dirt until she reached a spot where she could stand, albeit it in a crouched-over posture. 'I've now found a fourth body. It's nothing more than a skeleton. I think I should get out of there and let a forensic anthropology team take over.'
'You sure we can't manage without calling in the state guys?'
'Hate to say it, lieutenant, but we might need the Feebs – and not just our local buddy Special Agent in Charge Lovett, but the experts on forensic excavation from headquarters in DC.'
Lucinda's face twisted into an expression of extreme distaste. She sighed.
'I'm sorry,' Marguerite said, 'but we really need an anthropologist here. These remains need to be meticulously extracted if we're going to have any hope of preserving evidence in a manner that the defense can't rip to shreds. They already have a little ammunition because the pest control guy touched the first body and some of us have entered the space – that probably was not wise.'
'Let's go topside and get away from this stench for a while and then I'll make the calls. You'll need to be here, though, while they work. You need to observe every little thing they do.'
'I'd planned on that, lieutenant.'
Lucinda nodded, gave her a tight smile and led the way up the stairs. They removed their protective gear and stepped out into the front yard. The first inhalation of fresh, outdoor air was intoxicating. Any of the city pollutants churning through the atmosphere now smelled as clean and pure as snow compared to the cloying, sweet, sickening smell from the crawl space.
Marguerite leaned her head to one side and sniffed the sleeve of her shirt. 'Eeew. I probably will never get the smell out of these clothes. I'll have to toss them out when we're through. Somebody needs to invent a body suit that blocks odors.'
'Why don't you handle that in all your spare time, Spellman?' Lucinda asked with a chuckle.
'Spare time? Could you define that alien phrase for me?' she responded with a grin.
Excerpted from Wrong Turn by Diane Fanning. Copyright © 2012 Diane Fanning. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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