Ruthless Justice Preview

A Megan Corver Legal Thriller

About the book

Successful lawyer Megan Corver's life goes up in flames when her sister is charged with arson.

When her distressing call shatters her illusion of normality, she’s thrown in the middle of a case she can’t win. With the evidence against her sister mounting, her desperation to save her leads Megan to unprecedented darkness: a breadcrumb trail to her mother's murderer.

Forced to re-evaluate those she thought demons and those she thought angels, she discovers a truth that she wishes were a lie: her sister's innocence is dyed in blood. Nothing good ever came from leading a double life. Especially one that demands her own as payback.

Chapter One


Westby, California  - 1 Year Later


A hush falls over the courtroom and the jurors all turn to face me, their expressions a mixture of boredom and curiosity. Bryan Newson, my latest client, sits beside me in his thrift store suit I bought for him. The poor man was now facing manslaughter charges for the car crash that took the life of his girlfriend. It’s not as big as my case a year ago, but I take the cases that can bring real justice.

“They don’t look convinced,” he whispers in my ear.

“We still have our closing argument,” I remind him and stand, straightening my suit jacket as I step around the side of the table. I rehearsed my closing all last night. The prosecution had one key problem with their theory of the accident: Bryan’s mental state. He shifts in the chair and I catch the hem of his right pant leg lift out of the corner of my eye, revealing the prosthetic leg; his reward for service to his country.

I look each of the twelve jurors in the eye one by one. Years ago, I wouldn’t have been this confident. Today, I know my client’s case is rock solid. Now, I just need to convince these strangers to have mercy on a  grieving young man. “Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve heard the prosecution’s theory of the events that led to Belinda Moyers’s tragic death. And we don’t deny that the loss of life is heart-wrenching.”

I gesture to Bryan. “My client carries the weight of that loss with him every day. He got behind the wheel that August evening last year with no intent to cause the death of the young woman he loved. They were going out to celebrate their anniversary.”

Bryan wipes tears from his eyes. Some might think he’s putting a show to make himself appear more sympathetic but I know they are genuine. Over the last six months, I’ve spent long hours with him, getting to know him and the circumstances that brought us to this courtroom.

“Yes, Bryan drove the car that night and he had a drink at dinner. But he was below the legal limit. But, what the prosecution has failed to prove is that he had the requisite mens rea when he drove past that party and heard loud bangs, sending him back to his deployment overseas. Bryan is a decorated soldier who sacrificed for his country in a way none of us can fathom. There is nothing in the testimony that you heard to show that he got into that car thinking about harming anyone, let alone Belinda.”

Time for the emotional impact to end it. I start to make eye contact again with each person as I speak. I can see that boredom has turned to interest and curiosity has turned to sympathy. “Her death is the tragic circumstance of a system that failed to provide Bryan the help he needs. Yes, he needs help, but prison isn’t the place for him. I ask that you find it in your hearts and determine that Bryan Newson is not guilty of murder. He’s not guilty of any crime.”

I turn back to Bryan to see him wiping more tears away from his cheeks. Glancing across the aisle I see the prosecutor looking nervous. We’d tried to get them to take a plea deal before going to trial but they’d been insistent that Bryan go through the whole process. A miscalculation on their part.

“Do you think it was enough?” Bryan asks before the judge leans forward into the microphone.

“We’ll see,” I whisper back.

I pay enough attention to the jury instructions to know that the judge explains the importance of proving every element of the crime before the court officer leads the jury away to deliberate and a second officer escorts Bryan to holding. I watch Belinda’s family sitting behind the prosecutor. Her mother dabs at her eyes with a crumpled tissue. I want to tell her how sorry I am about her daughter’s death but I know she doesn’t want to hear those words from me. Instead, I scan the small crowd, my gaze finally landing on a woman with dark hair and glasses. A woman I haven’t seen in years. I gather my case file and leave the courtroom, meeting Sheila Grey by the benches lining the hallway beyond.

“It’s good to see you,” I note as I sit. Like so many people in my life, I drifted away from her after college.

“You aren’t the only attorney in town. And, I wanted to see how you were getting along. I was moved by that closing. If those jurors have hearts, they’ll find your young man not guilty.”

“I only spoke the truth. They couldn’t prove he had the mental state to kill her and they knew it. I don’t understand why they kept pushing for a trial. We offered to take a plea deal dozens of times.”

“Sometimes it’s the family. They want justice, even if that justice isn’t really what’s best for everyone.”

“By all accounts, they liked Bryan,” I sigh.

She pats my shoulder.

“Well, you’ll have to let me know the verdict. I’m afraid I’ve got to run to a pre-trial hearing.”

I give her a one-armed hug, trying to exude happiness I don’t always feel. “Thanks for stopping by.”

“I really am proud of the bright young attorney you’ve become. Now, give them hell.”

I smile as she walks away and I turn on my phone to occupy myself. I see a missed call from Cathy. Despite the rough patches we’ve endured over the last few years, I’m still always happy to see my sister’s name come up on my phone. I press the Call button and wait while it rings.

Cathy picks up on the fifth ring. “Uh, hey. What’s up?”

“You called me,” I remind her.

“Oh, duh. Sorry, I’ve been a little scattered this afternoon. You had your last day of that trial today, right?’

I settle on the nearby bench, propping my file against the wall. “I did. We’re waiting for the jury to deliberate now.”

“Do you think you’ll get him off?”

No matter how many times she says that, I always grimace at the childish implication. “Cath, really? You have the entire English language and you have to use that phrase?’

“You’re the one who’s a prude, Megs. But, my question stands.”

In that moment, we are teenagers again, arguing over boys and silly things. Back when life was simpler. Back when we were whole. “I like to think that they’ll return a not guilty verdict. I think I had them on my side by the end. We’ll have to see.” I pull the phone away from my ear and open the Calendar app on my phone. I see the tiny event notice reminding me we are set to have dinner with Uncle Jim tomorrow. “I can fill you in on it tomorrow at Uncle Jim’s.”

“Yeah. Sounds good.”

I can hear ambient noise over the phone line. Is she outside somewhere? “What are you up to?”

I catch the hitch in her breath. “Just out for a walk. Nothing fancy. I’ve had some things on my mind and I needed to clear my head.”

“What sort of things?”

“Just things. Mom. Dad. Usual stuff.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” I can’t help jumping into big sister mode when the topic of our parents surfaces.

“Thanks for the offer, Megs. I really appreciate it but I’m good. I’ve been going to meetings; talking to my sponsor. I’ll get through it.”

It still breaks my heart to know that my sister turned into such a party girl. In a way, I can’t blame her. After what we’d endured as teenagers, it was a wonder both of us hadn’t turned to the bottle. Or worse. But, I knew Cathy was doing what she had to in order to straighten her life out. She was going to be okay. No longer the party girl she’d been in years past.

“Seriously, I’m here to talk. You know that.”

Before she can respond, the door to my right opens and the court officer sticks his head out. “Counselor, they’re back.”

“Cath, I have to go but we will continue this conversation tomorrow.”

“Yeah, okay. Bye.”

The calls ends and I set the phone back to silent. Following the court officer back into the room, I see Bryan walk out. His slight limp due to his prosthetic is more pronounced as his nerves get the better of him. I stride up the aisle and take my place at the table beside him.

“They came back fast. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.” He rubs his hands together and I want to take them in mine and offer him support but I know it would appear improper. I didn’t need any ethics complaints about lending moral support to a client.

“I have faith in you and our defense,” I reassure him as the judge settles behind the bench. Bryan and I stand, as does the prosecutor across the aisle.

“Madam Foreperson, has the jury reached a verdict?” he addresses the slender woman with thick red curls at the end of the jury box.

“We have, Your Honor.” She passes the court officer the slip of paper and he walks it to the judge.

No matter how many trials I’ve attended or second chaired, there’s no way to beat back the anxiety of being first chair awaiting the verdict. When I know I’ve done everything possible to represent my client, but butterflies still swirl in my stomach. It feels like hours as the judge opens the verdict slip and reads it. Just announce the finding already!

“On the sole count of manslaughter, how do you find?”

The foreperson turns and addresses Bryan. “We find the defendant not guilty.”

Relief washes over me like water and I wrap my arms around Bryan’s shoulders. “I told you it would be okay.”

“Thank you. You have no idea how much I appreciate everything you did for me.”

I pull away from him and offer him a firm handshake. I give his fingers an extra squeeze and lean in. “I’m happy to help. There is no world in which you should ever see the inside of a jail cell. But promise me you’re going to keep seeing your psychiatrist at the VA.”

“I am. You have my word. You can call and check up on me any time you want.”

I catch the slightly flirty tilt of his lips and I take a step back. Even if I’m no longer his attorney, I still feel uncomfortable engaging in anything other than a professional relationship with him.

“I may do that,” I answer, hoping it’s as neutral as possible.

I hear footsteps behind me and turn to see Belinda’s mother standing there. I brace for her to begin yelling at me or Bryan.

“Mrs. Moyers, I know it won’t make the pain go away but I miss her every day. I wish we’d never gone out that night. We should have had just a quiet night in. I wasn’t ready to be out in the world like she was but I was scared I’d disappoint her.”

“I guess I never really understood what it would look like for you. What you saw. I’m sorry you have to live with that.”

I waited for the blow up but it never comes. I gather my belongings and give Bryan a final congratulatory pat on the arm before leaving the court room.

***

Despite the emotional high of setting a man free from wrongful prosecution, the sight of my house reminds me that I still live alone at almost thirty. I pull into the driveway. I don’t see Cathy’s car. She’d been out walking. Maybe she’d come back and gone out again somewhere. She’s been crashing with me the last few weeks.

I make the familiar trek up the driveway to the front door. Even all these years later, I sometimes falter at the front door, key in hand. Other people may not understand Bryan’s battle with PTSD, but I knew it all too well. I can still remember the smell of fresh spring air as I walked into the house and found my mother brutally murdered on the kitchen floor. The pain and the grief still come in waves like Uncle Jim once warned they would. I’m better at riding them out these days, thanks to meditation and a therapist. I’d been afraid to seek help for a long time but having a panic attack during my first year of law school showed me I needed someone to talk to. And so I’d found the help I needed.

I push the front door inward and for no reason in particular, I pick up the scent of cooking berries. For the briefest moment, Mom stands in the kitchen kneading pie crust with her tie-dye apron and her arms covered in flour up to the elbows. She turns to me and smiles. Then she’s on the floor covered in blood, her eyes glassy and lifeless.

Tears stain my cheeks in a matter of seconds, and I stagger sideways against the front hall wall. I let its firmness keep me upright as I suck in air. I shut my eyes and count to twenty slowly in my head.

Fifteen…

Sixteen…

Seventeen…

Eighteen…

Nineteen…

My phone vibrates in my pocket, pulling me from my meditation. Anger cascades over me at the interruption but the image of my mother’s body on the kitchen floor vanishes so I can’t be too mad. I tug the phone from my pocket and stare at the screen. Two calls from Cathy in one day is highly unusual. We haven’t talked multiple times a day since I went off to college.

“Cath, is everything okay?” I can hear commotion in the background.

“Get off of me!” Cathy shrieks as sirens wail in the background.

“Cathy? What is going on?” I demand.

I hear an ‘oomph’ and something heavy strikes something metallic. Then more whimpers as a male voice instructs my sister to stop struggling.

Panic grips my throat as I listen over the line. Then, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”



Chapter Two


My mind drags to catch up with what’s just happened. Cathy’s been arrested. Sure, she’d gotten herself into trouble with underage drinking, but she’d never been arrested. All thoughts of a quiet evening vanish as I pivot in the front hall and march back out to my car. No one is going to manhandle my little sister like that.

I settle behind the wheel in time to see a new call coming in from the office. I set the phone the speaker and answer as I click the seatbelt into place.

“Hey, Megan, it’s Jasmine, just checking in to see how it went today,” my paralegal says over the line.

“Not guilty verdict. Look, I hate to brush you off like this but my sister needs me. It’s kind of a family emergency.” It isn’t the total truth but it’s close enough, especially seeing as I have no other information to go on other than hearing the sounds of my sister being shoved against what I now assume is a police car.

“Oh, no. Of course. I hope everything is okay. Call me if you need anything.’

“I will. Thanks.” I end the call and peel out of the driveway, pulling a not exactly legal U-turn in the middle of the empty street as I head to the center of town.

The station looms in front of me in no time. It is not my favorite place. I was accused of murder there and questioned about things no teenage daughter could or should know about her father. But, I’d also spent quite a lot of my career in that place, conferring with clients who paid me well. Most of the time I made even more money out of the other side paying attorney’s fees. They weren’t the kind of clients I really wanted to take on. I spotted Uncle Jim’s car at the edge of the employee parking and my panic receded slightly. If Uncle Jim was working, then things would be fine.

I strode into the station and stopped by the reception area. Again, I flashed back to the day my mother was murdered. I recall Officer Campbell’s hot and cold interrogation tactics and the rough handling by his partner. I focus on my breathing, listening to sound of each inhale and exhale until the memory fades.

“Megan? What are you doing here?” Uncle Jim’s voice grounds me in the present as I turn to look at him.

His gray hair and the crinkles around his eyes and mouth are more pronounced than they were a decade ago, despite only being in his 50s. I want to fall into his arms and let him tell me everything will be okay but we are in public and defense attorneys don’t go around hugging police officers.

“I was on the phone with Cathy. She’s been arrested.”

His brow furrows as he studies me. “Wait here. Let me see what I can figure out.”

I nod mutely as he disappears into the bullpen and toward the office door marked Captain. I sit on one of the empty benches and watch as uniformed officers walk by. I spot Officer Campbell among them. Our gazes meet and he looks away first. We’ve interacted briefly since I came back to town and set up shop.

“Can I help you with something?” another familiar voice interrupts my thoughts.

My gaze shifts to the officer who’d arrested me all those years ago for allegedly trespassing. I hated that he was still wearing a badge and carrying a gun. I knew I wasn’t the first person he handled incorrectly. “No, thank you. I’m waiting for Chief Nixon.”

He glares at me like I’m offending him by being in his space. Before I can speak, Officer Campbell appears. “Leave her alone.”

I feel my cheeks warm at his words. Despite the confusing nature of our relationship in the past, I at least know he was trying to solve my mother’s murder. The fact that it is now a cold case because of my father’s disappearance isn’t his fault.

“Counselor,” Uncle Jim interjects, his voice booming in the small reception area. The chemo has made him gaunt and he’s buzzed his hair short to hide the hair loss but he’s on his feet. He refuses to take time off.

I stand, straighten my suit jacket and follow Uncle Jim down the hallway toward one of the empty interview rooms. He ushers me inside too fast for me to see if the interrogation rooms are in use. I watch him turn off the camera and microphone. This doesn’t bode well.

“Tell me what happened exactly?” he begins.

“I’d just got home from court when Cathy called. I don’t know if she meant to really because she was being arrested.” I settle against the metal chair and brace my head in my hands. “Until I heard them reading her Miranda rights, I thought she was being assaulted. I couldn’t move or speak. I was just frozen. It sounds terrible but I was relieved when I heard them telling her she had the right to remain silent.”

“They’ve brought her in on suspicion of arson.”

“Arson?” the word rips from my throat at a high pitch that sounds nothing like me. “That’s ridiculous.”

He holds up his hands to stop me from arguing. “I’m only telling you what I got out of the brass. It’s all they’ve given me.”

“Which room is she in? She’s going to need a lawyer.”

“Sweetheart, are you really the one to defend her?”

I stand, the chair skittering backwards on the hard cement floor. “I’m the only one who can defend her. She’s my sister. It’s my job to protect her.”

“I know you don’t trust some of the officers and have had bad experiences with some of them, but railing against everyone in a uniform isn’t going to get you what you’re after. You need to be smart about this.”

I want to argue with him, but I know he’s right. I can’t change the system by breaking it further. So, I take several steadying breaths and get to my feet. “I need to see her, Uncle Jim. She can’t possibly have done what they said she did.”

He hooks a thumb over his right shoulder toward the interrogation room across the way. “She’s in that one. Just, be careful, Megan. Remember, sometimes the people we love most are hiding the darkest of secrets.”

I nod in understanding. I remember the story he’d told me about his late wife’s death from drug use. He hadn’t realized what she was doing until it was too late for him to help her. I can’t let that happen to Cathy. Uncle Jim gives me a quick hug before I cross the hall, knock once and step into the room.

Cathy sits on the other side of the table, her hands still in handcuffs chained to the bar at the center. She looks tired and angry.

“Excuse me,” one of the officers says as I enter.

“Actually, that’s what I was about to say to you, officer. I’d like to stop questioning my client without counsel present. And I would like a minute alone with her.” I gesture to the cameras. “Without the precinct’s prying eyes and ears.”

I catch sight of the other man in the room. Detective Aiden Browne leans against the wall. I don’t expect him to be railroading my sister. He’s one of the upstanding members of the force.  He likes Cathy. And me. I’ve never given in to the attraction, no matter how much he would like it if I did. Our gazes meet and he looks almost apologetic.

“Sure thing, Counselor,” he answers and pulls his partner out of the chair and closes the door.

I wait until the little red light on the camera in the corner blinks out before I sit down across from my sister. There is every possibility that the light is just a decoy and they are still recording our conversation, but I have to hope for now they are being honorable.

“What is going on?” I demand of my sister.

“I have no idea,” she answers, rubbing at her face. I can see her cheeks are flushed and her gaze appears unfocused.

“Cathy, are you drunk right now?”

“No. I am not drunk. I am pissed off, Megan. And I didn’t ask for a lawyer because I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“They clearly think you did. Suspicion of arson? Ring any bells?”

“I swear, I didn’t do anything. I mean, I wasn’t even near anything that was set on fire. I hate fire. You know that.”

“Then explain to me why they would have any reason to suspect you of it?”

“I’m telling you, I don’t know. Look, can I please get out of here?”

“Not yet. They’ll have to formally book you on charges and you’ll spend the night in lock-up. Bail hearing will be tomorrow.”

“I can’t afford bail!” she whines.

I don’t know how much they’ll set it for but I have a feeling I can come up with a way. Even if it means using the house as collateral. “I’ll worry about that part. You just need to be honest with me.”

“I am. I didn’t do anything.”

“What about after they showed up to arrest you? Where were you?”

“Mercy Heights,” she mumbles into her hands.

“What were you doing on that side of town?” Mercy Heights is Westby’s poorer neighborhood and home to the more recent rise of criminal activity in the town. Long gone are the days when Westby was a quiet little community.

“I told you, I’d gone for a walk. I guess I lost track of time and where I was and then these assholes just show up and throw me against a car and handcuff me.”

“Did anything else happen?”

“No.” A pause and then, “Well, I may have called one of them a traitorous pig.”

Aiden, I assume. “And did you make it more difficult for them to actually place you under arrest?’

“I thought you were supposed to be on my side?” she accuses, her eyes flashing with that anger I’d seen when I walked in.

“I am on your side, Cathy. I need to know everything I can to see what we’re dealing with. So, did you actually resist arrest?”

She rolls her eyes. “Maybe.”

“So, they’ve got you for resisting arrest at least.” It isn’t great but it’s better than arson. “Did they tell you what they have to link you to this arson case?’

She still doesn’t look at me. I wait, counting to ten in my head before she answers. “Video.”

“Cathy!” Her name echoes in the small space of the interrogation room. I don’t want to believe my sister could commit such a dangerous crime. But, she’s struggled more than I like to admit in the wake of losing our mother.

“But, I didn’t do it.”

A knock cuts off any response I have, and Aiden appears again, carrying a laptop. I narrow my gaze in suspicion as he sets it down on the table between us. The fact Cathy just mentioned video and now he’s here to no doubt show us the evidence makes me doubt that they weren’t actually listening to our conversation.

“I wasn’t finished conferring with my client,” I say, knowing it probably won’t fly.

He gives me a sad smile. “I think we both know you’ve had more than enough time to get up to speed. Especially seeing as we hadn’t yet begun to question your client in earnest.”

“She says you have video footage. I’d like to see that,” I prompt.

“Happy to share,” he says and hits the play button on what I’ve gathered is security camera footage.

A storefront in Mercy Heights appears on screen. I note the time stamp on the lower left corner, three days ago. I don’t have any clue where my sister was three days ago in the late afternoon.  I make a mental note to ask her that very question when we are alone again. The time clicks the seconds away and then my heart sinks into my stomach as Cathy materializes from just out of frame. She walks down the sidewalk and stops at the shop door.  I can’t read the name of the store from the angle of the camera. She twists the knob on the front door and it swings inward without resistance. At least she didn’t break in. That’s something. She disappears inside, returning two minutes later with something tucked under her arm. She glances around and hurries off the way she’d come.

I wait with bated breath until the lens goes cloudy and smoke begins to pour from the slightly ajar window. Within minutes, the building crackles with silent flames. Aiden hits Pause and settles into the chair across from us.

“So, Cathy, is there anything you’d like to tell me about what we just watched?”

Cathy leans back as far as her shackled wrists allow and glares at him across the table. I want to tell her to come clean. That whatever happened, we can find a way to make it right. But she refuses to speak.

He turns his attention to me. “Do you want to explain the seriousness of the crime to her? The fact that she is being charged with a felony.”

I know my sister understands the severity of an arson charge—at least I pray she does—but I look at her anyway. “He’s right. This isn’t something than can just go away with probation or some community service. This means jail time. Up to three years, and that won’t ever come off your record. Every job you apply for will know you are a convicted arsonist.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Cathy repeats and presses her lips into a firm line. She’s done talking to me and the police.

I don’t want to see my sister suffer. I love her too much to wish that on her, but maybe a night in lock-up is what she needs to come clean about whatever she’s hiding. I stand. “I think we all know we’re done talking. I will see you at arraignment in the morning.” I turn to Cathy. “Behave yourself.”

I push the door open to find an officer waiting to take Cathy into custody. I force myself to stay there as they guide her out of the room and toward lock-up. Aiden stops, laptop tucked under his arm.

“You have to know this looks really bad,” he whispers.

“You don’t have concrete proof she did anything. And there is still plenty of time to prove she’s innocent,” I remind him.

“Megan, we have her on video. She was the only person there before this place went up in flames. I know you want her to be innocent, but you can’t argue with this.”

I’m already formulating all the ways the footage could have been doctored to suit the police’s desire to pin the crime on someone. Even if it wasn’t the right person. “You do what you have to do.”

I marched out of the building to find Uncle Jim waiting by my car. He’s changed into civilian clothes and I can spot the worry lines in his brow from a distance.

“It doesn’t look good,” I say as he opens the driver side door for me.

“Come by the house. We’ll see what we can come up with.”

As I settle behind the wheel, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. And where there are secrets, there is bound to be danger lurking. I pulled out of the parking lot and as I pull up to the first intersection, I can’t help but feel someone is watching me. I look over my shoulder but nothing stands out.



Chapter Three


I don’t say it, but I’m grateful to be spending the evening at Uncle Jim’s house. After the memory of my mother bowling me over earlier in the day, I find relief in the brightly colored library. It is unchanged from those afternoons we spent there not long after Mom died. Before long, I split an order of Chinese take-out with Uncle Jim.

“I could use a drink,” he says, pushing himself to his full height. “Can I get you anything?”

I hesitate. I try not to drink excessively when I’m around Cathy. I hope modeling moderation will curb her party-girl ways. “Sure. I’ll have some wine if you’ve got anything.”

“Be right back,” he promises, leaving me in the solitude of the room.

The afternoon sky begins to darken outside the house. It burns bright pink and orange on the horizon. The beauty of the ending of another day leaves me conflicted. I should be happy about today’s outcome in court, but Cathy’s legal trouble overshadows that joy. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that the video footage does look incriminating. I know Cathy has a healthy fear of fire but could she have done it? Even if it was accidental? If she had done it and it was purposeful. Why?

Uncle Jim returns with two wine glasses and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc tucked under one arm. Deftly, he removes the cork and pours two generous glasses. I snatch one up and let the bitter liquid coat my throat and quell the mental gymnastics my mind can’t seem to complete. There will be time enough to put all the pieces together.

“You want a top-off?” he asks and holds out the bottle when I set my glass down, the contents two-thirds gone.

“No.” I brush strands of dark hair out of my face and reach for the plate with egg rolls and crab wontons. Biting in the crispy shell of the wonton, I savor the creamy mixture of crab, celery, and cream cheese. I could already feel a wave of light-headedness washing over me from downing the wine too fast.

“So, what have you learned?” he prods.

I shouldn’t be talking to him about the case. But outside of the firm, he’s the only person I trust to call me out when I end up off base or spiraling into what some might call conspiracy theories. And he’s still on the police force. It’s not like I could call him as anything other than a character witness. Besides, I can’t be sure they wouldn’t use our relationship to bring up the ugliness of our past.

 “Megan, you got lost in your head,” he says gently.

I chew the wonton and look at him. “They’ve got video. It isn’t entirely conclusive but it doesn’t look good.”

‘Well, what does she say?” When I don’t answer right away, he gives me a reassuring smile. “I swear, I’m not on the case. Couldn’t be even if I wanted to. And nothing we talk about leaves this room.”

“She didn’t say anything except that she didn’t do anything. But, what reason would she have to be in Mercy Heights?”

“Being in a bad neighborhood isn’t grounds for being accused of a serious crime.”

“It is for some cops,” I mutter.

“What else do they have? Do they have proof it was arson?”

“They didn’t say. Just showed the video. It was from three days ago. So maybe the Fire Department hasn’t finished their investigation.” I’m on my feet, pacing the distance between the exterior wall and the bookcase on the opposite wall. “But, they couldn’t charge anyone with arson if they didn’t have any evidence that there was foul play. Like an accelerant or something like that.”

“You know anyone over in Fire Investigations?” he prods.

I shake my head. “I don’t think so. But we’ll need to see those records. They can’t charge her with something if there’s nothing to establish probable cause. I’ll admit they might have her fingerprints on the front door. But the door was clearly unlocked and open. So, she wasn’t forcing entry. So they can’t get her on breaking and entering.”

“Okay. What else did the video show?”

“She came out carrying something, but I couldn’t tell what it was. They might have her on theft but I can’t be sure. They could throw resisting arrest at her but that’s nothing compared to arson.”

“You’ll get this sorted out. Sit down and eat something.” Ever the concerned parental figure.

I slump onto the couch and take another bite of wonton. The food settles heavy in my stomach as my mind races with more questions. If I’m having flashes of Mom, is Cathy struggling, too? Could she have acted out in a fit of anger or grief and been too ashamed to tell the truth?

I’d tried to do everything in my power to be the big sister for her and give her a shoulder to lean on. To protect her from the darkest parts of our loss. I’d never told her about seeing Dad at graduation. I’d heard nothing from him in the years since and he hadn’t shown up again. Either he was really good at hiding or he was dead. Some days I can’t be sure which I’d prefer. Then I remember that without him, my mother’s case remains unsolved. The man who could have all the answers hides in the shadows like a coward. Then I wish he would accept responsibility for the nightmares I’ve lived with for the last ten years. Those few minutes at graduation are forever seared into my memory.

“There were only a few minutes before the place went up like a tinder box,” I exclaim.

“Meaning?” Uncle Jim presses, setting his chopsticks down on his now-empty plate.

“I don’t know. But, it feels like it is too fast. If she’d set something, wouldn’t it have taken longer to catch?”

“Depends on what was used.”

“I need to see the footage again. I know there has to be something I’ve missed. And if she went into the shop with the express purpose of setting it on fire, how come she didn’t have anything to start the fire. She doesn’t smoke. She wouldn’t have a lighter.”

“It sounds like you need to have another conversation with your sister.”

“It will have to wait until the morning at arraignment.”

“I’m guessing they’ll ask for something high for bail given the crime. $300,000, maybe more?”

“I don’t have that much money,” I sigh. I’ll definitely need to find a bail bondsman to cover the bond once it’s been set.

“I’ll give you the money.”

I wave him off. “No. I’ll figure something out. I’ll be fine.”

“I don’t want you to end up homeless, Megan.”

I give him a sad smirk. “I can always move in here with you. Besides, I think we both know we’d both be less lonely if I did that.”

“I love you, but I’ve lived alone long enough to know I enjoy my peace and quiet.”

Evening was still falling outside, and I know it makes no sense to go see the scene of the crime myself. Not if I want to find out anything useful, like who might have witnessed the crime. I focus on the food in front of me and mentally prepare for arraignment the next morning. So long as I can convince the court my sister isn’t a flight risk, she should be home with us by lunch time. Then the real investigation can begin.

***

Court dates always mean early mornings. I rise before dawn and settle on a yoga mat on the backyard at Uncle Jim’s. I couldn’t bring myself to go home to spend the night in the bedroom Cathy and I had shared years ago. Despite the bad dreams that had once plagued me there, I slept soundly. The wine likely contributed to my dreamless sleep.

Dark navy fades to purple and paler shades of blue as the sun rises over the trees. The shed that once sat at the center of the yard is long gone, replaced by a bench and small gazebo; a nice memorial to Jim’s late wife. I count the planks on the bench as I control my breathing. I need to be mentally focused to ensure court goes well this morning.

Despite it being counterintuitive, I use my meditation routine to make a mental list of tasks I need to complete once Cathy is free. Another round of questions and answers is in the cards. But so is visiting the site myself so I can begin strategizing a defense.

Before I realize it, my phone alarm goes off, letting me know it’s seven o’clock. I retreat to the kitchen for a much-needed cup of coffee. The pot is already percolating when the back door closes behind me.

“You were up early,” Uncle Jim notes, still rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“Court always does that to me. I think I’ve just had this fear that I’m always going to be late. Maybe one too many nightmares like that during law school, so I’ve just trained my body to get up early when I know I need to be in court.”

I rummage in the cabinet above the sink for a travel mug and pour my coffee into it. “I have a couple of other stops to make before court. I hope you don’t mind if I drink and run.”

He waves his hand toward the door in a shooing motion. “Go, go. Change the world.”

I don’t know that proving my sister innocent of arson will change the world, but I’m determined to try. After stopping at home for a quick shower and change of clothes, I head back to the office. Jasmine is the only one in the office this early. It’s why we get along so well.

“Everything okay with your family?” She’s out of her chair before the front door closes behind me.

“No. Cathy’s been arrested. Her arraignment is at nine o’clock and I need—” I begin.

“I’ll clear your schedule. Make sure the partners know that you’ll be in trial prep for at least the rest of the week.”

Tension eases out of my shoulders as she jumps into action. “Thank you. I’d be lost without you.”

“Oh, you’d know where you were going just fine, but you’d be terribly late.”

I can tell by the way her lips pucker that she wants to ask the obvious question: what happened? I dislike sharing personal details about my family, but I know I can trust Jasmine. “She was accused of arson. It can’t be true, but that’s what they’re trying to throw at her.”

“Jesus, Megan. That’s some serious shit.” She covers her mouth with her hand. “Sorry for swearing.”

“You’re not wrong. It is serious shit,” I repeat.

She grabs my hand with her free one. “Please, is there anything else I can do to help. As your paralegal. As your friend?”

“Get me the name of the closest bail bondsman. We’re going to need it.”

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