Authors: Karen Chester
“I’ll just get changed into something more
comfortable,” Emma said.
She entered her bedroom, the same room
she’d had as a kid, and dropped her bag on the bed with a sigh. It had been a long,
long day. She kicked off her shoes and wriggled her toes in the carpet before
changing into stretchy sweatpants and a loose T-shirt. But the comfy clothing
didn’t help lift her mood.
She glanced around her room, and what she
saw depressed her spirits even further. Years ago she’d been so eager to get
away from this modest house in the middle of nowhere. She couldn’t wait to go
to college thousands of miles away in the east, couldn’t wait to shake off the
dust of small town life. She’d had such big plans to expand her horizons, try
new things, race up the ladder of success. Nothing else mattered except
escaping Greenville. That dream was the reason she and Owen had split up, and
Owen was not a guy to be given up easily.
But now, where was she? Back where she
started in the same bedroom that hadn’t changed and nothing to show for all her
years of being away. Well, she guessed she had her college degree, and she had
travelled a lot. But her business partner had defrauded her, leaving her with
nothing but debts and a trashed reputation, and when she’d turned to her
boyfriend in her hour of need, he’d decided she was too much hassle and dumped
And just when she thought her new business
here was up and running, she had a major food poisoning at one of her parties
and her first wedding was in peril because of a shocking murder. How many more
knocks could she take?
Oh, quit your whining
. She shook her head at herself. Now was not the time for a pity
party. No, she had to go out there and tackle her problems head on. If fate was
determined to throw obstacles in her path, then she just had to figure out a
way around them.
She sat down to dinner with her dad and
wolfed down three chicken burritos. There was no getting away from discussing
Tony Barnet’s murder, since that was what dominated the news headlines.
Her father shook his head and wondered if
drugs were involved. “A desperate addict will do anything for a hit.”
“Is it a problem at your school?” South
Lake High School had been rather straitlaced when Emma had attended, but things
might have changed.
“I don’t think so,” Andrew said, but then
he frowned as if something had just occurred to him. “Not that I’m aware.”
“Do you remember Bart McCluskey?” Emma
asked as she took a sip of iced tea. “He was two years ahead of me.”
“Hmm, Bart McCluskey. Yes, a big, surly
boy, as I recall, but not vicious, I would have thought. Why do you ask?”
“I ran into him when I went to Sean’s
repair shop to see about my car. It’s been acting up lately,” she added, “so
I’m dropping it off tomorrow.”
“You can borrow my car,” he said instantly
as she had half-expected.
“Are you sure?” She really would feel like
a teenager again if she drove around in her parent’s car.
Andrew nodded. “I can’t drive for the rest
of the week, and Janet’s been giving me a lift to school, so you may as well
use my car.”
“Thanks, Dad.” She only hoped the car
repairs wouldn’t cost much. She really couldn’t ask her father for a loan.
“Apparently the police searched Sean’s auto shop, and a bunch of McCluskeys
turned up and caused a disturbance.”
He took a bite of his burrito and chewed
slowly and thoroughly. After he’d swallowed, he said, “People are quick to
label the whole McCluskey clan as troublemakers, but I don’t think it’s fair to
tar them all with the same brush. They’ve been settled here for generations,
but they’ve never enjoyed the same opportunities or advantages as others have.
When everyone else is against you, it makes sense to stick to your own tribe,
whether you agree with them or not. Sean has gone a long way in striking out on
his own. It can’t have been easy.”
“He’s straight now, but the Chief still
holds a grudge against him.” When Sean was seventeen, Sergeant Putnam, as he
was then, had arrested him for burglary, but the case had been dismissed for
lack of evidence, leaving the policeman furious and vowing that one day Sean
would slip up. Sean hadn’t helped his case by smirking and thumbing his nose at
the frustrated cop. “I’m really worried.”
Andrew folded up his napkin and placed it
beside his empty plate. “Chief Putnam may be prejudiced against the McCluskeys,
but he’s not going to arrest a man without solid evidence, I’m sure.”
If only she could be so confident, but Emma
couldn’t get rid of her nagging doubts.
“We’ll just have to wait and see.”
After they had finished dinner, Emma washed
up while her father went to his study to make a few phone calls. She was
tidying up the kitchen when Andrew reappeared.
“Can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure Dad,” she said quickly as she
registered his concerned expression. “What is it?”
“I’ve been worried about a student of mine,
Daniel Crespo. He’s a bright boy, but he has a few issues so I’ve been trying
to steer him in the right direction when things got bad for him.”
This wasn’t anything new to Emma. Even
before he’d shifted to school counseling, her father had gone out of his way to
mentor troubled students.
“Anyway, he’s been missing a lot of school
lately, and he’s been avoiding me. I finally managed to get hold of Daniel, and
I want to go and talk with him and his parents tonight. If you’re not doing
anything, can you drive me to their house, please?”
“Of course, Dad.”
“Thanks. That’d be a big help. Daniel can’t
be missing so much school. I have to get to the bottom of this.”
Greenville did not
have any slums. Instead, it had the Bella Vista Mobile Home Park, spread over
several flat acres on the outskirts of town that no one else wanted. No lake
views here or easy access to the highway or stores. As far as trailer parks
went, it didn’t seem too bad to Emma. Sycamore trees dotted the grounds, and
there was a playground in the center. The trailer they pulled up outside looked
a little worse for wear, with cobwebs festooning its windows, washing sagging
on a nearby line, and a clutter of dying pot plants on the front deck.
Andrew eyed a group of young men loitering
nearby in the growing darkness. The clink of glass suggested a few beers were
“You’d better come inside with me,” he said
“Are you sure?” She’d assumed she’d wait
for him in the car while he visited the parents. “Won’t my presence make things
a bit awkward?”
“I’d rather not leave you out here.”
She couldn’t remember her dad being this
protective when she’d been a teenager. But she’d probably ignored his worrying
back then, or maybe he was a little spooked tonight after the Tony Burnet
She followed him to the porch where he
tapped on the glass sliding door of the trailer. After a few seconds, it
opened, and a young man of about seventeen in regulation jeans and T-shirt
blinked at them.
“Hi, Daniel,” Andrew said with a quick
smile. “I’ve come to see your parents.”
“Oh. Yeah. You didn’t have to, you know.”
Daniel, a handsome boy despite his scowl, didn’t seem pleased to see him, but
what student liked seeing his school counselor turn up on his doorstep?
“I understand,” Andrew said, “but I feel
They stepped into a small living area that
felt even more cramped because of the violently floral carpet. A vinyl couch
lined one wall, while the other was taken up by a huge TV in a display cabinet.
A waist-high counter separated the living area from a cramped little kitchen.
The place was messy and cluttered, with piles of clothing on the couch, dirty
plates in the sink, catalogs and junk mail overflowing on the counter. As they
waited, Emma noticed the eclectic collection of knick-knacks in the
glass-fronted display cabinet—porcelain figurines, candlesticks, statues of the
Virgin Frances, model cars, crystal ornaments. A collection with no apparent order
A lean figure appeared in the narrow hall
that presumably led to the bedrooms. He loped forward with a stiff gait.
“Ah, Mr. Crespo?” Andrew held out a hand.
“I called Daniel earlier about coming to visit you tonight. I’m Andrew Cassidy,
Daniel’s school counselor and this is my daughter, Emma.”
The man shook hands without a word or a
smile. The dim lamplight threw shadows across his stubbled cheeks, making him
appear even more dour. He wasn’t a big man, but there was a wiry strength to
his body that made him appear larger. His drab olive pants and khaki shirt were
well worn and patched in places; clearly he hadn’t changed out of his work
“What do you want to talk about?” Mr.
Crespo didn’t invite them to take a seat, although with the jumble on the couch
it might have been too difficult.
“Well, we know Daniel here—” Andrew
directed a brief nod at the teenager who had retreated to the kitchen counter
“—hasn’t been at school lately, and I was hoping we could discuss the problem—”
“There’s no problem.” Daniel’s father
bristled, sticking out his chin. His face was deeply lined, and heavy bags
weighed under his eyes. He looked exhausted, Emma thought. Exhausted and
ornery. “Daniel is looking after his mother.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize your wife is ill. My
Mr. Crespo tugged at the dark moustache
that bristled above his lips. “I’m sorry you came all this way for nothing.
Daniel should have explained to you over the phone.” He shot a frown at his
son, who was busy picking at his fingernails, to all intents and purposes
ignoring the whole discussion.
“But, Mr. Crespo, I’m not done yet. Daniel should
be at school. He’s been making good progress this year, and he needs to keep
his grades up if he wants to apply for college in the fall semester.”
Mr. Crespo inhaled a few times, and each
intake made his face redder. “College? You think we can worry about college at
a time like this?” He almost spat out the words in disgust.
Andrew took a deep breath and pressed on, “Your
son is a smart boy. He deserves to go to college.”
“Huh!” Mr. Crespo let out a bitter snort.
“Do we look like a family who can afford college?”
“There are scholarships, financial aid.
I’ll help Daniel get his application—”
“No! Daniel doesn’t have time for that. He has
to stay at home and look after his mother. That’s final.”
In the ticklish silence that followed, a
faint moan sounded from down the hall. Mr. Crespo’s face creased up, and for a
moment the resentment in his eyes was replaced by a tortured expression.
“My wife needs me,” he said stiffly.
“Goodnight, Mr. Cassidy.” He threw another scowl at his son before stalking
down the short hall. A door clicked open and shut, followed by a soft murmur of
“Sorry, Daniel.” Andrew offered the boy an
apologetic smile. “I didn’t mean to make things worse for you.”
The teenager shrugged. He hadn’t spoken
more than three words and seemed quite apathetic about being the center of the
Emma hurried out of the trailer with her
dad. She drew in a breath, glad to be outside.
“Mr. Cassidy?” Daniel had followed them
out, and now shifted uneasily on the deck, skinny arms wrapped around his
waist. “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t think my dad would…”
“That’s okay,” Andrew swiftly replied.
“It’s my fault. I didn’t realize how much pressure your whole family is under.
I’m sorry about your mom. Is she very sick?”
“She was in an accident. Someone ran her
over while she was riding home from work on my bicycle.”
“A hit-and-run? That’s awful. Terrible.”
His sympathy seemed to break through the
teenager’s barriers. Daniel’s chin quivered. “She was in a coma for two days.
Now, she’s at home, but she’s in a lot of pain, and she can’t move without
someone helping her. That’s why I can’t come to school. My mom needs me.” He
nodded, firm in his conviction.
“That’s very admirable of you, Daniel, but
don’t you have any relatives who can help out a bit?”
“Not around here. And my dad has to keep
working so we can afford all the medication she needs. Plus, we got the
hospital bill to pay off, too. I don’t think I’ll be going to college any time
soon. But thanks for trying to help, Mr. Cassidy.” He turned and re-entered the
trailer. He was just a boy, yet already he was shouldering adult
“Such a shame.” Andrew shook his head as
Emma drove them back home. “I remember his mom at one of the parent-teacher
conferences. Luisa. She was so proud of Daniel. She wanted him to go to
college, have a better life than her and her husband. Who would hit someone
with their car and not stop? It’s inconceivable.”
“I hope the police are still looking for
the driver.” Emma shivered. Greenville didn’t feel like her safe hometown
“Maybe you could talk to Sherilee, ask her
if there’s any progress.”
“Da-ad!” She couldn’t help the childish,
totally inappropriate whine in her protest. “You know she won’t talk to me.
Sherilee hates me.”
“Honey, you’re not in high school anymore.”
“Huh, maybe you should tell
that.” It took a lot of effort on Emma’s part not to stick her bottom lip out.
“Sherilee is a level-headed, competent
police officer, and it wouldn’t hurt you to get along with her.”
Boy, he sounds just like Mom.
Her mother had been part of the reason Emma had wanted to leave
Greenville so badly when she was a teenager. She and her mom had clashed plenty;
Frances had always been the strong, direct character, which didn’t gel well
with a rebellious adolescent daughter chafing to spread her wings. But with
hindsight, Emma knew her mom had acted out of love, and her heart warmed at her
dad’s attempt at lecturing her.
“Sure, Dad,” she said softly. She had no
intention of ingratiating herself with Sherilee, but her dad didn’t need to
When they arrived
home, a sparkly blue Mini Cooper convertible sat at the curb. Emma recognized the
car instantly as well as the figure sitting behind the wheel. She pulled her
dad’s car into the driveway, killed the engine, and hopped out. Madison was
already hurrying toward her, long brown hair streaming behind her pale,
“They’ve arrested him!” she choked out.
“They think Sean’s a murderer.” Her lips wobbled, and she burst into tears.
Emma glanced at her dad. Pointing at the
house, he mouthed “I’ll leave you two alone,” before melting discreetly away.
Emma wrapped an arm around Madison’s
shaking shoulders. “Let’s go inside.”
Gulping back her sobs, Madison allowed Emma
to usher her into the kitchen and ease her into a chair at the table. Without
asking, Emma put the kettle on and took out two mugs and the tin of hot
chocolate. Clearly, Madison needed something warm and sweet to calm her nerves.
“So tell me what happened,” Emma said when
she’d made the hot chocolate and slid a mug in front of Madison.
“Sean was at the police station all day
answering their questions.” The girl wrapped her fingers around the warm mug.
Her eyes were dazed. “I was there, too, waiting for him to be released. But
then, at around six, Sherilee came and told me that he was being arrested
because they had enough evidence.”
“What evidence?” Emma thought back on her visit
to Sean’s auto repair shop.
“The murder weapon was a wrench. They found
it in Tony’s garage near his—his body. There was blood and hair on it, and it
belongs to Sean.” Madison took a gulp of hot chocolate, her eyes huge over the
rim of the mug.
“So that’s why the police took all of
Sean’s tools from the workshop,” Emma said. “But how can they be so sure it’s
Sean’s? Surely wrenches all look the same?”
“Sean had a special set. He was very
particular about his tools. Always had them clean and stored correctly.”
Madison’s lips trembled again. “He even identified the wrench as his when it
was shown to him. And his fingerprints are all over it.”
“And there’s more. Sean went to see Tony
Barnet yesterday, and the gardener overheard them arguing. Then Sean left, and
no one ever saw Tony alive again.”
And before that, according to Larry Durant
at the auto repair shop, Sean had threatened to make Tony Barnet pay. This was
bad, very bad. Sean had had means, motive, and opportunity to kill Tony Barnet.
From a prosecutor’s perspective it looked like a slam dunk. Not knowing what
else she could do, Emma squeezed Madison’s hand.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie. I wish there was
something I could do.”
“But you said you’d help!” Madison blinked
several times, her eyelids twitching. “That’s why I came here tonight and
waited for you.”
The young woman looked like she was going
to burst into fresh tears, so Emma hastily patted her hand once more. “But I’m
an event planner, not an investigator. And besides, Sean has a lawyer, doesn’t
“Yes, but it’s Freddie Earle. I don’t think
he’ll be much use.”
Madison was right to be worried. Freddie
Earle was the kind of lawyer guilty people called, not someone an innocent
person would have too much confidence in.
“Can’t you get him a good lawyer?” Emma
asked. “Maybe your parents could help you there.”
At that, Madison turned away, dipping her
chin. “My parents want me to stay out of it.”
So it hadn’t taken long for the Whites to
show their true colors.
“I’m sorry,” Emma murmured, feeling for
Madison yet unsurprised by her parents’ reaction. “I’m sure they’re just
looking out for you.”
“No.” Madison shook her head vehemently as
she lifted her chin. “They’re just looking out for themselves. I always knew
they didn’t approve of Sean, and now they’ve got the perfect excuse to wipe
their hands of him. Well, I’m not going to let them rule my life any more. I’m
not going to let Sean down. I love him, and I know he’s innocent, and I’ll do
everything in my power to set him free.”
The passion in her voice stirred Emma. In
the face of damning evidence, Madison believed in Sean implicitly. She would
stand by her man, no matter what. But did she have any idea what her loyalty
would cost her? Was she prepared to go against her parents? And it wasn’t only
her parents. The police obviously believed Sean was guilty, and so would a lot
of people, especially when they heard the evidence. Was Madison prepared to go
against her friends, her relatives, and all the people she knew in Greenville?
Madison reached across the table and
gripped Emma’s arm. Her eyes burned with fervor. “You believe he’s innocent,